Tom Fricke of Krystal 93 and the art of High Country radio
Tom Fricke knows his way around a random April snowstorm.
Around 9 a.m. on April 3, when Mother Nature decided to grace Summit County with nearly 9 inches of spring snow, the longtime morning show announcer at Krystal 93 was behind the stripped-down switchboard at the Dillon studio, waiting for updates on the status of eastbound Interstate 70 at Vail Pass.
“When it’s nice up here, everyone is happy and laid back,” Fricke said as his hands move deftly over the controls, switching back and forth between weather updates and tunes by a slate of artists scheduled to play Red Rocks Amphitheatre this summer. “But when you have a morning like this, we almost become like amateur meteorologists, just trying to piece together what’s happening.”
For the past 13 years, Fricke has been a fixture at the radio station, particularly on grisly winter mornings when locals and curious visitors tune in for road closures. The April storm came after a long, torturous stretch of warm afternoons, and like other storms this winter, it lasted only a few hours.
But for a radio host like Fricke, whose alarm goes off at 4 a.m. in time for a 5:30 showtime, the three or four hours before clouds part and spring returns come smack in the middle of a six-hour shift. Folks want a touch of insight on the morning commute, and after more than three decades at stations in the Rocky Mountains, Fricke has gladly taken on amateur meteorology as a fourth (or fifth) job title, along with production director and on-air personality, not to mention whatever else is thrown his way at a station with just six full-time employees.
“When I’m done on the air, I’ll be doing commercial production, or looking to get tickets for concerts, or any number of other things,” Fricke said between weather updates. “But that’s just what happens with a small staff. You get good at flying solo.”
And on April 3, Fricke was putting decades of radio experience to work, although a casual observer would hardly notice. Fellow DJ Roman Moore usually joins Fricke on Fridays for the news updates, but on this snow day, the morning host was alone. On the computer screen over the mixing board, he flips among Twitter feeds, the OpenSnow.com homepage, the Colorado Department of Transportation website and a Word document with Associated Press and local news briefs.
With a minute or two remaining before it’s time to read the news, Fricke comes across a Twitter photo showing movement on Vail Pass. A few seconds later, the studio phone rings. It’s the host’s ski-racing buddy, Jozef Remzik, with confirmation that eastbound traffic is indeed moving.
“Well, the CDOT site still isn’t updated, but Jozef is out there on the road watching the cars, heading to work,” Fricke said with a shrug. “Sometimes we know before CDOT does.”
Fricke waits for a song to end, then chimes in with a brief update on the pass closure.
“We just heard from our friend Jozef, and he just called to let us know Vail Pass is…,” Fricke said, then paused. He had recorded, edited and mastered Remzik’s phone message to play over the air — a process that takes just a few minutes — timed perfectly to match his live voiceover.
But when the audio doesn’t play, Fricke hardly misses a beat.
“And eastbound Vail Pass is open,” he said. “It’s 20 with a little sunshine at Krystal 93.”
AV CLUB REBEL
Fricke has spent most of his professional career at stations in Colorado mountain towns, but his infatuation with all things broadcast began in high school during the late 1970s.
While attending school in southern Wisconsin, Fricke and a few friends were members of the AV club, the now-antiquated hangout for audio and video enthusiasts before the advent of smartphones and YouTube. But the club at his school wasn’t a stereotypical collection of geeks clad in pocket protectors and thick-rimmed glasses. He and his buddies were banned from the club for going against the status quo — he doesn’t dig into details — so rather than give up their passion, they formed a new, rebel-style radio station. They even earned financial support from the student council.
By senior year in 1976, Fricke realized his high school pastime was ripe for a career. He started taking broadcast courses at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis in 1978, a time when analog audio was still the norm and radio held enormous sway over audiences.
It was also the heyday of tried-and-true radio DJs. At his first professional gig in Montrose, Colorado, he swiftly adapted to vinyl, then tape decks, then CDs. Shifts lasted four hours at the most — a far cry from occasional 10- to 12-hour workdays after the rise of digital.
“It was a workout in the analog days,” Fricke said. “Four hours was about all you wanted to do, and that was a marathon. Six hours was totally unheard of, but now you don’t even think twice — just let the computer handle it.”
Fricke hasn’t lost his touch for analog equipment — “I could jump right back in,” he said — but he’s enjoyed watching his industry evolve over three decades of rapid, unpredictable growth. Yet he still misses the challenge of mixing and spinning.
“One thing I don’t think the computer can really replicate is the timing, the seamless transition between songs,” Fricke said. “Sometimes you get that through a computer by chance, but it’s not common. It was really an art, the act of just being a DJ.”
BEYOND THE STUDIO
After announcing the Vail Pass update, Fricke returns to business as usual behind the switchboard, playing and promoting another round of songs for upcoming Red Rocks acts.
It’s yet another hat he wears at the station: He’s constantly searching for new concerts that appeal to Krystal’s demographic. It’s a broad market — the format is AAA, or adult album alternative, to use the industry term — but it speaks to the wildly eclectic mountain audience.
In his free time, Fricke is a fan of just about everything he plays on the air: Widespread Panic, Phish, Trampled by Turtles and, as a child of the late-’60s and early-’70s, Grateful Dead.
Fricke’s other hat at the station is that of production manager. It’s yet another industry term for the pros in charge of on-air advertisements and special segments, such as the popular “Snow Show,” with interviews by local ski instructors, ski techs and just about anyone else he knows from the mountain. Recently, he and station manager John O’Connor won honors from the Colorado Broadcaster’s Association for their round of Arapahoe Basin ads, featuring off-the-cuff testimony from mountain employees.
“It seems like everybody is willing to share their passion about A-Basin,” Fricke said of the ads. “Everybody there is incredibly passionate about their mountain.”
It’s also Fricke’s unofficial home mountain. For decades, he was an avid ski racer, slowly moving up the Nastar ranks until he was in the highest division with former professional racers like Franz “Fuxi” Fuchsberger of Vail.
These days, Fricke is drawn more to glades than gates, which makes the morning show bittersweet on a powder day.
But in early April, the longtime local in him knows the snow is more likely to result in nasty roads than mind-blowing turns. It’s the sort of patience that only comes from decades living in the Rockies: The snow will be there tomorrow, or the day after, or even next November. He won’t be leaving anytime soon.
“I’ve never been much of a big-city guy,” Fricke said. “I enjoy Denver, but I’d much rather be in the mountains. I just can’t imagine the pressure of working in a major market, just the vibe, working for a corporation. It would be so different. This is my home — this station feels like home to me.”
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