By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
Scott Strong, the interim program director at KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak), won't confirm that the station for which he's working has experienced a format switch; he refers to it as "a tweak." But there's no question that something substantial is happening at the station, which went from being the hottest new outlet in the Denver-Boulder market to a ratings also-ran in the span of a little more than four years.
The Peak debuted in June 1994 under the ownership of locals Keith and Betty Siebert and Pat Loewi, and by early the next year, the impressive Arbitrons earned by its minor variation on the Adult Album Alternative format were turning heads throughout the local radio community (to learn more, check out "Will the Peak Inherit the Earth?," February 1, 1995). So impressive was the performance, in fact, that Bob Greenlee, the founder of KBCO-FM/97.3 and a current candidate for Congress, exercised a contractual option he'd signed as head of an investment group that helped finance Loewi and the Sieberts and, in late 1995, took control of the signal himself. The Peak remained popular for some time after that, but subsequent deterioration convinced Greenlee to get his money out of the station while he could. As a result, he sold the operation in 1997 to Dallas-based Chancellor Media (owner of several other Denver radio properties, including KALC-FM/105.9 [Alice]) for a reported $26 million.
After the deal was done, the Peak's ratings declined steadily, eventually falling behind those of both KBCO and KTCL-FM/93.3, the Jacor-owned stations that have been its primary competitors. This tumble delighted Jacor types, who began suggesting that the Peak was about to go country several months ago and prompted Chancellor to ask the folks at SBR Creative Services, a powerful Boulder-based radio consulting firm, to come up with a plan to give the station a jolt. But the scheme that went into effect on October 12 isn't anyone's idea of a radical shift. The outlet's promos and links, built around the slogan "The Rockies New Rock," have a much sharper edge than before, and so does some of the music: The previous regime wouldn't have programmed Hole's "Celebrity Skin," for example. But in several days of listening, I heard only two or three songs that I didn't recognize instantly. Moreover, the vast majority of the artists highlighted fell into predictable categories: groups that you can hear on hard-rocking KBPI-FM/106.7 (Pearl Jam, Bush), bands that turn up on KTCL (Soul Coughing, Better Than Ezra) and acts that KBCO or the old Peak might spin (Sheryl Crow, the Cranberries). In its early stages, at least, the Peak sounds less like a bold alternative to current choices than an amalgamation of them.
Predictably, that's not how Strong, an SBR principal who's been overseeing the Peak since June, views things. "We saw a gap in the market," he says. "You have so many stations playing Eighties music--KBPI, KTCL, Alice--that there wasn't anybody strictly dealing with the new music that's out there right now. You have a lot of hot bands today, like Marilyn Manson, Everclear, the Beastie Boys and Third Eye Blind, and we want to give people more of them without having to sit through Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones to get to them."
This last comment can be interpreted as a shot at KBPI, which began splitting its airtime between modern rock and classic-rock staples from AC/DC, Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne during the middle of last year. But KBPI program director Bob Richards has an equally harsh assessment of the Peak's new approach. "I don't really see where there's room between KTCL and KBPI to jam a format," he says. "This strategy is new to me and largely unproven--and even if it weren't, I can tell you from my experience that using a library where nothing exists before 1990 is unsellable in this market."
Richards has a point. Earlier this decade, KNRX-FM/92.1 (92X), a small station headquartered in Castle Rock, burst onto the scene with an aggressive sound that hit home with the snowboarding crowd. Within months, KBPI's ratings began to slide, prompting Richards to alter his format in order to compete. Just as the competition was heating up, though, the owners of KNRX threw in the towel, claiming that the listeners 92X was attracting, most of whom fell between the ages of 18 and 24, weren't of interest to advertisers. (KNRX replaced the 92X format with a dance sound that didn't last long. The frequency is currently the home of syndicated Spanish-language programming dubbed Radio Romantica.) As soon as 92X was dead, KBPI brought back the older songs it had cut from its playlist in order to broaden its audience. "You can have all the 18-to-24 numbers you want and not make money from them," Richards says. "That's why it's a laughable strategy. There's no financial viability to it."
Strong shrugs off Richards's assessment. "As someone who's done formats like this at stations around the country, he sounds like someone who's worried to me," he says. "And he should be worried, because Chancellor is really behind what we're doing. On top of that, his whole staff is calling here and wanting to work here, because they're excited about what this station is doing."