At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, November 4, people in Denver and Boulder will find another choice on their radio dials. KVCU-AM/1190 (aka Radio 1190), a new station associated with the University of Colorado-Boulder, is set to make its long-awaited debut at that time--and early indications are strong that the outlet will be worth hearing.
As noted in the March 5 edition of Feedback, it's been a long time coming. A CU station, KUCB-AM, was founded in 1978, but it lacked an important accoutrement--a tower. To explain: Instead of broadcasting its signal with the assistance of a transmitter and an antenna, KUCB used carrier current to feed its output into the school's dormitories via the electrical system. The sound quality that resulted was frequently spotty, and the anachronistic approach so severely limited KUCB's potential audience that students voted in 1994 to establish a fund (fed by student fees) to purchase a broadcast-ready operation. Approximately $320,000 was collected for this purpose, but because the prices of media properties were escalating rapidly, the total still wasn't large enough to cover the cost of a station.
Enter Jacor, the corporate giant that controls some of the most powerful outlets in the area. The firm's decision-makers wanted to purchase KTCL-FM/93.3, but in order to do so without exceeding eight stations in the market (a limit imposed by the Federal Communications Commission), they needed to unload one it already owned, and fast. For this reason, the suits were receptive when CU administrators suggested that Jacor donate to the university the least profitable asset in its Boulder portfolio: KHOW2-AM/1190, a station that had been idle for some time. Early in 1998, the FCC gave its blessing to the deal, which led to good publicity and a healthy tax deduction for Jacor and provided CU with the outlet it had long coveted.
Afterward, debate raged over what kind of station the renamed KVCU-AM would become--a student-run, music-dominated broadcaster or a relatively stodgy training lab/promotional tool. Fortunately, the former option was chosen. "The students decided what our format was going to be," says Andy Larsen, KVCU's program director. "It's not like the journalism school is going to come in and tell us what to play."
The lunatics aren't entirely in charge of the asylum, however: Larsen and other students fill around a dozen management positions at KVCU, but Jim Musil has been hired as general manager to oversee the facility. Musil has experience in such a role. He was a student at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis earlier this decade when that school obtained a radio outlet, WMMR-AM, and after graduation, he was put on the payroll as what he calls "a full-time radio professional." During the next several years, Musil became something of an expert on how to start up and run a first-rate college station. "Every couple of months, stations would get ahold of me and ask, 'How do you do it?'" he says. When folks at CU made just such an entreaty, he offered advice as well, and a job offer soon followed. Musil accepted, he notes, because "I was ready for a change of pace--and the chance to put together another station is incredible. I really love working with students. They're much more honest than most people in the rest of the industry."
KUCB was not a free-form station: DJs were asked to play songs from a predetermined set of CDs designated for "light," "medium" or "heavy" rotation during about half of an average shift. According to Larsen, KVCU will further tighten this formula. "The music director will pre-program most of the selections," he says, "but DJs will still get to pick some individual songs. Most of the shifts are two hours, and we require DJs to play ten to fifteen of our songs an hour, which leaves six or seven songs per hour that they get to choose."
Not everything on Radio 1190, whose operating hours are slated for 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week, will be so rigidly structured: Musil has given the okay to a dozen or so specialty shows--punk, metal and hip-hop are among the genres spotlighted--in which jocks will be allowed to do their own things. Furthermore, Musil believes that the boundaries placed on other programs will allow creativity to flower, not wither. "Most freshmen who come into universities get most of their music knowledge from MTV," he says. "But by giving them some direction, we'll be able to come up with an adventurous playlist."
Jason Mueller, KVCU's music director, shares Musil's sense of purpose. He's been involved in the area music scene throughout his time as a CU student, and he writes a regular column in the Colorado Daily about sounds that echo outside the mainstream. He sees his position at KVCU as a way to extend this mission. "First and foremost, we want to provide something that none of the other stations are providing," he says. "We're going to play a lot of the indie rock that people associate with college radio, but we're also very in touch with the electronic scene--we have a huge library of RPM--and we're going to be playing real hip-hop, not the stuff you hear on that watered-down R&B station in town." A recent playlist put together by Mueller backs up his claims: The station's top thirty brings together a slew of impressive acts that have been strangers to Denver-Boulder airwaves, including Belle and Sebastian, Sunny Day Real Estate, DJ Spooky, Deejay Punk Roc, Modest Mouse, Fuck, Archers of Loaf and the Minders.
In addition, Mueller hopes to use KVCU to build better and more vibrant live and original music scenes in these parts. "Starting next month, we're going to start sponsoring some of the shows that are coming out here by some of the small but popular college bands--and maybe some groups that would never have thought of coming here will change their minds when they find out that we're playing their songs. And we also want to get more people to go out to see local music. You see great bands from here, like the Apples and 16 Horsepower, that can go to other cities and sell out shows, but when they play here, they end up doing shows that are pretty large but not packed--and we want to change that. We want people to support local music, and we want to serve as the bridge between the audience and the bands so we can tell people who they are and give them a way to hear them."
KVCU should do just that. Although the station is rated at only 5,000 watts, it should be accessible to listeners from Fort Collins to Castle Rock. Musil, who is also teaching a class in radio at CU's journalism school, hopes that KVCU will provide these folks with a genuine alternative to the usual commercial-radio fare. "With college stations, I've noticed that two groups usually control them--either the music-heads or the professional-radio-heads," he says. "And whenever one of these groups is more powerful than the other, you end up with this sort of bland, stereotypical product. So what I see my role as is to find the students who are interested in working in radio and the ones who really love music and combine them to make a great station."
The Lion's Lair, at 2022 East Colfax Avenue, has a new owner. Michelle Landes, who purchased the wonderful dive in November 1995, has sold it to one of the most prominent music-biz types in town: Doug Kauffman, head of nobody in particular presents. Counting the Ogden Theatre and the Bluebird Theater, Kauffman now has a piece of three live-music venues in Denver.
The Lair (capacity 120) has a lot of history: It was founded by John Lyons in 1967 and had a brief association with the Playboy Club chain. As the years went by, the venue shrank (it once included the space now occupied by a tattoo parlor next door) and the neighborhood became dicier. By the early Nineties, it was primarily a hangout for the thirstiest folks in the area, but that changed when Landes and Tony Meggitt, both Lair employees, started hiring bands. In short order, the room became one of the hippest places in town to play--an atmospheric hole with an edge. When Chris Whitley wanted to schedule a three-night run in Denver to introduce new material, he could have gone to any number of theaters. Instead, he went to the Lair.
Kauffman has been booking shows at the club for several years now; the acts he's brought there include John Doe, G. Love, the Refreshments, Gravity Kills, Chris Whitley and the Presidents of the United States of America. Moreover, he's been a frequent patron of the venue, especially since nobody in particular presents' offices opened across the street from it earlier this year. By adding the Lair to his properties, he believes he'll be able to help area groups develop audiences. "It's a good test of a band's draw," he says. "If you can put a crowd in there, you can build on it--and it's not as small as it seems. There aren't a lot of local bands that can fill it. But once they do, they can graduate to the Bluebird or wherever."
The acoustics in the Lair aren't sterling, but Kauffman feels that they can be improved. "We're going to hang some curtains on the back wall and hang some acoustic tile on the ceiling to absorb the sound a little more so it won't be so ear-splittingly loud. We're also going to put in a stereo p.a., and we're changing the mix position on the p.a. to get it out front so we can make sure that it's more comfortable for the customers." However, Kauffman promises that these alterations won't spoil the club's off-kilter ambience. "I like that part of it just the way it is," he notes. "It kind of reminds me of some of the great places in Detroit, like the Get Down Lounge. It's not a rough place in and of itself, but it does combine, shall we say, a sense of camaraderie with a certain gritty social discourse."
In other words, the Lair's aura will remain slightly dangerous, and so will its schedule: The hippie-ish Hello Dave headlines at the club on Thursday, October 29; the Foggy Mountain Fuckers and the Down-N-Outs climb onto its stage on Friday, October 30; and First Action Revolver and TARD join the party on Saturday, October 31. Kauffman expects live bands to appear at the Lair as many as five nights a week, with DJs filling in the gaps; for instance, DJ Dave Kerr will be spinning soul music on most Thursdays. "We want to give the events a higher profile in the music community," Kauffman adds. "We'll be putting them in our ads and using nobody in particular presents to push them. And since the place gets a rush before some of the shows we do at the Ogden and the Bluebird and then another one afterward, we're definitely going to run promotions to capitalize on that. We just want people to come down, because if they do, they'll want to come back."
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The horror, the horror. On Thursday, October 29, Chicago Skinny begins a two-night run at Brendan's. On Friday, October 30, Natalie MacMaster fiddles at the Boulder Theater, with the Mary Jane Lamond Band; King Rat is enthroned at Cricket on the Hill; Calobo makes its way to the Lodo Music Hall; En Tu Oblivion heads to Seven South, with Sandwitch; the Lou Malandra Trio turns up at the Curtis Fine Arts Center; Day Butler of the Hip-Hop Madness television program invites emcees to participate in an open-mike freestyle joint at DCTV's studios, 2900 Welton Street (call 303-329-6945 for time and details); and Abdomen tees off for the first of two nights at the Putting Green Pub, 7785 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood. On Saturday, October 31, Martha's Wake swells at the Cricket, with Buzz Bomber and the M-80s and Concentrated Evil; Bloque, a fine Colombian act on the Luaka Bop imprint, opens for Cabaret Diosa at the Boulder Theater; and Fat Boy Slim weighs in at the Ogden. On Sunday, November 1, the Kinsey Report is filed at the Fox Theatre. On Tuesday, November 3, Mike West and Myshkin travel from New Orleans to visit the Cricket, and O.C. Supertones sound off at Mammoth Events Center, with Five Iron Frenzy and the Insyderz. And on Wednesday, November 4, Mudhoney is sweet at the Bluebird, and Amjad Ali Khan and Zakir Hussain bring a bit of the East to Boulder High School. It should be classy.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.