TODAY, BOULDER. TOMORROW, THE WORLD

KBCO'S FORMAT SPROUTS UP AROUND THE U.S.

So you're an affluent young professional. You're smart, attractive--a doer, not a couch potato. You never forget to separate your recyclables, and you make sure that your Lexus is in perfect tune to keep air pollution to a minimum. You may be in your late thirties now, but you're still hip, still cool, and you still want to hear music that exemplifies the qualities you like so much about yourself.

So what kind of radio station makes you feel best? Odds are good it's a new-style outlet scientifically designed just for you--an outlet that's on the leading edge of a Boulderization of the nation's airwaves.

Whether it's called A3 or Triple-A, Adult Album Alternative is the hottest, most market-friendly approach to radio since classic rock. It's warm, fuzzy radio that, according to Ray Skibitsky (co-founder of SBR Radio Company, a Boulder-based radio consulting firm, as well as general manager of 96.5 FM/The Peak), "is almost as much sociology as radio programming." A3 is meant to attract the allegiance of well-off sorts between 25 and 49 years of age who wear as a badge of honor their knowledge about current rock music--or at least the current rock music that's not all that much different from the stuff they dug in 1973. Grown-up music. Music with understandable lyrics, strong melodies, modest guitars and none of those nasty profanities.

If this description sounds familiar, it should. Radio historians trace the ancestry of A3 directly to Boulder's KBCO-FM/97.3, which has been broadcasting variations of the format since the late Seventies. But now, suddenly, A3 is everywhere. Approximately fifty stations across the country, many in major markets, have embraced A3. Record companies are signing artists and releasing records specifically designed to appeal to A3 outlets and their listeners. And trade publications and music magazines have been touting A3 as the next big thing. Says Kent Zimmerman, progressive-music co-editor for Gavin, a San Francisco-based tip sheet and bible of the radio industry: "To say the least, there's a lot of excitement about this."

The next stage of this mellow revolution is the Gavin A3 Summit, set to take place August 25 through 27 in Boulder. Organizers expect the "anti-convention" (as Zimmerman calls it) to attract nearly 500 registrants from radio stations, trade publications and record companies. While in Colorado, they won't be bored: They'll be entertained by a slew of the biggest-name performers in the A3 universe, including Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Freedy Johnston and Sara Hickman. Because three shows at Boulder's Fox Theatre featuring these and other performers sold out almost instantly, and because a number of others have been designated as invitation-only affairs, most members of the general public won't have a chance to see the stars or hear them speak at A3 seminars prior to showtime. But these musicians aren't coming to Boulder to meet and greet the paying customers. They're making the pilgrimage because A3 is buttering their bread.

At the same time, they are supporting A3's move into more and more parts of the country. Judy McNutt, program director at KBCO, as well as what she calls the "unofficial hostess" of the Summit, isn't too wild about this prospect. "I don't want this radio station to be cookie-cuttered out all over the United States," she says. "There's no way that we could meet the needs of people in, say, Schenectady."

McNutt may not have any choice. After all, there are untold millions of moneyed adults out there who need to feel good about themselves--and plenty of others who see a profit in helping them do so.

At its birth, KBCO didn't seem like a harbinger of things to come. Instead, it resembled a financial sinkhole.

The station's beginnings can be traced to KADE-AM, which went on the air in late 1973 with a middle-of-the-road format, a puny 1,000-watt signal and a license that required it to go off the air at sunset. "In the wintertime, you'd be listening when the jock would say good night," remembers Ray Skibitsky. "And you'd look at your watch and it would be 4:30 in the afternoon. And you'd be like, `What?'"

Skibitsky was hired to work in sales at KADE in August 1974. The station was losing scads of money, and the owners were ready to put it on the block. However, Skibitsky convinced them to keep the station afloat and institute a progressive-rock format. The switch was a popular one, but KADE's owners still wanted out. About a year later they sold the outlet to Bob Greenlee, a former director of an advertising agency who retained most of the KADE staff and immediately began shopping for an FM station. He soon discovered KRNW-FM, a small broadcaster that, Skibitsky says, "was a very free-form, progressive station that was operating out of downtown Boulder. It didn't have much of a signal, because its antenna had been melted into the building's roof."

The man chosen as program director for what would become KBCO-FM was Dennis Constantine, a KBPI-FM vet who soon stamped the station with his wide-open musical vision. "It's eclectic," Constantine says about KBCO's sound. "But it's consistently eclectic."

It was also financially strapped. In June 1977, when KBCO started transmitting, Constantine, officially the station's program director, was making $12 for each four-hour shift. It was six months before he could afford to hire his first full-time staffer. Another six months later he brought aboard Judy McNutt, who returned to KBCO as program director this past summer after time spent in cities such as Sacramento and Nashville.

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