10 Questions with Tammy Terwelp

With over twenty years of experience in public radio and television, KRCC’s general manager Tammy Terwelp has run the station for about a year now and is not planning on going anywhere. Originally hailing from Wisconsin, Terwelp, a fanatic of podcasting, the Rocky Mountains, and the variety of pens currently on the market, has lived and produced in cities across the country, collecting and telling stories along the way. With the station’s move to Tejon St. underway, Terwelp hopes to further integrate KRCC with the college, and create more opportunities for students to become exposed to the intricacies of radio journalism.

Photo by Mikaela Burns

The Catalyst: How did you initially get into radio, radio journalism, and podcasts?

Tammy Terwelp: I went to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and I was the first person in my family to go to school, and I had to pay for my school. So how I ended up in this: what major didn’t have the most books to buy? And it was Radio-TV because you were doing mostly studio work. So I ended up in there and just completely fell in love with it. I was general manager of my college [radio] station, and when I left, I started in commercial radio, 22 years old and hanging out with rock stars and playing music and getting free beer. It was awesome. But then I was sort of like, is this it? This is what my career is going to be? So I got into television, and I’ve kind of bounced back and forth between public television and public radio for more than 20 years now.

I found that I enjoy being in public radio more, probably because it has more of a journalistic aspect to it, and the local stations are able to do much more reporting than the local public television stations because it’s so much more expensive to do television. So that’s kind of where I started and how I ended up here. I’ve spent most of my career at WBEZ Chicago—which is, of course, one of the leading stations in content and innovation—and so that’s where I got the bug to understand how to produce things and where the demand comes from.

TC: So you’ve worked for six major television and radio stations in five different cities. What has it been like uprooting yourself so often over the course of your career?

TT: It’s something I knew getting into broadcast. You can’t really say “I’m going to live in this city and work at this station my whole life.” There are people who do it, especially in public broadcasting, but I had goals that I wanted to work in one of the top three markets—New York, Chicago, or L.A.—and was fortunate to be in Chicago for as long as I was. Moving around can be hard, but I’m really glad I got to live in a couple different places and different sized stations. It’s sort of gone in four or five year spurts—outside of WBEZ—but I don’t plan on leaving. This is kind of the last stop for me as far as I’m concerned.

TC: Do you think living in Colorado, as opposed to more metropolitan areas like Chicago or Pittsburg, has affected your creative process in a different way?

TT: I think that it can. Although I’ve only been living in Colorado Springs for a little over a year, there is a definite energy to a big city and urban setting that is a little bit different. In Chicago, there’s so many people doing so many creative things, that you are kind of tripping over people who do blogs, photography, who write and do podcasts, who are artists and songwriters and musicians. Here, I’ve found you have to look for it a little harder, but it’s still there. We’re all still humans creating things; you know what I mean?

People are drawn to big cities because there’s so much going on, but I think the Springs has a lot going for it. I’m not discouraged. I don’t automatically assume there’s not going to be talent here, there’s not going to be people creating things here. I know there is. It’s a matter of bringing it out in my staff members and finding it in the community and bringing it to KRCC.

Throughout your career in radio or television, what’s your favorite project you’ve been part of?

TT: Oh, wow. I would say, outside of here, my experience in Pittsburg was really interesting because it was basically creating a “new station,” so it was like a startup. So it was literally building. I had to put together like 20 Ikea desks. I got there and it was a cement floor. So it was cool to have a startup aspect to it. It was the hardest time I’ve ever had in my career, but it really prepared me to come here.

TC: This year, when you were general manager, KRCC cut [its popular podcast] “Wish We Were Here.” What was that decision making process like for you, being new to the station and having to get rid of a show that had a pretty decent following?

TT: It was really hard. It’s an amazing show. It was done and produced really well. I come from content, I come from programming, and those are my guts. What I love and why I get up in the morning is good content. But now I’m the general manager and I’m running a business. I have to make some business decisions that cannot be popular, but it’s my responsibility to run a fiscally sound business. The way the show was produced was costing us a little more than $10,000 an episode, and that’s just not sustainable. I don’t know any station that can sustain that. We’re a small station with a lot of needs, and I needed to make a decision to stop that show so we could continue to grow in bigger areas.

TC: Where do you see the station growing in the next 2 or 3 years with you as general manager?  

TT: We’re working on our strategic plan right now, so we’re neck deep in those questions. We really want to expand our news department and our local content development. We have to do this, not just because there’s competition now in the market with Colorado Public Radio, but because you can now stream a station from anywhere in the world. We have to be producing content that people are interested in, that is relevant, and that matters: that focuses on our region, but still appeals to somebody who maybe went to school here, but then moved away.

TC: How would you describe KRCC’s relationship to the college? With the station’s new move down Tejon St., do you think that relationship will be affected?

TT: We’ve had a great relation ship with [CC] students. We’ve always had students in the news department and on “Wish We Were Here.” Things like that. With the new space there is a lot of room to have the students more involved than they ever have been. As for location, I’m sure it’s almost equidistant [to our current studio], but psychologically it seems more connected to campus, for some reason. We’ll have more space; as you can tell, we’re kind of crammed in this tiny Victorian house. So we’ll have more projects that students can work on, not just news. I would love to see students work on production. I would love to mentor a student who is interested in running a radio station or TV station. We have barely scratched the surface of digital. We need photographers and videographers and we need people who are creative to work on websites and building content. I really want to work with students on developing some podcasts. Whether that’s with the newspaper or a podcast club, I think that there’s a lot of energy and excitement amongst the students, just being that age and experiencing things. I think our radio station could really benefit from that, from working closely with either student groups, or a class, or that sort of thing. I’m really excited about [the move] because we’re going to be able to do more and provide more to the community, and to the student population as well.

TC: With KRCC growing and producing more programs, do you have any fear that with any changes in our recent government, funding for public radio will change?

TT: I mean, I’ve been in this business for two decades now, and every year, the CPB is “going away.” Every year, people are afraid the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—where we get some of our money from—is going to end up on the chopping block. This year’s administration is a little bit different in a lot of ways, and if the funding went away, it would hurt us. We would still survive. We would make some changes if we needed to and move on. What makes me concerned are the super tiny rural stations that really rely on CPB money as the major source of their funding just because the population of the area is sparsely populated; sometimes that can really have an effect on how much revenue a place is able to raise.

So I definitely don’t want it to go away. It’s a good chunk of the money we are able to use to produce content, but again, I feel like the conversation has happened every single year. I’m hopeful that people are really going to understand that it comes out to pennies a person when it all boils down to it.

TC: Do you think that over the next few years, because of KRCC’s physical expansion, more students will get involved? What advice would you give a student who is trying to get into podcasting or radio journalism and doesn’t really know where to start?

TT: I think [student involvement] will [expand]. I really want it to. We’ll have to be careful to not bring it on too quickly because we want to be able to give the students the time and attention they need and want. It’s something I’m really passionate about and I think is really important. Part of the reason I wanted to come to a station that was a university licensee was because I really wanted to be in a place where there were always students and always young people who were interested in producing things.

I think advice for people who want to get into radio journalism or podcasting is: just do it. The barrier for entry is so freakin’ low that you don’t need expensive equipment, you don’t need a ton of gear. You could literally do it with your phone or your laptop. I think just try it and experiment with it. Listen to as much content as you can. Listen listen listen and think about why you like something and why you don’t like something. I’m not saying go make the next Serial because there’s plenty of people trying to do that right now. But think about, why are you drawn to it and what moves you in it? And take notes. I am always happy to listen to anything. I am the business manager of this station and I love this job, but my guts are always content. I love talking about it and I love teaching it.

TC: What is your favorite program—or the best quality program—on air right now and why?

TT: I would say I’m really proud of the programs we produce. I would say our new series “Peak Curiosity” has exploded online. This program is where we are putting out to the community, what questions about Colorado Springs do you want answered? For the first one, somebody submitted, “why is that ‘N’ upside down in the Colorado Springs sign?” We have gotten some amazing questions from people. So this is a series I am so incredibly proud of, and I think not only is it going to do well for us, it’s going to be a really fun celebration of what it means to live here.

Podcast wise what am I listening to… I am a huge fan of Gimlet Media. I’ve been listening to Crime Town. It’s about Baltimore and all of the crazy-ass corruption. I also listen to Startup from those guys as well. I think I was drawn to that because I’m new and this was my first general manager job, and it is sort of rebooting KRCC. It has been an incredible legacy, history, and connection to this community. It’s not so much rebuilding it, but rather refocusing and being able to provide more to the community.

I also listen to—I’m a stationary nerd—this podcast called The Pen Addict. It is literally about pens. They have over 240 episodes, so it’s got an audience. And I mean, that’s the thing. What do you love? People always tell me “I want to do a podcast, what should I do it on?” And I always ask: what do you love? What are you an expert in that nobody else is? What do people come to you and be like, “hey, what was that book you told me about” or whatever. Because there’s a niche. You might not reach millions of people. I’m sure The Pen Addict podcast does not have millions of subscribers, but it’s got a small—probable really dedicated—base. It’s literally an hour about pens and stationary. It’s not a story-telling podcast, but the two hosts are really good and I listen to it a lot. I probably don’t get a lot of “industry-cred” by saying this pen podcast… but you know it’s out there. And that’s the cool thing about podcasting: you know it’s out there. Anybody can do it and you can do it on any variety of topics. I’ve seen some weird stuff.

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