Dialing for Dollars

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

As for KISS-FM, it's pumping out what sounds for all the world as though the big-selling Totally Hits and Now That's What I Call Music compilations are being played on CD-shuffle; think 'N Sync's "It's Gonna Be Me" segueing into Britney Spears's "Oops!...I Did it Again," with a little "Say My Name" by Destiny's Child thrown in for good measure, and you'll have the right idea. (Attention, nine-year-olds: Smooch that Little Mermaid goodbye.) Also airing are pre-recorded liners with that ol' Clear Channel attitude: One says, "Sorry, Danny, this isn't a Patridge Family reunion" -- a shot at Danny Bonaduce, Los Angeles-based morning-show co-host for Alice. Not that KISS-FM is expected to be any more Colorado-centric than Bonaduce: The grapevine hints that Dees's broadcasts for KIIS in L.A. may soon be heard here, at least temporarily, and other programs could be voice-tracked by DJs from elsewhere in the U.S. You'll be able to tell when someone's being beamed in from afar if he starts talking about decorating his palm tree for Christmas.

It says something profound about Clear Channel's muscle that KXUU, which bowed under the slogan "Denver's Hit Music Station," would rather go up against Jefferson-Pilot's KS-107.5, currently the city's most-listened-to signal ("Urban Renewal," August 24), than a Clear Channel station that didn't exist a month ago. KXUU general manager Cindy Adcock, a veteran of general sales manager gigs with KHOW and the Peak, doesn't come right out and admit that, of course. Instead, she concentrates on the popularity of the new urban sound and the willingness of its fans to jump ship if they hear something better. But she does imply that the establishment of KISS-FM may have been a response to her station. "I'm sure they did a lot of research," she says, "but I've been told that they didn't make a final decision until a day or so before they went on the air. That's why I think they were planning to make some kind of change but reacted to what we were doing." Clear Channel's Howe flatly denies this charge.

Whether KXUU, owned by High Peak Broadcasting, an affiliate of Chicago's Marathon Media, can ultimately challenge KS-107.5 (another Jefferson-Pilot property) will depend greatly on its metro-area coverage, which currently is mighty shaky. The station's smallish signal (Adcock claims not to know its wattage) is being boosted into Denver via antennas in Longmont and Boulder, but the reception downtown isn't exactly full-bodied, and along the southwestern foothills, it's practically nonexistent. Adcock promises that engineers will work to improve reception during the outlet's lengthy introductory period; it will run sans commercials or DJs until October 30.

Right now, KXUU's playlist is much more varied than KS-107.5's narrow, just-the-smashes roster. I've heard everything from Nelly's "Country Grammar" to the 2Live Crew's hedonistic chestnut "Me So Horny" thus far. Wouldn't it be nice if that continued?

Bob Call, senior vice president and general manager of Jefferson-Pilot's Denver group, doesn't seem overly concerned that KXUU will waylay KS-107.5: "I'd like to think that KS-107.5's heritage in the marketplace, its personalities, its funding and its record of success will provide a very ample challenge for them." Likewise, he's unconcerned enough by Clear Channel's KHIH.com scheme to praise Howe and company for thinking of it. He's obviously hoping that the majority of K-High's listenership will switch over to his smooth-jazz station, and to that end, he minimizes any talk of doing something different with the sound than Clear Channel did. In the interim, he emphasizes that classic country will be available on KCKK-AM/1600, adding that the music mix will be tilted away from '80s acts such as Alabama and Reba McEntire and toward '60s favorites like Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Patsy Cline. In other words, the station will be returning to its roots as KYGO-AM, which was one of the most enjoyable frequencies in Denver a few years ago ("Playing the Classics," December 12, 1996). At last, some good news.

Many see the disappearance of Stern in precisely the same way, but that's an overly simplistic reaction. Over time I grew to appreciate having Howard around, in part because of his user-friendliness: I knew that if I tuned in and heard him gushing about naked women in his studio or chatting with a porn star who was selling pieces of her flesh removed during labia-reduction surgery, I had absolutely no reason to surf back to the Peak for the rest of the morning. But I came to genuinely enjoy his skewerings of celebrity culture and those who feed on it; the way he took the wind out of Geraldo Rivera, who visited a couple weeks back to float the prospect of his candidacy for mayor of New York City, was a beautiful, and very funny, thing to behold.

Such moments are likely gone from the Denver airwaves for the foreseeable future. Joe Schwartz, the Peak's general manager, says that Stern's show didn't fit with the new direction the station was heading, and Howe, Call and Keeney all say they have no place for Howard at their outlets, either. (This is especially interesting in the case of Keeney, since Infinity owns Stern's program.) The reason is revenue: The Peak was paying a rumored cool million a year for the rights to Stern, but even though he was producing great ratings, advertisers were steering away for fear of being tainted by association. Since Stern's broadcast is far from the only one in Denver to walk on the bawdy side of the street, the explanation for this trepidation is likely the impolitic comments he made following the shootings at Columbine High School last year, which Clear Channel managed to use against him in a sneaky but very clever way (Feedback, April 29, 1999). Score another one for the Empire.

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