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Dialing for Dollars

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

Emmis, the Peak's new owner, is doing its best to distance itself from the Stern connection. The station even took what seems like a parting shot at either Stern or sharp-tongued former Peak overseer Bob Visotcky in a witty post-alteration promo. The spot blamed previous changes at the station on "a baaad man."

The press-release spin on the Peak suggests that it's returned to its original sound, but that's not quite right. In the beginning, the Peak mirrored the adult album alternative, or triple-A, format pioneered by KBCO, mixing new music and old. Now, however, the outlet is concentrating on acts like the Police, the Police and the Police (that's mainly what I've been hearing) to the exclusion of anything current at all. "Our research showed that a lot of stations here abandoned the '80s alternative music," Schwartz says. "And Denver's a unique market for that. A lot of that music was very popular and hot here, and there's still a tremendous appetite for it."

According to Schwartz, KBCO isn't the Peak's only potential prey; he expects to attract fans of the Fox, the Hawk, the Mix and Alice as well. Nonetheless, Clear Channel is using the same tactic against this Peak that managed to kill off the last one; it's tilting KTCL in a similar direction, so that the KBCO-KTCL tandem can beat up on the station again. Mike O'Connor, director of FM programming for Clear Channel-Denver (as well as one of the few radio executives to come right out and say something rather than putting it through a public-relations filter), is brief and to the point: "We're going to use our two stations to squeeze them out, just like we did before."

Admittedly, KTCL hasn't been turned upside down: The station is keeping about 70 percent of its playlist intact, so listeners will still be able to hear Limp Bizkit, Eve 6, Bush and the like. But O'Connor, who pointedly questions the wisdom of the Peak's modification ("I'm assuming Emmis paid $50 million for the station with the idea that they can make money, but I don't see how they can") says he'll substitute songs by the Cure, U2 and Depeche Mode -- all neo-Peak staples -- for salvos by System of a Down, Slipknot, Puya and other acts "that more properly belong on KBPI," Clear Channel's designated hard-rock source. In O'Connor's words, "KTCL gets used as a flanker station," meaning that it's important to Clear Channel mainly for the pain it can inflict on rivals. That should make you KTCL fans feel very special.

Infinity's Steve Keeney, for his part, is making far fewer waves. When Infinity bought its three Denver stations, gossipers guessed that the company would soon inaugurate an FM-talk outlet -- and Dana McClintock, vice president of communications for CBS, which owns Infinity, only fed these suspicions through comments he made in this space ("Clearing the Channels," March 9): "We have FM talk stations around the country, and they've been quite successful," he said. "And it's nice that we have a TV station in Denver, as well as an AFC team [the Denver Broncos] that our station has the rights to broadcast." Yet Keeney, a folksy veteran of Denver broadcasting who comes across like the anti-Visotcky, swears that an FM talker was never seriously considered. He's pleased with the Mix's rising ratings and says data he's seen demonstrates that KOOL-105's ratings aren't being seriously cannibalized by the R&B oldies supplied by Jammin'. "We think all three stations are very compatible and have real growth potential," he says. "So we're not going to change their formats."

Not yet, anyhow. "Could that happen down the road?" he asks rhetorically. "Well, sure. We could change all of them."

And that, girls and boys, is how the radio game is played.

The whimper you heard on September 8 came from the bare handful of folks opposing the joint operating agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News after the Justice Department advised Attorney General Janet Reno to okay the deal without ordering public hearings. Expect Reno to give her blessing in November, thereby allowing the Denver dailies to wed just after the first of the year.

Why wouldn't Reno recommend hearings anyway? Because there's no political price to pay if she doesn't. In numerous cities where JOAs have been proposed over the years, powerful protesters rose up in opposition, arguing that such agreements result in lost jobs, poor journalism and myriad other ills. But in Denver, the newspaper unions rolled over, elected officials shrugged, civic groups were all but mute, most advertisers ran scared, and the majority of the public reacted with yawns. This last response is an especially damning one: It suggests that, despite the papers' huge circulation numbers, average Joes and Janes value the Post and the News more for the grocery coupons they provide than for the stories they print.

A front-page headline in the September 10 Post declared "JOA's Progress Good News for Papers," and that's undeniably true -- but it's also potentially bad news for people who really care about the quality of their daily newspapers. Does the community's deafening silence on this topic mean that not many do?

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