Beyond Bias

The co-creator of an ill-fated youth project for the Denver dailies explains what went wrong and why the concept still works.

In late November, Broomfield-based Noodles & Co. announced that it had signed with FEED Tribes, a Boulder outfit that's developed a system allowing members to pay for products using their cell phones. Both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran business stories about this agreement -- but neither mentioned the connection between FEED Tribes and Bias, a defunct publication, website and text-messaging venture owned by MediaNews Group and E.W. Scripps, the corporate parents of the Post and the Rocky, respectively. According to Eric Elkins, a new-media expert at Metzger Associates, a communications concern that has a stake in FEED Tribes, the concept "comes from taking a streamlined and fully funded version of Bias and laying it on top of a mobile payment method."

Elkins should know: He created Bias with Nathan Warren, who's assisting FEED Tribes on a contract basis. And this new venture will benefit from the lessons learned at Bias, which died this past July -- a death Elkins attributes, at least in part, to the gutlessness exhibited by his superiors at the Denver Newspaper Agency. "I felt like nobody had the balls to let us do what we wanted to do," he says. "We watched the creativity die on the vine."

Bias's roots reach back to 2004. Then, as now, the newspaper industry was searching for ways to reach twenty-somethings -- so DNA employees Elkins and Warren developed a product they thought would appeal to this group. Central to it was a lifestyle-oriented website that nightlife lovers could join anonymously; after doing so, they'd be allowed to share their experiences with peers on the site, with the most entertaining of their observations earmarked to run in a bi-monthly magazine available in the sort of clubs and eateries they frequented. Moreover, they'd receive text messages inviting them to participate in exclusive events at which they could meet and mingle with fellow members.

Metzger Associates' Eric Elkins and Doyle Albee phone it in.
Mark Manger
Metzger Associates' Eric Elkins and Doyle Albee phone it in.

Then-DNA chieftain Kirk MacDonald bought their pitch, and Bias debuted in June 2005. From the beginning, however, the conservative, family-friendly culture of the Denver dailies clashed with the edgy style that the Bias boys knew they needed in order to be taken seriously by their target consumers. The DNA tried to distance itself from its unruly progeny by setting up a spin-off operation, Bias Media LLP, and moving Elkins and company into separate offices. But the battles over taste continued. "Suddenly, we weren't allowed to use the word 'fuck,' and then 'shit,' and then we weren't allowed to even allude to certain things," Elkins says.

Despite such censorship -- not to mention what Elkins saw as understaffing and inadequate financing -- Bias grew to more than 7,000 members. The text-messaging component proved particularly effective when it came to gathering crowds at happenings such as St. Hooky's Day, an October 2005 bash at Public House where Bias types were invited to blow off school or jobs in favor of rest and relaxation.

St. Hooky's Day went so well that Elkins decided to submit a proposal for a ballot initiative that would make the celebration an official state holiday. The Rocky wrote about this quirky mission in April -- but rather than regard the article as great publicity for Bias, Elkins says his DNA overlords made him rescind the proposition. "That was pretty symptomatic of what we had to deal with," he allows. "It was run by fear from day one. They were like, 'Oh, shit, who's going to be offended? Scripps and MediaNews are going to see this! They're going to shut us down!'"

The DNA did just that shortly thereafter -- but Metzger Associates exec Doyle Albee, who'd worked with Bias, remained a believer. The firm hired Elkins, and Albee asked about purchasing Bias's assets during a meeting with Harry Whipple, who succeeded MacDonald, and Dan May, then the agency's chief financial officer. "Although we weren't offering to write a big check, we said, 'If we can grow it, we'd be happy to share the profits -- and if we can't, you haven't lost anything. We're willing to take all the risk,'" Albee maintains. "But nothing came to fruition."

"Doyle is putting that in a nice way," Elkins interjects. "What really happened is, they stopped returning our phone calls."

Luckily, there was another option. "An old Metzger client had this mobile-payment idea," Albee says, "and we thought if we put one and one together, it could equal 27 in this case."

That was the start of FEED Tribes, now accessible at www.feedtribes.com. Site visitors can set up a FEED Tribes account that's linked to their bank; when they go to a participating business and send a numerical text to FEED Tribes, they receive a transaction code that's good for one use only, and for fifteen minutes. Once the code is given to the person at the register, the amount of the purchase is subtracted from the connected bank account -- like a debit-card transaction. The cost for this service is expected to be less than twenty cents a pop no matter what the size of the purchase, a price far lower than businesses typically pay in credit-card fees.

What's the connection to Bias? FEED Tribers can pick businesses from which they'd like to receive discount coupons, special deals and so on; these items will then be texted to them. The site will also have a community aspect, with blogging opportunities, sponsored events and donations to charities chosen by members. (Right now, a portion of FEED Tribes' proceeds is earmarked for Boulder's Fairview High School.) There may be a print publication, too, albeit with even fewer profanities than appeared in Bias's mag.

On January 1, two new websites, www.denverfeed.com and www.boulderfeed.com, will launch, with www.chicagofeed.com to follow. Plans are looser after that, but if businesses in these cities begin accepting FEED Tribes payments in the volume Albee anticipates, expansion to more markets could move quickly. For Elkins, such success would be sweet redemption for Bias. "I spent eighteen months working my ass off for that baby," he says.

Don't blame him for liking his new baby better. After all, he's biased.

Domino principle: In recent years, Denver's best local sports-radio show was KLZ/560-AM's The Press Room, starring Tim Neverett and Post columnist Jim Armstrong. Yet neither this pairing nor the station as a whole dented the ratings, even though they were affiliated with sports broadcasting juggernaut ESPN.

The likely culprit for this disappointing performance is Crawford Broadcasting, the station's owner, which had zero experience with such an outlet (most of its properties fall into the Christian category), and seemed to think the ESPN logo would sell itself. "It could have been promoted more," Armstrong acknowledges. "You didn't see us out and about in the community."

"Whatever it is that Jim and I accomplished with the show, a lot of it was done by word of mouth," Neverett adds. But it wasn't enough. While ESPN once urged its affiliates to feature local programs in morning and afternoon drive, he notes, in late October the network announced that it would be shifting its fare to the Denver station at 1600 AM. ESPN spokesman Dan Quinn says a big reason for the switch was the new signal's willingness not to spotlight anything local: "We're always looking to get as much of our programming on as we can."

This move won't take place until January 1, but it's already triggered several others. Crawford will continue presenting sports on KLZ with a different syndicator, Sporting News Radio. Local shows will remain part of the mix; new afternoon host Dave Benz is sticking around. Although Neverett has yet to firm up a new radio gig, Armstrong is slated to join Irv Brown and Joe Williams on the afternoon show at AM-950 The Fan. And the classic-country approach that's been heard for years at 1600 AM is moving to 1510 AM, which had previously broadcast syndicated rock oldies. Tim Brown, whose NRC Broadcasting owns 1510, says he worked out an arrangement with Lincoln Financial Media Company, which holds 1600's deed, to take over the format plus the old station's call letters, KCKK, and slogan, which is being altered from 16Kicks to 15Kicks.

The survival of KCKK is good for Denver radio. But the addition of a canned sports station won't make up for the loss of the Neverett-Armstrong team, whose quality can't be judged by its final record. The co-creator of an ill-fated youth project for the Denver dailies explains what went wrong and why the concept still works.

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