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Taking on the Empire

A local lawsuit against the world's largest radio/concert firm threatens to expose the dark side of the entertainment business.

Elsewhere in Jacor Nation, things weren't going as smoothly. As the '90s dawned, the company was so far in debt (the hole was $156 million deep) that it was forced to restructure, selling off several of its acquisitions and slashing management salaries by 15 percent. But a 1992 deal with Chicago's Zell-Chilmark Fund, which is run by Sam Zell, who dubbed himself "the grave dancer" because of his fondness for scooping up companies on the verge of death, kept creditors at bay, and after Jacobs was put out to pasture in 1993, new chairman Michaels went into a buying mode that was only accelerated by the Telecommunication Act of 1996. When it was subsumed into Clear Channel, Jacor held the deeds to 450 stations.

As Jacor mushroomed, many of its stations took on the character of Michaels, a man characterized by supporters as bold and visionary and by enemies as arrogant and cruel. Denver emerged as a microcosm of these qualities. Jacor stations eventually dominated both local ratings and the advertising revenues, but they also earned negative headlines for questionable doings on and off the air.

One notorious Jacor stunt took place in May 1996 on KBPI's morning show, when Joey Teehan, operating at the behest of hosts Dean Myers and Roger Beaty, disrupted services at a local mosque in a moronic attempt to needle former Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for declining to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Dean and Rog were suspended, then shipped to another station in Phoenix, and Teehan was briefly excommunicated as well before returning to host the KBPI morning show. The next time he left, it was for a far greater sin, by Jacor standards: poor ratings.

Chris Swank, Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale of Nobody in Particular Presents are standing up to Clear Channel.
John Johnston
Chris Swank, Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale of Nobody in Particular Presents are standing up to Clear Channel.
Clear Channel's FleetBoston Pavilion is the model for a planned Denver venue whose tent was previously used at Boston's Harborlights Pavilion.
Clear Channel's FleetBoston Pavilion is the model for a planned Denver venue whose tent was previously used at Boston's Harborlights Pavilion.

The shenanigans continued behind the scenes, with rival stations usually in the crosshairs. Current Clear Channel executive Mike O'Connor was even on the receiving end of one such prank. In late 1995, when O'Connor was program director of KBCO, which at that time was a few months away from being purchased by Jacor, a station-sponsored charity auction at the Boulder Theater took on an unpleasant aroma when a truck filled with fertilizer and emblazoned with the logo of another rival of Jacor's, the Peak, was left parked directly in front of the venue. An angry O'Connor called the Peak to gripe, only to be told by Peak personnel that they had nothing to do with the truck -- and shortly thereafter, Jacor was revealed to have been the actual perpetrator. Then Jacor-Denver boss Jack Evans, who's now a senior vice president with Clear Channel, wasn't repentant about the gag, saying, "I have spoken directly with the culprits, and they understand now that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. The next time, they are to use a larger truck."

After Jacor and Clear Channel agreed to unite (the October 1998 deal wasn't approved by the FCC until the second half of 1999), this sort of warfare continued. Arguably Jacor's canniest use of devious strategy during its waning days involved syndicated radio offender Howard Stern, whose entry into the Denver market on the Peak (owned at the time by AMFM, then a Jacor competitor), threatened to undermine the ratings at several Jacor stations, the Fox and KBPI included. In April 1999, the day after the shootings at Columbine High School, Stern referred to some of the terrified teenage girls fleeing the school as awfully "good-looking," and wondered why the killers hadn't tried to have sex with them -- an insensitive gibe, sure, but one that provoked only a bare handful of complaints at the Peak. The controversy probably would have ended there had it not been for a mysterious "reader" who left a recording of the offending routine on the voice mail of Dusty Saunders, broadcasting columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and, at the time, host of a talk show on Jacor's KHOW. Saunders attacked Stern in print at his next opportunity, and Jacor stations such as KOA followed suit, stirring up an anti-Stern backlash that eventually drove him from the airwaves in Denver.

Officially, no one in Jacor management admitted that the company exploited the pain and suffering of an entire community to get rid of a radio rival; in 1999, O'Connor said his employees monitored Stern regularly and had a tape of the show in question, but he swore he'd been "sitting on it" until the news got out another way because, as a competitor, "we thought we'd look like we were grandstanding." But Jacor had long made a habit of leaving recordings on the voice-mail systems of media critics in an effort to harm or embarrass talent at other stations.

The carryings-on persisted after the Jacor-Clear Channel merger was blessed by the FCC. Other hijinks that reliable sources believe were perpetrated by Clear Channel during the past two years include:

• At the "Big Rock Show," a concert sponsored by the Hawk, a classic-rock station that competes directly with the Fox, a truckload of rocks was dumped in front of the ticket windows at Fiddler's Green, complete with a sign that read: "You want a Big Rock Show? Here are some big rocks." The concert was also flooded with counterfeit all-access passes and fliers stating that anyone who went up to a vendor and announced "The Hawk sucks" would receive two beers for the price of one.

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