Youth of the Nation

Country-radio pros gather in Colorado to search for ways to seduce a younger generation.

Several years back, longtime sportscaster Les Shapiro was axed in what was widely perceived as a cost-cutting move. But Shapiro's successor, the rather generic Marc Soicher, never caught on, and he was pink-slipped earlier this year. Instead of bringing in a high-profile personality, though, Channel 4 hired Steve Atkinson, a competent but adamantly non-descript sports dude who'd been doing weekends for a signal in Dallas. What makes this move even more inexplicable is that Vic Lombardi, an internal candidate for the job, would have been just as reasonably priced a hire as Atkinson, and has considerably more pizzazz than the new main man.

Around the same period, anchor Aimee Sporer stepped down, becoming perhaps the first person ever who really meant it when she said she was leaving to spend more time with her family. (Apparently, her youngsters need some new shoes: Sporer's husband, lawyer Dan Caplis, has lately been running TV spots trolling for people who suffered side effects from Fen-Phen.) In this case, Channel 4 did promote from within, elevating morning host Molly Hughes to the top job -- and while her transfer has made nary a ripple among local viewers, her warm, friendly manner may eventually catch on if given time.

Yet time may not be in plentiful supply at Channel 4, especially considering the speed with which DeHaven made changes in Chicago's WBBM. The station shares many characteristics with Denver's Channel 7: It was once a powerhouse, but by the '90s, its ratings were practically at subterranean levels. In a truly desperate effort to raise them, WBBM managers created an anti-puffy hard-news program headlined by respected journalist Carol Marin, who, in 1997, had quit as anchor of an NBC station in Chicago after her bosses asked Jerry Springer to provide regular commentaries. But the good press this noble action received didn't mean squat to Chicagoans, who continued their habit of avoiding WBBM's newscasts.

Joel Burke is looking for new country listeners.
Brett Amole
Joel Burke is looking for new country listeners.

DeHaven was the man brought in to end WBBM's quality-news experiment. He arrived in August 2000, and shortly before the start of the November ratings period, he handed Marin her head. Afterward, DeHaven paired anchor David Kerley with co-anchor Tracy Townsend under a more standard format, but viewership continued to tumble. By late 2001, WBBM was openly looking to replace Kerley, and eventually did so with a big name -- Antonio Mora, previously the newsreader on Good Morning America. Townsend was on maternity leave when Mora started, and by the time she returned, DeHaven had passed the co-anchor job to Linda MacLennon, who'd been substituting for her. Townsend is still at the station, but in a diminished role.

Steve Johnson, TV writer for the Chicago Tribune, points out that these machinations haven't boosted WBBM's ratings much, but he credits DeHaven with "stabilizing" the station. Still, Johnson wasn't wowed by other initiatives undertaken on DeHaven's watch, including an emphasis on lowest-common-denominator consumer problem-solving and a slogan -- "Works for You" -- that he views as "hopelessly small town, and out of touch with this city."

Sad to say, dopiness like this will probably work better here than it did in Chicago. But Johnson doesn't think such sensibilities are the reason DeHaven was shipped to these environs -- and he doubts that the shift from the third-largest TV market in the country (Chicago) to the eighteenth (Denver) is a reprimand. Instead, he feels the key is DeHaven's replacement at WBBM, Joe Ahern, who's a longtime buddy of Dennis Swanson, the chief operating officer of Viacom's television-stations group. Once upon a time, Swanson and Ahern were colleagues in Chicago, and they're jointly credited with launching Oprah Winfrey in her talk-show career -- a nice resumé item. "Ahern is Swanson's guy," Johnson says, "and when he became available, he was in." That meant finding a place for DeHaven, and Denver filled the bill.

The person who may be sweating most profusely over DeHaven's arrival in Denver is Channel 4 anchor Bill Stuart. When he was about to be replaced in 1999, Stuart threatened to sue on charges of age and disability discrimination; he said he was so traumatized by having to cover the shootings at Columbine High School that he had to seek treatment for depression. Confronted with the prospect of a public-relations bloodbath, Channel 4, under Rockford, backed off. But it's three years later now, and DeHaven doesn't have a reputation for sitting on his hands.

Will Stuart follow Rockford out of Channel 4? Could be -- and he may not be alone.

Baa, humbug: We all make mistakes. In our August 1 edition, for instance, I made a reference to a Denver appearance by Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, when Al was actually accompanied by his daughter, Karenna Gore-Schiff. Too bad the gaffe wasn't as funny as a correction in the August 11 Denver Post: "A photo caption in the Denver and the West section Friday incorrectly described dust on the columns on the second floor of the state Capitol as grime." (Are we sure it wasn't "residue"? "Grit"? "Smegma"?) And then there were a couple of recent name butcherings in the Rocky Mountain News. Channel 4's Bill Stuart, mentioned above, was referred to as "Bill Stewart" in one column, while a photo caption identified former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm as "Dick Lamb." Talk about being a mutton for punishment...

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