Sage Advice

KBCO's Bret Saunders is taking on the shock jocks -- and winning.

In the Denver radio market, the morning show personalities who get the most attention are the naughtiest ones: the Peak's Howard Stern (last week he had an extended conversation with Sandra Bernhard about her fondness for anal sex), Alice's Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce (Jamie once told Sigourney Weaver that her husband used to "pleasure himself" to an Alien-era photo of the actress), and the Fox's Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax, whose humor would be at home in locker rooms everywhere.

As it turns out, though, talking smack or tittering over groin-region body parts isn't necessarily a prerequisite for Denver radio success. Indeed, according to the most recent Arbitron trend reports, another drive-timer -- KBCO's Bret Saunders -- is the most-listened-to morning jock in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic the station targets and is running neck-and-neck with Stern in the eighteen- to 34-year-old demo that supposedly belongs to Howard by birthright. Moreover, Saunders has hit these heights without chortling about threesomes or enticing female guests to show him their mammaries.

Not that Saunders rejects humor -- far from it. The self-proclaimed radio "Sage" is probably the quickest-witted person on area airwaves at present, but he delivers his material in a smart, low-key manner that won't make anyone feel the slightest bit guilty for laughing at it. "I don't want to be considered to be someone who's lame or terrified of being controversial or shocking. I really admire Howard Stern -- and I mean it," Saunders insists. "But I guess my contention is that a lot of things like that are being done on the radio. To say that we're an antidote to that is probably too strong, and 'alternative' is a dead word. So just say we're doing something different."

Bret Saunders is no ordinary jock.
Susan Goldstein
Bret Saunders is no ordinary jock.

Saunders's rising popularity mirrors that of KBCO (at 97.3 FM), which is back in favor after several years of wandering in the broadcasting wilderness. The outlet was the model for the A3 (adult album alternative) format; that's a big reason why the Gavin A3 Summit, an annual convention for folks who work in the genre, is held in Boulder, KBCO's hometown. But after KBCO, a onetime independent, was purchased by Jacor, a Kentucky firm that subsequently merged with Texas-based media conglomerate Clear Channel, the station went through an identity crisis symbolized by the ill-fated morning team of yukster Kerry Gray, who caused a stir after speculating during a guest stint on KOA that Jesus Christ could have been gay, and Rick Ashton, a standup comic with a style that made most regular KBCO boosters shudder (in one routine, he snickered that even he could punch out Muhammad Ali now that the former champ had Parkinson's disease).

Scott Arbough, KBCO's program director, is reluctant to call the Kerry and Ashton pairing the disaster that it was: "That show was a stepping stone to what we're doing now," he says. But while he argues that Gray is "a brilliant broadcaster," he acknowledges that "he didn't belong in this format. He had a bit too much edge for what we do."

So the powers-that-be turned to Saunders, 36, a poster child for eclecticism. Born Bret Julyk (a program director in Michigan christened him "Saunders" a decade ago) in Great Falls, Montana, he was raised in Detroit, where he picked up a fondness for a wide range of music that sprang from the city -- the Stooges, Parliament-Funkadelic, even Ted Nugent, about whom he can speak in staggering detail: "Last year they reissued Great Gonzos! with 'Yank Me, Crank Me' on it. That was the last truly great Ted Nugent song." But at the same time, he developed a taste for hardcore jazz and the avant-gardisms of performers as disparate as Captain Beefheart and John Cage.

Such open-mindedness served him well in the radio game, in which DJs have to seem enthusiastic about whatever music their current employer chooses to play no matter how repulsive it might be. Usually Saunders found a way to get something out of these experiences; while spinning at a country station, for instance, he discovered "these great, shit-kicking records by people like George Jones and Ernest Tubb, who I love. It was a fantastic cultural education." But even he had his limits. "Doing the adult contemporary thing in the early '90s, when New Kids on the Block were really hot and you had to play things by Taylor Dayne...Well, that music was just heinous to me."

In late 1993, Saunders was hired for the morning show at alterna-station KTCL during the heyday of Nirvana and the modern rockers who appeared in the act's wake. Almost immediately, he made his mark, earning plenty o' praise (and several Westword Best of Denver awards). After the station wound up in the Jacor/Clear Channel portfolio, corporate decision-makers realized they had a genuine talent on their hands, and when attempts to lift KTCL's generally middling ratings to the next level failed, they moved Saunders to the higher-profile KBCO job and charged him with mopping up the mess left by Kerry and Ashton. "He was kind of the morning-show joke guy on KTCL, but he was clearly highly intelligent and had a massive knowledge of music," Arbough explains. "And we thought he'd have more of an opportunity to display that at KBCO."

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