The Message

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

He's had plenty of years to polish this approach. A native of New York City who bounced around a lot as a kid (he graduated from high school in Clarksville, Tennessee), he began deejaying at dances when he was fourteen and was doing weekends at a Rhode Island outlet while still in high school. He met his future wife, who'd been raised in Littleton, at Brigham Young University, and after trailing her back to Colorado, joined the Army. His stint in the service included time in Korea, where he was a liaison officer for the Asian command during one of the most frightful phases of the Vietnam War. Upon his return to the States, he wound up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and before long, he was moonlighting on a rock station in nearby Fayetteville. "You can't get out of radio," he says. "It's more of a passion than a business."

By late 1970, Barber was back in Colorado and broadcasting full-time; he went from a news-director gig in Loveland to a job as booth announcer and cameraman at Channel 2 and a succession of positions at now-defunct stations: KBTR, KDEN and KWBZ, where he rubbed shoulders with KHOW's Peter Boyles. After getting a divorce (he subsequently remarried), he left Colorado for a time, working in Wyoming and New Mexico before returning to become the news anchor for a late-night show on KOA that was simulcast on Channel 4, then KOA's sister station. This TV/radio hybrid lasted for two years and gave Barber a chance to meet a whole range of second-tier performers eager for face time, no matter how ungodly late it was. "We had Bernie Kopell, who played Doc on The Love Boat, and Nanette Fabray -- and Rip Taylor was a scream," he remembers.

But even though the show's plug was eventually pulled ("It just got too expensive"), Barber's wasn't. He's been on KOA without interruption for over eighteen years, and swears that he's happy with his slot. "I've done morning-drive before, and it's the hardest job in radio," he says. "I'm much happier where I am. I've been very lucky in this business."

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

At the same time, he's not blind to financial realities, especially as it concerns syndication. "That's the trend in radio in general," he says. "I recognize that doing a local late-night show is probably an archaic concept in the age of chain restaurants and chain everything. But such is the nature of business."

Lee Larsen, the vice president of Denver Clear Channel, admits as much. He says he can't afford to have a local host on all of his company's talk outlets at that hour because of "economic issues. It costs you more at night than you can generate in revenue, since it's a day part that traditional advertisers mostly ignore. So you have to have a good reason for doing it." And what's his? "KOA has to be local," he asserts, "so with Rick, we have that base covered. And because we're running syndicated programming on our other stations [Art Bell on KHOW and ESPN Radio shows on KTLK], we're not competing with ourselves."

Larsen insists that Barber is "a very big part of our staff. He's not an island." But Barber certainly seems to be a free agent. For about fifteen minutes of his show prior to the four o'clock hour, he presents "Comedy Theater," which turns out to be uninterrupted routines from various comedy albums in his collection. Upon his return on this day, he interviews Dr. Barry Sears, author of the best-selling diet book The Zone, and after taking several calls (bringing the total over the course of the show to eight), he bids Sears farewell, casually drops his copy of The Zone into an adjacent trash can, and signs off with the least fanfare imaginable. Steve Kelley and April Zesbaugh, two of KOA's biggest stars, are due to arrive within minutes, but Barber doesn't hang around to shoot the breeze with them.

"They're extremely busy in the mornings, and they don't have time for that," he says. "I don't get in their way, and believe me, I'm sure they're grateful. Besides, when I get done with my show, I'm tired, and I have to get home to make breakfast for my wife. I've got my priorities."

Overwhelming notoriety doesn't seem to be among them. When asked if he would like KOA to do a better job of promoting his show, he says, "I suppose everybody could use more of that -- even me. But I'm not going to worry about it. The checks don't bounce and they leave me alone. It's all a tradeoff."

So is his schedule, which has him ending his day's work when most folks are beginning theirs. But as he steps into the crisp morning air outside Clear Channel HQ, he seems at peace with his lot in radio life.

"I suppose I've become a fixture. I'm sort of like a piece of furniture -- the couch no one wants to move. I guess they're afraid to find out what's behind it."

A complete recap of Columbine anniversary-week press coverage would take a lot more space than is available here; tune in next week for a more wide-ranging roundup. But the Sunday, April 16, editions of the Denver dailies offered a good indication of the media saturation to which we'll all be subjected.

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