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As mentioned in this space in our February 26 issue, Jacor Communications recently donated a radio station, KHOW2-AM/1190, to the University of Colorado at Boulder. This transfer is noteworthy if for no other reason than that this area has long been one of the few major urban areas without a widely heard college-radio broadcasting outlet. But what kind of a station this one will become is still up in the air--and a conflict between CU administration and CU students over its eventual makeup remains a real possibility.

Jacor's extravagant bequest was motivated in large part by a Federal Communications Commission regulation that limits companies to a maximum of eight outlets in a given market. Since Jacor already owned that many signals in the Denver-Boulder corridor, its decision to snap up another (KTCL-FM/93.3) required it to unload one of its previous acquisitions--and KHOW2, an unprofitable Boulder facility with a modest power rating (5,000 watts during the day, considerably less at night), quickly became the leading candidate for jettisoning. By presenting it to the university, Jacor received three immediate benefits: the ability to quickly secure the license to KTCL, which has a greater financial upside than does KHOW2; some good press (which, in this case at least, is deserved); and, not coincidentally, a sizable tax deduction.

CU is also a big winner in the deal, which solves a problem that has been brewing for years. Radio stations at colleges are not a new idea: The University of Denver put up an AM signal way back in 1947 (it went dark in 1971) and in 1970 created an FM outlet that eventually became KCFR-FM/90.1, the flagship of the Colorado Public Radio juggernaut. But CU, for reasons that are unclear, never truly got into the radio game. In 1978, a university-funded station, KUCB-AM, came to life, but the system by which its programming was dispatched was antiquated even then. Rather than using a transmitter and an antenna to reach the public, KUCB employed carrier current--meaning that its signal, on 530 AM, was carried to the dormitories (and only the dormitories) over the electrical system. The station can also be received at 102.1 FM by Boulderites whose stereos are hooked up to cable; KUCB, reachable at 492-5031, gives away stereo splitters that make this possible to anyone who requests one.

The technology was far from foolproof. In 1993, Stephanie Escher, then the resident advisor at Hallette Dormitory, told Westword that no one at her housing unit could receive KUCB. Around the same period, Brad Dempsey, a representative-at-large for CU's legislative council, made a stir by suggesting that funding for the station be eliminated because so few students even knew that KUCB existed. Station boosters countered by conducting a survey showing that students were willing to pay slightly higher fees in order to obtain a transmitter that would make KUCB accessible to them. (For more details, see "To Air Would Be Divine," March 3, 1993.)

The following year, CU students voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum that set aside $1.72 per enrollee each year for four years, with the total earmarked for the purchase of a transmitter. Over $320,000 was collected, but it wasn't enough: Back in 1994, a KUCB spokesman estimated that it would take $500,000 to buy a station, and prices have risen steadily since then. For this reason, CU administrators began to explore ways of convincing radio conglomerates with stakes in Colorado to give them a station they no longer needed. Says Willard Rowland, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at CU, "We talked not only with Jacor, but with some of its predecessors, like Noble Broadcasting"--a San Diego firm that eventually sold four Colorado stations to Jacor. "It's been in discussion on and off for years."

The conversations got more serious in spring 1997, when Jacor began looking for ways to add KTCL to its portfolio. Matters were finalized during the summer, and the FCC gave its blessing around the beginning of 1998. (The license is now in the possession of a university entity, the CU Foundation.) Around the same time, a committee was formed under Rowland's authority to determine the station's future. Its members, who include current KUCB staffers and folks from CU's administration and faculty, were then split into three subcommittees on governance, budget, programming and the like.

The reports from these subcommittees haven't been completed, but, Rowland says, "it's fair to say that we want the station to have three purposes. One is to provide students with an opportunity to receive education about radio--and as a sidebar, I should note that, in addition to formal curriculum activities of the sort that we have in other areas of broadcasting and media at the school, students who are not majoring in journalism or education will also have an opportunity to participate. The second is service to the community reached by the signal. And the third is to provide a set of services that reflect the best of the University of Colorado. We might air distinguished lecture series or non-revenue sports that otherwise never get any kind of exposure."

 

These goals suggest that university administrators want to be heavily involved in determining the station's direction--and if that's the case, it may set up a classic conflict with students. When students gain the upper hand in such scraps, the stations that result generally are dominated by underground music that can't be heard on commercial outlets; examples range from Los Angeles's venerable KXLU-FM to KCSU-FM, affiliated with Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Conversely, victories by universities can lead to stations like KUNC-FM, a conduit to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley that mixes news with music that falls into genres, such as classical and new age, that don't top the average student's hit parade.

Right now KUCB is much closer to the former category of stations. "We like to say we use a progressive college-radio format," says Katy Mayo, KUCB's station manager and a part of the Rowland committee. "We have about ten specialty shows, which range from hip-hop to dance to industrial to jazz to punk to local music. And every other show plays music by bands that haven't really surfaced in the mainstream yet. We were playing White Town before anyone else was around here, and we also play smaller bands on indie labels that don't get airtime in the market."

KUCB isn't entirely freeform: The majority of DJs must play fifteen songs from a rotation determined by a music director during a two-hour shift, leaving them approximately an hour to spin whatever they desire. The popularity of this approach is difficult to determine: No recent surveys have been done to determine the size of KUCB's listenership, and extrapolating a figure from the number of requests the station receives would be difficult. ("Shows get anywhere from no requests to several, depending on if the DJs promote their show around campus or if they have a lot of friends listening," Mayo says.) But according to research done by KUCB, students as a whole would prefer a wide-ranging, adventurous music station as opposed to a stodgy promotional tool for the university. As Mayo puts it, "They want a student-run, KUCB-like format, and so do we. It's important to us that it's student-run--and at least as far as I know, no one's objected to that yet."

Objections may be forthcoming. Although Rowland champions student involvement, he concedes that "there will almost certainly be professional staff associated with the station." In the meantime, other choices need to be made. The referendum that led to the collection of the $320,000 stated specifically that it could be used only for the purchase of a transmitter; therefore, students will be asked in an as-yet-unscheduled spring election if they'd like the cash to go toward the start-up costs and maintenance of the new station. Whether they'll also be able to register their preferences for various formats is unclear. "We hope to provide as much information to the students about that as possible," Rowland notes--but he acknowledges that a vote could take place before the committee has issued its final recommendations.

Another rub revolves around call letters, as a station in Des Moines, Iowa, already has claim to the KUCB moniker. This wasn't a complicating factor in the past because of the Boulder outlet's carrier-current status, but now CU must get permission from the FCC to use the handle, and that's unlikely. Rowland says that alternatives are already being bandied about, and he's confident that a solution will be found before the beginning of the next school year, when the station is scheduled to broadcast for the first time.

With luck, it should be worth listening to.

As regular readers know, I've often been critical of local radio, but last week was the first time that I was victimized by its excesses personally. The verbal assault on yours truly was entirely unjustified, based upon blatant falsehoods and, unfortunately, all too common in today's market.

To be specific: On February 26, Whipping Boy, a DJ on KBPI-FM/106.7 who spends his afternoons trying to create controversy of any kind, decided to try to whip some up by claiming that portions of "Dangerous Waves," an article I wrote for our previous edition, were racist--particularly the line "I wish I'd grown up in a country where speaking a second language was deemed important." Clearly, the sentence is a call for more diversity, not less: It derides America, most of whose citizens chauvinistically feel that there's no reason to learn anything other than English, by comparison with other countries in the world, where knowledge of more than one tongue is rightfully considered of vital importance. To misinterpret this sentiment as prejudicial, one would either have to be purposefully malicious or so monumentally stupid that it pretty much adds up to the same thing. Whipping Boy did just that, however, and then compounded the sin by encouraging his listeners to register their anger with Westword. As a result, I received numerous personal attacks and thinly veiled physical threats for a comment that means precisely the opposite of what Mr. Boy said it did.

 

Management at most radio stations would respond to this type of indefensible stunt by disciplining the staffer who perpetuated it, or at least by issuing a public apology. But don't hold your breath waiting for KBPI to do the right thing. After all, the outlet's environment not only tolerates but nurtures such abuse: Remember the incident a couple of years back when the sanctity of a mosque was violated for the sake of a humorless and offensive morning-show skit? These people traffic in dangerous irresponsibility that won't end until they're gone.

By the way, Whipping Boy is in a band called Gestapo Pussy Ranch. I could stoop to his level and imply that the name proves he's pro-Nazi and anti-woman, but I think I'll take the high road instead.

Radio's getting more innovative all the time, isn't it? On Thursday, March 5, Fort Collins-based Hapi Skratch Records celebrates the release of a new CD, Skratch Trax 1 1/2, with performances at Cricket on the Hill by Fourth Estate, Martha's Wake and Danny Masters; Southern Culture on the Skids gets down at the Fox Theatre; the Vermicious Knids gobble up Oompa-Loompas at Quixote's True Blue; Shockshine startles at Round Midnight; the Tony Furtado Band joins John Magnie at the Boulder Theater; and God Lives Underwater surfaces at the Bluebird Theater, with the Autumns. On Friday, March 6, Hepcat, one of the fresher ska acts out there right now, skanks at the Bluebird, with the Gadjits; King Rat is crowned at the 15th Street Tavern, with Fast Action Revolver; the Dalhart Imperials get the royal treatment at Seven South; and G. Love & Special Sauce spices up the Ogden Theatre (the act also visits the Fox on Sunday, March 8). On Saturday, March 7, the Recliners kick back at CU-Boulder's Glenn Miller Ballroom, and the Aware Records tour, featuring Train, Nineteen Wheels and others, drops by the Bluebird. On Monday, March 9, De La Soul hip-hops to the Fox. On Tuesday, March 10, Too Slim and the Taildraggers get their butts in gear at Brendan's. And on Wednesday, March 11, the Indulgers show up for their weekly gig at Fado in LoDo. Isn't it nice to be regular?

--Michael Roberts

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


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