Watch Your Mouth

Two local radio personalities get scorched by their own words.

In the radio biz, hosts are supposed to be provocative: Executives don't pay the big bucks for nice and dull, do they? But there's always a danger of going one joke over the line, particularly since said line is often a moving target, shifting this direction or that based on whims, trends or events that took place hours or even minutes earlier.

Below, find two examples -- the first starring Sandy Travis, sacked last month as co-host of the high-profile morning show on country station KYGO-FM, the other headlined by KOA yakker Russ Johnson, whose recent two-week suspension marks the second time he's gotten bruised after making an impolitic remark about students and violence.

Country roads: The sixty-year-old Travis, a burly cowboy type with a folksy accent, didn't just roll off the turnip truck. He's been a radio pro since 1958 and has served as a country-music broadcaster in Denver since 1977. He signed up as a co-host of the KYGO morning team known as the Waking Crew in 1988, and since then, the program has been consistently popular. Yet in the first half of February, Travis was canned.

Why? Travis couldn't be reached for comment -- and believe me, I've been trying. But a note posted on his Web site, sandytravis.com, reads, "Dear Faithful Listeners...Just want to tell you I got my ass fired for something I said on the air." He adds that "in a couple of days, I will provide an audio file that explains what happened," and mentions plans to do a regular morning show on his site. However, the message hasn't been updated for weeks, and the site remains filled with pages devoted to Sandy and the Crew -- currently, anti-hayseed Jonathan Wylde, who referred all questions to KYGO program director Joel Burke, and non-twangy Kelly Ford, who didn't respond to an interview request.

Meanwhile, speculation continues to swirl about the precise words that led to Travis's downfall. A visitor to Denverradio.net, a site overseen by Rob Hatch that's devoted to the local radio biz, claims the offending comment was "I didn't know that black people lived in Highlands Ranch," which, if true, is a tepid attempt at humor but seems minor by today's shock-jock standards. Station reps neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of this claim, and their silence, many observers believe, suggests that the offending statement or statements were mere excuses to boot Travis out the door. The fact that Burke has been on the job for only about four months seemingly adds credence to this house-cleaning theory.

On the surface, honchos at Jefferson-Pilot, the Greensboro, North Carolina, firm that owns KYGO and four other area stations, would seem to have little reason to make such a change: In just-released winter ratings, KYGO ranked second only to KOA among listeners twelve and older. But the country format has been suffering around the nation of late, as have CD and concert sales associated with C&W artists, and Denver radio has felt the chill. During the past several years, rumormongers have hinted that countless underperforming Denver stations were about to "go country," and several might have were it not for KYGO's strength and the presence of KCKK-FM/Country 104.3, another Jefferson-Pilot property that served to protect its sister station. But when 104.3 ditched country in favor of smooth jazz last year, no competitor jumped in to fill the vacuum -- because there was no vacuum to fill. KYGO's twelve-plus ratings experienced a temporary bump last fall after the switch, but they're presently lower than they've been in any quarter but one since fall 1998.

Hence the arrival of Burke, who started out in country radio but has spent most of the 22 years since then overseeing other styles; most recently, he was the program director for an adult-contemporary station in Memphis, Tennessee. One of the first moves he's made since arriving in Denver (aside from disappearing Travis, which he won't discuss) is hiring weather guy Ed Greene, whose contract at Channel 9 lapsed a few months back. Since Travis's departure, Greene has taken on a greater role with the Waking Crew, and while that's probably just temporary (he's looking for a TV job and is apt to get one soon), it's made the morning show less overtly countrified than it once was.

Burke doesn't say that's his goal: He enjoys discussing the "heritage" of KYGO and feels "very optimistic that the cycle of things is heading back toward country music. I think the end of boy-band music is in sight, and with our strong product, I think people will come back to us." But the artists he believes are leading this charge -- the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Shania Twain -- make music that's appropriate for play on pop stations, too. Bob Call, senior vice president and general manager for Jefferson-Pilot, acknowledges that this pre-sents a challenge for KYGO. "Whereas a few years ago people like Garth Brooks had all their popularity focused on country radio, a number of these artists have found homes on formats like adult contemporary and mainstream Top 40. That can work to our advantage, because it exposes people to artists with a foundation in country music -- and if they like it, they can experience more of it on KYGO. But there's also the danger of them looking at a Faith Hill simply as an entertainer they like, not necessarily as a country artist."

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