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Many Rivers to Cross

Speaking his mind has put talk-show host Reggie Rivers on thin ice -- and that's fine by him.

"I honestly thought back in October that I'd probably get fired," says KHOW's Reggie Rivers. "We had quite a few advertisers who pulled off my show, and my bosses and the sales department were upset. I went to work most days thinking this could be my last day."

His fears weren't mere paranoia: Not only had he unwittingly stumbled into a serious situation, but his response to its repercussions only made things worse. The trouble began on September 18, when, having just read up on the Middle East ("I knew a little about it, although not that many details," he says), Rivers launched into a discussion of Israel. In his view, the Jewish homeland is frequently in the wrong when it comes to disputes with Palestinians, yet the United States invariably supports it anyway rather than attempting to be more evenhanded.

Such an argument would have stirred the pot at any time, but because Rivers just happened to be making it on Rosh Hashanah, he provoked a blizzard of anger that caught him by surprise. He admits, convincingly, that he hadn't known it was the Jewish New Year until an hour into his show, when he was told that "it's a major holiday" -- one that begins a ten-day period leading to Yom Kippur, the most sacred date on the Hebrew calendar. But once armed with this knowledge, Rivers refused to retreat: "I said, 'That's water under the bridge. I'm going to continue.'" And man, did he ever, keeping the subject roiling throughout the next day (the remainder of Rosh Hashanah) and for four consecutive days thereafter, during which time callers regularly accused him of anti-Semitism.

Rivers denies this charge, which, from all evidence, is utterly groundless. But when it comes to naiveté, he pleads guilty: "After somebody called in, I said, 'I'm not talking about Jews. I'm talking about Israel.' Now I've learned you can't talk about one without talking about the other." Likewise, he confesses that when given the opportunity to douse the flames, he reacted in a highly flammable manner. "I'm stubborn," he notes. "When somebody calls up screaming that I'm anti-Semitic, I'm a despicable person, there's something in me that says, 'If someone's attacking me personally instead of the issue, there's something there.'"

On the surface, this approach would seem perfect for a talk-show host, many of whom see controversy as a holy calling. But Rivers isn't a shock jock (he likes talking more than hollering), and he seems to lack the gene for calculation. He doesn't always have a clear idea about how people will react to his words, and he's prone to bulling ahead, no matter what. "I try to be fair about my opinions," he says. "I might be wrong, and in a lot of people's view, I am. But I don't believe I'm wrong. I'm sincere."

He's also a walking contradiction: a former professional athlete who's equally comfortable discussing Attorney General John Ashcroft and quarterback Brian Griese; a likable personality -- he was just named one of Denver's hottest singles by 5280 magazine -- who inspires hatred among certain listeners; a liberal in a sea of conservatism; a big-time broadcaster with a voice nearly as nasal as Fran Drescher's; and a highly intelligent speaker who enjoys diving into topics he hasn't completely thought through. He admits that his bosses have told him to stop warning his listeners when he's about to enter territory that's unfamiliar to him, but he keeps doing it anyway. "I prefer to confess my ignorance up front and say, 'We're all learning,'" he maintains.

When discussing his ratings at KHOW, one of eight stations owned locally by industry behemoth Clear Channel, Rivers is just as forthright -- brutally so. "My numbers have always been mediocre," he allows. "Never bad, never good. In the middle. After September 11, all of talk radio got a spike, but by mid-November, the spike had settled out, and the numbers returned to where they were." He adds, "I don't really worry about that. I do what I think of as good radio, and the numbers will either be good or bad or indifferent. But obviously, my bosses have to worry about it."

And worried they are. Robin Bertolucci, the departing head of AM programming for Clear Channel-Denver (she'll plug the same hole for Clear Channel in Los Angeles beginning next week), acknowledges that "we are still not hitting the critical audience mass that we need to hit in the afternoons." Elizabeth Estes-Cooper, KHOW's program director, responds even more bluntly: "We've received some phone calls and letters about Reggie, and a lot of people would like us to make him shut up -- but I defend his right to have an opinion," she says. "Still, radio is a business, and we have to be concerned that the product we're putting on the air is appealing to the largest group of people possible. And I'd be lying if I said I'm not concerned about that in his case."

Fortunately for Rivers, he's accustomed to being the underdog. A Texas native, he grew up in the San Antonio area with his mother, a middle-school librarian, his father, a Southern Baptist pastor who often guests on his son's show, and four siblings. Upon seeing All the President's Men as a high-schooler, he became interested in journalism, eventually interning for the Austin American-Statesman and Newsday and writing obituaries for the defunct San Antonio Light. But while attending Southwest Texas State in San Marcus, he also played football, and after a strong senior season as running back, he decided to take a swing at a pro career. In 1991 he made the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent and actually started the following year, winding up with "about 45 receptions and somewhere around 300 yards rushing" during head coach Dan Reeves's final hurrah with the team.

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