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Those conservative politicians who routinely bellyache about the alleged liberal bias of the media seldom include mainstream talk radio in their rants, and for good reason: Most hosts with an overt ideological slant, be they local or national, are only slightly less right-wing than was Benito Mussolini.Understanding that, the folks behind KWAB, or Working Assets Broadcasting, a 1,000-watt operation that can be heard in Boulder (its home base) and communities near it at 1490 AM, set out to craft an alternative: a commercial station that looks at issues from a more politically progressive point of view.
Their creation, which has been operating under the banner "Radio for Change" since last year, is a work in progress, as Chuck Lontine, its general manager, readily acknowledges; it has a growing listenership on the Internet (at radioforchange.com), but it's still struggling to gain a foothold in Boulder -- and its anemic signal makes it difficult to hear at all in most parts of Denver. Nonetheless, it's already become the target of complaints, and not only from listeners opposed to its leftward slant (a predictable turn of events). Also raising questions are fellow liberals fearful that the for-profit nature of the business is actually a deal with the devil, a former KWAB air personality who accuses the outlet of allowing ideals to degenerate into timidity, and ex-employees who believe that the way they were dealt with wasn't nearly as laudable as the principles professed by Working Assets, the San Francisco Bay-area firm that owns the station.
The fifteen-year-old company, which generated revenues of about $140 million last year from a variety of long-distance, credit-card and Internet services, pledges a percentage of its revenues to nonprofit groups such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Sweatshop Watch; its goal for donations this year is $5 million. Even KWAB critics like Dani Newsum, a veteran broadcaster who was among the first to be fired under the new regime, are impressed by such ambitions. "Working Assets has set the board high," she says. "That's part of their strategy: "Go with us, because we're better.' And in a lot of ways, they appear to be."
But, adds Newsum, "what's the difference between the way people are treated at KWAB versus, say, KOA or KHOW [where Newsum once worked]? I didn't see a damn bit of difference."
By some estimates, as many as thirty employees have been shown the door since Working Assets took over 1490 AM, which previously was known as KBVI. Of the members of this group contacted by Westword, most remain aggrieved by their experiences, and among the issues contributing to this condition is the one suggested by Newsum: Staffers expected that the negatives they associated with commercial radio, a notoriously ruthless business, wouldn't come into play at KWAB, and they were thunderstruck when they did.
Working Assets president Michael Kieschnick, who categorically denies that either Working Assets or KWAB has done anything wrong, thinks this factor explains a lot. "The complaints you're hearing are motivated by a level of personal animus that is way out of proportion to the actual facts of employment, and that's sad but not completely unexpected," he says. "There was a wonderful article in Inc. magazine a few years ago called "The Seven Deadly Sins of Socially Responsible Business,' and it made the point that when it comes to socially responsible businesses like Working Assets, employee expectations are often infinite and that separations, terminations and resignations tend to have more charge to them because of the expectations."
General manager Lontine echoes these sentiments. "It's impossible to meet everyone's expectations when your own expectations are so impossibly high. And that's led to my challenges and my disappointments and, in some instances, my heartaches. I've had to go by the best judgment that I have, and in some cases I've made mistakes, painful mistakes. But I've learned from them, and the station has grown from them. And we're still growing."
Given his background, Lontine seems an unlikely advocate for radio with a higher purpose. A Denver native, he got his start in radio at age sixteen when he landed a job as a gofer at what is now KIMN-FM. After an early-'80s stint as a news anchor for departed rock outlet KAZY, he moved into broadcast sales. That position eventually led him to New York-based Infinity Broadcasting, where he was a national sales rep for shock jock Howard Stern's show. In an understatement of mammoth proportions, he describes the latter as "slightly antithetical to what I'm doing now." Former co-workers of Lontine's from his commercial-radio period second this emotion; they remember him as tough, driven and brutally honest, especially when it came to assessing talent. "Who wants to hear that they suck?" asks one.
In the mid-'90s he took a post with Denver's Noble Broadcasting, onetime owner of KBCO, and eventually moved on to Tribune, parent company of KOSI and the Hawk. But over the next several years, he grew increasingly disillusioned with his chosen profession. "The homogenization of programming around the country is incredible," he says. "Right now there are two companies, CBS/Infinity and Clear Channel, that are calling the shots to the point where you have no idea if you're listening to KOA or a station in Los Angeles. And there's been a conservative shift that has dumbed down radio unbelievably."