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Peeved in Peoria

Newspaper columnists eager to land on the good side of local readers have several surefire ways to get the job done. Rhapsodizing about the beauty of the place where they live (particularly when it isn't that beautiful) works wonders, and paying tribute to its essential goodness and character (especially if it's lacking in both) almost always does the trick as well. Then there's insulting another community, which not only makes area residents feel better about themselves by comparison, but has the happy side effect of generating angry reactions from outsiders too guileless to realize that they're playing into the writer's hands. The Denver Post's Woody Paige has made a virtual second career out of this last approach; over the years, he's gleefully denigrated the likes of Detroit, Jacksonville, Lincoln and, in a tirade of Olympic proportions, Salt Lake City ("Woody Goes Limp," February 21, 2002).

Still, nothing is more effective than defending one's city against an attack from beyond, because it establishes a scribe as one who is willing to stand up and fight against ignorant aggressors for all that is true and right and just. So Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano discovered after publicly spanking Post theater critic John Moore for a music article that sported disapproving comments about the famously typical Illinois municipality. "Reporter's Slur of City Unfounded," published August 1, spawned over fifty e-mails and innumerable attaboys for Luciano, who decried "outside media depictions of Peoria as a decayed wasteland filled with rust and debris, the perfect setting for Mad Max."

This mini-maelstrom was set spinning by the unlikeliest of offerings -- namely a July 20 Post effort that declared Planes Mistaken for Stars, a group dominated by Peoria transplants, to be Colorado's "Best Underground Band." Moore, who maintains a keen interest in Denver's music scene despite having moved to the theater beat, began his look at the combo by telling the tale of bassist Jamie Drier, who recently moved back to Peoria to spend time with his father, who has cancer. According to Drier, Peoria "is a great town to be from, but a horrible place to live, because it just drags you under." He later calls the burg "a racist town, where you drink yourself to death because you're never going to leave it." Moore echoes these remarks by describing Peoria as "the blight that put the rust in the Rust Belt," adding that the musicians and several other buddies "all left together in 1997. No, escaped is a better way of describing their...exodus."

The members of Planes Mistaken for Stars, seen here 
circa 2000, had a few choice words for Peoria.
T. Jonsson
The members of Planes Mistaken for Stars, seen here circa 2000, had a few choice words for Peoria.

Upon reading the profile, Luciano, who's spent fifteen years at the 80,000-circulation Journal Star (fourteen as a columnist), wasn't all that miffed by Drier's views. "I don't sweat an aging youth bagging on his home town," he wrote in his August 1 salvo. "Every Next Big Thing has spewed the same stale story since Rolling Stone first rolled off the press." However, he was troubled by the descriptions of Peoria offered by Moore. "Those aren't the bandmembers' words," he pointed out. "They're Moore's." He subsequently phoned Moore, who referred to his imagery as "paraphrases of what the band said. They're statements meant to maintain the tone they'd set. You have to have some artistic license when you write a feature story" about a band.

"If you say so," Luciano retorted in print. "But the unattributed phrases imply that it's an undisputed fact that Peoria has become a corroded and contemptible hellhole. He's presenting opinion as fact, and that's unfair. It would be like my making a broad, unattributed statement like 'Denver Post music reporters have brains of mush.'" Near the column's end, Luciano provided the e-mail addresses of Moore, Post editor Greg Moore (no relation) and assistant managing editor/features and arts & entertainment Ray Mark Rinaldi, not to mention the Post's newsroom phone number. "I doubt they care what we think," he declared. "But they should learn that our heads aren't as empty and feeble as their perceived, pretend Peoria."

Moore, communicating via e-mail, writes that he wasn't swamped by cyber-hatred as a result of Luciano's challenge, but he did receive around thirty missives from Peorians, all of whom he responded to individually. The breakdown, he estimates, found "about two-thirds defending Peoria and one-third attacking it themselves. The problem is, most of these readers, I think, had no idea what I had written and in what context. Phil had them believing I had just decided to write a column attacking their city. When I explained to people I was just trying to write a success story about a band that just happened to be from there, they got it."

Some went further. The mix of correspondence that came back to Moore included "a few poignant e-mails expressing the idea 'that you are not too far from the truth' (note the quotes -- those are NOT my words)," he writes. "One was a particularly reasoned assessment of a town that's been severely impacted by the economic downturn. It ended, 'Truth hurts -- in many ways, Peoria is a racist town, with a struggling rust belt economy. Those bandmembers are more right than wrong.'"

Moore concedes that he "blended" some of the Planes' observations "into transitional phrases to support the overall flow of the story, but the source material (from the ex-Peorians) is plain from the first paragraph." So, he believes, is the motivation of Luciano, whose Web page at www. pjstar.com describes his column as being "all about humor, muck-raking and people, people, people." In Moore's view, "He set out to stir up a hornet's nest, and he did -- somewhat. This is a blip compared to the response I got from angry Colorado Rockies fans after publishing [pitcher] Todd Jones's anti-gay comments in a story about the Broadway play Take Me Out. The Rockies had just had a decent April, and many fans were more upset that Jones's comments would screw up team chemistry than they were by what he actually said." The Rockies subsequently cut Jones loose because of his pitching foibles, not homophobia, but his absence didn't prevent the squad from collapsing anyway.

As for Luciano, he notes that "I'm not personally incensed and pounding my fist" about the Planes Mistaken for Stars piece. "John Moore hit the nail on the head when he wrote to me. He said, 'I know your job is to make things interesting.'" By this measure, Luciano succeeded. "I even got a slew of e-mails from people who said they were from the Denver area -- and who in Denver reads the Peoria paper?" he wonders. "Most of them were ragging all over me. They said, 'This was about this band, it wasn't about Peoria,' and they were defending John Moore."

Granted, such naysayers were dwarfed -- in Peoria, at least -- by the size of the pro-Luciano contingent. Their fervor gave the columnist a new perspective about his readers, many of whom weren't too happy with him a year or so back after he appeared on an episode of Whad'Ya Know, a National Public Radio program hosted by Michael Feldman, that was taped in town. "A lot of people were angry that I didn't come on and say, 'We have a ballet and an opera and we're like a little, tiny Chicago,'" he recalls. "Rather than doing the civic-booster spiel, I talked about some kooky things and yukked it up and made it look like an interesting small city, which it is." He allows that Peoria, with an approximate population of 360,000, has "an insulated kind of small-town mindset -- but I don't mean that in a negative way."

These days, Luciano can probably get away with such nuances. Following "Reporter's Slur of City Unfounded," he found himself being hailed by some of the same people who he's pretty sure were hurling invective in his direction because of his Whad'Ya Know performance. He feels this turnaround can be traced to a single, simple truth: "We can kick ourselves around, but if you're going to kick us around, you'd better be able to back it up."

Rocky times: In August 2002, Joe Bullard and Diane Eicher, both former staffers at the Denver Post (as well as husband and wife), debuted as bi-monthly media columnists for the Rocky Mountain News, alternating with the Independence Institute's Dave Kopel. During the year that followed, the couple raised hackles aplenty for sharply critical commentary that often zeroed in on the Post. Even Greg Dobbs, their predecessor as Rocky media watchdog, believed they pilloried the Denver broadsheet so often that it brought their objectivity into question -- an opinion he expressed in a letter to the editor published on the same page where the Bullard-Eicher column regularly appeared. John Temple, the Rocky's editor/publisher/president, defended the two against bias accusations in a rather backhanded way, saying, "They aren't very popular in either newsroom.... And I can tell you there are editors at my newspaper who really bristle at what we allow the critics to say and believe them to be poorly informed, misinformed, ignorant" ("Coming Attractions," May 15).

Nonetheless, many readers were caught off-guard when they opened the September 6 Rocky to find the first submission from new media columnist Michael Tracey, a professor at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Just as unexpected, there was no mention of Bullard and Eicher, leading to widespread speculation that their departure hadn't been their idea.

Wrong. Bullard, reached at Publication Design Inc., a Wheat Ridge-based business he oversees, reveals that the impetus for the switch came from them. Eicher left the Post, where she'd toiled for 23 years, to pursue a career in teaching, and after a stretch as a substitute, she landed a full-time position in the Adams 50 school district. "She's teaching first and second grade, and it's a real challenge. About ten kids she has don't speak English," Bullard says. As a result, he goes on, "we didn't feel like we had enough time to devote to reading the newspapers as closely as we needed to read them. Before, we could kind of team it; she'd read something and I'd read something. But we just can't do it anymore."

That seems straightforward enough -- so why didn't the Rocky share this story with readers? "I was kind of surprised they didn't," Bullard admits. "I'm not quite sure why they didn't have some kind of note."

Editor Temple acknowledges that the omission of this information was problematic. "It seemed like a complicated thing to explain in a box," he says, "but maybe we should have explained it. I certainly appreciate their contribution, and I thank them for what they did." He adds, "We're happy to have Michael writing the column."

By the same token, Bullard seems pleased to no longer have a figurative "Kick Me" sign affixed to his caboose. When asked if he and Eicher had gained any new insights during their twelve months examining the institution in which they once worked, he says, "We found that the thinnest-skinned people in America are probably journalists."

Really? I hadn't noticed.

Had Bullard and Eicher stuck around, they could have commented on a sizable gaffe that turned up in the very edition of the Rocky in which Tracey bowed. Columnist Tina Griego was given prime page-one space for "Life After Welfare Tiring But Fulfilling," which focused upon Oshanette Neal, a onetime welfare mother who's remained gainfully employed for nearly a year in the face of obstacles that would stop most folks in their tracks. The tale was a rare, clear-eyed, condescension-free look at the daily struggles of the working poor that seemed complete -- but it wasn't. Two days later, on September 8, Griego published a followup called "Evaluating Welfare Moms: A Window on Misery." In it she wrote that the prose that followed, as well as an accompanying information box loaded with statistics, "should have run as a package" with the main September 6 piece "but didn't. An official journalistic term for such a mishap exists. It is, however, unprintable."

I'm guessing the locution to which she referred was "fuckup."

Contacted later that day, Griego conceded that she wasn't sure where things had come unhinged. "Being as obsessive as I am, I tinker with stories up until the last minute, so it was early afternoon on [Friday, September 5] when I filed it....But the package was turned in; the package was edited, and after that, I don't know what happened."

Griego's boss, John Temple, probably does, but he prefers not to get specific. "It comes down to a lack of communication; the sidebar was not on the budget. But as I told Tina on Saturday morning, I don't believe there was anything missing from the Saturday column, and I don't believe any reader would have known that there was supposed to be something there if it hadn't come to them in another form."

Two for the price of one.

Hacked off: Last month, many listeners of Denver's KFMD, known as KISS-FM, thought they were hearing a radio terrorist attacking the outlet, which specializes in current pop hits. Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice broke into the broadcast, followed by disturbed-sounding explanations and apologies from regular staffers.

No doubt to the chagrin of those who despise Clear Channel, the über-corporation that owns the station, the whole thing turned out to be a stunt intended to acquaint listeners with new DJ Tommy the Hacker, who's now manning the 7 to 11 p.m. shift. Program director Jim Lawson calls the introduction of Tommy, a locally based jock replacing shows that previously had been voicetracked from elsewhere, "theater of the mind," a favorite radio term; Mark Edwards, then the interim program director for Alice, used the same phrase earlier this year to explain a prank in which air personalities Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds pretended that a kitten attached to helium balloons had been carried away by the breeze ("Diverse Opinions," May 8). This time around, not even imaginary animals were injured.

For Lawson, the fact that the Hacker gag was so widely heard is even better news. For most of its existence, KISS-FM has been troubled by problems with its antenna on Lookout Mountain, an area dotted with broadcast towers. Because KISS's gear was causing radio-frequency "hot spots" that exceeded FCC standards, the station often operated at just 38 percent of its allotted wattage ("Tower Failure," January 24, 2002). Last summer, Lawson says, execs finally got sick of fighting this battle. They took the tower down and hung the KISS antenna on a structure used by sister station KTCL, located between Denver and Fort Collins, to which KTCL is licensed. Unfortunately, this placement meant the KISS signal had difficulty penetrating numerous portions of the metro area. Consider that Lawson couldn't receive the station at his home in Grant Ranch, part of the southwest suburbs. He attributes KISS's ratings dip to this situation; from spring 2002 to spring 2003, the station tumbled from a twelfth-place tie locally among persons aged 18 to 34 (its target demographic) to eighteenth.

Technology may help this showing improve. In late August, KISS began broadcasting from a new tower on Lookout Mountain, and the difference in the signal in places like southern Jefferson County is quite noticeable. "The signal is much clearer, cleaner and stronger," Lawson boasts. "You can never say that static is gone, but now it's very, very minimal."

Another kind of static remains: Lookout Mountain community organizations such as Canyon Area Residents for the Environment continue to believe that the neighborhood antenna farm creates serious health risks, and they will no doubt be monitoring KISS's equipment closely to make sure it doesn't exceed government regulations. If it does, Tommy the Hacker may need to hack into another station to be heard.

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