Sy Coleman launched what is now Aspen Public Radio by rebroadcasting the Laramie Public Radio Station in 1981. Five years later, Coleman debuted KAJX’s first local original programming by ordering a pizza live on the air.
Coleman died of a heart attack on June 15 in Cusco, Peru at the age of 77, according to a report from the APR newsroom.
Coleman moved to the valley in 1978 and missed the public radio stations he was used to listening to in his home town of Boston. According to an interview broadcast on Aspen Public Radio in 2013, Coleman said he was an avid HAM radio operator since the age of 11. On a hike up Watson Divide early in his time in the valley, he brought a portable FM radio and was surprised to be able to tune in to the Laramie station.
“I wanted to hear some public radio, lo and behold I heard some. Of all things, I not only heard a station, it was in the middle of broadcasting live from the Aspen Music Festival,” he recalled in the interview.
Mixed in with the translator broadcasts, Coleman launched a classical show consisting of records played from a turntable in his apartment. He would also provide news by reading Aspen Daily News and Aspen Times articles out loud over the air.
“I would read articles from both newspapers and insert comments along the way. Both editorial or even just critical of the writing of the news article,” Coleman said.
Coleman remained the leader of the organization as it moved to a studio in the AABC, and was part of securing the Red Brick Center for the Arts as a city hub of nonprofit arts organizations.
“The Red Brick was destined to be condominiums, not a cultural center,” he said.
He credited Aspen City Council member and longtime friend Rachel Richards for her work in arranging the space for where Aspen Public Radio now sits. He said he wanted the location to be more accessible to the public.
“It was hard to get much community interaction at the business center,” Coleman said.
Coleman felt strongly about the community influence on the programming, and had an endless habit of what he called “ruffling feathers.” He enjoyed bringing in volunteer DJs with no former radio experience.
“My whole attitude about community broadcasting was that it should be reflective of the community,” he said. “It was a very different operation, professionalism was not necessarily a requirement.”
When Aspen Public Radio Executive Director Tammy Terwelp announced programming changes early this year, including eliminating the use of volunteer DJs, Coleman led the charge against the decision, encouraging those upset with it to attend the board of directors meeting.
“I’m afraid that if Aspen Public Radio’s decision to eliminate volunteers and music is allowed to stand, the community will have forever lost yet another piece of its soul,” he wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Aspen Daily News in February.
“The founding principle of the station was to combine programs of global origin with the creative expression of community members who choose to live and work in this unique place. Under the current plan, the station will be reduced to the role of a delivery system for programs that are widely available over the internet.”
Coleman’s tenure with the station ended in 1995 amidst another programming shakeup with what he called the “classical Mafia of Aspen.”
In the 2013 interview he said the board and trained staff that now make up the station operations had slipped away from his original vision.
“I very specifically did not want to have a board dominated by one's ability to contribute money to the station which is pretty characteristic of all the cultural institutions in this town,” he said.
As reported by Aspen Public Radio Tuesday, Terwelp honored the work that Coleman did to bring public broadcasting to Aspen.
"I am saddened to learn of Sy's passing,” she said. “He persevered until it was a reality and we are only here today because of him."