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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.

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.

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.

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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