Howard Stern is capable of turning a radio market upside down faster than any other single on-air personality. Although he's been involved in big-time media for ages, he continues to inspire the ire of the Federal Communications Commission (the fines levied against him throughout his career have been astronomically high), assorted puritans (at least one CBS affiliate is refusing to broadcast his nasty new TV series, which runs opposite Saturday Night Live) and critics everywhere. But Stern has proven impervious to such attacks. His morning radio program, which originates in New York, is at or near the top of the ratings in three-quarters of the more than forty markets in which it's heard. And now, gentle hearts, he's coming to your town.
David Juris, vice president and general manager of Tribune Denver Radio, the Chicago-based company that owns classic-hits outlet KKHK-FM/99.5 (the Hawk), confirms that he's bringing Stern's circus to town. Details hadn't been finalized at press time, but Juris predicts that Stern will debut on the Hawk sometime during the week before September 24, the beginning of the fall radio ratings period. The show airs weekday mornings on the East Coast from 6 a.m. to approximately 11 a.m. (Stern wraps things up at irregular times). Right now, Juris expects to run the first two hours of the program live, from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Mountain time; the Hawk will then start the show over again at 6 a.m. and broadcast it in its entirety on a tape-delay basis.
No big advertising blitz is planned to ballyhoo this news. "It'll spread like wildfire through word of mouth," Juris says. "That's the way things have worked out in other cities, and we think it'll be the same here. This kind of thing gets around the market very quickly."
Juris knows he'll take some heat from Stern-haters, who see the best-selling author and star of the box-office sleeper Private Parts as the symbol of everything that's wrong with radio today. However, he expects that gripers will be far outnumbered by fans. "Howard attracts an incredibly wide range of listeners," he says. "Since hints about this started leaking out a week or so ago, I've gotten a lot of calls from women asking when Howard is going to be on. And friends of mine who I'd think would be the last people to like him have been asking me for years, 'When is Denver going to get the chance to hear him?' And I'd be like, 'You like Howard Stern, too?'"
The Hawk's deal with Stern represents a change in strategy for the station. Since bowing in March 1996, the Hawk has attempted to counter its principal competitors, classic-rocker KRFX-FM/103.5 (the Fox), hard-rocking KBPI-FM/106.7, and adult-album-alternative pioneer KBCO-FM/97.3 (three of the eight area signals owned by Cincinnati's Jacor Communications) with a "less talk, more rock" approach. The Hawk's largest promotions to date--a 1996 concert by the Who and a 1997 date with Boston--have been music-oriented as well. But the spring Arbitron ratings revealed some weaknesses in this scheme: Although the Hawk was the sixth most popular station overall with listeners between the ages of 25 and 54, its morning block, helmed by Dan Mitchell, tumbled to ninth place among the same group. "Dan is a great DJ," Juris says, "but the show was clearly falling behind the ratings we were getting with the rest of the station." Research echoed these numbers, he adds. "We did surveys that showed that people want high entertainment value in the morning, and that put our more-music stance in the mornings into a secondary position. Obviously, some listeners like it, but our goal is to be the number-one rock station in the marketplace. And to get there, we needed to make some changes."
To that end, Juris considered teaming Mitchell with a new personality or hiring a morning team from another city to move to Denver. But, he says, "we kept coming back to the same point--that the person who would have the most impact on multiple stations with different formats would be Howard Stern. He attracts a desirable demographic, including the 45-year-old male executive with a good income who's driving to work. And he appeals both to people who like to listen to music and people who like listening to talk stations."
If that's true, why didn't Jacor bring Stern to Denver a long time ago? Juris has a theory. "Jacor plays its stations like a chess match, using each one as a pawn to protect their key stations, like KRFX and KBCO. And if they bought the Stern show, they'd be cannibalizing their own stations. They'd hurt Lewis and Floorwax [the Fox morning team], and they'd hurt their two biggest talk stations [KOA-AM/850 and KHOW-AM/630]." In contrast, Juris says, "Tribune's focus is 100 percent on the Hawk, which means we can put all of our resources into the station. Howard Stern is expensive--it'll be the most expensive morning show in Denver--but we truly feel that it's the quickest way to threaten Jacor's empire. It'll affect Lewis and Floorwax, it'll affect KBPI, it'll affect KBCO, and it'll affect the talk stations. And it'll affect Alice [KALC-FM/105.9] and the Peak [KXPK-FM/96.5] at the same time."
When Stern isn't gabbing, the Hawk will sound very much like it has since its birth. "We have an extremely strong music position in Denver, and we're going to stay with it," Juris says. But he believes that Colorado's recent growth makes this the right time for Stern's arrival. "So many people have moved to Denver from other markets, and a lot of them have either listened to Howard's show or are familiar with it. I've heard stories of people here who have friends send them tapes of the show because they couldn't get it in Denver. And anyone who's listened to him on a regular basis knows that his radio show works a lot better than his TV show. On TV, he takes the raunchiest bits from the radio show and distills them down to an hour. But on radio, you get a lot more complete picture. He's engaging, he's entertaining, he's sharp and he's truly outrageous.
"I'm sure there will be detractors. But the bottom line is, people are going to wake up in the morning wanting to know what Howard is up to."
Bigfoot and the Prehistoric Dogs doesn't hail from the Jurassic period, but it's not the youngest band on the block, either; its rhythm section, which comprises bassist/vocalist J.D. Droddy and drummer/vocalist Kimball Bernard, has been together for nearly twenty years. However, good news comes to those who wait: The outfit was named a semi-finalist in the best-unsigned-band contest staged annually by Musician magazine.
This is the second time that Droddy has been saluted by Musician; another of his groups, the Griffins, was a semi-finalist in the 1994 version of the competition. But whereas the Griffins are a working band, performing regularly in the Boulder area, Bigfoot is a long-distance project. Droddy and guitarist/vocalist Brian Rogers, who hails from Arkansas, have composed through the mail since the Seventies, getting together only to record. This approach was made easier when Droddy constructed his own studio a few years ago. "The studio allows us to do the songs on our own terms and let them stand on their own," he says.
Droddy sees Bigfoot, which also includes guitarist/mandolinist Marty Humphreys, as a collective "that allows us to play styles and stuff that we don't play with our other bands." For Shake Hands With Gonga, the CD that seized the attention of the judges at Musician, the central foursome is supplemented by a number of notables, including John Emelin of Lothar and the Hand People, a pre-electronic Denver band from the Sixties that was sampled on the last Chemical Brothers album; Emelin contributes theremin to the quartet's oddball theme song, "Bigfoot and the Prehistoric Dogs." The music elsewhere on the album is a mixture of rock, folk and a smidgen of psychedelia that's paired with dense narratives served up by Rogers in an energetic but untutored voice. (On "Wash Me Up (In a Friendly Place)" and "Untitled," he recalls Rick Danko; during the intro of "Guardrails Around the World," he's a dead ringer for Mark Knopfler.) It's an eclectic, sometimes erratic concoction that doesn't quite overcome its homemade origins (the drums sound small and insignificant), but the long-player's offhand feel and the sense of humor found in "Shake Hands With Gonga" provide some compensation.
The Musician verdict is due this fall, but Bigfoot won't be the winner; the band didn't make the just-announced finalists list. Droddy isn't shedding any tears, though. He's busy with the Griffins and Savage Patty, the third of his bands. (He calls the latter "folk jazz with a DJ.") The bassist sees the various groups, which draw from a similar pool of performers, as "our little artistic community in Boulder. It's not Motown--it's Botown. Get it?"
Here's the last batch of local reviews I've got in the can. Better get cracking, eh?
On Al Ferguson's most recent CD, 1997's Fascinating Rhythm, Vol. I, he and his cohorts paid tribute to Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers. This time around, Ferguson has narrowed his focus: Fascinating Rhythm, Vol. II is subtitled Happy Birthday, Mr. Gershwin. Otherwise, the approach is much the same: restrained renditions of ultra-familiar standards dominated by Daniel Flick's subdued violin, Tom Virtue's walking bass and the light-fingered picking of guitarists Ferguson and Ed Stephen. As before, Ferguson also offers the occasional well-intentioned vocal--and, to put it mildly, his "They Can't Take That Away From Me" won't make you forget about Frank Sinatra's. Okay, but fairly forgettable (Top Hat Productions, 1743 South Marion Street, Denver, CO 80210). Like Ferguson, Melissa Swift-Sawyer dips into America's musical heritage on her latest for Denver's Red Gecko imprint--but it's classic stuff of another sort. Melissa Swift-Sawyer Sings Patsy Cline finds the vocalist running through the tunes she handles as the lead in the local production of Always...Patsy Cline, and her versions of "Crazy" and the rest are plenty faithful. Helmed by John Macy and Randy Rigby and featuring the instrumental support of Richard Dean, the CD sounds fine, too--but a question remains: If you like Patsy Cline, why not buy a record by her? Sorry to bring that up (Red Gecko Records, 1430 Delgany, #101, Denver, CO 80202).
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Maria Moran has a long history in Colorado as a sculptor, a performance artist and a musician (she once was a part of the Denver art band Thinking Plague). She's now living in the Bay Area, but interested locals can catch up with her by checking out Watch Your Damage, a disc issued under Moran's latest pseudonym, Zipper Spy. The collection finds her having fun with a wide variety of noises: chimes, industrial racket and the flotsam of everyday life. The result, as you can probably guess from the description above, is artsy in the extreme; although standard musical instruments show up on a regular basis, they're seldom employed in standard ways. Even so, the CD's anti-ambience worked for me. If you're not obsessed with accessibility, give it a try. If you are, run for your life (Vinyl Communications, P.O. Box 8623, Chula Vista, CA 91912). Fred Koenig has even less of a connection to Colorado than Moran; he's a Texan through and through. But he's a good friend of Denver original Ralph Gean and led the backing band that supported Gean on a 1962 regional hit, "Weeping Willow Tree"/"Experimental Love." (For more details, see "Mystery Man," August 12, 1996.) Koenig took three years to complete his latest CD, Texas Songwriter, and although his work is not nearly as twisted as Gean's, it's just as worthy of note. On originals like "That Blond at Jakes" and "I Can't Be King," he exhibits a mellifluous voice, a charming wit and a sure command of country, blues and all points in between. Ralph would be proud (Fred Koenig Publishing Company, 318 Wellshire, West Columbia, TX 78486).
Finally, one last note about the Westword Music Awards Showcase pre-party, which takes place on Sunday, September 13, at Herman's Hideaway. Nina Storey, the Showcase nominee who's headlining the bash, will now be joined by another nominated act, Yo, Flaco! I'm assured that plenty of wristbands for the actual Showcase (Sunday, September 20, in lower downtown) will be handed out at Herman's, thereby giving attendees the chance to see more than thirty additional bands the following weekend simply by showing up. You could already be a winner.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.