By Noah Hubbell
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Howard Stern is capable of turning a radio market upside down faster than any other single on-air personality. Although he's been involved in big-time media for ages, he continues to inspire the ire of the Federal Communications Commission (the fines levied against him throughout his career have been astronomically high), assorted puritans (at least one CBS affiliate is refusing to broadcast his nasty new TV series, which runs opposite Saturday Night Live) and critics everywhere. But Stern has proven impervious to such attacks. His morning radio program, which originates in New York, is at or near the top of the ratings in three-quarters of the more than forty markets in which it's heard. And now, gentle hearts, he's coming to your town.
David Juris, vice president and general manager of Tribune Denver Radio, the Chicago-based company that owns classic-hits outlet KKHK-FM/99.5 (the Hawk), confirms that he's bringing Stern's circus to town. Details hadn't been finalized at press time, but Juris predicts that Stern will debut on the Hawk sometime during the week before September 24, the beginning of the fall radio ratings period. The show airs weekday mornings on the East Coast from 6 a.m. to approximately 11 a.m. (Stern wraps things up at irregular times). Right now, Juris expects to run the first two hours of the program live, from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Mountain time; the Hawk will then start the show over again at 6 a.m. and broadcast it in its entirety on a tape-delay basis.
No big advertising blitz is planned to ballyhoo this news. "It'll spread like wildfire through word of mouth," Juris says. "That's the way things have worked out in other cities, and we think it'll be the same here. This kind of thing gets around the market very quickly."
Juris knows he'll take some heat from Stern-haters, who see the best-selling author and star of the box-office sleeper Private Parts as the symbol of everything that's wrong with radio today. However, he expects that gripers will be far outnumbered by fans. "Howard attracts an incredibly wide range of listeners," he says. "Since hints about this started leaking out a week or so ago, I've gotten a lot of calls from women asking when Howard is going to be on. And friends of mine who I'd think would be the last people to like him have been asking me for years, 'When is Denver going to get the chance to hear him?' And I'd be like, 'You like Howard Stern, too?'"
The Hawk's deal with Stern represents a change in strategy for the station. Since bowing in March 1996, the Hawk has attempted to counter its principal competitors, classic-rocker KRFX-FM/103.5 (the Fox), hard-rocking KBPI-FM/106.7, and adult-album-alternative pioneer KBCO-FM/97.3 (three of the eight area signals owned by Cincinnati's Jacor Communications) with a "less talk, more rock" approach. The Hawk's largest promotions to date--a 1996 concert by the Who and a 1997 date with Boston--have been music-oriented as well. But the spring Arbitron ratings revealed some weaknesses in this scheme: Although the Hawk was the sixth most popular station overall with listeners between the ages of 25 and 54, its morning block, helmed by Dan Mitchell, tumbled to ninth place among the same group. "Dan is a great DJ," Juris says, "but the show was clearly falling behind the ratings we were getting with the rest of the station." Research echoed these numbers, he adds. "We did surveys that showed that people want high entertainment value in the morning, and that put our more-music stance in the mornings into a secondary position. Obviously, some listeners like it, but our goal is to be the number-one rock station in the marketplace. And to get there, we needed to make some changes."
To that end, Juris considered teaming Mitchell with a new personality or hiring a morning team from another city to move to Denver. But, he says, "we kept coming back to the same point--that the person who would have the most impact on multiple stations with different formats would be Howard Stern. He attracts a desirable demographic, including the 45-year-old male executive with a good income who's driving to work. And he appeals both to people who like to listen to music and people who like listening to talk stations."
If that's true, why didn't Jacor bring Stern to Denver a long time ago? Juris has a theory. "Jacor plays its stations like a chess match, using each one as a pawn to protect their key stations, like KRFX and KBCO. And if they bought the Stern show, they'd be cannibalizing their own stations. They'd hurt Lewis and Floorwax [the Fox morning team], and they'd hurt their two biggest talk stations [KOA-AM/850 and KHOW-AM/630]." In contrast, Juris says, "Tribune's focus is 100 percent on the Hawk, which means we can put all of our resources into the station. Howard Stern is expensive--it'll be the most expensive morning show in Denver--but we truly feel that it's the quickest way to threaten Jacor's empire. It'll affect Lewis and Floorwax, it'll affect KBPI, it'll affect KBCO, and it'll affect the talk stations. And it'll affect Alice [KALC-FM/105.9] and the Peak [KXPK-FM/96.5] at the same time."