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Tim Brown, chief executive officer of Denver's NRC Broadcasting, is normally an upbeat fellow -- and why wouldn't he be? On December 5, he filed paperwork with the Federal Communications Commission to buy NRC's twelfth radio station in just over eighteen months. KKHI-FM/105.5, currently held by Laramie Mountain Broadcasting, is located in Timnath, Colorado, between Loveland and Fort Collins, yet when it opens for business under the NRC banner, probably next spring, Brown expects that its signal will cover the region from Cheyenne to Castle Rock. Even better, the price was $15 million -- a relative bargain when it comes to FMs. As Brown points out, the sum is less than a third of the $47.5 million Entravision Communications Corporation paid to purchase what was the Peak, at 96.5 FM, just last year. "Is the signal as good as the Peak's?" Brown asks. "No. But is it 90 percent as good? Yes. And was it worth saving $32.5 million and being able to program it like I want? Absolutely."
Amid this celebratory moment, however, Brown tosses out a pensive aside. "I'm really starting to get hated," he says.
If such animosity exists, it's likely to be coming from old-time radio pros resentful that Brown, a relative broadcasting novice who's mainly funded by his father-in-law, über-capitalist Phil Anschutz, thinks he's got a better sense of what true music fans want than they do. To compound this hubris, he's willing to share his views publicly, as demonstrated by a lengthy manifesto he posted on www.kcuvradio.com, the Web site linked to a recent acquisition, KCUV-AM/1510. And worst of all, he's got a point.
In the KCUV document, Brown talks about a crosstown drive in May 2001 when the scales fell from his eyes and he was able to see the sorry state of radio with remarkable clarity. "I noticed that the variety of songs had disappeared, that there was no longer a local feel to the radio," he writes. "The DJs had stopped taking listener requests, contests were 1-800 numbers, and every radio station I listened to 'mysteriously' ran commercials simultaneously." He realized that he had "become a disenfranchised listener with radio and had no intention of returning."
He changed his mind after doing some research on the inner workings of the radio business -- specifically, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which led to corporate media consolidation on an unprecedented level. Brown writes that this law not only caused companies such as Clear Channel to mushroom in size, but it also fueled the sort of profit pressure that's led to phenomena like voice-tracking -- a method that lets a single disc jockey host multiple shows tailored to different, often far-flung markets. As Brown puts it, "The large radio groups, by design, have become analogous to the fast-food industry. They know how to make programming that is cookie-cutter, generic and homogenized enough to be mass appeal. All formats are scientifically researched to provide a taste that's palatable to the greatest number possible. Do you want fries with that?"
Brown poses other questions, as well: "Isn't radio supposed to be a local medium? Is local defined as having a station licensed by the FCC to operate in Denver? It shouldn't be, but that's basically what it's become. Are all parts of the U.S. culturally the same? No, but you're getting the same programming as Boston and Atlanta are. When's the last time you heard a local artist getting local airplay? That's only some of the art that's now missing from your radio station."
Hearing such comments from someone in Brown's position is more rare than a Paris Hilton video in which she doesn't have sex. But thanks to the Anschutz connection, Brown (who holds 29.5 percent of NRC, compared with his in-law's 58.4 percent) is free to speak his mind. And unlike the typical anti-consolidationist, he's got the financial means to go beyond mere complaining. "I want to walk the walk," he says.
He began doing so in May 2002, when NRC paid $2.7 million for KDKO-AM/1510. Afterward, Brown and company launched KNRC, which features a news-talk approach -- a direct challenge to the hegemony of Clear Channel's KOA. Despite some high-quality programming exemplified by the efforts of morning-drive host Greg Dobbs, the station has struggled in the ratings, as Brown acknowledges.
"KOA has been on the air since the 1920s," he says. "Try competing with a news-talk station that's been on the air for eighty more years than you. And we really took a step out with KNRC. There's never really been a news-talk station that offers both sides the way we do."
To make sure more individuals had a chance to hear KNRC, Brown took the unconventional approach of buying another outlet, KCUV-AM/1150, for $3 million and moving the talk station onto it. That left the 1510 frequency open, and Brown did his best to sell it. Two deals fell through, including one involving Boulder public-radio favorite KGNU, which wanted to reach deeper into Denver. Another outlying public-radio station, Greeley's KUNC, has found a way to achieve this goal. It's received FCC approval to increase the height of its antenna by over 100 feet, which should help improve its signal in the metro area.