Dialing for Dollars

It's out with Howard Stern and in with more Britney as radio conglomerates chase the almighty buck.

After all of the hullabaloo over media behemoth Clear Channel's acquisition of competitor AMFM in March -- not to mention the predictions of chaos the move was likely to inflict on the Denver radio scene -- news that the Federal Communication Commission had signed off on the deal prompted the spilling of precious little ink here: The Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post ran business briefs about the development on August 16 sans any mention of a local connection, and that was about it. But radio insiders understood that the FCC's blessing was all it would take to unleash a maelstrom of maneuvering likely to alter the metro landscape for months or years to come.

This hypothesis turned out to be accurate, but the specific changes hardly followed the pattern that most prognosticators (including yours truly) were sketching out six months ago. As September dawned, Clear Channel's Denver branch banished its smooth-jazz outlet, KHIH, better known as K-High, to the Internet in order to give its broadcast frequency, 95.7 FM, to a newly created CHR (contemporary hit radio) entity to be dubbed, with apologies to Gene Simmons, KISS-FM. That prompted two immediate reactions: Jefferson-Pilot's Denver division pulled the plug on underperforming classic-country signal KCKK, at 104.3 FM, in favor of (surprise!) smooth jazz, and KXUU-FM, an Estes Park station targeting Denver that was launched on August 24, switched from the CHR programming with which it debuted to a rhythmic CHR approach similar to the one used by Denver top dog KS-107.5.

Meanwhile, KXPK/The Peak, whose new owner, Emmis Communications, was able to formalize its purchase only after the FCC gave the nod to the Clear Channel-AMFM arrangement, jettisoned syndicated morning man Howard Stern and the hard-alternative music it pumped out the rest of the day in favor of a retro-alternative style heavily emphasizing '80s-era modern rock. In turn, KTCL, Clear Channel's own alterna-rocker, instantly altered its playlist, replacing its tougher stuff with (surprise again!) plenty of '80s-era modern rock. Finally, Steve Keeney, vice president and general manager of three local stations now owned by Infinity Broadcasting (KOOL-105, KIMN/The Mix and Jammin'), is doing the unthinkable: For the moment, he's not changing anything.

Suddenly, you can't tell the players without a program -- so allow me to provide one, along with a few details about the strategy that's set these dominoes tumbling.

The only thing that's unexpected about the arrival of KISS-FM is how long it's taken for a station like it to get here. As noted by Don Howe, vice president and general manager of Clear Channel-Denver, CHR has been incredibly successful across the country, fueled by the mystifyingly prolonged popularity of MTV/Total Request Live-type kiddie pop. (Many of the acts in the genre have gone way beyond the micro-fame enjoyed by precursors like the Bay City Rollers and New Kids on the Block; they're deep into bonus time.) Yet Denver has lacked a pure, undiluted CHR purveyor. Alice's version of the sound skews more toward adults, the Mix hasn't entirely shed its adult-contemporary past, and the variation provided by Radio Disney ("Sex and the Single Mouse," March 2) tends to turn off teens unwilling to sit through storybook corner with the Little Mermaid in order to get their Christina Aguilera fix. Moreover, Clear Channel owns Los Angeles's KIIS-FM, the grandpappy of all CHRs; the home of Rick "Disco Duck" Dees, it's been going strong for over a quarter-century (current listenership stands at 2.5 million per week) and has spawned like-named outlets in New York, Chicago and Seattle, among other cities. "That gives us a lot of resources to pull from around the country," says Howe. "And since research indicated nobody was really filling that hole in the marketplace, we decided to do it."

Speculation that Clear Channel would move a new format into the K-High slot has been rife since the firm announced its intention to gobble up AMFM, with the only naysayers being those who doubted it would eliminate a station that's been consistently profitable for years -- a radio rarity made possible by the combination of a faithful, if modestly sized, audience and extremely low operating costs. In Howe's view, the Internet provided him with a compromise. By maintaining KHIH.com as a going concern, the company could keep sponsoring concerts such as the Winter Park Jazz Festival and product tie-ins like the KHIH Smooth Jazz, Volume 5 CD that's slated for a November release even as it blunted criticism for abandoning its longtime devotees. This last tactic underpinned an e-mail sent to members of the "KHIH Loyal Listener Club" by program director Becky Taylor, who's been lying low since the shift; last week her voice-mail box was full, and Clear Channel receptionists were advising people with gripes to write her letters. How archaic.

"We intend to keep KHIH visible, promotionally active and viable for our advertisers," says Howe. "We'll have a full-time promotions director, a full-time program director and most of the key ingredients that any radio station has." Except DJs, that is: Howe says jocks will be added once "the support for KHIH.com grows," but the odds of that actually happening are about equal to the chances that Pat Buchanan will be elected president of these United States.

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