Alternatives

KTCL's program director wants his station to be cool yet get good ratings. It's a tough balance to strike.

KTCL program director Nerf prides himself on being accessible to the modern-rock fans who listen to his Clear Channel-owned station. "My e-mail box is wide open," he allows. Sometimes, though, this policy can have unforeseen repercussions -- as when Nerf responded to a note without realizing it had been sent by Jon-Michael DeShazer, a longtime critic of corporate radio who runs a website called DenverRadioSucks.com.

DeShazer began his polemic to Nerf by declaring that he recently started listening to KTCL again after more than seven years of boycotting the outlet, and, he wrote, "I have been relatively unimpressed with the selection of music." What really got his blood boiling, however, were promotional spots in which KTCL (at 93.3 FM) boasted of playing songs by the Fray, the biggest-selling act to come out of Colorado in recent memory, two years before Alice/105.9 FM, a competitor that claims to be a purveyor of new music. "Yes, your station was directly responsible for the explosion of this band," DeShazer conceded. "Despite the fact that every one of their songs sounds the same and that they sound like a Denver-based version of Coldplay, it's nice to see that the system still works." Nevertheless, he contended that KTCL was two years late when it came to spinning material by a slew of worthy national groups: Modest Mouse, AFI and more. In his view, only Alf, the DJ who oversees Adventure University, a show that airs at 8 p.m. Sundays, truly lives up to KTCL's cutting-edge-oriented slogan, "What's next."

Rather than simply shrug off these gripes, Nerf, who also hosts a weekday-afternoon show on KTCL, replied with a politely revelatory missive, little realizing that DeShazer would share his words with yours truly.

After thanking DeShazer for caring enough to e-mail, Nerf admitted that "the type of sentiment you express in this e-mail is what got me into radio to begin with. I hated the stations I had to listen to, and wanted to make changes. I figured if I was going to change things in radio, it would have to be from within." He soon learned that compromises had to be made. "I'm a total music nerd, and I know that if a radio station played music that catered to my taste, I may be the only one listening," he reasoned. "The vast majority of radio consumers don't care as much about music as you or I. They can't take much unfamiliarity, where you or I might actually enjoy being exposed to new music. It's disappointing.

"The balancing act is this," he continued. "We want to play music that's innovative and progressive, but if we don't get ratings, they'll flip us to a country station. We do what we can to be cool, but we have to appeal to the people that like American Idol. At the end of the day, there's lots more of them than there are of us. Alternative rock stations are growing more and more rare. Huge cities like New York and Philadelphia don't have an alternative station at all. We don't want to fail as a station and leave Denver in the same state. If you don't like us, that sucks, but at least we're there as an option."

Nerf concluded by revealing that he'd just received a batch of ratings showing that KTCL was the fourth-most-popular signal in its target demographic. "That's really good for us," he pointed out. "I guess not everyone in Denver feels the way you do."

While Nerf is a bit irked that his letter was sent to a media columnist without his consent, he doesn't take back any of his remarks. He lived in Los Angeles just after completing college, and he was thoroughly underwhelmed by the tuneage being pumped out by the city's most famous modern-rock station, KROQ. As he recalls, "It was all Semisonic, the Goo Goo Dolls, Turd Eye Bland [or, as they prefer to be known, Third Eye Blind]." Still, he pursued and landed an entry level job at the outlet. "I was driving the promotion van around," he says.

Upon moving to Denver, Nerf wound up with a similar gig at KTCL. But he worked his way up the ladder until he broke into management and was finally able to put some of his policies into action. Instead of ghettoizing all local music in a little-heard weekend slot, as KTCL had done previously, he put the Fray into rotation -- a move that led directly to the combo's being signed to Epic Records. This same approach is being taken with regard to Single File, another ultra-accessible area group that recently inked with Warner Bros./ Reprise. In addition, KTCL is now more open to airing ditties that receive strong support from participants in music surveys found on its website, www.area93. com, regardless of whether they've broken nationally. "One band we have a lot of confidence in is I Hate Kate," Nerf maintains. "No one else in the country is playing that, and we don't care."

At the same time, Nerf realizes that KTCL must earn solid ratings for him to remain in charge, and he's willing to bend a bit in order to achieve this goal. Although his personal faves include Bad Religion and Mike Patton, he calls DeShazer's shots at the Fray "mean-spirited. They're such champions for this music scene, and they were nominated for two Grammys, which shows that musical aesthetes and consumers think they're a good band." (Of course, that same argument could have been made about Christopher Cross...) And if he's thrilled by the way KTCL listeners have embraced Rise Against, which he calls "a real punk band, not a watered-down version," he doesn't begrudge those who like Chris Daughtry, the puke-inducing, faux-metallic American Idol contestant to whom Nerf alluded in his e-mail. "As someone who's an alternative purist myself, I found it hard to put that in our playlist," he acknowledges. "But it's very popular with our alternative audience. We want to have mass appeal, but we also want to promote the cause of good taste. And, well, you win some and you lose some."

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