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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.)

As for Bryan Schock, 92X's program director, he's saddened by, but philosophical about, EXCL's decision. "When I was a kid, I had dreamed of putting together a radio station like this one--one that would have the impact and touch people the way that this one did," he says. "If I never work another day in radio, I will at least have accomplished my dream.

"It's pretty obvious that, with the acquisitions Jacor has made, they want to own the rock war. And one of the biggest fears I have with the deregulation that's made that possible is, when you own the whole market in rock or country or whatever, what's going to motivate you to put out a great product? Nothing. Then it's about nothing but business."

From a business standpoint, the arrival of KKHK makes perfect sense; since Denver's always been a rock-and-roll town, there's little doubt that the station will please those folks who want another opportunity to hear the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and so on. David Juris, vice president and general manager of Tribune Denver Radio, says the corporation has performed extensive research that supports such a conclusion, and adds that a massive television-ad campaign will let sympathetic 30-to-42-year-olds know that the Hawk has landed. "We are not a classic-rock station," he insists. "This is rock-and-roll hits without the harder edge, and it will be relatable to both males and user-friendly to females. It's music-intensive and not personality-focused." Nevertheless, Tribune has signed a number of well-known Denver voices to KKHK duty, including Marty Lenz and Melissa Morgan, previously at KOSI, and ex-KBCO assistant program director Lois Todd. These known quantities are meant to seem as familiar to listeners as the unadventurous music selections. Juris boasts, "You will know and remember every song you hear on this station."

That wouldn't have been the case for alternative-music buffs had the gossip about KTCL been based in reality. Scuttlebutt among radio types had the station switching to country. That sounded reasonable given the disappearance of country outlet KZDG-FM/92.5 (now classically oriented KVOD) and KTCL's marketing agreement with Jacor, which doesn't have a country signal with which to challenge country champ KYGO-FM/98.5. But even though morning man Brett Saunders recently dubbed his show the "Saunderoso Love Ranch," KTCL program director denies that there's any C&W in his future. "We certainly have every intention of continuing on our current path," he says.

So will KTCL air talent soon be crowing about Garth Brooks? Hell if I know. But after the most recent onslaught of dial-hopping, nothing would surprise me.

Recent profile subject Sick is among fifty semifinalists in Musician magazine's best unsigned band contest. Finalists will be announced in May.

And now for something completely different. In "The Envelope, Please," an article about the Grammy nominations that ran in our January 17 edition, I wrote that Pearl Jam should have been nominated as "Group most likely to bitch about the irrelevance of the Grammy awards, then show up to receive one anyway"--which is precisely what happened. (In accepting his bauble last week, Eddie Vedder muttered, "I don't think this means anything.") Educated guess or proof of supernatural abilities? You be the judge.

I know what you're thinking. On Thursday, March 7, critically acclaimed country vocalist Kim Richey visits the Bluebird Theater. On Friday, March 8, Chubby Carrier gets heavy at Herman's Hideaway; Zoon Politikon hosts a CD-release party at the Bug Theatre, with Saw; Razor and Tie Records' own the Nields fill the Swallow Hill Music Hall; and the Meters close out a three-night run at the Fox, with moe. On Saturday, March 9, the Winebottles tip at the Bug; A.C. Reed alternates current at Jimmy's Grille; Slim Cessna's Auto Club and Smokin' Uncle Rumley puff at the Mercury; Bohemia Beat's Wyckham Porteus croons at Swallow Hill; and hip-hop's Skee-Lo raps at the Aztlan Theatre. On Sunday, March 10, TR3 stops by Brendan's. On Tuesday, March 12, Dog's Eye View stares down the crowd at the Bluebird, with Michael Kroll, and jazz pianist Greg Dyes comes to life at CU-Boulder's Grusin Music Hall. And on Wednesday, March 13, Possum Dixon tows the line at the Mercury, with Lifter. Rise and shine.

--Michael Roberts

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