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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."
Other DJs will join the lineup during the next several weeks to supplement the efforts of first hire Caroline Corley, a fiery personality who was disappeared by KTCL this summer (the story was covered in the August 6 Feedback). According to Corley, who'll be at the helm weekdays between 2 and 7 p.m., "I think the Peak fills the niche left by 92X. It'll be a palatable, listenable rock station, and I'm very excited about it. There'll be none of the heavy old gold like Sabbath and Zeppelin that KBPI is all bogged down with, and no Jewel or Natalie Merchant, either."
That's a pledge I'll hold you to, ma'am.
Changes are afoot at KBPI as well. Morning-show DJ Rick Kerns, a stand-up comic who was one of my biggest fans (he was once overheard referring to me as a "fucking cunt"), got the sack earlier this month--and although Kerns's partner, Kerry Gray, remains on the air at the station, an October 9 talk-show stint on KRRF-AM/1280 (Ralph) implies that he may be on his way out the door as well. After all, Ralph isn't a Jacor station; it's owned by the aforementioned Chancellor Media.
When asked about Gray's future at KBPI, program director Richards is supportive but not effusive. "We allowed Kerry to go on Ralph because he wanted to get some tape on himself in a talk format, which is something he's always been interested in," he says. (Gray previously earned a talk-show tryout with Jacor, but because a flippant on-air comment he made about Jesus Christ wound up in the Rocky Mountain News, this experiment has not been repeated.) Nonetheless, Richards adds, "I don't believe Kerry's going anywhere. For the forseeable future, he'll be on KBPI."
So what's next for KBPI in the a.m.? "We want to put a more compelling morning show on," Richards says. "I can't go into specifics about that yet, but I can tell you that there are a number of possibilities. You could see Kerry in other scenarios with other personalities, or you might see a morning show that's already together in another market coming to Denver." Richards insists, however, that said program will not star Howard Stern, whose broadcast was recently purchased by Tribune Broadcasting for use on KKHK-FM/99.5 (the Hawk) only to be dumped at the last minute (see the August 10 and August 24 Feedbacks for details). "I'd be lying to you unless I said that we've talked about and thought about Howard," he notes. "But we think it's in our best interest to come up with a topical Denver morning show where the personalities live and breathe here. We think that's what makes radio great in Denver, and we're committed to putting on the best local morning show we can. And we think we can come up with one that's better than Kerry and Kerns."
Expect a decision on KBPI's drive-time slot to come down within the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, Gray is expected to put the focus on sounds instead of snappy one-liners. In an unintentional echo of the comments made by Tribune Broadcasting's David Juris amid the post-Stern fallout, Richards says, "I don't think it hurts us to shut up and play music in the morning. Our research tells us that's what people want, and until we make an announcement, that's what we're going to do."
It's taken the better part of a year, but the Tarmints, fronted by Kurt Ottoway, have finally issued their debut recording, a nine-song offering that should appeal to boosters of Ottoway's previous band, Twice Wilted. Recorded on a sixteen-track machine by longtime Denver scenester Todd Ayers, Tarmints is rougher-hewn than most of Twice Wilted's work; it's a grabby, aggressive mix that favors immediacy over smoothness. "Swamp Song" sports a twisted structure invaded by wildly barking dogs; "Vipers" and "Drinking Song" find Ottoway channeling Jim Morrison; "Green Piano" evolves into a jangly, deliberate mood piece; the instrumental "A Lemon Wedge...Sir" revels in brittleness; and "Kindlin" bubbles over with retro melodrama.
In the past, Ottoway has been primarily a vocalist, but that's no longer the case. He credits his fellow Tarmints--bassist Julie "Mint Julip" Schliebner, guitarist Robert Jamison (aka Class "A" Bobby J.) and drummer A.J. Hathaway, a former member of Cynic's Bane who apparently has yet to earn a nickname--with giving him an excuse to pick up his guitar. "It's been a new challenge for me," he says. "It's made me feel a lot more part of the band. Everybody's gotten really close, and we've ended up being, like, best friends. It's cool."
The new disc appears on Denver Coffee Achievers, a label formed by Ottoway and Ayers; expect a solo effort by Ayers and an EP by volplane to appear in the coming months. As for Tarmints performances, they've been tough to catch; Ottoway notes that the band has played out of state more often than it has appeared in Colorado. (An August trip to California, where Ottoway lived for a stretch, included gigs with a handful of Denver expatriates, including the Christines.) A CD-release bash was scheduled to take place on Friday, October 23, at the Bug Theater, with the Perry Weissman 3, and it still might; at press time, the showcase was up in the air. Ottoway suggests that interested parties surf on over to www.tarmints.com to get up-to-the-minute information. "The site lets people make a direct connection to all of our products, and it helps us stay independent," he says. "Which is why we like it."
The producers of NU Rock TV, a syndicated program that's due to begin airing in Denver and several other major U.S. cities either late this year or early the next, is looking for models, actors, extras and rock bands to appear in a pair of episodes to be shot in our fair city. A roundup of interested auditioners takes place during an open-to-the-public event on Thursday, October 22, at the Skyline Cafe. Those still looking for their fifteen minutes of fame are advised to phone 303-596-5595 in order to get their names on the proper lists for the show. Why? NU Rock TV spokesman Anthony Jackson warns that anyone who fails to call in advance will have to fork over a cover charge at the door in order to get in.
It pays to be famous, doesn't it? On Thursday, October 22, Swirl whirls into Eck's Saloon, and singer-songwriter Deb Bartley performs at Cricket on the Hill (she also strums at Common Grounds on October 23 and Boulder's Penny Lane on October 24 and 25). On Friday, October 23, Yo, Flaco! plays its last show with vocalist Venus Cruz at Herman's Hideaway, with the Boogienauts. On Saturday, October 24, the Alan Kelly Band brings a touch of Ireland to the Mercury Cafe. And on Sunday, October 25, CU-Boulder's Glenn Miller Ballroom is the place to experience Techno Cosmic Mass, touted as "a revolutionary new form of worship"; Babe the Blue Ox plods to the Fox Theatre, with the Reejers and Dieselhed; and Rainbow Sugar, featuring the indomitable Cindy Wonderful, sweetens Rebis Gallery. Brush immediately afterward.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.