By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
The Denver radio market is like an especially perverse game of Monopoly.
Earlier this month, Cincinnati-based Jacor Communications purchased four more stations, bringing its total number of signals in the area to eight (see Feedback, February 14). Now the formats of two other outlets, KYBG-AM/1090 and KNRX-FM/92.1 (recently acquired by San Jose's EXCL Communications), have been transformed from sports talk and hard alternative, respectively, to a dance-oriented CHR (contemporary hit radio) approach. (Within a matter of days, 1090 AM will switch again, to a Spanish-language style known as "Radio Tri-Color.") Also, the former KVOD-FM/99.5 (owned by Chicago's Tribune Broadcasting, which also possesses local properties KOSI-FM/101, KEZW-AM/1430 and KWGN-TV/Channel 2) has just debuted its new call letters and slogan (KKHK, "The Hawk"), and a new sound ("rock-and-roll hits"). And while persistent rumors about alterations at KQKS-FM/104.3 (KS104) and KTCL-FM/93.3 hadn't become reality by presstime, radio insiders are betting that they haven't seen the last change on the local broadcasting landscape.
Consider this column your guide to an increasingly confusing game.
The biggest casualties thus far in Denver radio's musical-chairs contest are probably those listeners into sounds that venture near the cutting edge--because, to put it mildly, not a lot new is going on here. KNRX, now known as "Jam'n 92--Denver's party station," is more uptempo than KS104, but it falls into the same general category; moreover, it features KS104's entire air staff, including program director Mark Feather. As for the new KKHK, its playlist draws bits and pieces from several outlets already on the air, including classic rocker KRFX-FM/103.5, Seventies-focused KIMN-FM/100.3 and oldies purveyor KXKL-FM, aka KOOL 105. In the meantime, just about the only exciting and provocative format to arise in Denver over the past year or so--92X, KNRX's previous incarnation--has fallen victim to the profit margin.
This last comment makes no sense if you look at nothing other than ratings. After all, 92X has been on a steady rise since its 1995 bow. When it went on the air, the frequency was attracting an Arbitron rating of 0.1 among listeners twelve and over; by February 23 of this year, when the latest Arbitron trends were announced, that figure had risen to a robust 2.4. During the same period, the ratings of Jacor-owned KBPI-FM/106.7, whose move from hard rock to hard alternative was likely inspired by 92X, had fallen from 5.3 to an anemic 3.0. In short, 92X, an outlet with a humble signal and virtually no advertising budget, had a real chance to surpass the KBPI behemoth by midyear.
But according to insiders who prefer anonymity, 92X wasn't making the kind of money that it should have, given its ratings. Part of the problem had to do with the kind of listenership it was attracting: mostly males age 24 and under. The 92X salespeople had great success selling ads to nightclubs and snowboard shops, but companies with products aimed at a wider segment of the public resisted their pitches. These representatives felt more comfortable supporting KBPI, whose salespeople could offer discounts if advertisers also placed commercials on other Jacor stations.
Another factor in 92X's demise were the relationships among three companies: EXCL, which bought KNRX and KYBG; Century Broadcasting, the previous landlord of the two signals; and Western Cities, a Westminster firm that owns KS104. Century Broadcasting has a local marketing agreement with Western Cities to run KS104, but that pact expires at the end of March. EXCL had hoped to step in where Century left off and take control of KS104 on April 1, but Western Cities' price for doing so was deemed too steep. In addition, radio-industry grapevine gab suggested that KS104 might soon be sold and its format changed. So EXCL general manager Mike Murphy moved quickly. Through an agreement with Century, he nabbed all of KS104's disc jockeys and installed them at 92.1. They went on the air with the Jam'n 92 thang at 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 28, a little less than three days after 92X staffers had said their goodbyes.
Century, in the last month of its deal with Western Cities, is now in the process of hiring an entirely new pack of jocks to appear on KS104. Mark Stevens, general manager of Western Cities, claims, "They're going to play the same kind of playlist that we have played, and that will remain the case through March and beyond." But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that Denver can support two dance-oriented FMs. EXCL's Murphy is banking on KS104 fans following the DJs to 92.1, and he may be right. On Jam'n 92's first full day on the air, morning team Laurie Michaels and Mark Speers were gratingly giddy; they made the hyperactive giggle-boxes on Alice (KALC-FM/105.9) seem like narcoleptics by comparison. But the music they and their fellow refugees are playing is a modest improvement over KS104; it's faster, with more cuts leaning toward techno, disco and house, and fewer Boyz II Menesque ballads.
That observation offers little solace to the 92X DJs who've been cut loose. However, Rockfish, 92X's fine morning-drive presence, has landed on his feet; KBPI instantly snapped him up and installed him in an afternoon slot. On his February 27 show, he mentioned a call he'd received from a listener asking, "What are you doing on that station?"--a good question, since KBPI's testosterone-driven flavor reeks of everything that 92X was not. Rockfish's reply: "My wife has this annoying habit of needing to eat." (You won't read about the reaction of KBPI management to 92X's disappearance here: Neither operations manager Jack Evans nor program director Bob Richards returned Westword's numerous calls. Bawk, bawk.)