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DIAL "M" FOR MEDIOCRE

part 1 of 2
In 1978 (back when he mattered), Elvis Costello recorded "Radio, Radio," a virulent, wide-ranging assault on the title medium. The key lines neatly encapsulated his views: "The radio is in the hands/Of such a lot of fools/ Trying to anesthetize the way that you feel."

Seventeen years later, these words seem truer than ever. That shouldn't be the case, of course: In spite of Denver's relatively modest size, the market supports 45 stations that showcase a seemingly wide range of formats. Unfortunately, the majority of these outlets have precious little of the ingredients that make the best radio such an exciting force: creativity, imagination, energy. As Costello implied almost a generation ago, most broadcasters seem primarily interested in keeping their listeners as dull-witted and compliant as possible.

These conclusions are based on an analysis of all area stations conducted between 7:30 and 8 a.m. weekday mornings May 1 through May 10. The choice of these times was not capricious: Because May is a key month in the determination of ratings--and because Los Angeles's Arbitron ratings service claims that more people in Denver turn on their radios in the half-hour prior to 8 o'clock than during any other portion of the day--this programming block is arguably an outlet's most important. Presumably, then, stations would want to fill these thirty minutes with their very strongest material. And that's what we hoped to hear. We also wished to answer a very simple question: What, exactly, is out there? Even the most dedicated radio-button pushers in the city probably are familiar with only around ten stations--less than a quarter of the choices available. We wanted to know if there are any hidden treasures among the ratings also-rans.

What we discovered, for the most part, was disappointment. Most stations fall into fairly rigid categories. Moreover, we learned that relatively little new music is played in this key period--and that a stunning sexism runs rampant at several of the most prominent outlets (see sidebar). Finally, we were staggered by the number of advertisements aired as part of the average show--as many as fifteen. In many cases, the information you think you're getting on your drive to work is really an infomercial.

Of course, it's impossible to gauge a station's overall quality based on the monitoring of a single segment, even if that segment is heard by more people than any other. Truth be told, there is some good radio in Denver--although a lot of it plays during off-hours or in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, drive time (which, like it or not, serves as an outlet's signature) remains on the road to the lowest common denominator.

Listed below are synopses of the programs we analyzed, along with the dates of their airing. Consider this a warning--or perhaps an incentive to invest in a new CD player for your car.

COUNTRY
You'd think that with six--yep, six--country stations in the area, the entire C&W spectrum would be covered. Think again: Five of these broadcasters specialize in the same brand of crummy, current-hit country. Ty Herndon's "What Mattered Most" and Toby Keith's "You Ain't Much Fun" were spun on two stations, and the Top 10 smashes by John Berry, Sawyer Brown and John Michael Montgomery all turned up. Only one station dared to be distinctive--which is why it was the best of the batch.

KYGO-FM/98.5 (May 8)
Slogan: "Denver's Official Twelve-in-a-Row Hot New Country Station." (While we were listening, the station didn't play twelve-in-a-row of anything.)

DJs: The Waking Crew--Sandy Travis, Chuck Leary and Devera Lynn. Travis and Leary dominate the show, leaving Lynn mainly to cackle at their allegedly riotous routines.

Songs: Four, including Tracy Byrd's puke-inducing "Keeper of the Stars" and Lari White's lachrymose "That's How You Know (When You're in Love)."

Commercials: Nine. Travis and Leary deliver one of these--an ad for Medved Autoplex--live, stretching it out to over a minute in length.

Contests: "The Birthday Game." The first person born on December 1 to call wins $100.

Worst moment: A mock newscast in which President Clinton supposedly orders Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to fire cattle guards.

KZDG-FM/92.5 (May 8)
Slogan: "Denver's Most Country." (Not quite. The station played two fewer songs than the music leader.)

DJs: Big Ron and Dawn. Ron is cast as the raucous good ol' boy, while Dawn is left to react to his not-all-that-nutty antics.

Songs: Five, with an accent on terrible ballads. Examples: "It's Somewhere Other Than the Night," by Garth Brooks, and Wade Hayes's gooey "I'm Still Dancing With You."

Commercials: Five. Appropriately, a spot hyping beef is aired within thirty seconds of one for Heinz 57 sauce.

Contests: A caller who identifies the word "cry" from the Garth Brooks song noted above gets two passes to see Sesame Street Live.

Worst moment: In honor of "National No-Socks Day," Big Ron supposedly takes off his shoes and socks. Dawn moans and groans.

KUAD-FM/99.1 (May 9)
Slogan: "K-99 Country."
DJs: Gary and Todd. They don't engage in any hilarity. In fact, even they seem somewhat bored.

Songs: Three, including a decent George Strait tune and that awful Ty Herndon cut.

Commercials: Twelve. Since the station is located in Windsor, most of these tout businesses in Fort Collins and Greeley.

Contests: Callers are given an opportunity to win passes to a Greeley Stampede appearance by singer George Ducas.

Worst moment: Gary and Todd discussing the genius of corny comedian Jeff Foxworthy.

KGLL-FM/96.1 (May 9)
Slogan: "The Eagle." (We don't know what it means, either.)
DJs: Mark McColl, supplemented by Uncle Phil Walker, who delivers news and weather (Walker also appears mornings on station KTRR-FM, where he is not identified as "Uncle." Must be a country thing.) And doing the sports is past and future Broncos receiver Vance Johnson. Really.

Songs: Five, with Ty Herndon's single and Shenandoah's dopey "Darned If I Don't (Danged If I Do)" among them. McColl doesn't bother to identify any of them; apparently, you're not supposed to care.

Commercials: Six.
Contests: A woman from Fort Collins is given a chance to win a two-day pass to Crystal Rapids.

Worst moment: Johnson stumbling and fumbling during his pre-recorded sports report.

KLMO-AM/1060 (May 4)
Slogan: None that's mentioned.
DJs: Mike Gillispie, who couldn't be more nondescript if he tried.

Songs: Seven--the most of any Denver country station monitored. Too bad almost all of them are awful. Prime offenders: Sawyer Brown's torturous "I Don't Believe in Goodbye" and cliche parades by Wade Hayes, John Michael Montgomery and Toby Keith.

Commercials: Just one, for a Longmont jeweler. Could this station be changing formats soon?

Contests: None.
Worst moment: A worst moment would have been an improvement.

KYGO-AM/1600 (May 5)
Slogan: "Your Official Station for Classic Country" and "The Only Station in Colorado Playing Five Decades of Your Country Favorites." Both of which are true.

DJs: Chuck St. John, supplemented by news guy Doug Olipra. St. John is a bit excitable but generally doesn't overdo it.

Songs: Four--but they're the four most memorable country tunes we heard. As the airing of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and George Strait's "Drink a Little Champagne" indicates, the station mixes the best country hits from the past with the finest contemporary stuff--and the combination works.

Commercials: Eight.
Contests: A woman celebrating her birthday is given tickets for a dinner and a show at Heritage Square Music Hall.

Worst moment: Having to listen to the other country stations in town.

CHRISTIAN
Although most heathens don't realize it, Denver's seven Christian stations make up more than fifteen percent of the area market. Five of them are quite similar; they supplement other material with canned programming produced by ministries seemingly determined to shake down listeners for their every penny. But one music station is much more intriguing--and much more sophisticated.

KRKS-AM/990 (May 3)
DJ: Dick Puter, who is heard for about one of these thirty minutes.
Who's asking for your money: Norm Nelson of Paramount, California, whose platform, The Morning Chapel Hour, focuses on what you should do when you're "in the pit." He urges listeners to be "as generous as you can" and notes that he accepts Visa and MasterCard. Also featured: Family News in Focus from Colorado Springs' Focus on the Family.

KRKS-FM/94.7 (May 8)
DJ: Victor Cooper. His job is mainly to introduce other shows.
Who's asking for your money: Anaheim, California's own Chuck Swindoll, of Insight for Living. In today's episode, "A Shocking Agenda," Swindoll (it's not pronounced "swindle") claims that Christ's teachings "rest on historic truth," and he suggests that listeners make a commitment to "monthly giving." Also featured: two commercials played on either side of the main commercial.

KQXI-AM/1550 (May 5)
DJ: Rochelle Mitchell. Her big moment is reading a ten-second weather update.
Who's asking for your money: Dr. Mitch Hansen, from A New Way of Life in Redlands, California. He's a Christian counselor who lets you know you can order "a cassette transcription" of his show. Also fond of your wallet is Dr. Spiros Zodhiates, whose Chattanooga, Tennessee, program is called New Testament Light Daily. In addition, a spokesman for an Aurora auto shop commercial reveals to kids that it's okay to say no to drugs.

KPOF-AM/910 (May 2)
DJ: Pat LaPlante, who says that KPOF is "Your Station for Family Inspiration."
Who's asking for your money: Nobody directly, but Cal Thomas, from Washington, D.C., does deliver a screed opposing the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for surgeon general. But the majority of the half-hour is dominated by music--drippy, orchestral pieces, churchy hymns and Christian-housewife pop like Annie Chapman's "Labor of My Heart." There's also a promo for a talk show featuring Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

KWBI-FM/91.1 (May 5)
DJ: Roy Hanschke, a fairly traditional radio host with a smooth, likable manner.

Who's asking for your money: Former Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries. He thinks it will be difficult to legislate a more virtuous America. In addition, there's a "`Men of Action' radio highlight" provided by Bill McCartney's Promise Keepers. Hanschke also introduces traffic reports, updates the weather conditions and broadcasts six songs, most of which would drive anyone under fifty to start searching for some cyanide.

KLT-AM/800 (May 2)
DJ: Steven Lee, a slick and professional sort.
Who's asking for your money: San Diego's Dr. David Jeremiah, your host for Turning Point. On this day, his sermon is entitled "Snare of the Savage Wolves," which spotlights the new-age movement--"what's so lethal about it, and how it reaches out to entrap us in the world today." Dr. Jeremiah has written a book on this very topic, and he thinks you might enjoy buying it and other "resources" he's assembled for you.

KLZ-AM/560 (May 1)
DJ: Tim Brotzman, the station's program director. He's deep-voiced, engaging and cheery. He sounds as if he would fit in well on just about any secular Top 40 station--until he starts quoting Matthew.

Who's asking for your money: Just about everybody. There is one syndicated spot: Jane Chastain, from Costa Mesa, California, declares that the recent take-your-daughters-to-work day was completely unfair, because it didn't include boys--who, as we all know, have been the targets of sexual discrimination in the workplace for centuries. But for the most part, KLZ concentrates on contemporary Christian music that's relatively pleasing to the ears of modern listeners, as well as the delivery of commercials in which advertisers are characterized as God-fearing believers just like you and me. For example, a kitchen company is described as a "Christian-run business that shares your Christian values." Brotzman adds, "You don't want just anybody coming into your home--someone who's probably listening to Lewis and Floorwax. You don't want that kind of influence. So call KLZ's dependable partner in cabinetry." And if you don't, the pitch implies, you'll go straight to hell.

OLDIES/NOSTALGIA
The musical approaches of these seven stations (including KXKL-AM/1280 and KXKL-FM/105.5, which simulcast the same material) are not identical, but their appeal is: People tune in because they know that they won't hear any songs that are new and unfamiliar. That's a recipe for stagnation--so it's appropriate that these outlets are largely inert. Some rely on disc-jockey teams to keep things crisp, but during our test period, the result was often as stale as your average cadaver.

KEZW-AM/1430 (May 4)
Slogan: "Mornings Are So Comfortable Here," and "Start Your Day the Easy Way."
DJs: David Hixson, who sounds so relaxed that he may actually be unconscious.

Songs: Six, ranging from the pleasant (something jivey by Peggy Lee) to the Satanic (Frank Mills's gruesome "Music Box Dancer"). The focus is on music released from the Forties to the Seventies--but there's nothing to rile up those of you with heart conditions.

Commercials: Six, not counting a pair of promos.
Contests: Someone wins two tickets to view a designer's show house.
Worst moment: At one point, Hixson insists, "This is what the other stations wish they could play."

KIMN-FM/100.3 (May 9)
Slogan: "Seventies Feel-Good Oldies." (Which means no Black Sabbath, we suppose.)

DJs: Dom and L.A. The prankster and the stick-in-the-mud.
Songs: Three--if you consider "Help Is on Its Way," by the Little River Band, to be a song.

Commercials: Six.
Contests: The person who answers the 7:50 "mind-bender" wins two tickets to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

Worst moment: A new one every time Dom and L.A. speak.

KRFX-FM/103.5 (May 9)
Slogan: "Colorado's Classic Rock."
DJs: Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax. Who good Christians shouldn't listen to.

Songs: Four--two by Tom Petty and two by the Who. Because it's "Two-fer Tuesday."

Commercials: Twelve, plus an extended plug for an "Air Fox" trip to the Indianapolis 500.

Contests: None--but Floorwax mentions that he'll soon be speaking with a guy he set up with a blind date for the evening's Jimmy Page-Robert Plant concert. "We have a good feeling that maybe he's going to get popped," Floorwax enthuses.

Worst moment: Channel 4 anchor Stephanie Riggs guests on the program; Floorwax calls her a "total fox, a total babe" and announces, "We want to worship you" in the slobbering tone of Beavis and Butt-head after one too many bottles of Boone's Farm. The one genuinely amusing exception: When Floorwax tells Riggs, "You're too good for this town," she doesn't disagree.

KXKL-FM/105.1 and KXKL-AM/1280 (May 10)
Slogan: "Great Oldies All the Time, KOOL 105"/"Good Times and Great Oldies."
DJs: T.K. and the Coach, who seem to think that emulating Bob Saget is the route to comedy nirvana. A pre-Mother's Day phone call to Tim Allen's mom proves about as laugh-provoking as The Sorrow and the Pity.

Songs: Four. KOOL tends to specialize in playing only the most overplayed rock oldies. When was the last time you heard Roy Orbison's "This Magic Moment" and Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up"? Ten minutes ago?

Commercials: Seven, plus a live spot for Medved Autoplex.
Contests: None.
Worst moment: Five numbing minutes spent not discussing the book Baby Bargains.

KOSI-FM/101.1 (May 9)
Slogan: "The Most Music in the Morning" (not even close), "The Best Music on the Radio" (in your dreams), and "Denver's Favorite Light Rock and Soft Hits" (doubtful).

DJs: Paxton Mills and Denise Washington-Blomberg. They're more low-key than most male-female anchor teams, but Washington-Blomberg does snicker when Mills tells a tepid O.J. Simpson one-liner.

Songs: Four. The nadir: "One More Night," by Phil Collins.
Commercials: Five.
Contests: Two listeners qualify to win a car from John Elway Honda.
Worst moment: The horror of recognizing a song by Kenny Loggins.

KTRR-FM/102.5 (May 10)
Slogan: "Colorado's Best Variety of Music." (If playing Billy Joel and Huey Lewis back-to-back constitutes variety.)

DJs: Michael Stone and Susan Moore, who are too bland to be as offensive as other male-female tandems. There's also "Don't Call Me `Uncle'" Phil Walker with the news.

Songs: Four. Most apt: Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years."
Commercials: Six, including Walker's ad for his Diamonds in the Rough cassette series, which details pioneer life in the Poudre Valley.

Contests: A woman is given ice-cream cakes and a "full-service tan and massage" and qualifies to win a trip to Las Vegas.

Worst moment: The horror of recognizing another song by Kenny Loggins.

MISCELLANEOUS
Believe it or don't, there are four stations in Denver that don't fit into a larger pigeonhole. However, three of them represent once-popular categories now on the wane. And to put it mildly, none of them are what you might call radical.

KKYD-AM/1340 (May 4)
Slogan: "Kid Radio Aahs." (The name refers to a children's radio satellite service located in Minnesota.)

What's different?: The format is designed to delight the under-twelve set--but those over that age likely will find the resulting blend positively criminal. The DJs, Dan Geiger and Liv Learner, are so condescending and cutesy-poo that they can cause sugar shock; Geiger's impressions of Bob Dylan and Neil Young crooning "Happy Birthday" are a prime example. Just as stultifying is their interview with a so-called camping expert. If the almost total lack of advertising during the show is any indication, the station may not be around in its current form for much longer.

KHIH-FM/95.7 (May 8)
Slogan: "Colorado's Home for Smooth Jazz." ("Smooth Jazz" being a synonym for "Muzak.")

What's different?: KHIH is the last station in the region to dedicate itself wholly to jazz--of a sort. Two of the five songs introduced by DJ Cheri Marquart aren't jazz at all (Anita Baker and Chris Isaak don't exactly rate with John Coltrane), and even the cut by Pat Metheny was mellow enough to cure insomnia. The quickest way to kill the true spirit of jazz is to pretend this swill is representative of it.

KDKO-AM/1510 (May 4)
Slogan: "The Power Station" and "Your `Unity in the Community' Station."
What's different?: KDKO is Denver's only urban-music outlet--an antidote to the lily-white sounds emanating from just about every other radio tower. But that doesn't mean that it's musically adventurous. The programmers eschew rap almost entirely, opting instead for smooch ballads by the likes of Boyz II Men and Mary J. Blige. Morning jocks Mike Love and John Bowman play only three tunes and air but one commercial; the rest of the time, they riff off news and sports reports in a completely random, and rambling, fashion. They act as if no one was listening other than themselves--and, aside from us, they may be right.

KVOD-FM/99.5 (May 10)
Slogan: "The Classical Voice of Denver."
What's different?: The only commercial station specializing in classical music, KVOD is the kind of outlet that you must listen to while sitting in the book-lined den of a mansion with a pipe in your mouth. The DJ, Terry McDonald, announces classical pieces (such as a Bach miniature by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra) as if he were introducing Masterpiece Theatre. Similarly, the advertising is aimed at the affluent and comfortable; banks, insurance companies, investment firms and Cadillacs are hyped. KVOD's tone seems to say, "If you're poor, listen to something else." Okay by us.

end of part 1


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