Clearing the Channels

Denver's radio shakeup may leave some big names without a home.

Finally, it has come to pass.

On March 6, Texas's Clear Channel Communications announced that 72 of the 125 or so radio stations it must divest as a result of its early-October merger with another Texas-based broadcasting colossus, AMFM, have been sold. Since that total includes five of the six Denver stations Clear Channel needed to spin off locally, the result makes the area radio picture a bit clearer, but it certainly doesn't answer every question. The bomb has dropped, but the casualty reports won't be official for around ninety days.

This much we know: Three stations -- rock-oldies purveyor KOOL 105, rhythmic-oldies expert Jammin' and KIMN/The Mix -- are slated to join the portfolio of New York's Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, the biggest challenger to Clear Channel nationwide; Alice has been picked up by Salem Communications, a California company that concentrates on religious programming and conservative talk -- two specialties not shared by Alice's biggest current names, groin-fixated yakkers Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce; and the Peak is now part of Hispanic Broadcasting, another Texas firm. The last deal makes "El Peako," a satire about the Peak being purchased by just such a company staged last year by Rover MacDaniels ("Son of Stern," November 25, 1999), seem like mind-reading.

That leaves classical KVOD as the only local station slated for divestiture that's presently without a home. But few observers expect the station to retain its classical format when someone does buy it. The Peak, too, is almost certainly dead: One radio insider snickers that Howard Stern, whose morning show has aired on the Peak since 1998, will disappear from his current slot "unless he learns to speak Spanish." As for other potential changes, they're supported only by gossip at this point -- but some of that gossip is mighty fine.

What follows are the rumors that make the most sense.

Infinity, which has long hungered for a slice of the Denver market, now has one -- and the smart money argues that the firm, which owns more than 160 radio stations across the country (as opposed to Clear Channel's 830), won't be satisfied with only three signals. Dana McClintock, vice president of communications for CBS, which owns Infinity, doesn't flat-out confirm this hypothesis, but he comes close: "We're always looking to expand," he says, "and there's room for us to buy more stations in Denver. It's just a question of if there's a seller."

In the meantime, look for changes at one or more of the stations Infinity just purchased. Why? In most of its markets, Infinity has an FM news/talk outlet -- and such a station would be especially advantageous in Denver, where it would complement Channel 4, a TV station also owned by CBS. McClintock hints that such a signal is in Denver's future: "We have FM talk stations around the country, and they've been quite successful. And it's nice that we have a TV station in Denver, as well as an AFC team [the Denver Broncos] that our station has the rights to broadcast."

Then there's the little matter of Stern, whose program is also in the CBS/Infinity family. Because Stern will soon be disappearing from the Peak, where he's generated big ratings numbers (if not big revenues), he could wind up on the proposed Infinity FM talker. But that's a potentially awkward fit given that Channel 4 stopped airing Stern's TV show after he made controversial comments about the shootings at Columbine High; Channel 4 chieftain Marv Rockford would have to do some serious spinning to make sense of that. So there's a viable chance that Stern might become part of an Infinity station other than the one affiliated with Channel 4. Of the three new Infinity stations, KOOL 105 is probably the least apt to face a format switch, since it fits a well-established niche. But Jammin' is relatively new on the scene and has cut into KOOL's audience share. Betcha it's history. KIMN is also a candidate for remodeling; its historic call letters might match perfectly with an FM talk approach.

On the Alice front, Salem of Colorado general manager Carolyn Bernhardt says that there are no plans to change the format at this time -- a claim that generates peals of laughter from almost everyone. Of the four other Salem stations in Denver, three (KRKS-AM and FM and KBJD-AM/The Beat) are Christian in focus, and the fourth, KNUS, is a news outlet with a right-wing bent. Moreover, all of the more than sixty Salem stations fit one of these descriptions -- something that Tricia Whitehead, Salem's corporate spokesperson, emphasizes. According to her, "It's safe to say that Salem's strategy has been to reformat stations into religious or conservative-talk stations." This fact hasn't escaped White and Bonaduce; on their March 7 show, they joked that the terms "Jesus Christ" and "penis" will be off-limits for them until they're run out of Denver for good.

Not so fast. Last week, grapevine monitors were guessing that Salem would keep the Alice format, citing as evidence the recent hiring of Gregg Cassidy, who helped launch Alice in 1994, as program director for the Beat, which debuted in January at 1650 on the expanded AM-stereo band. But Cassidy denies that he's going back to one of his previous triumphs: "The whole Alice thing is a thing of the past for me," he says. In addition, both he and Bernhardt note that the Beat is intended to have wide appeal, with none of the block programming associated with Christian stations and a seamless music blend that should appeal to Christian and secular audiences alike. And since neither downplay the difficulties of getting audiences to turn to 1650, a part of the dial that can't be accessed on many older stereos, the possibility exists that Salem will dump Alice to simulcast the Beat at its current AM locale and at Alice's 105.9 FM frequency, just as Radio Disney is heard on regular AM and stereo AM.

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