By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
In this space last week, Don Howe, local head honcho for Cincinnati's Jacor Communications, which owns eight powerful radio stations in the Denver-Boulder area, got to crow about problems at KKHK-FM/99.5 (the Hawk), a competitor that went from celebrating its purchase of the Howard Stern show to announcing that the whole matter had been dropped in the space of a week or so. But Howe has less to cheer about when it comes to another of his operations, Jacor Concerts. Although that project has not been shut down, it's been scaled back considerably.
As noted in Feedback on February 12, Jacor Concerts had big ambitions. Rob Buswell and Jeff Krump, two former employees of Fey Concerts who'd been hired by Jacor to run the new branch, denied that they wanted to compete directly with Denver firms such as Universal Concerts, Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents and nobody in particular presents--but the aggressiveness with which they did business suggested otherwise. In fact, insiders feared that a pumped-up Jacor Concerts could turn the Denver promoters war that had flared up in the wake of Barry Fey's semi-retirement into an unprecedented bloodbath.
Instead, Jacor Concerts suffered some unprecedented setbacks. Buswell and company had advertised that the annual KTCL Big Adventure bash would take place on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus, but the show had to be moved to Fiddler's Green after Jacor received a thumbs-down from CU administrators (for more details, see the May 7 and May 14 Feedbacks). Worse, two large-scale events--the Spirit of Unity reggae fest and an R&B extravaganza at McNichols Arena featuring L.S.G. and Patti LaBelle--went straight down the tubes. According to a reliable source, Spirit of Unity, which was originally slated to take place at Red Rocks before being moved to Mammoth Events Center because of anemic ticket sales, ended up $46,000 in the hole, and the L.S.G./LaBelle pairing lost a staggering $178,000. Howe will not confirm these figures, but he concedes that the shows were exceedingly unsuccessful. "They weren't specific to any of our stations," he says. "And consequently, we weren't able to drive them very well."
With losses like these, it's no surprise that changes followed. Krump was fired, and Buswell was ordered to, in his words, "pare back our events a little bit." He adds: "Some of the shows where we lost money prompted us to focus on where our strengths are. For a company like Universal, their strength is in their volume of shows. They've taken some bigger losses than we did on Patti LaBelle, but because they have so many other concerts and own some of their own buildings, it's not that much of a problem. But we don't have all of those advantages. The main thing we do is radio stations, not concerts.
"The concert division tried to spread its wings a bit with some stand-alone concerts that didn't fit our formats, and a lot of them didn't work," Buswell continues. "But all of our station festivals made money. We took that as a lesson--to get back to doing what we already know works."
For his part, Howe, the consummate spin doctor, refuses to admit that any changes are being made. "We've never had any designs to compete in the concert business," he maintains. "We just wanted more control of our own events, and that continues to be our primary goal as it relates to our concerts. We have to defend ourselves against the gossip about what people say our intentions are as opposed to what they really are. Nothing's really changed."
That's a laugh. In February Buswell said that Jacor Concerts would double the number of events it was promoting, from forty in 1997 to eighty in 1998. Next year, though, Jacor will again be putting on around forty shows. As Buswell puts it, "We're going back to the roots of what the concert program was when it was first developed."
When Jacor Concerts was at its most aggressive, rumors flew that the outfit was using the threat of airplay boycotts to prevent artists from signing up with other promoters. In the June 11 edition of this column, Buswell scoffed at the charge. But recently, the aforementioned Barry Fey shared recollections about just such an incident--one spurred by a 1996 concert with the surviving members of the Who that was sponsored by the Hawk.
"When Jacor found out about the show, they called me up," Fey says. "It was a conference call, and Don Howe and all the program directors were on there screaming at the tops of their lungs about how they were going to fucking teach these guys a lesson--that they'd yank everyone on the Who's label off the air in Denver and out of all the other Jacor stations in the country, too." He chuckles. "The funny thing was, the Who didn't have a label then. I tried to tell them that, but it took them two and a half hours to figure it out."
Even more intriguing are Fey's comments about what he says was a secret deal between Jacor and Fey Concerts that was in effect prior to the 1996 sale of Fey's namesake corporation to Universal. According to Fey, "The agreement said that if we had a show, Jacor wouldn't present a show for another promoter within a certain time period. It said that they had the right to do, I think, three concerts a year that we weren't promoting if they thought it was central to their format, and we had the right to let another station present something like Neil Diamond, that wouldn't have fit any of their stations. It was an exclusive first-right-of-refusal contract that was never finalized because the lawyers were worried about anti-trust problems. But we used it as a gentleman's agreement for over a year."
When asked about Fey's statements, Howe gently but firmly refutes them. "I do think that Barry is mistaken about the Who concert," he says. "We have never said things like that, and we never will. When we found out the Hawk was bringing in the Who, we looked into the whole situation and found out how much they were paying for it, but we declined to match their offer. And that was all, because we play hard, but we play fair. And although we did have some discussions with Fey Concerts about an exclusive arrangement, we never, ever on our end agreed not to work with any other promoters. Whether it's Chuck Morris or anybody else, we reserve the right to present any shows that make sense for our station. We're dedicated to finding a better dialogue between ourselves and all the promoters in town. There aren't big battles raging behind the scenes."
If that's true, the reason may have more to do with Jacor Concerts' current struggles than anything else. "I knew it wouldn't last," Fey says. "They make tons of money for their radio stations, but they didn't get any shows that were worth a damn. It's not a matter of if they're going to be gone. It's a matter of when."
Soundcheck, the local-music show that's been running on KRRF-AM/1280 (Ralph), isn't gone entirely, but it's undergoing significant alterations. Instead of featuring news, interviews and performances by area rock and punk acts such as the Garden Weasels, the newly renamed Soundcheck's Jazz Cafe will spotlight performances by jazz musicians performing live at an area venue, Shakespeare's. Program host Brian Pavlik is excited about the program, which bows at 10 p.m. Sunday, October 4, but he says he'll miss its predecessor. "We just couldn't get enough sponsorship to keep it going. But if something turns up, I'd like to keep doing the jazz show and also the old one, but at a different time. I'm going to work hard, and hopefully I'll be able to straighten everything out."
The awards ceremony for this year's Westwords Music Awards Showcase, held on September 27 at the Bluebird Theater, went swimmingly. Salutes go to host-with-the-most Bill Amundson, scorching headliner Nina Storey, the contest winners (their names are printed on page 113), and everyone else who participated. As for me, I pledge not to mention the event in print for at least a month. You're welcome.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.