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Radio Silence

After a long quiet year, Park City public- radio magnate Blair Feulner phones home.

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In the 10 years since he first began as a junior engineer at KSL in 1969, Feulner worked for almost every commercial station in Salt Lake City and was a news broadcaster or DJ for stations everywhere from Sarasota, Fla., to Cheyenne, Wyo. He was working at KMOR in Murray when, one night in 1978, he and a group of friends from the station were drinking at a bar on Main Street in Park City. They decided Park City needed a radio station.

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“People thought it was a terrific idea, but it was like, ‘How in the heck is this going to be put together?’” two-time Community Wireless board member and former Park City City Councilwoman Tina Lewis said. “He got cast-off equipment from other stations, and he did a little of this and a little of that to kind of jury rig this thing together—and that, for years, was kind of a joke about how in the heck he got all this equipment together and made this thing work.”

The day in 1980 when Feulner signed KPCW on the air, a throng of Park City residents crammed into Car 19, a former Main Street restaurant, for the ceremony. At the flip of a switch, Feulner was live for the first time on the station he created. “I heard him before I met him,” Williams said. “It was like the Barry White voice in the Pee-wee Herman body. He had this amazing, resonant, deep, rich, radio voice, and then you meet the guy and he’s tiny.”

For the first few years, KPCW was housed in an old projection booth in a gymnasium in the Main Street Memorial Building in Park City. “To get there, you had to kind of step around all of the people who were either playing basketball or having a yoga class or whatever, and you had to climb up all the bleachers,” Lewis said. “It got the nickname of The Bunker.”

KCPW was still in the Memorial building two years on, when Susan Feulner( then Susan Finegan) came on the scene as the station’s development director—and quickly developed a crush on Blair (the two married in 1984). Drawing on her experience volunteering with the Junior League, Susan pioneered a fund-raising strategy so successful and unique in public radio, it was eventually the subject of a research paper issued by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that noted the station’s vast fund-raising success compared to that of another resort town, Aspen. Instead of giving away mugs and tote bags to pledge contributors, Susan offered donated Deer Valley Resort ski lift passes and Chez Betty restaurant dinners for two as pledge incentives. A 1993-94 Corporation for Public Broadcasting study found KPCW raised more money from listeners, underwriting and special events in the same amount of listener hours than any other public radio station in the country.

KPCW has moved twice since its “bunker” days: to the basement of a former elementary school and now to an updated studio on Swede Alley. Meanwhile, the population of the station’s broadcast area went from 2,000 to 35,000, and the station evolved with it. Local news was central to the programming from the beginning, former host and program director Gomes said. KPCW went from playing some music to being only local news, interviews and NPR.

“I travel a lot, and I don’t know of any other public radio station in a small town of this caliber,” Myles Rademan said. “They had over four hours a day, five hours a day of local programming—in most communities they have Clear Channel and have a bunch of junk on the air.”

Before he ever signed the station on the air, Feulner went around to everyone in town and talked to them about possibilities for the station, Lewis said. Later, Feulner, a self-professed “research nut,” hired a Denver-based media research company to study the listening area’s tastes and degree of satisfaction with the station. Paragon Media Strategies owner and CEO Mike Henry said the company asked people in the listening area where they got their local news and which media were involved in the local community. “It was a dominating local media force,” Henry said. “There really wasn’t a close second, even. They won with runaway margins just about every important image and position that we tested.”

When Feulner left, the station was due for its periodic research and reinvention, which was done approximately every five years, he said. Henry said he hasn’t worked with KPCW since July 2008 (when Feulner left). Current KPCW manager Jonathan Klein said he would like to do more research but “we have nothing on the table right now.”

But when Feulner stepped back from management duties in January 2008, he was really ready to relinquish control over the business decisions he had used to make KPCW a success, Susan Feulner said. Exhausted from 14-hour days that began with interview preparation over breakfast, Feulner was ready to lay down his burden and “just be a news guy,” she said. “We were both so focused on making those radio stations work and serve the community that we lost part of ourselves.”

Last summer, Blair, 57, and Susan, 64, who retired from KPCW in 2005, spent a month in the Caribbean, hanging out on the beach. Last fall, they visited family in England, and Feulner spent the winter “skiing my brains out,” he said. The two of them are currently taking a photography class together.

“I hope he can find some outlet for his talents, whether at the radio station or some other journalistic endeavor,” Rademan said. “I hate to lose him from the public sphere.”

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During his 40-year career, Feulner said he witnessed a positive evolution in public radio toward programming more targeted to listeners’ needs. With the increasing popularity of satellite radio, public-radio stations have only one advantage to exploit—the ability to create locally focused programming, he said. If he were starting out today, Feulner said he would be concentrating on the Internet.

“I think he’s the kind of person who doesn’t usually sit around for very long before he’s off doing something,” Rick Brough said. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll set up a Website that will take over the world.”