By Joel Warner
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As 2005 dawned, Steffan Tubbs's career was moving ahead quite nicely. A correspondent and sometime anchor at New York City's Fox-owned WNYW-TV, he seemed to be on a fast track to bigger things -- perhaps even a network gig. So when he told his WNYW colleagues that he was ditching big-time television in favor of KOA, the Denver radio station where he'd worked the previous decade, he prompted plenty of slackened jaws.
"It really surprised some people," Tubbs recounts. "They were like, 'Radio? You're going back to radio?'" And while he's glad he joined KOA's Colorado Morning News, he understands his co-workers' responses. "If we'd had this conversation a year ago and you'd told me where I'd be today, I would have said you were crazy," he notes. "But life is strange."
Radio is, too, even for heritage stations like KOA. The outlet was a bastion of consistency until earlier this year, when Scott Hastings left the afternoon block he co-hosted with Dave Logan to join the Altitude sports network and CMN longtimer Steve Kelley signed with Fox Channel 31. These disappearances were coincidental, but they stung. KOA's spring 2005 ratings among listeners over age twelve were down 20 percent from its autumn 2004 tally. If the declines can't all be traced to Hastings and Kelley, their departures didn't help.
Since then, however, the team of Logan and new addition Lois Melkonian has stabilized the afternoon drive, and according to Kris Olinger, director of AM programming for Clear Channel-Denver, the Tubbs-April Zesbaugh tandem is matching the numbers Kelley earned prior to splitting. Olinger concedes that the transition might not have been as smooth without Tubbs, who worked at KOA from 1994 to 1998 and was heard on its airwaves for several years thereafter in reports he delivered for ABC Radio News. As she puts it, "Steffan's very familiar with the market, and our audience is very familiar with him."
If this background makes the hire a no-brainer from KOA's perspective, the benefits to Tubbs are less clear; he took a monetary hit to ink with the station, particularly if a potential network salary is considered. In the end, his motivation to return had much to do with his loved ones, of whom he's extremely protective. (He declines to discuss specifics about his family beyond confirming that he has one.) Professional satisfaction played a part as well. "TV's supposed to be the apex of anyone's career," he says. "But even though I loved television, I really missed radio."
From early on, Tubbs, a native San Diegan, divided his time between these mediums. His first job after graduating from Cal Poly in 1992 was at Fresno's KMPH-FM, an all-news startup linked to a TV station, where he also appeared. Shortly thereafter, Tubbs traveled to Denver with the goal of jumping to KOA. Then-news director Jerry Bell, currently the program director at KHOW and AM 760, gave him an audience. "He was bright and ambitious," Bell recalls -- but after listening to tape-recorded samples of his work, "I said, 'You're not quite ready yet. You need to do this and work on that.'" Cut to 1994, when Tubbs came calling again. This time, Bell found, "He'd worked on the things I talked with him about, and he had it all." Tubbs filled KOA's next opening.
The 1997 trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh put Tubbs on the national map. ABC Radio often picked up his reports, and at least one juror seemed eager to do some picking up of her own. "She made eye contact with me all the time," Tubbs remembers. "I kept saying to people, 'Shouldn't she be paying attention to the testimony?'" U.S. News & World Report writer Karen Roebuck noticed Tubbs, too, dubbing him "the Brad Pitt of the courtroom" in an item about the juror's fascination with his handsome mug. "I still get crap from people about that," Tubbs grumbles.
In 1998, ABC Radio made Tubbs a Los Angeles-based correspondent. Over the next several travel-filled years, he provided audio from the scenes of 9/11 and other big stories, and exercised his television chops by filling in at the network's L.A. station, KABC-TV. The WNYW opportunity came along in 2004, and he has only praise for the people there. Nevertheless, it doesn't take much skill at reading between the lines to figure out that he was mulling over his options when he phoned Olinger to inquire about getting passes for himself and his relatives to attend a Colorado Rockies game. Had he known that such tickets were about as tough to come by as air, he might not have bothered. But because he called, he learned about Kelley's impending exit, setting the stage for his KOA comeback in September.
Reflecting Tubbs's reporting background, CMN has taken on a newsier slant. And whereas Kelley sometimes let his conservative views about life and faith color the broadcast, Tubbs is playing things straight. "There is no agenda on the show," he maintains. "If we're talking about the high price of movie tickets, I have no problem saying I think movies cost too much. But there's a definite line I'm not going to cross."