The Message

Little Big Man

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.

In the end, Brown decided that rather than let 1510 AM sit idle, he'd use the KCUV call letters he already owned to promote music that wasn't being widely heard. Dubbing itself "Colorado's Underground Voice," the station specializes in Americana, which encompasses genres like country, roots, bluegrass and the blues. To play it, Brown hired some expatriates from Radio 1190, a University of Colorado broadcaster whose sound he loves, along with the Denver Post's G. Brown, brought in immediately after the veteran rock critic resigned in the face of plagiarism accusations ("Looking Glass," November 20).

"I think G. is very talented," says the other Brown. "I understand that [Post editor] Greg Moore made a decision based on how he wants to operate, but even though I think G. may have been sloppy, I'm not prepared to give him the scarlet letter because of that. He adds a lot to the station with his background and his knowledge." To get even more mileage out of these abilities, KCUV has added a Web page on its site called "What Can G. Brown Do For You?" The cyber-zone is slated to feature profiles, reviews and the like about artists the station plays; one focusing on 16 Horsepower cannibalizes material from an article the scribe wrote about the group for the Post.

That's not all. Last May, Tim Brown acquired nine stations in Colorado mountain and resort communities in a pair of transactions: NRC shelled out nearly $4.7 million to Salisbury Broadcasting Corporation for properties in Eagle, Oak Creek, Basalt, Aspen and Hayden, with over $3.3 million going to American General Media for facilities in Glenwood Springs, Vail, Hayden and Breckenridge. The latter, KSMT-FM, has got Brown most excited. "I want to make KSMT the best indie-rock station in the country," he declares. "I'm going to put so much energy into making it a model of what KTCL used to sound like back in the '80s. I want all the people in Denver to know that there's a beacon of great alternative music as soon as you go through the Eisenhower Tunnel." The other mountain stations sport a range of sounds, from classic rock and country to adult album alternative. As for KKHI, his newest baby, he hasn't yet decided what he wants to do with it, but he says he won't be driven by the desire to maximize revenue.

At the same time, Brown doesn't want anyone to think NRC is simply a plaything given to him by a generous father-in-law. "It's absolutely a business," he stresses. "Quite frankly, Phil has expectations of us being self-sustaining, and today, we're not profitable. I'll be the first to admit that -- although we're getting better. It just takes a while." Perhaps that's why he expects that he'll take a break from a spending spree that's topped the $30 million mark: "I'd like to make sure the twelve stations we've got are doing well before we start thinking about other things."

Nonetheless, Brown says he'd be satisfied as "a boutique broadcaster. I don't want to be a seven-share FM [a rating comparable with the city's top performers]. I'd much rather be a three share and have very, very passionate and dedicated listeners."

If the response to his essay is any indication, he's headed in the right direction. According to Brown, his memo was downloaded 1,231 times in the first three and a half weeks it was available online, and he's gotten plenty of e-mails from readers who sense a kindred spirit. "They've said, 'Now I know why I'm feeling the way I am about radio,'" he recounts. "It's good for me to know that I wasn't the only guy in 2001 who felt that way -- nice to know you're not alone in the world."

About a boy: One of the biggest news stories in Denver during late 2002 and early 2003 centered on young Oscar Hernandez. Every major media organization in the city closely tracked the plight of this six-year-old leukemia sufferer whose illegal-immigrant parents, Pedro Hernandez and Susana Nieto, were unable to pay for a bone-marrow transplant that might save his life. With high-profile politicos ranging from former Denver mayor Wellington Webb to Congressman Tom Tancredo soliciting on Oscar's behalf, more than $400,000 was raised from local donors, despite the revelation part of the way through the fund drive that a hospital in Oakland had offered to perform the transplant at no charge ("Give and Take," January 30). In February, the procedure was performed at Children's Hospital in Denver, with seemingly the entire city hoping for a happy ending.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Oscar died early on November 23 -- but astonishingly enough, word of this sad news didn't break for another ten days. Moreover, the facts got out practically through happenstance.

On November 24, the principal at Fairview Elementary School, which Oscar attended, wrote a letter announcing his death to concerned parents, including one who's a Westword staffer. Editor Patricia Calhoun began making calls and was able to confirm that Oscar had died. She spoke about "The Sounds of Silence," her resulting column, during a December 3 appearance on the KHOW radio program hosted weekday mornings by Peter Boyles, who'd also pitched in to assist Oscar. Hours later, Ralph Torres, the attorney for the Hernandez family, released a statement corroborating this development.

Why the week-plus delay in doing so? "The family wanted to basically go through their grieving period by themselves," Torres says. "We were going to come out with a statement when they were comfortable with it, but the media got hold of it, and there wasn't much choice."

Nothing in these remarks suggest that Oscar's parents were ungrateful for the community's actions. Indeed, the statement offers thanks to "Denver area residents...who generously contributed to Oscar and his family both with prayers and financial support." Likewise, the statement's request for the press to respect Pedro and Susana's privacy by forgoing interview requests was completely appropriate. Yet some information was owed to those Denverites who had contributed to the cause, as well as to the countless others in Colorado and beyond with an emotional stake in his recovery. (For evidence of how widely known Oscar became, consider that The Guardian, a British publication, and papers in North Carolina, Indiana and New Jersey told readers of his passing.) As such, it's difficult not to conclude that Denver news operations should have done a better job of tracking the tale instead of allowing the rush of daily happenings to push it so far onto the back burner that even a death wasn't noticed.

Granted, the Denver Post's Karen Augé was on the Oscar beat, if a bit behind the curve. According to Carlos Espinosa, Tancredo's press secretary, Augé called the congressman in Washington, D.C., on December 3, to get comments for a piece intended to mark the first anniversary of Oscar's time in the public eye. "They were talking about how the surgery had gone well and things were looking up and everything was moving forward," Espinosa recalls. "Tom was glad to hear that the signs seemed to all be positive: successful surgery, enough funds. Then, right in the middle of the interview, somebody gave Karen a note, and she said, 'Oh, my God. Oscar recently passed away.'" Adds Espinosa, "Tom was in shock. It was a solemn but uncomfortable moment." The conversation was terminated to give Tancredo an opportunity to draft a statement that includes this line: "For a short time, [Oscar] graced our presence and softened our hearts, but now has moved on to a better place."

Right now, the future destination of Pedro, Susana and their son Jonathan, whose bone marrow was used in the transplant, is uncertain. "Their humanitarian parole expired," Torres says. "I talked to someone at the [immigration] agency and told him they're going to need some extra time because of what happened. It's at the agency's discretion." On Tuesday the agency gave the family a one-month reprieve.

Predictably, Torres also went to the press regarding Pedro and Susana's desire to stay longer, but the spotlight is dimming. There's no funeral to cover -- Oscar was cremated, with the family receiving his ashes the day before the story broke -- and newspapers, TV stations and radio outlets have already bid their symbolic farewells. All that's left for the media is to wait until the next Oscar comes along.

Slow motion: Among the most notable deaths in the Colorado journalism family during 2003 was that of Sue O'Brien, the tart-tongued, widely beloved editorial-page editor for the Post. This event didn't come as a surprise. O'Brien had been fighting cancer for years, and her condition worsened in the weeks before her August 6 passing. Nonetheless, her position remains unfilled, and Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews Group owns the Post, says it'll stay that way for the remainder of the year. "There are several finalists, but the decision will be made in January," he reveals. "It has not been made yet."

The editorial-page editor is an extremely important gig at the Post, because the person who fills the slot has a lot to do with establishing the paper's editorial tone and expressing its institutional opinion on every controversial issue that arises. The degree of independence these duties require is rivaled only by that enjoyed by aforementioned editor Greg Moore, who has no role in either the day-to-day operation of the editorial page or the hiring of a new editorial-page editor. Leaving such a key job vacant for a minimum of five months may seem excessive, but Singleton won't be rushed. In his view, "It's paying the proper respect to Sue."

Who would probably tell him to get over it and hire somebody, for Christ's sake. Or words to that effect.

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