The Media Eye

It never blinks -- even when we wish it would.

There were ironies aplenty in the media's coverage -- like the juxtaposition on Channel 4 of horrific images from the streets of Manhattan with a crawl at the bottom of the screen letting Denverites know that the evening's Tony Bennett concert had been canceled. But I wasn't sure what they meant until I received a call from one of the New Yorkers I'd e-mailed earlier. My friend told me that he and his brother, the other person I'd been trying to reach, were shaken but otherwise fine, then added that he almost certainly wouldn't be working for the rest of the week. Why not? He's employed by The Daily Show, a hilarious news-parody show on Comedy Central that stars comic Jon Stewart, and the folks behind the program realized that no one would be in a laughing mood for quite a while.

I certainly wasn't. I had already written a column for the paper, the contents of which follow this item. But all I could think about were the events I'd witnessed from afar, and how they would continue to bombard all of us -- victims' families, loved ones' families, your family, my family -- for weeks, months and years to come.

There's no 'off' button for something like that.

Peak speak: During the life of the Peak, at 96.5 FM, there have been more downs than ups.

The station, which debuted in June 1994 with an adult-rock format not far removed from that of KBCO, got out of the blocks quickly, becoming the most successful new station of that period. But a year or so later, the outlet's ratings began a slow drift downward, eventually precipitating a shift to hard-alternative music and the leering shenanigans of Howard Stern. In the end, this combination didn't work, either, and following Stern's disappearance (Columbine and dirty tricks by rivals did him in) and not one but two sales (the first, to Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, was rejected by the FCC; the second, to Emmis Communications, was approved), the Peak announced it was returning to its original style.

This wasn't actually the case: The new Peak's sound, dubbed "The '80s and Beyond," was actually a throwback to the early days of MTV, complete with the participation of ex-MTV video-jock Nina Blackwood. But a playlist heavy with songs by the Police and Depeche Mode has thus far failed to attract a large audience, and so has Blackwood. (Hell, her appearance at MTV's recent twentieth-anniversary celebration, which found her looking like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, may have scared some fans off.) So the station is fiddling with its formula again by dosing its mix with ditties already getting plenty of airtime elsewhere and by experimenting with a morning show that uses listeners as air talent.

The Peak's musical tinkering could have been a good thing -- but in execution, it's only increased the homogenization of the area airwaves. Specifically, the station has added a heaping helping of mainstream rock represented by acts such as John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Van Halen and Aerosmith, all of whom remain staples on popular rock-oriented signals like the Fox, the Hawk, KBCO and KBPI. In other words, the Peak is giving people more of what they've got way too much of already.

Why, why, a thousand times, why? For one thing, the straightforward '80s tack, which Peak program director Mike Stern says "was really hot for about ten minutes," hasn't taken off; there are approximately a dozen stations across the U.S. trying it right now, and none are drawing big numbers. Stern (no relation to Howard) thinks Denver's a better place for the approach than most others, because KBCO, KTCL, Alice and the original Peak have cultivated a market for it -- "but we're still really learning what a listener likes in an '80s-based format, still writing the playbook on this kind of thing. And when we looked at our research, we felt like we could broaden the sound out a little. Because you always want to be as mass appeal as you can afford to be."

And as predictable, apparently.

In contrast, the Peak's a.m. drive program, My Peak in the Morning, is unique; Stern says he's not aware of any other commercial station doing something like it (although VH1 has used similar branding of late). The concept calls for listeners to introduce the songs that they've requested by calling or faxing the station, or by visiting its Web site, thepeak.com. And Peak fans may be asked to do more down the line. "Over time, we're going to try to expand this," Stern pledges, "so that we can have the audience reading the weather and promoting other features."

Stern concedes that this dramatic move was spurred largely by the lackluster performance of the Peak's previous morning show, starring Howie Greene and Lisa Axe, who'd been imported from that cultural garden spot, San Bernadino, California. (The Greene-Axe pairing, which the Peak began airing last November, wasn't offensive, just tepid.) But he insists that eliminating the salaries of these radio pros didn't motivate the decision. "I'm not going to deny that there's cost savings there, but it's also fairly work intensive on our end. We have to have people to call listeners and tape intros and put them together, so there's not as big a savings as people think. If we thought it would be better to find a new morning show, we'd do it, but we really think there's merit to this idea."

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