Interpreting the Signals

Does the sale of five major Denver radio stations mean big changes, or more of the same?

The last major shakeup in Denver's commercial radio market took place in the wake of the 1999 merger of two Texas mega-corporations: Clear Channel, the nation's largest owner of radio stations, and a previous rival, AMFM. Before it would approve the deal, the Federal Communications Commission demanded that Clear Channel divest over a hundred of its newly acquired outlets, including six here. As a result, New York's Infinity Broadcasting and Indianapolis's Emmis Communications, two of radio's heavy hitters, entered the local market for the first time, and Colorado Public Radio, through its acquisition of KVOD-AM, was able to launch a two-channel network that has radically altered the face of public radio in the state ("Going Public," February 21).

Afterward, there was a modicum of quiet on the local radio front. But things started getting noisy again in late December -- and since then, five high-profile frequencies have switched teams. In a complicated arrangement intended to keep its accountants happy, Chicago's Tribune Co. entered into a local marketing agreement with Pennsylvania's Entercom Communications Corporation for KOSI, a purveyor of adult contemporary sounds; the Hawk, a classic-rock staple; and KEZW, a musical-nostalgia broadcaster on the AM band. The price of the package was reportedly $180 million in cash. Additionally, Emmis bailed on Denver after less than two years, selling Alice, which features the contemporary-hit-radio format, to Entercom for $88 million. And Emmis collected another $47.5 million for the Peak, most recently touted with the slogan "The '80s and Beyond," from Entravision Communications Corporation, a Spanish-language specialist that owns four other Denver media properties: radio's KJMN-FM and KMXA-AM, plus television's KCEC/Channel 50 (Univision) and KTFD/Channel 43 (TeleFutura), which debuted in January.

This shift seems seismic on the surface, and on a purely financial level, it is: Entercom alone is on the hook for over a quarter of a billion simoleons. But at least in the near term, listeners aren't likely to hear much difference. Thus far, only one format flip has been announced: The Peak will be switched to Radio Tri Color, a style described by Rob Quinn, the general manager of Entravision Radio Colorado, as "the regional Mexican format, which is basically Mexican country music." But this same approach has been heard on KMXA for years, and that will continue to be the case; Quinn says a handful of "talk and issues-oriented" programs may occasionally turn up during weekends, but the station will mostly just simulcast Radio Tri Color. "KMXA has a 50,000-watt signal that serves listeners from Wyoming to New Mexico and goes into Kansas and Nebraska as well," he notes. "It's a phenomenal signal, and very viable." Indeed, KMXA's listenership among those ages twelve and older came close to tripling between the previous Arbitron ratings period and the most recent one.

Still, putting Radio Tri Color on higher-fidelity FM makes perfect sense, particularly in light of the 2000 census. "The figures show that the Hispanic population in Denver has increased 73 percent since 1990," Quinn says. "Denver now is the twelfth-ranked Spanish market in the U.S. This is most definitely a market of consequence -- which is why we just invested over $47 million in it."

Not that the shows on Entravision's newest bauble will be unique to the area, since Radio Tri Color and Radio Romantica, on KJMN, are satellite services beamed to Colorado from San Jose, California. Quinn emphasizes that some modifications can be made on the programming: "If we're getting a foot of snow here and I-25 is a mess, the DJ will cut to a Denver feed and say, 'Friends of Denver, I-25 is closed. If you're heading south, take a different route.'" On top of that, Entravision employs two local personalities, Beto Gaytan and Ulises Almanza, to helm remotes or make local appearances, and California jocks are occasionally flown in for big events, like the Mexican rodeo at the recent National Western Stock Show. But such cosmetic gestures can't disguise the fact that most Entravision employees in Denver work in a sales capacity -- and business is good. "Six years ago, I couldn't pick up the phone without hearing jokes from our good friends at Clear Channel and Jefferson Pilot," Quinn says. "They'd offer to find us real jobs, and we'd tell them, 'Thank you. We're fine. Our day's coming.' And now it's here."

So is Entercom's -- and Jane Bartsch, the onetime vice president and general manager of Tribune's Denver stations, who's currently fulfilling the same function for Entercom, promises that the outfit will make "a big splash." But neither Bartsch nor John Donlevie, Entercom's executive vice president, will discuss the prospect of changes at its quartet of acquisitions. Meanwhile, insiders speculate that, because of the weak economy, everything will remain as it is in the near term, and perhaps longer. In other words, those of you dreaming of some new and exciting programming to shake local radio out of its lethargy need to snap out of it.

Of course, nothing's set in granite, particularly in the radio industry. Since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which greatly liberalized rules concerning how many stations companies could own, signals have been passed around like bottles at a beer bust -- so much so that Donlevie can't say for certain whether his company is the third-, fourth- or fifth-largest in its field. "It depends on what data you use," he explains. At present, though, Entercom holds the title to 101 radio stations in nineteen localities, including Boston, Seattle, Kansas City and New Orleans, and its executives wanted a presence in Denver for the simplest of reasons: "It's a good market, and we haven't been there before."

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