Urban Renewal

How could an R&B outlet become the most popular radio station in Denver? The little girls understand.

African-Americans account for just a 5.1 percent slice of the Denver radio audience, according to figures used by the Arbitron ratings service -- and while this demographic is far from the only group whose members listen to hip-hop or rhythm and blues, its traditional loyalty to the music suggests that local broadcasters focusing on the style don't have a helluva lot of pie with which to work. So most observers would probably expect Cat Collins, program director of KS-107.5, an urban-leaning contemporary hit radio (CHR) outlet, to be crowing about his baby topping the spring ratings book among listeners aged twelve and over -- a first-ever for a station of its type in Denver radio history.

But publicly, at least, Collins reacts with all the enthusiasm of a rave fanatic at a Johnny Mathis concert. "We don't really focus on twelve-plus, so it doesn't mean that much," Collins says. "It's never happened before here, so I guess it's good that we did it. But it's not something we really sell."

Collins's honesty is refreshing. His main job is to convince advertisers to give KS-107.5 boatloads of cash, and in today's niche-oriented marketplace, commercial-buyers are more interested in reaching narrowly defined consumer groups than the teeming, undifferentiated masses. As a result, the station's supremacy for the third consecutive ratings cycle among 18- to 34-year-old females, the primary group it targets, and 18- to 34-year-olds in general for three of the last four are much more important achievements.

Susan Goldstein

These accomplishments have helped Jefferson-Pilot, the Greensboro, North Carolina, corporation that owns KS-107.5 and four other Denver radio signals (of a modest seventeen nationwide), regularly outbill AMFM, a Texas company with six radio properties here. (Published reports hint that the Federal Communications Commission is close to signing off on AMFM's merger with Kentucky's Clear Channel, the billing leader in Denver.)

But the question remains: How has KS-107.5 managed to do so well in a place overwhelmingly dominated by Caucasians who've historically been fondest of rock and often vocally hostile toward rap? And the answer is: By tinkering with its format so that it appeals to pop fans without alienating the young urbanites who've always gravitated toward its type of music.

In this regard, Collins and company have been aided immeasurably by existing trends, which argue that -- thank goodness -- people are finally becoming more color-blind, at least when it comes to contemporary music. A glance at any recent Billboard magazine confirms that hip-hop-influenced sounds rule the hit-singles world: Of the ten biggest sellers on the current chart, only one (matchbox twenty's "Bent") is a rock song, while most of the rest are by R&B-friendly acts such as Sisqó, Destiny's Child, Janet Jackson and Aaliyah. KS-107.5 programs this material in Top 40 fashion, with seemingly endless repetition of a couple dozen or so songs per week and no day-parting -- meaning that there's no more variety in the middle of the night than there is during drive time. Collins acknowledges that folks sometimes gripe about this redundancy, but he defends it from a business perspective.

"If you look across America, stations with large playlists usually have very mediocre ratings," he says. "So I'd rather play 25 or 30 huge home runs than 50 or 60 so-so records. I know there will be complaints, and I accept that, because less really is more. Our weekly audience is about 280,000, which is like four Mile High Stadiums full of people. Now, can you imagine having to turn on the loudspeakers and play songs that all 280,000 of them are going to like? That's why we try to play people's favorite songs, and there really are only about twenty of those out at a time."

Of late, that list has included plenty of hardcore hip-hop, a subgenre that's been vigorously reaching out to crackers via overt crossover artists -- most notably Eminem, who was at the center of the Up in Smoke tour that stopped at Fiddler's Green on August 20 and 21 (see review, page 98). The mainstream media uproar over Eminem is laughable, but there's no denying his popularity. Less than three months after its release, his latest CD, The Marshall Mathers LP, has already moved more than five million units, and his single, "The Real Slim Shady," has become a true format-hopper, winning spins on alterna-rock stations such as the Peak.

Yet KS-107.5 is second to none in its hyping of Eminem. An article in the August 17 edition of Rolling Stone about how the controversy over the rapper's lyrical misogyny and homophobia wasn't slowing his gathering momentum singled out the station for playing Eminem tunes more frequently than any other outlet in the entire United States. Not only is KS-107.5 pounding on "The Real Slim Shady" and "Forget About Dre," his collaboration with producer/tour mate Dr. Dre, but it's also power-rotating an edited version of the album track "Stan," in which an Eminem obsessive ultimately kills both himself and his girlfriend. (What goes around comes around: In July, Eminem's wife, whom he'd slain in narrative fashion on his previous album, was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. He recently filed for divorce.) In addition, "Stan" is far and away KS-107.5's most requested song, with "The Real Slim Shady" in the number-three slot.

According to Collins, the "Stan" saga began when music director John E. Kage "came into my office, shut the door, played it two or three times and said, 'This is the best record for us to add this week.' And since I trust John E., we put it on the air on a Friday, and by the following Monday, it was our top request by three to one." He adds, "I don't know why our audience loves the music, but they do -- and we want to give them what they want."

That's also the logic behind supplementing R&B and hip-hop by the likes of Nelly, Jay Z and Joe with a generous helping of bleached kiddie ditties from combos such as the Backstreet Boys -- another way of getting young, pale-faced girls to tune in. Nonetheless, Collins doesn't want to make too much of this last move. "If you love hip-hop and R&B, there may be other types of music that you love, too, and we'll consider playing it. But keep in mind that we've probably played only about half a dozen of those songs even though I'll bet thirty of them have been hits. So we'll play only the biggest of the big, and only if our R&B audience accepts them." For instance, he says Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" was a smash for the station, but when negative feedback started filtering back in response to her new tune, "I Turn to You," it was yanked. By contrast, "I didn't think we'd ever play 'Bye Bye Bye,' by 'N Sync, but we did -- and lot of people let us know they were glad we did."

A lot of white people, probably, although Collins won't talk in those terms. He insists that KS-107.5 isn't trying to woo members of any specific ethnic category and gets downright defensive at the mention of an objection about the station that's frequently voiced by local hip-hoppers -- that even though most of the station's music is still made by African-Americans (sorry, Eminem), only one of its full-time DJs, midday host Kendall B., is African-American himself. Collins says his staff is the most ethnically varied in Denver thanks to the presence of morning-show co-hosts Rick Stacy, who is of Cuban ancestry, and Larry Ulibarri, a Hispanic, plus fellow Hispanic Tony V., assigned to the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. shift. But, he goes on, "I don't have an agenda based on race; I hire based on the best talent available. I'm out to entertain the most diverse audience in Denver, and I think our talent is representative of that audience, but I still get these kinds of comments. I mean, you don't have white guys calling the Fox complaining if they do have an African-American DJ, do you?"

Of course, KS-107.5's success makes any criticism easier to take -- and Collins insists there hasn't been that much of it lately. According to him, he didn't receive a single grievance from parents because of a promo for the second Up in Smoke date in which the station was identified as the only one in town "with enough stroke to take another toke."

"This is a great mass-appeal format for Denver," he says. "If the ratings prove anything, they prove that."

Will Jamie be crying? Rumors about the pos-sible return of axed jocks Frosty Stillwell and Frank Kramer to their former posts at Alice/105.9 FM were only stoked by the duo's August 11 guest spot on the station. Under quizzing from afternoon host Greg Thunder and Rob Hatch, whose terrific Web site, denverradio.net, has done a good job of documenting their split from former partner Jamie White, Kramer, in particular, let loose before a large crowd at the Rock Bottom Brewery and an even bigger one across the metro area. He revealed that he and Stillwell were told "about one minute" after completing a show last September 13 that the broadcast would be their last alongside White, who'd moved with them to Los Angeles in 1998. (Their show was relocated to L.A.'s KYSR/Star 98, from where it was beamed back to Denver.) More interestingly, he contradicted comments made by Ms. Jamie regarding her culpability in the way things were handled ("White on White," February 3).

"It was all Jamie White -- that bitch!" Kramer declared in a sort-of-joking/sort-of-not tone of voice. "It was all her decision. Nobody else's. It was all Jamie White!" Then, after announcing that "we got boned the hard way," he launched into an anti-White rant -- "Let's hang her! Let's burn her! Let's kill her!" -- before cracking up the throng with the line, "I'm kidding -- she's a lovely woman."

Although White told yours truly that she was still "in touch" with Kramer many months after their on-air schism, he swore that "the last time I talked to Jamie, I had a box in my hand and I was cleaning out my desk." He also offered a parting shot about White's impending divorce from her husband, Denver physician David Strom, claiming that he'd once bet her $5,000 that her marriage would dissolve before his did -- and the still-wed Kramer gave every indication of wanting to collect.

In response to this diatribe, White, who can now be heard mornings on Alice in the company of ex-Patridge Family wiseacre Danny Bonaduce (a pairing that seems to be getting more awkward and annoying with each passing day), penned one of her own. In an August 14 posting on her Web site, jamiewhite.com, she wrote, "Let me just say the whole Frosty [and] Frank thing is over...OVER!!! So for God's sake...please get over it!!

"Don't you think Frosty and Frank want to move on as well?" she continued. "How sad for them that their first appearance back to Denver in a year they spent discussing me...Please let them have a show, and please don't bring me up. Because I know that a successful show will not happen if it's The Frosty, Frank and What Happened to Jamie Show." She closed by stating that she had no intention of discussing "the boys" ever again.

White's anger at being ripped on a station where she's supposedly still a big star makes perfect sense, but the motivation behind the Stillwell/Kramer fete remains mysterious. Prior to the visit, Alice program director Jim Lawson said Frosty and Frank had been invited to provide "closure" for themselves and listeners, and he maintained that there were no plans to reinstall the twosome at Alice. But because the station's sale from AMFM to Salem Communications hasn't been completed, he was severely limited in what he could discuss.

Stillwell and Kramer, who are no longer under contract with AMFM, were under no such restrictions during their Alice homecoming, and while they didn't announce their return, they both said they would love to do so. If that happens, the highest-profile place for them to do their thing would be in the mornings in place of White.

Whose famously grating laugh may not be heard last.

Tuning out: In this space last week, Channel 7 general manager Cindy Velasquez said that departing news director Diane Mulligan had been invited to stay in her post until October 1 to aid the transition for a new hire. Guess the transition's over: As of last week, Mulligan was out entirely -- although she makes a point of saying that she and Velasquez are "still good friends."

That, in the TV news game, is what's known as a happy ending -- and an abrupt one.

Judging Jeanette: The Denver Post spilled a considerable amount of ink following its winning of a Pulitzer Prize in the breaking-news division for its coverage of the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. But its reporting failed to mention an intriguing fact that's central to "Eyes Off the Prize," a critical examination of the Pulitzer process by journalist Seth Mnookin that appears in the September edition of Brill's Content: Jeanette Chavez, the Post's managing editor, was on the jury that made the paper a finalist for the award.

Because of a Pulitzer rule preventing jurors from talking with other jurors about submissions from their own publication or those connected to it via ownership, Chavez didn't get to specifically tout the merits of the Post's work; she wasn't even present at discussions of it or a similar package from the Rocky Mountain News that failed to make the cut. But she admitted to Mnookin that she was able to make veiled allusions to Columbine while considering other proposals, noting, for example, that staffers who covered Hurricane Floyd for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, benefited from an opportunity to prepare that journalists responding to "a shooting at a suburban high school" didn't have. Furthermore, Frank Scandale, the Post's assistant managing editor for news, noted that several reporters at the Pulitzer celebration were apparently concerned enough about a potential conflict of interest to ask Chavez about it directly. Not that the public had a clue: Nothing about Chavez having been a Pulitzer judge has appeared in the Post to this day.

Full disclosure, that's not.

However, the Post did publish a hilarious correction concerning an August 13 column by self-proclaimed "black avenger" Ken Hamblin ("Man Without a City," November 18, 1999). In his piece, about the anti-Semitism that might be stirred up among African-Americans after the naming of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Hamblin grumbled, "Liberal blacks continue to display reverence for President Bill Clinton, who failed to name a black to his cabinet." Not quite: As the Post pointed out, there are two blacks in Clinton's cabinet right now (Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater), and past Clinton appointees have included Mike Espy, Hazel O'Leary and the late Ron Brown, whom Hamblin mentioned in a column in 1998.

Then again, Hamblin's apparent inability to identify African-Americans isn't entirely incomprehensible, considering that he mainly hangs out with Republicans...

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