The Message

At 3 a.m., KOA's Rick Barber is the only game in town.

It's 12:45 a.m., and the spacious new Clear Channel headquarters, located in the vicinity of the Denver Tech Center, isn't exactly hopping. Aside from a mysterious-looking man who's sitting behind the wheel of an older model car in the building's parking lot as if he's waiting for Alan Berg to show up, the entire area is deserted -- and things aren't much more lively inside the offices of KOA, the self-described "50,000 Watt Voice of the West." Late-night newsman Bill Jones is on hand, as is board op Steve Seidenfeld, and in the main studio, talk-show host Russ Johnson is gathering his belongings after completing a program largely dedicated to the preparation, cooking and eating of squirrels, America's most misunderstood culinary delight. But their occasional conversations hardly shatter the stillness. Compared to this joint, the average library is deafening.

Welcome to Rick Barber's world.

Barber's profile at KOA isn't just low; it's subterranean. The outlet, perennially among Denver's most popular stations, has lately been running a series of promos in which its various air personalities greet their listeners with a friendly "Hey, everybody": "Hey, everybody, this is Scott Hastings"; "Hey, everybody, this is Mike Rosen"; and so on. Even Governor Bill Owens participates, offering a de facto endorsement that's more than a little questionable. (Is he covering his bets in case this politics thing doesn't work out?) But while Barber says he's included on one of these spots, his never seems to run -- and the story's much the same on the www.850koa.com Web site. Each person with a show on KOA has his or her own Web page, with a single exception: Rick Barber. And not only is the blurb about Barber shorter than those dedicated to any of his fellow hosts, but it's in a smaller typeface, with no photo attached.

Night moves: KOA's Rick Barber keeps the third shift hopping.
Susan Goldstein
Night moves: KOA's Rick Barber keeps the third shift hopping.

For all practical purposes, Barber is KOA's invisible man. But he's also the station's most senior talk-show personality, having been part of the operation since 1982 -- several lifetimes, in broadcasting years. In addition, he's the only local yakker on the market's airwaves between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. Every other talk station in town, including Clear Channel's KHOW and KTLK, fills the wee hours with syndicated programming, for obvious reasons: The costs are lower, the product is reliable, and since the listenership is comparatively small, there aren't too many people to complain.

That leaves Barber, who's 53 ("I'm the same age as Bill Clinton"), as Denver radio's lone wolf -- a throwback to an era when every station from coast to coast had a hometown guy to let the dwellers of the dead zone know that there was someone else out there.

"I have a lot of listeners who are truck drivers, or parents who are up late with new babies, or people who are alone for one reason or another," Barber says. "And I try to make things comfortable for them."

To accomplish this goal, Barber sets a leisurely pace that's completely at odds with this go-go age; in his view, "the night moves at a different speed and a different decibel level," so he does, too. Prior to the start of the broadcast, he moves into the studio and drops his leather bag (it's overflowing with random scraps of paper, a coverless paperback book and assorted flotsam) before taking a vigorous sniff or two from an inhaler -- to combat his nettlesome sinuses -- and popping a Hall's cough drop in an attempt to keep his throat moist. Then, after turning his flap hat backward to accommodate his headphones and straightening his style-free windbreaker, he pushes his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose and leans into the microphone.

"It's six minutes after one o'clock," he says in a bottomless tone. "What the hell day is this? Wednesday?"

This casual introduction is followed by equally leisurely chat about famous birthday celebrants (Bret Michaels of the hair-band Poison, margarine salesman Fabio) that leads up to the first block of commercials -- except that the only actual commercial in it is Barber's endorsement of Sam Taylor's Bar-B-Q, which he'll laud several more times over the next four hours. (Barber's other sponsor on this night is Rose's Cafe, whose owner, like Taylor, is a personal friend of his.) Then, after allowing a full minute of a Seal song used as bumper music to play, Barber returns to chat with Phillip Strain, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Colorado at Denver who's spent more than thirty years studying a group whose members had severe behavior problems as children. The conversation is deliberate in the extreme and goes on for twenty-plus minutes. Without a break. And then, after a brief pause, its sequel continues for another fifteen minutes.

Clearly, there's no cutting to the chase with Barber. "People tend to be more attentive at night and a little more reflective, so you can let guests talk," he explains. "There's not so much going on to distract them. They're not in such a rush."

This policy extends to the handful of callers with whom Barber gabs after Professor Strain's departure. KOA's incredible signal reaches a huge chunk of the U.S. after nightfall, and sometimes beyond -- Barber reports getting calls from Finland and France long before the station was on the Internet -- and he seems to give extra leeway to fans in far-flung locales. For instance, he allows Kennedy from Kansas to speak at length even after it's obvious that when he's giving his opinions on "corporal punishment," he really means "capital punishment." (Talk about tough love.) Then there's Dan from Dallas, who engages in a rambling philosophical discourse ("Do you see life as a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy?" he asks at one point) for just short of half an hour, and Jim from Nebraska, who swears that Al Gore wants to make sure that Americans will be eating only imported food by the end of his first term. Yet Barber never loses his patience with them. "They've got something to say," he notes. "And I'm here to listen."

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