Dialing for Differences

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

"Radio is now so full of hype and nonsense and million-dollar contests that people have tuned out and are running away," Michaels says. "We really feel that this is an opportunity to go back to the basics and let people rediscover why they liked radio in the first place."

On the surface, Michaels would seem to have the wrong vehicle to accomplish this purpose. The station's name sounds like a blatant sales pitch to listeners upset over the disappearance of the Peak, which was recently replaced by a Spanish-language style dubbed Radio Tri-Color. Michaels insists the similarity between the handles is coincidental. Moreover, Jane Bartsch, the Hawk's last program director, had admitted that the Denver market is "over-rocked," and by spinning the discs of such familiar acts as Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen, the Mountain is doing nothing to alter this condition. (Think of it as the softer side of classic rock -- sort of like KBCO with no new material.) On top of that, the Mountain is owned by Pennsylvania's Entercom Communications, whose Web site boasts that it is "one of the largest broadcasting companies in the United States." Anti-corporate, it's not.

But to his credit, Michaels doesn't always play by the rules. Rather than rely on the most familiar classic-rock ditties -- the ones so relentlessly battered by overexposure, like Derek and the Dominos' "Layla" and the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," that they've lost much of their power -- he's created a playlist about three times the size of those utilized by most of his peers. This allows him to avoid repeating selections frequently and to include recordings made over a larger span (the mid-'60s to the late '90s) than is commonplace for stations claiming to be classic. Better yet, about a third of any given hour is devoted to non-single album tracks, sometimes referred to as "deep cuts," that sound far fresher than the old standbys.

Sentenced to the chair: Greg Dobbs is KNRC's morning man.
Brett Amole
Sentenced to the chair: Greg Dobbs is KNRC's morning man.

"There's a lot of music that's really good that hasn't been given much exposure here," says Michaels, who's worked in rock or classic rock in Chicago, Houston and, most recently, Philadelphia. "Denver has a classic-rock station [the Fox, another Clear Channel property] that's pretty traditional, pretty tight. And by nature, that's pretty flat. That's why 'Stairway to Heaven' isn't the key Led Zeppelin song to us. 'Battle of Evermore' is more important."

The Mountain has been running sans disc jockeys, but that won't be the case much longer. Michaels has hired some folks he's been rehearsing, he says, "to try and get all those radio cliches out of them," and he's looking for others with non-traditional backgrounds.

"Over the years, as stations have become automatons, we've wound up with a lot of people who can only read liner cards," he explains. "So we've gone out of our way to find people who love and are passionate about music. We aren't necessarily looking for DJs currently on the air somewhere, but maybe people who may have left radio because they were fed up with it, or people who are musicians and may not have done radio before, or have maybe worked in a record store. We want someone who's knowledgeable about music, not someone who can go on and on about why you should go to some used-car dealership and meet so-and-so."

That's a lot easier to say than do, but right now, Michaels is talking a good game: "We've even limited the number of commercials we'll run. You hear stations saying, 'We need to make budget; let's add more units,' but we're not going to do that. You won't hear any more commercials later than you do now, because we believe we can make enough money from this number."

Cindy Adcock, general manager of the newly christened KXDC, at 102.1 FM, can't say the same. The station, located in Estes Park and owned by High Peak Broadcasting, an affiliate of Chicago's Marathon Media, switched from hip-hop to dance music on June 5; it hasn't run a single ad since, to give listeners the maximum opportunity to sample the station's wares.

"We're really trying to get a feel for it and relying on listener feedback," Adcock says. "And it may take us a few months to massage it just right."

KXDC is already doing something a bit out of the ordinary. Instead of subtly tweaking music genres that are widely available on Denver radio, the station is forging into new territory by focusing entirely on club music: techno, trance, jungle, house and more. Whipped together by Los Angeles-based consultant Bill Tanner, the musical mélange currently features dance remixes of pop songs by Top 40 acts like Shakira alongside stompers closer to the underground -- none of which slip beneath 120 beats per minute. To keep the party going, Adcock is recruiting not old-school radio DJs, but mixers experienced at merging one song into the next. The station also plans to be a major presence in local dance clubs.

Since there's no guarantee that music most people associate with late nights will attract enough listeners the rest of the day to entice advertisers, KXDC is a considerable gamble. But at least the station isn't another clone of something Denver has too much of in the first place. Vive la différence!

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