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Last week, Boulder community radio station KGNU announced the purchase of Denver's KJME/1390-AM for $4.1 million, plus an extra $100,000 fee for an operating agreement that allowed the new signal to begin broadcasting on August 29, just in time for the opening of the Republican National Convention. KGNU only had a bit over $1 million of that sum when the transaction went down and now faces the biggest fundraising challenge of its 26-year existence, not to mention rivalry with a slew of long-entrenched Denver outlets and a prominent new one: New York-based Air America Radio, which took over KKZN/760-AM on August 30 with an assist from improbable ally Clear Channel. Nonetheless, Kris Abrams, KGNU's Denver campaign coordinator, seems as confident as Howard Dean at a screaming contest.
"I don't think this is a risk, because the cost of broadcasting in Denver is so low," Abrams says. "We already have a staff and a building. All we have to do is pay off the signal."
To accomplish this goal, KGNU needs to line up plenty of previously untapped Denver donors -- hence a campaign to attract 1,390 benefactors willing to part with $1,390 apiece. "If we can pull that off, we can raise close to a couple of million dollars," notes station manager Marty Durlin.
Doing so won't be easy. Nonprofits in general have struggled to separate patrons from their pay since 9/11, and while KGNU has defied that trend of late by appealing to liberals who dislike President George W. Bush, there's no guarantee he'll be around forever. Because a John Kerry victory in November could well cause a significant dip in donations, KGNU staffers may be tempted to support Dubya.
Okay, probably not, but you get the point.
Denver already has two public-radio operations: KUVO and Colorado Public Radio, a statewide service with a well-earned reputation for relentlessly seeking and retaining contributors. KUVO president and CEO Florence Hernandez-Ramos doesn't seem threatened by the new kid on the block. "They'll bring in a whole new market to Denver," she says. "They're a welcome addition."
CPR president Max Wycisk is even more effusive. Although his critics haven't always believed him, he's long preached that having more public-radio stations in a given area is advantageous for all. "Whenever there are multiple public-radio services, the total audience increases dramatically, and listeners are better served," he declares.
Even so, KGNU is starting from close to scratch in its search for philanthropic dollars, not to mention Denver listeners disenfranchised by the collapse of the city's last great progressive-radio hope. That station, KNRC, bowed in 2002 with the idea of offering "both sides" of issues, but that was evidently one side too many. It folded earlier this summer.
This flop hasn't scared off Air America, which keeps chugging along despite a rough launch. The network, whose marquee names remain lefty comics Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, was booted from affiliates in Los Angeles and Chicago shortly after debuting, but it's now in more than twenty markets nationwide. Ratings aren't spectacular everywhere, but the network has helped its New York City affiliate become what Air America CEO Doug Kreeger calls the Apple's "number-one talk-radio station." And when KPOJ in Portland, Oregon, signed with the network, its ratings shot upward almost immediately.
Irony alert: KPOJ is owned by Clear Channel, a favorite whipping boy of Democrats. Citizens who oppose media consolidation see the San Antonio-based firm, which holds the deeds to over 1,200 stations nationwide, as a communications cancer that could spread if current FCC rules are slackened. Peace activists, meanwhile, charge that the company is in the pocket of the Bush administration. Troop-supporting rallies like the one sponsored by the Fox in 2003 hardly dispelled this impression.
Nonetheless, Clear Channel began trying the Air America format in other markets following its success in Portland, with Denver being the latest locale. KKZN, previously known as the Zone, was the obvious dial spot at which to try this experiment, since the station's recent mix of a business morning show and multiple broadcasts of Jim Rome's syndicated sports yak-fest was attracting a listenership small enough to fit into the average Denny's. Rome, by the way, migrated to the Fan on August 30.
Veteran Colorado radio exec Kris Olinger, Clear Channel's director of AM programming in Denver, who returned to the area in June following six years in Seattle, rebranded the Zone as "760 AM, Boulder's Progressive Talk." The station is actually licensed in Thornton, but its offices have been placed in the Boulder building occupied by KBCO to justify the new moniker. Most of Air America's fare will be heard here, supplemented by Ed Schultz, a liberal who's under contract to the Jones Radio Network, and Phil Hendrie, whose program used to air on KHOW.
Olinger insists that ideology is much less important to her employer than is the bottom line. "There are a lot of misconceptions about Clear Channel," she says. "We're in the radio business, and that means we want to serve the community and provide the kind of radio that can get ratings and make money -- and we think Air America will work here."
Because Air America CEO Kreeger feels the same way, he's in the strange position of having to speak in positive terms about a corporation that progressives like him routinely bash. "Ultimately, they're a broadcaster looking for the best format in each of their markets," he notes, "and this represents to them a format that works and delivers ratings. That's why we've met with such success with them. We're the only alternative voice they can turn to that can create a format capable of reaching a very different audience."