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Dialing for Differences

Three new stations attempt to woo audiences turned off by Denver radio.

Tim Brown, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Newspaper Radio Corporation, defines himself simply. "All I am," he says, "is a disgruntled, disenfranchised radio listener who got tired of not having choices."

Brown certainly isn't alone: The number of people dissatisfied with radio has expanded like one of Steve Fossett's balloons, and there's no realistic chance that the situation will deflate anytime soon. But while most of us can do little more than grouse about what cost cutting, profit taking and corporate-empire building have done to this once-vibrant form, Brown, whose father-in-law is none other than billionaire Phil Anschutz, actually has the financial wherewithal to do something about it. Hence the creation of KNRC, at 1510 on the AM dial, which is perhaps the most intriguing of three new signals on the Denver radio landscape -- and locally owned, to boot.

Not that KNRC got off to the smoothest start during its June 24 debut, a session plagued by a flurry of technical problems. Newspaper Radio took over the frequency once occupied by KDKO, a rhythm-and-blues purveyor whose physical plant was the envy of absolutely no one. In a stab at transforming such impressions, Brown and his partners poured upwards of $700,000 into the latest digital gear; too bad much of it was initially uncooperative. "The first day we went on the air, I said they probably installed a hundred miles of wiring, and if you install a hundred miles, a couple of them will turn out to be mismatched," notes Greg Dobbs, KNRC's morning-drive host. "Well, it turned out to be more than a couple. Some things just weren't working, so there was dead air. Or when a button was pressed, the wrong thing would come up."

Those weren't the only awkward moments. During the inaugural program, Dobbs began to discuss what he said was a just-issued ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court declaring unconstitutional the three-judge panels that have determined death-penalty sentences in this state since the late '90s. After Dobbs was corrected by a caller who pointed out that the edict had actually been handed down by the United States Supreme Court on a non-Colorado case, he conceded that he'd only half-heard the story while on the way back to the studio after a pit stop -- a trek complicated by his recent back surgery, which has forced Dobbs to deliver his spiels from a reclining wheelchair.

In the weeks since, Dobbs and his cohorts have sounded more comfortable behind the microphone, and the volume of equipment-related snafus has decreased, as well. Yet challenges remain, the dearth of callers chief among them. Few people are phoning, and those who do are given tons of time even when they don't have anything especially insightful to say. The same goes for guests. Recently, afternoon host Enid Goldstein introduced Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown with the assertion that he'd be center stage for the next hour. Brown, who had another commitment looming, was caught off guard by this remark. In trying to shorten his stint, he declared, "I'm not worth the whole hour"; a moment later, he added, "You must be desperate."

Maybe so, but that didn't prevent Goldstein from asking tough questions about Brown's co-sponsorship of a proposed city-council resolution condemning the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for holding that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the separation of church and state. She strongly implied that this move was a vivid example of political pandering, particularly since the court's action doesn't directly affect Colorado. When Brown tried to change the subject, she didn't let him. Betcha he was glad to get out of there.

As this incident demonstrates, KNRC personalities seem legitimately interested in debating local topics in a serious manner. Just as important, Dobbs, California, transplant Goldstein and midday mouthpiece Allan Prell, a refugee from Baltimore, are actually based in Denver rather than some far-flung locale; Bill O'Reilly's blab-fest, heard from 10 a.m. to noon, is the only daytime show that's syndicated. "Of all the talk-radio outlets in the market," Brown says, "we're the only one that's live and local for eleven of thirteen hours between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., the prime day parts."

Granted, KOA, Denver's longtime commercial-talk leader, does nearly as well during this period -- missing the mark by just over an hour because of Rush Limbaugh's three-hour presentation and Paul Harvey's assorted segments -- and does better overall. KNRC broadcasts syndicated fare featuring Larry King, one-monikered Lionel, pundit Laura Ingraham and veteran gabber Jim Bohannon from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.; KOA counters with an entirely local roster of Russ Johnson, Ken Sasso and Rick Barber. But KNRC is more Colorado-centric than either KHOW or the Zone (talk stations that, like KOA, are owned by the behemoth Clear Channel conglomerate) and is in the midst of building a news department that's second in size only to KOA's and still growing, unlike the staffs at most outlets nationwide.

KNRC's got behind-the-scenes credibility, too, thanks to the presence of president and chief operating officer Ray Skibitsky (who helped boost both KBCO and the Peak), former KHOW producer Bill Thorp and vice president of sales Pam Kenny, a onetime executive at Denver's original commercial-classical outlet, KVOD. In addition to her other duties, Kenny is in charge of a significant community-outreach program; in mid-June, she sent out unsolicited letters to art-and-culture organizations promising free thirty-second spots that will run at a rate of one per hour. The initiative, says Brown, is "part of our effort to take radio back to its roots, where people can identify with it as being part of the community they live in. We think it's the right thing to do -- and thirty seconds of inventory an hour isn't going to break the bank."

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