'Where We Was': Looking Back On Neil Best's 48 Years At KUNC
From host of a Saturday night oldies show in the 1970s called “Where We Was,” to news director, program director and finally, President and CEO, Neil Best has had a long-lasting impact on KUNC, its sister station The Colorado Sound, and on public radio overall. This week we are saying goodbye to Neil as he embarks on his retirement. Colorado Edition host Erin O'Toole recently spoke with him about his early days in radio, his impact on NPR, and what comes next.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O’Toole: You've been really active in the world of public radio. How would you describe the role that you've played in the evolution of National Public Radio?
Neil Best: Well, I've always had the opportunity to participate at different levels of public radio, both nationally and regionally and locally. And I think the thing that I brought to the table is that I have stayed at a smaller station, and I've represented the values that are found of recognizing that there are different stories and different ways of doing things. And it's easy in the world of broadcasting to think Top 10 markets, and that everybody wants to be at a Top 10 market and that (those) are what matter the most. I've been one of the voices that said, “Hey, we're here too.”
There have been a lot of changes across the radio industry since you've been involved. What stands out to you as the most notable?
I would say the biggest change has been that responsibilities have changed. Most commercial stations now are part of publicly held corporations. There's a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders that I understand and respect, but it means the days where little radio stations and towns of 8,000 would have three or four news people — those don't exist anymore. An awful lot of places that maybe employed 30 or 40 people 30 years ago now employ a half dozen because everything is automated. Even when you get to the major markets, there are not that many news organizations at radio stations anymore. We talk about news deserts in Colorado — 20 percent of all community newspapers have disappeared in the last ten years. You could say the same thing about radio newsrooms.
Public radio has been a little different. And certainly, what's happened with the KUNC newsroom in the last 10 years is a different story than that.
If you were to ask me my proudest achievement, it would probably be the size, the professionalism, the depth of our newsroom. We are now the largest newsroom north of Denver. Any media, whatever media you want to talk about. Large isn't necessarily the best way to describe quality. But I think we have the quality as well as the quantity. And if I were to say there's one thing that I'm proud of, my legacy, is that when we left the University of Northern Colorado, I made a commitment that we were going to grow the news organization.
When we moved into the home we're in now, I insisted we build additional studios. Some people said "Why? Everybody's going to desk editing." And I said, because we're going to have to build the newsroom, because local journalism is in trouble. I don't say that with glee; I say that with great sadness. But it's the reality and I'm glad we've been able to respond.
Let's talk about what happened in 2001, which was a very momentous time for KUNC...
It's a long story that I can take 15 minutes talking about, but in essence, in early February 2001, we were told that the station was to be sold to Colorado Public Radio the following day. The decision had been made, simply waiting ratification from the (UNC) Board of Trustees.
We found out about it at 9 a.m. in the morning. My staff wanted to have a bake sale or a fundraiser, and I said, “Folks, that isn't going to work, number one. And number two, if this happened any place else along the Front Range, how would we break the story? Well, when All Things Considered comes on this afternoon, that's what we're doing here.” I said, you can notify your families, but there's an embargo till 3 o'clock.
Between 3:00 in the afternoon and the next morning, the president's office received literally hundreds of emails — at a time when email was not that popular. More than 20 or 25 people showed up that morning to protest and to ask that they consider alternative sales, including to the community that had supported KUNC. The Board of Trustees decided to put out an RFP. We had 20 days to come up with a proposal that we knew was going to have to be nearly $2 million.
The community raised more than two million dollars cash in 20 days, and thus was born Community Radio for Northern Colorado as a community-licensed radio station.
Another piece of your legacy would have to be the creation of the Colorado Sound. What can you tell us about that?
A number of years ago, I realized that being what's called a joint format — news in the morning and afternoon and music in the middle of the day — was not working as well for the listening audience as it had at one point.
We could have just dropped the music and become an all-news station. But as we looked at it, we've had a long heritage of offering music as an important part of the cultural fabric and didn't want to let that go. And as we see the music scene in Northern Colorado grow, which I distinguish from the Denver music scene — theaters that exist in Greeley, Fort Collins up the Poudre Canyon, in Loveland, Longmont, and Boulder are all very distinct from Denver. So, there's a music culture here.
When the opportunity came for us to purchase a station and continue our commitment, part of our mission statement is that we talk about enriching lives, and music is an important part of that. So being able to add the music station while allowing KUNC to become an all-news and information station was certainly a lot of work and a lot of dedication by a lot of people, but I think it's been the right thing to do.
What's next for you in retirement?
My joke line has been that it's the first job I've quit in 48 years. I don't know exactly what retirement will hold. Number one, I guess, is when the kids call and say, “Hey, could you come be with the grandkids today?” the answer is going to be “Yes,” and not “Oh, I have this meeting, or I have that to do.” Secondly, I continue on the board of directors for Colorado Humanities, and I just started a term on the board of directors of Seminars at Steamboat Springs. We'll see where it goes from there, and see what (my wife) Joyce is willing to put up with.