For many people in Telluride, KOTO has been a deep source of pride since its founding in 1975.
The local radio station is and has been a bright symbol of Telluride exceptionalism. It’s reputedly the smallest public radio station in the U.S., and one that depends not on corporate underwriting, which it doesn’t accept, but 100 percent on the support of listeners. KOTO is not only different from all other public radio stations, but KOTO made Telluride different from all other remote mountain towns. Founded when Telluride was transitioning from a mining past to a resort future, KOTO was a declaration of community that was proudly counterculture, in the sixties sense of the word.
KOTO also served a practical purpose at its founding, bringing music and entertainment to a town that was much more remote then than it is today. There was no internet. There wasn’t even television. The community was deeply self-reliant, as a matter of necessity. Telluride’s oldest festivals were established in the same time period, and for the same reason: to make Telluride not only beautiful and remote, but also a place of culture.
In Telluride, the emerging vision went, we could have it all: splendid isolation and culture; and in many respects that combination of exceptional outdoor recreational opportunity far from the madding crowd plus exceptional cultural amenities is the Telluride formula today.
All of which is why KOTO’s current identity crisis is so distressing to many local residents. While festivals have flourished and there are now more of them than ever, KOTO is struggling to survive and the KOTO community is being torn apart by an emotional debate about what happened, why, and what to do about it. To those for whom KOTO is a potent symbol of what makes Telluride Telluride, it is understandable why the radio station’s crisis resonates so painfully.
There are long answers to the questions about what happened and why, mostly having to do with allegations of mismanagement. Specifically, there’s a rift about the extent to which KOTO may have lost its way by sponsoring fundraising events that actually lost money (but were fun for a lot of people) and thereby jeopardized its core purpose of being a community radio station.
But these long answers are probably beside the point and the short answer is likely more fundamental and more revealing: KOTO ventured ever more deeply into events sponsorship because the times and the Telluride community changed and there isn’t the same need today for a local community radio station that there once was. Simply, the radio audience once dependent on KOTO for news and entertainment has found a hundred or a thousand other ways to distract itself.
We all know what those alternative ways are: Pandora, an abundance of local events that are not sponsored by KOTO, the internet and mobile devices, a more mobile population that does not feel stranded in its isolated home and can drive to the next town or fly to a big city easily. Bottom line: nobody needs a friend who is working overtime to keep up with popular music and then serve as a disc jockey in order to keep her friends abreast of what’s happening in the wider world. If anything, what we all need are some as-yet-uninvented tools to keep the wider world at bay.
KOTO in 2014 has lost its most fundamental purpose. The station’s listening audience is distracted and is less and less fiercely loyal. Today, KOTO’s chief purpose is to exist as a nostalgic ideal, and we all know that ideals are extraordinarily difficult to sustain.
KOTO is hardly the only beloved institution – locally, nationally and globally – that is under assault from the vast social and technological changes that we are all experiencing. I can vouch from direct knowledge that community newspapers face existential challenges, as well. In particular, the digital “network,” by which I refer to the combination of information overload (Google), invasive social media (Facebook) and predatory online commerce (Amazon), deeply changes how we inform and entertain ourselves. The network changes, in fact, our very understanding of community.
KOTO faces highly efficient and virtually unstoppable competition in the two areas of its historic core value to the community: any music or information that anyone could ever want is instantly at hand at a very low cost, so who really needs radio? And Telluride is overwhelmed by events, so who needs more of them, even if their purported reason for being is to provide financial support for a beloved radio station?
I truly hope that the KOTO board and its legion of diehard fans figure out how to save the radio station. I’m sure that every one of us is nostalgic for something (or everything) that’s being lost to the relentless and disruptive wave of change brought on by the network.