When an independent radio station is swallowed up by a corporate behemoth, things generally change for the worse. But not always.

A case in point is KTCL-FM/93.3, a station that's essentially a property of Jacor, a communications giant based in Cincinnati. The folks at KTCL would likely give me an argument about this definition: They'd claim that the outlet is the property of Tsunami, a firm that is not technically under the Jacor umbrella. But Tsunami president Tony Galluzo has a long history with Jacor--so long that no one was surprised when KTCL signed a local marketing agreement that allows Jacor to pretty much run the outlet as it sees fit. As a result, many radio observers view Tsunami mainly as a shadow company that allows Jacor to direct KTCL's operations without violating Federal Communications Commission rules forbidding an entity to own more than eight stations in a single market. (The other Jacor properties in the Denver-Boulder area are KOA-AM, KRFX-FM, KTLK-AM, KBCO-FM, KBPI-FM, KHOW-AM, KHOW2-AM and KHIH-FM.)

As soon as Jacor took over KTCL, a long-delayed antenna move finally took place, thereby bringing a clearer signal into the Denver-Boulder area. (KTCL's official home--as far as the FCC is concerned, anyhow--remains Fort Collins.) But this improved broadcasting muscle did little to boost KTCL's ratings, at least in the beginning. Why? Because the outlet, one of the true bright spots among commercial FMs in the state, was sliding downhill at a dizzying rate. Station staffers came and went as music programmers fumbled around for a workable format. One day the station was playing more Hootie & the Blowfish than Darius Rucker's mom; the next, jocks were announcing that KTCL was a "Hootie-free zone." Schizophrenia is too weak a term to describe what was going on.

But a funny thing is happening at KTCL right now: It's getting better. And surprisingly, some of the improvement can be credited to Jacor--or at least to the firm's willingness to spend a bit of money on the poorest of its Colorado relations.

For example, the station, which has long been known for its exceedingly lame on-air promotional spots, snapped up Zack Gilltrap, the man who oversaw promo production at the now-defunct 92X--and his efforts are already bearing fruit. In the meantime, KTCL has hired Constantine Consulting (a Boulder firm overseen by Dennis Constantine, who helped shape the sound of KBCO during its mid-Eighties glory years) to help guide it into the future. Consultants, of course, are as apt to ruin a station as improve it--and their proliferation has a lot to do with the homogeneity that currently afflicts U.S. rock radio. But Constantine has a lighter, more intelligent approach than most of his consulting peers--which may have something to do with the fact that KTCL has become more listenable of late. The station is suddenly playing a broader variety of music, with a concentration on new artists--and the artists being chosen are generally more interesting than the ones that had previously been clogging up playlists. There are still moments when KTCL errs on the side of caution--why the Cranberries and Counting Crows are still earning so many spins is beyond me. But within the past month or two, it's become possible once again to listen to KTCL for more than two minutes at a time without feeling the urge to rip your radio out of your dashboard--and that's a major accomplishment.

Constantine, who came aboard in November, claims that he hasn't yet made significant suggestions about KTCL's music. Program director John Hayes confirms this statement; instead, he says, the improvement came about as a result of the radio equivalent of soul searching. According to him, "We determined at the end of the summer from our own casual research--which means asking people what they think--that we were sucking, basically. And when we asked people what they wanted from us, they said they wanted a more adventurous stance--playing music that isn't overdone, that isn't cliched, that hasn't been worn out. So we listened to bands like Orbital and the Chemical Brothers and decided, let's stop looking behind us and start looking ahead."

Some of Hayes's comments constitute hyperbole: At one point, he insists that KTCL has been playing the latest work by the Fugees for a year, when the disc was actually released in late February. (In truth, the station has been focusing on the act's cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" since MTV began airing the video made to accompany it a few weeks ago.) But read between the lines and you'll discover that Hayes seems to realize that there's an audience out there eager (or at least willing) to hear fresh music. This suspicion is confirmed by recent Arbitron ratings, which show KTCL gaining audience shares after a skid that's lasted for a year.

If Constantine is to be believed, he wants the station to build on the new start it's made. "You've heard the example of putting mustard in the ketchup bottle?" he asks. "People look at it and say, 'This isn't what I expected to be in here.' Well, people have certain expectations about KTCL, too, and we're going to try to live up to them."

These comments have an aggressive sound to them, but the combativeness disappears quickly when the question of competing with other Jacor stations is raised. Constantine says he views KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak) as KTCL's main adversary; without referring to it by name, he calls the outlet (the only original rocker in town not owned by Jacor) "a certain generic, whitewashed alternative station." But Hayes balks at the suggestion that KTCL is in any kind of a contest with KBPI, a station that's lately been suffering from an identity crisis of its own. (Hearing the Whipping Boy, KBPI's afternoon jock, play Sheryl Crow not too long ago was as painful for yours truly as it no doubt was for him.) As Hayes puts it, "There really isn't a feeling among people at KTCL and KBPI that we're trying to outdo each other."

Of course not. Jacor views them as cogs in the same machine. How else to explain the recent swap of two DJs, Hilary Schmidt (who went from KBPI's morning show to an afternoon slot at KTCL) and Caroline Corley (who moved in the opposite direction)? Hayes argues that the move was best for the jocks and the stations, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Corley, who was an effective emcee at KTCL, has been altered into KBPI's "giggle gal" (Constantine's term); as a result, KBPI's morning program has become damnably erratic and frequently obnoxious. And Schmidt? As a strong feminist unafraid to speak her mind, she added a great deal to KBPI--but she adds a lot to KTCL as well. Her "Five O'Clock Field Trip" feature, in which she plays somewhat-out-of-the-mainstream fare during a time of day when large numbers of people can actually hear it, exemplifies the course KTCL should take.

Whether it will do so remains to be seen. A ratings crash will no doubt inspire Jacor to fiddle about again--and the results are bound to be frightening. But right now, KTCL is on the right track. Who says there are no such things as miracles?

CD to shining CD.
At first listen, Pete Wernick's Live Five doesn't seem all that revolutionary--but the more you think about I Tell You What! (on the Sugar Hill imprint), the more impressive the combo's accomplishments seem. Wernick, an extraordinary banjoist who's familiar to bluegrassers across the country, has come up with an approach in which non-bluegrass elements such as the vibes (hammered by George Weber) and the clarinet (courtesy of Bill Pontarelli) gracefully co-exist. After listening to such disparate tracks as "Sky Rider," "Jobob Rag," "D-Funk" and the aptly titled "Free as the Wind," you may find yourself wondering if what you've just heard is bluegrass, Dixieland, jazz or something entirely new. But these mysteries are beside the point. Quite simply, I Tell You What! is slyly entertaining from start to finish--and that's the important thing (available in area record stores). Spoon Collection has placed eleven tracks on its latest CD, Tarnished, and each and every one of them can be hummed. Not all of the cuts distinguish themselves beyond that, but a few stand out--especially "Candy Apple Love Song," "Not Too Bright" and "I've Forgotten About You," in which singer S'aint Willy spends an enjoyable few minutes protesting too much. Furthermore, even those ditties that you can't remember once the disc has been put back on the shelf sound perfectly fine while they're playing (available in area record stores).

Our friends at D.U. Records have a couple of nice surprises for us. The first is The Best of Longmont Potion Capsule, a compilation culled from three cassettes reviewed in this space over the years. (Vinyl Communications from Chula Vista, California, is making sure the disc reaches the largest possible audience.) The recording consists entirely of phone pranks, and while laughing at them will make you feel as guilty as being found with a Jerky Boys platter in your collection, laugh you probably will. Also on tap is the latest cassette from Abdomen, titled Out of the Picture. For a recording mastered by the reliable Bob Ferbrache, the sound quality is rather suspect; you have to continually fiddle with the volume in order to fully appreciate the singing of Mike Jorgensen and the contributions of drummer Scott Young and bassist Dan Gearley. But patient folks will uncover yet another winner from this prolific act: "Probably" is impossibly catchy, "Tunnel With You" reveals an unexpectedly tender side of the band, and "In Conifer" is just the kind of tribute the title town deserves. With songs this good, turning your stereo up is a pleasure (D.U. Records, P.O. Box 18677, Denver 80218).

Pack of Dogs is a compilation made by a musicians' co-op based in Crested Butte, and while there are over a dozen contributors, the music as a whole falls neatly into the mountain-music category that's enchanted visitors to ski towns since before John Henry Deutsch-endorf decided to do something about his tongue-twister of a last name. Fans of Acoustic Junction will be pleased by the band's collaboration with Bruce Hayes on "River" and by two solo turns by bandleader Reed Foehl; boosters of the String Cheese Incident, meanwhile, should enjoy "Lester Had a Coconut" and "Johnny Cash," both lifted from a 1995 cassette. As for me, I dug two rather dark offerings by Sandy Moon, a nifty instrumental by Jim Sandy, and that's about it. Guess that allergy to patchouli has its drawbacks (Ragged Mountain Records, P.O. Box 2448, Crested Butte 81224). Bill Wright, who holds down the last track on Pack of Dogs, has a CD all his own: Travelin' Light. The feel of the album as a whole suggests the work of early-Seventies singer-songwriters with a pinch of, say, Pure Prairie League tossed in for good measure. The singing is pleasant, the words are unlikely to tax most listeners, and borrowed melodies such as the one that's featured in "It's Alright" will make you feel like you've heard them before even though you're checking them out for the first time. How convenient (Bill Wright Productions, P.O. Box 12440, Denver 80212).

For proof that Europeans tend to respect and treasure rockabilly more than Americans do, witness that Stranger Things, by High Noon, an Austin band that features Denver's Kevin Smith on upright bass, is available on Goofin' Records, located in Vantaa, Finland. Nonetheless, U.S. residents should find plenty to cherish on the CD, a nuts-and-bolts offering that will provide any hep cat with a rockin' good time. The singing of Shaun Young is wonderfully bona fide, and tunes such as "Slow Down Baby," "Call of the Honky-Tonk" and "Long Stretch of Highway" pay tribute to the past without falling headlong into mere nostalgia (Goofin' Records, P.O. Box 63, 01601, Vantaa, Finland). KBCO Studio C: Retrospective pulls together what station types feel are the finest in-studio sessions issued on six previous volumes of the series. Your personal tastes will determine if you agree with their choices. As for me, I liked "If I Had a Million Dollars," by Barenaked Ladies, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," by Richard Thompson and, to my surprise, "Happy Phantoms," by Tori Amos; and I was horrified by submissions by James Taylor, the Moody Blues, the Dave Matthews Band and most of the rest. Wouldn't you know it (available in area record stores).

Living at the Bottom of the Sea, by the Christines, should keep fans of the group warm after the players relocate to San Francisco, as they are set to do in the not-too-distant future. Well-recorded by Jerry Jerome and the band's Mike Kirschmann, the long-player is filled with somewhat sugary musical beds on which are laid ringing guitars, romantic lyrics and Kirschmann's attractive keening. I particularly liked the droney "In Your Space," the stimulatingly devotional "Teenage Makeout Session" and the succinct, catchy "The Day Before." Sea shows why the boys will be missed (available in area record stores). The moniker Upper Strata sounds like it should be applied to a group; however, this particular act consists mainly of a Colorado Springs singer-songwriter named Johnny Favorite who, on Restless to Ruin, makes an okay showing for himself. Because the platter is dominated by voice and guitar, it has a monochromatic quality to it; a little more variety would have been appreciated. But the minor-key melodicism that marks "Apart," "Less Than a Man" and most of these twelve offerings blends well with Favorite's clear voice and morose sentiments. Folk for people who like knowing that someone out there feels worse than they do (Attic Records, P.O. Box 1978, Colorado Springs 80901).

Finally, a vocalist who calls herself Ingrid offers up "Christmas Once More," a gloppy, Celine Dion-esque stab at creating a seasonal standard; she declares that she hasn't asked Santa for anything since he gave a certain hunk to her. I'm not so easily satisfied; I'd like the Man in Red to give me a better Christmas song than this one (904-0446).

Attention, singer-songwriters. A number of Diedrich Coffeehouses around the city are giving troubadors a guaranteed sum to play there, as opposed to offering only tip money. Call Andrea Kennedy at 904-9941 to learn more.

On a more high-tech note, Jukebox, a regular feature of Westword online (see the address at the bottom of this column), sports an actual theme this week: Each item on display concerns that high point of twentieth-century art, Starsky and Hutch. View vintage Starsky and Hutch action figures, screen an embarrassing clip from a movie directed by Starsky himself (Paul Michael Glaser), hear the warblings of David Soul, answer a trivia question about the show's theme song (written by Mission: Impossible composer Lalo Schifrin) and win free CDs straight from my reject drawer. By the time you're done, your sideburns will have grown a full inch.

Or maybe not. On Thursday, December 5, Spearhead, fronted by hip-hop genius Michael Franti, begins its tour of Colorado at the Boulder Theater, and Evie's Edge experiences a close shave at Cricket on the Hill. On Friday, December 6, Chitlin provides good eats at 'Round Midnight, and Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Fiji Mariners wash ashore at the Bluebird Theater. (The band also appears the next night at the Fox Theatre.) On Saturday, December 7, My Blind Alley finds Soapy Smith's; SNFU is alphabetized at the Snake Pit, 608 E. 13th Ave.; Patrick Ball has one at Cameron Church, 1600 S. Pearl; Porno for Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins appears at the grand opening of a new Rupp's Drums location, at 2045 S. Holly; and Runaway joins Michelle Theall at the Wildflower Theatre in Lyons (call 449-6007 for more information). And on Sunday, December 8, Less Than Jake joins Bruce Lee at the Fox. No, not that Bruce Lee.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword. com


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