By Brad Lopez
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If you think that the content of many Denver radio programs flies in the face of political correctness (see "Obscene and Heard," page 81), consider the roles assigned to female DJs, particularly during morning drive time. Women are not entirely absent from the airwaves from 5 to 9 a.m.: Corporate executives on the local scene apparently feel that "gals" are qualified to be news-readers or banterers in support of dominant male hosts (KOA-AM/850's April Zesbaugh and KBCO-FM/97.3's Robbyn Hart) or saucy scolds in a masculine, locker-room-like environment (Jamie White of KALC-FM/105.9 [Alice]). But even these employment opportunities seem to be shrinking in today's tight-money broadcast environment. KS-107.5 FM has gone without a female co-host on its morning broadcast for months (although the station is said to be looking for a new hire), and KTCL-FM/93.3 seems to have settled on Mike Makkay as the main man behind the microphone after experimenting briefly with Sabrina Saunders, a talented talker who's been relegated to middays--the period to which most female DJs are ghettoized. Likewise, KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak) recently broke up its the morning team of Chuck Woodford and Jackie Selby by disappearing Selby.
This last personnel shift is especially intriguing in light of the backgrounds of the personalities involved. Whereas Woodford had been a part-timer at the Peak prior to being elevated to the morning slot earlier this year, Selby was a veteran presence--the last original Peak DJ by virtue of having been a member of the staff when the outlet came to life in June 1994. Granted, the Woodford-Selby team had not caught on--and given the Peak's sale to Chancellor Broadcasting (a media conglomerate that also owns KALC-FM and KRRF-AM/1280 [Ralph], among other properties), pressure to jack up the station's anemic ratings has been building. But according to Peak program director Gary Schoenwetter, the morning-show shuffle was effected in order to make the show as music-intensive as it was when the station was the biggest news in Denver radio. In other words, the Peak is attempting to move forward into the past. But if that's the case, why sack Selby, a link to the Peak's glory days, in favor of a less experienced male? And could the fact that she's a woman have anything to do with the decision?
Selby may have an opinion about this question, but if she does, she's not in the mood to share it; she declined to comment for this column. However, Schoenwetter did not dodge the issue. He says that bidding farewell to Selby was "one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make at the Peak in quite some time. But it was something we felt we had to do in response to what people were saying via phone and e-mail and some research we'd done--which was 'Play more music.'" He adds, "For whatever reason, Jackie wasn't clicking in the position as much as we would have liked. And in the end, we're a customer-service business. Listeners kind of determine where the station goes."
By the same token, he concedes that making Selby the sole host of a music-heavy morning show would have been a radical decision simply by virtue of her gender. "I don't have any specific research that says that people want to hear women in the middle of the day but not in the mornings. But when I think of the cities where I've lived or worked, I can't think of an occasion in the past five years where there was a female as a solo host in morning drive--and in afternoon drive, it's almost as few and far between. Some stations have probably put women in those positions with the best of intentions, but the bottom line is ratings. And if they fall, then it doesn't work. I don't know if it's the wrong women being chosen by those stations or whether it's a comfort factor for listeners or exactly what it is. But we've never had a woman solely in the morning, and I don't know many stations that have."
The Denver scene bears out Schoenwetter's remarks. The only major commercial station in the market that has a woman in a starring role during morning drive right now is KKFN-AM/950 (The Fan), which runs a syndicated series featuring the Fabulous Sports Babe--and anyone who's ever heard the Babe in action knows that she's as ballsy as any dude. And although White's presence at Alice is largely responsible for the station's success, radio pros have not gone out of their way to try to clone her. For the most part, women in morning radio are reduced to serving as sidekicks, and that situation doesn't appear likely to turn around anytime soon.
As for the Peak, it's on something of a short leash. Schoenwetter insists that Chancellor, which should officially take the Peak's reins after the first of the year, has not given station management a deadline by which ratings must begin to rise, but he concedes that the firm has taken a very proactive stance in trying to increase audience share. "They looked at the radio station and said, 'You guys were at your best when you targeted adults and tried to become the first-choice station for people between 25 and 44. So we stopped trying to be like Alice or KBPI, as far as being extremely current with our music, and went back to our roots, which was using the music of the past two decades as the glue that holds the station together. We were a radio station on the fence for a year, but with Chancellor's direction, we decided to go where the station was when it was on top--to be as eclectic as possible while still feeling comfortable for adults." Schoenwetter knows that this won't be easy: "Anytime you go in a new direction at a radio station, there's a transition period of losing some listeners. It takes a lot of energy and effort to get people who button-push or may have left the Peak when we became a younger-leaning station to realize that we're the station for them again. But we're in this for the long haul."