Robo News

Channel 7 readies a new computer system that makes the newspeople behind the scenes all but obsolete.

The desire to trade the stations rather than simply sell them may seem odd on the surface, but it makes sense to accountants. Known in CPA circles as a "like-kind exchange," this sort of high-stakes bartering allows the seller and the buyer to delay paying taxes on the various properties -- a definite draw in a slumping economy that's already causing concern at Tribune, which also owns Denver's Channel 2. According to Crain's Chicago Business, the company's flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, will bring in $300 million less in advertising revenue this year compared to 2000.

The stations in question aren't Denver's most priceless, but they're certainly all players. According to the latest Arbitrons, KOSI is the sixth-most-listened-to station in the city among listeners age twelve and older, the Hawk comes in at fourteenth place on the same list, and KEZW, the highest-ranking AM outlet specializing in music, finishes in seventeenth position. Jane Bartsch, vice president and general manger of Tribune Denver Radio, sees all three as attractive buys. "KOSI had a down ratings book, but it's still in the top three for its demographic, women 25 to 54, and the Hawk is doing very well with men 25 to 54, even though the market is so -- if you'll pardon the expression -- over-rocked. And KEZW is the only game in town when it comes to adult-pop standards."

Under most circumstances, executives at competing stations would probably dispute these characterizations -- but with the outlets on the block, they respond with valentines. Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, owner of Alice, the Peak and many other radio and TV properties, is doing some belt-tightening these days, having reduced the wages of 2,500 workers by 10 percent; in return, those employees get Emmis shares equal to the amount of salary they're losing. Even so, Emmis's Denver boss, Joe Schwartz, says, "Obviously we're interested in exploring the idea of a trade. The CEO of Emmis, Jeff Smulyan, is on record as saying he would absolutely like to grow in Denver, and I feel the same way. I think they're three wonderful stations that would make great additions to our properties in Denver if and when we made a deal." Oh, yeah -- several years ago, Emmis did a TV-for-radio exchange with Tribune in order to obtain New York City smooth-jazz station WQCD.

Mark Andresen

Other possible suitors are a bit more cautious. Bob Call, vice president and general manager of Jefferson-Pilot Communications, which owns five stations in Denver, including top-rated KYGO-FM, didn't return a call seeking comment; Steve Keeney, who holds the same title for the Denver branch of Infinity, owner of three signals (KOOL-105, Jammin' and KIMN/the Mix), says, "If we're looking at them, I'm not aware of it. But I assume we're talking." Keeney adds, "I think they're all terrific radio stations. KOSI is a heritage station in this market, the Hawk has done a wonderful job of finding a place as a more pop-based classic-rock station, and KEZW is that rare AM station that's probably making money. It's got a unique niche format that serves an older audience that's interested in music, and it's doing it on the AM band. That's why there's so much interest in the stations."

Of course, it's also possible that a corporation not yet in Denver could make Tribune an offer it can't refuse, or that a deal won't happen at all until the economy improves. But if someone pulls the trigger, the result will be the biggest shakeup in local radio since Clear Channel's 1999 merger with AMFM, which subsequently required the sale of six area stations.

In the meantime, Bartsch says it's business as usual at the Tribune properties. "We're moving full steam ahead, and that's a credit to Tribune for being so aboveboard about this. Everyone appreciates the company giving us a heads up that this is a possibility instead of us waiting to hear it from our competition -- which is usually always wrong, anyway."

Station to station: Beginning on December 3, Channel 4 is altering its weekday news block, reducing its hourlong 5 p.m. broadcast by half, moving the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather from 6 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and debuting a new half-hour news show at 6 p.m.

In doing so, the signal is turning its back on counter-programming. Previously, it offered a local alternative at 5:30 p.m. to NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw on Channel 9 and ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings on Channel 7; likewise, it placed Rather's national broadcast opposite local news on channels 9 and 7. From now on, though, viewers will get national news at 5:30 p.m. and local news at 6 p.m. on all three major-network affiliates.

Marv Rockford, Channel 4's vice president and general manager, says this move was made largely because "as the metro area continues to expand and the population continues to grow, commute times get longer and longer, and we want to be available in news time periods when people are available to watch. And increasingly, the six o'clock hour is one of those periods."

That comment requires some translation. Audience numbers are growing at 6 p.m., when the CBS Evening News has been airing -- but since that's a national broadcast, Channel 4 doesn't make as much money off advertising as it would from a local news program. Hence, it's choosing to compete head-to-head with local offerings on channels 9 and 7, figuring that it'll make more money during that span, no matter what happens. Dan Rather's numbers will probably suffer -- he's trailing both Brokaw and Jennings nationally and is apt to get squished in Denver -- but Channel 4 is gambling that it'll still wind up ahead.

"This is a strategic issue," Rockford says. And like so much strategy, it comes down to dollars and cents.

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