Lighting a Fire

Jon Caldara has been unmatched at using the media during this election season. He couldn't be prouder.

Caldara's moxie has helped raise him to prominence in a relatively short period. He first came to the public's attention in the mid-'90s as the member of the RTD board most likely to say nasty things about light rail, and he subsequently helmed successful grassroots efforts to defeat two showy proposals, 1997's multi-billion-dollar Guide the Ride mass-transportation package, and 1998's Referendum B, which would have allowed the state to hang on to a portion of the tax surplus. By contrast, he lost bigtime after trying to convince voters that they should reject a proposition to pay for a new stadium for the Broncos, a squad whose power he should have understood.

Why? After his Guide the Ride victory and his discovery that "talk radio was one of the best outlets to look at complex issues without resorting to sound bites," he went to execs at Jacor (now Clear Channel) and asked for a chance to prove his mettle on the air. The folks in charge kindly plugged him into the KHOW schedule at 2 p.m. Sundays, when most Bronco games kick off during the late summer, fall and early winter. "I could not describe the real meaning of lonely before I did that gig," he notes, laughing. "There were no commercial breaks except for one at the bottom of the hour, and it was just basically me talking. I could have done anything -- I could have set puppies on fire in the studio -- and no one would have called me. For anyone who thinks they want to go into radio, here's a bit of advice: Don't get the shift opposite the Broncos."

"We do try out potential hosts at quiet times of the week," confirms Lee Larsen, Clear Channel's vice president and general manager. "Most don't survive that, but Jon did." He insists that despite talk radio's reputation as a bastion for conservative blather, Caldara's political slant had no bearing on his hiring: "I can tell you absolutely that we do not care what someone's viewpoint is. There's no agenda there at all. We liked Jon because he was interesting and outspoken, period. And he's worked out very well."

Might makes right: John Caldara loves to play the press.
Susan Goldstein
Might makes right: John Caldara loves to play the press.

These days, Caldara is frequently compared with Alan Keyes, a talk-show personality who's done his best to parlay his way with words into political paydirt via two quizzical (and doomed) runs for the presidency. But Caldara is cagey about discussing his own electoral aspirations. He notes that he's not currently running for anything -- but only after pointing out that his two predecessors at the Independence Institute, Tom Tancredo and John Andrews, used the post as a stepping stone to higher office: Tancredo is the congressman from the solidly Republican 6th District (this year, he's facing a tougher-than-anticipated fight from free-spending challenger Ken Toltz), while Andrews is Englewood's righter-than-right state senator. Moreover, Caldara points out that his electability is threatened by his residency in Boulder, a community where only a relative handful of locals share his philosophy. Still, he swears that he likes it there. "It's good to have the liberal factions in a concentrated area, and it's nice to be able to draw comparisons to what they do, because it goes so far to the socialist left. What's Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader?"

So for now, Caldara aims to stick with the Institute despite a budget that probably won't make many of those other think tanks jealous; he says the organization operates on about $600,000 per annum; half the cash comes from small contributors, and half from donations by foundations and the like. And no matter what happens to Amendment 23, he's already preparing another media-friendly exploit: At the Institute's Founders Night dinner, slated for November 30 at the Brown Palace, he'll be announcing the winner of "the first-ever Stupidest Law in Colorado contest," he says. Because of the Colorado focus, the federal restriction against burning money won't be eligible, but a Denver rule forbidding anyone from loaning a vacuum cleaner to a neighbor has a real chance. "If it wins, we're going to rip up this town and lend vacuum cleaners all over the place," he promises.

Already, Post gossip columnist Bill Husted has spilled ink over the Institute's latest gambit even though it's still nearly a month away -- and obviously, I've fallen into Caldara's web as well. We love the way you play us, Big Jon.

It sucked when they had it...but now it's great!: In the same October 22 column that the Post's Husted hyped Caldara, he wrote about the cancellation of the talk show featuring Jamie White and Partridge Family grad Danny Bonaduce, which had been a morning staple on Alice, at 105.9 FM. But Husted didn't get into the details of this change, which were typically Machiavellian and have led to several unexpected twists and turns.

Joe Schwartz, general manager for the Denver arm of Indianapolis's Emmis Communications, which recently purchased Alice and the Peak, says Alice had a contract for the show running through the end of the year. In addition, reliable sources reveal, the document included a non-compete clause that would have prevented any other station in the market from broadcasting it for another six months after the contract's expiration. But for Emmis, renewal wasn't an option: Clear Channel, which owns the program through its Premiere Radio Networks division, sent Emmis a letter informing the firm that it would have to do without Jamie and Danny's sparkling repartee and frequent mentions of male and female groins once the agreement lapsed.

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