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When an independent radio station is swallowed up by a corporate behemoth, things generally change for the worse. But not always.
A case in point is KTCL-FM/93.3, a station that's essentially a property of Jacor, a communications giant based in Cincinnati. The folks at KTCL would likely give me an argument about this definition: They'd claim that the outlet is the property of Tsunami, a firm that is not technically under the Jacor umbrella. But Tsunami president Tony Galluzo has a long history with Jacor--so long that no one was surprised when KTCL signed a local marketing agreement that allows Jacor to pretty much run the outlet as it sees fit. As a result, many radio observers view Tsunami mainly as a shadow company that allows Jacor to direct KTCL's operations without violating Federal Communications Commission rules forbidding an entity to own more than eight stations in a single market. (The other Jacor properties in the Denver-Boulder area are KOA-AM, KRFX-FM, KTLK-AM, KBCO-FM, KBPI-FM, KHOW-AM, KHOW2-AM and KHIH-FM.)
As soon as Jacor took over KTCL, a long-delayed antenna move finally took place, thereby bringing a clearer signal into the Denver-Boulder area. (KTCL's official home--as far as the FCC is concerned, anyhow--remains Fort Collins.) But this improved broadcasting muscle did little to boost KTCL's ratings, at least in the beginning. Why? Because the outlet, one of the true bright spots among commercial FMs in the state, was sliding downhill at a dizzying rate. Station staffers came and went as music programmers fumbled around for a workable format. One day the station was playing more Hootie & the Blowfish than Darius Rucker's mom; the next, jocks were announcing that KTCL was a "Hootie-free zone." Schizophrenia is too weak a term to describe what was going on.
But a funny thing is happening at KTCL right now: It's getting better. And surprisingly, some of the improvement can be credited to Jacor--or at least to the firm's willingness to spend a bit of money on the poorest of its Colorado relations.
For example, the station, which has long been known for its exceedingly lame on-air promotional spots, snapped up Zack Gilltrap, the man who oversaw promo production at the now-defunct 92X--and his efforts are already bearing fruit. In the meantime, KTCL has hired Constantine Consulting (a Boulder firm overseen by Dennis Constantine, who helped shape the sound of KBCO during its mid-Eighties glory years) to help guide it into the future. Consultants, of course, are as apt to ruin a station as improve it--and their proliferation has a lot to do with the homogeneity that currently afflicts U.S. rock radio. But Constantine has a lighter, more intelligent approach than most of his consulting peers--which may have something to do with the fact that KTCL has become more listenable of late. The station is suddenly playing a broader variety of music, with a concentration on new artists--and the artists being chosen are generally more interesting than the ones that had previously been clogging up playlists. There are still moments when KTCL errs on the side of caution--why the Cranberries and Counting Crows are still earning so many spins is beyond me. But within the past month or two, it's become possible once again to listen to KTCL for more than two minutes at a time without feeling the urge to rip your radio out of your dashboard--and that's a major accomplishment.
Constantine, who came aboard in November, claims that he hasn't yet made significant suggestions about KTCL's music. Program director John Hayes confirms this statement; instead, he says, the improvement came about as a result of the radio equivalent of soul searching. According to him, "We determined at the end of the summer from our own casual research--which means asking people what they think--that we were sucking, basically. And when we asked people what they wanted from us, they said they wanted a more adventurous stance--playing music that isn't overdone, that isn't cliched, that hasn't been worn out. So we listened to bands like Orbital and the Chemical Brothers and decided, let's stop looking behind us and start looking ahead."
Some of Hayes's comments constitute hyperbole: At one point, he insists that KTCL has been playing the latest work by the Fugees for a year, when the disc was actually released in late February. (In truth, the station has been focusing on the act's cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" since MTV began airing the video made to accompany it a few weeks ago.) But read between the lines and you'll discover that Hayes seems to realize that there's an audience out there eager (or at least willing) to hear fresh music. This suspicion is confirmed by recent Arbitron ratings, which show KTCL gaining audience shares after a skid that's lasted for a year.
If Constantine is to be believed, he wants the station to build on the new start it's made. "You've heard the example of putting mustard in the ketchup bottle?" he asks. "People look at it and say, 'This isn't what I expected to be in here.' Well, people have certain expectations about KTCL, too, and we're going to try to live up to them."