By Michael Roberts
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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."
By the standards of today's radio industry, where every nanosecond has a dollar sign attached to it, Brown's statement borders on heresy. But this willingness to reject conventional wisdom is a big reason why Dobbs is on board. After serving as a correspondent for ABC Television from 1969 to 1992, Dobbs was hired by KOA to helm an 8 p.m.-to-midnight shift weeknights on the station. He enjoyed the experience, but after six years of juggling a late-night commitment with his own video-production business, he went off the air voluntarily. Just over a year ago, he gingerly re-entered the media fray by accepting an invitation from Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple and editorial page editor Vince Carroll to write a biweekly media column for the paper. Dobbs was happily doing so when he was asked to consider joining the KNRC squad. He didn't take much convincing.
"They said they wanted to find a niche between NPR, which is substantive radio but not all that dynamic, and the Clear Channel offerings, which are dynamic but, in their opinion, not as substantive as they wanted it to be," Dobbs remembers. "And I loved the idea."
Taking the position meant giving up the News gig. "When John and Vince first called me, they said, 'We'd like you to do it because you're above the fray. You're no longer a talk-show host or reporter, so you'll be almost above criticism,'" Dobbs remembers. "But now I'm back out there again, making my own mistakes twenty hours a week, so I'm not in the same position anymore."
From an ideological perspective, Dobbs feels he leans a bit to the left, but he has many other viewpoints that don't fit typical definitions of liberalism. For instance, he's extremely pro-death penalty, declaring, "I would fry everybody who commits murder."
For Alan Eisenson, KNRC's program director, this blend of opinions reflects the equilibrium he hopes to strike at the station. "We want to be seen as fair and balanced, and provide a mix of views," he says. "We don't want to have a specific political agenda."
In this respect, KNRC largely succeeds: Although there are more hosts on the left side of the continuum (Goldstein and Lionel lead the pack) than the right (O'Reilly and Ingraham fly this banner), the range is much wider than at most talk stations, where the content is often either conservative or ultra-conservative. Items of specific interest to African-Americans are tougher to find, despite pledges made earlier this year to pay special attention to the community previously served by KDKO. Jim "Daddio" Walker, KDKO's owner, inked a three-year, $295,000 contract as a consultant to the station, but the regular weekday talent lineup is overwhelmingly white, and the approach has been, too. Also unfulfilled thus far is Brown's desire to partner with a local publication -- a goal spelled out in the "Newspaper" part of his firm's name. Negotiations to establish a formal relationship with the Denver Newspaper Agency, the business entity that represents the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, fell through.
The station will likely get the time it needs to fully evolve, thanks to the piles of dough behind it. At present, ads touting KNRC are running in Anschutz-owned movie theaters, and a major marketing campaign is slated for next month -- a move that should let a few more people know it exists. But Brown isn't expecting a fast groundswell of support. "We picked the most expensive format to go into," he acknowledges. "Talk radio is expensive, news talk in particular is very expensive, and building an audience takes time. We expect that it will take us three to five years to get to where we want to be."
And if all goes well, Brown sees KNRC as the first of as many as 24 similar stations across the country. "The biggest hurdle we're going to encounter is the shortage of properties that are for sale," he says. "The big groups have bought most of them, so we'll be forced to buy the bad house on the nice block and then fix it up, which is what we're in the process of doing with 1510. We've improved things a lot, but we have a long way to go."
At least they seem to be heading in the right direction.
Waves of the past -- and the future: The state of music-oriented radio may be drearier than that of its gabbier cousin; even Brown has trouble listening to it. He reveals that the only song-based station he enjoys is Radio 1190, the wonderful University of Colorado outlet. Underlining his against-the-grain instincts, Brown says he'd like to bring some qualities of this college broadcaster to KNRC.
Dan Michaels, program director of the Mountain, which has taken over the 99.5 FM dial position previously occupied by the Hawk, doesn't make comments that are quite as surprising -- which is understandable, because the Mountain specializes in classic rock, a format about as radical as an episode of Touched by an Angel. But in a more subtle way, his vision for the Mountain also reflects discontent with what the medium has become.
"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.
"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!