You've heard it before: Howard Stern is coming to Denver. But this time, it may actually happen. Stern's controversial show, which originates in New York City, is set to begin filling the morning slot at KXPK-FM/96.5 (The Peak) at 6 a.m. on Monday, November 30, and the station's interim program director, Scott Strong, swears nothing could happen between now and then to change that. "You know a lot of people are going to complain," he says. "But you also know that a lot of those people will be listening to every word."
These comments are in reference to an aborted attempt by one of the Peak's competitors to bring Stern to Denver this past summer. To recap: In the September 10 edition of this column, David Juris, vice president and general manager of Denver Tribune Radio, the Chicago corporation that owns KKHK-FM/99.5 (The Hawk), announced that the King of All Media would debut on that outlet the week of September 24. This was a shift in strategy for the Hawk, which had previously boasted that it featured more music than gab, but Juris argued that Stern gave Tribune its best opportunity to take a bite out of the ratings earned by the eight area stations held by Jacor, a Kentucky-based conglomerate. Juris changed his mind a few days later, however. On September 15 he revealed that the Hawk had been inundated by negative phone calls, faxes and e-mails concerning the acquisition--and as a result, he had decided not to put Stern on after all, even though he'd just signed a rumored five-year, $3 million contract promising to do just that.
Since then, Stern rumors have flown fast and furious: For instance, many observers expected the program to wind up on KBPI-FM/106.7 (a Jacor property) after morning man Rick Kerns was given the heave-ho in October. As for the Peak, it was seldom mentioned as a potential Stern suitor. But program director Strong reveals that shortly after shifting the Peak to a more contemporary alterna-rock format (see Feedback, October 22), staffers began looking at Stern with fresh interest. "Our research pointed out to us that there was a hole in the market as far as a rock morning show was concerned," he says. "Listeners weren't satisfied with what's here. So we started looking around the country and locally at what was out there, trying to figure out what would be the best rock morning show to fit with what the Peak is doing now--and Howard's name kept coming up.
"Whether you love him or hate him, most people know who Howard is, which you can't say about a lot of people that you could put on a brand-new morning show," Strong continues. "And if you look at the ratings he's rung up around the country, they're very impressive. He was put on in St. Louis about six months ago, and he's really taken that city by storm. He gets people talking--and that's good."
Is Strong worried about the possibility of an anti-Stern backlash of the sort that gave the Hawk cold talons? Not at all, he insists--and he subsequently speculates that the campaign directed against Tribune was actually an extremely successful dirty trick played by broadcasters with a vested interest in keeping Stern out of Colorado. "I know for a fact that there are certain stations who will have their people call and act as listeners in order to give complaints," he says.
While making this charge, Strong declines to identify Jacor outlets by name, but to anyone capable of reading between the lines, it's clear where his fingers are pointing. Jacor spokespeople counter with denials--and they also dismiss reports from inside sources that execs were incensed by the Peak's Stern move. Indeed, Mike O'Connor, who oversees both KRFX-FM/103.5 (The Fox) and KTCL-FM/93.3, claims that Jacor turned down an offer from Don Buchwald, Stern's agent, to pick up the show. "We've decided to invest in local talent instead," he says. "And we're ready for this challenge. KTCL will continue to be a music-intensive, lower-commercial-load radio station in the mornings, and on KRFX, Lewis and Floorwax [the Fox's longtime a.m. team] will keep doing what they've always done.
"We expect very little impact from Howard," O'Connor goes on. "According to our research over the past six weeks, KXPK's music shift has been stillborn; we expect the ratings to be anemic to poor by the end of the book. They're in desperate straits, and bringing Howard Stern to the market is a desperation move."
Not surprisingly, Bob Richards, KBPI's program director, echoes this opinion while suggesting that Dallas-based Chancellor Media, which owns the Peak and six other Denver-area stations, will lose listeners from another of its key properties, KALC-FM/105.9 (Alice), because of Stern. In Richards's opinion, Alice's morning team of Jamie White, Frank Kramer and Frosty Stillwell, which is now based in Los Angeles, appeals to the same constituency as does Stern--"so they're going to be shooting themselves at the same time that they're shooting their competition. They'll lose a lot of the ratings at Alice--and since Alice has been able to convert ratings into revenue, unlike the Peak, anyone with half a brain would have to question that strategy. And to make matters worse, Alice and the Peak won't be able to create local events around its morning-show personalities, because none of them live here. And that makes a difference to people in Denver. They want to be able to hear what's going on with the Broncos and to know about what the traffic's like on I-25. And they're not going to get that from Howard Stern or Jamie, Frank and Frosty."
"It's simply not going to work," O'Connor adds. "We feel that this is indicative of the incredibly incompetent mismanagement that Chancellor exhibits, not only in this market but across the country, making it one of the most highly leveraged, least attractive investments around. Look at the numbers: Jacor takes about 50 percent of the revenue out of this market, and Chancellor, with only one less station than we have, gets about 19 percent. So we look forward to costing Chancellor stockholders large amounts by providing quality entertainment in a locally produced fashion."
Tribune's Juris, who recently hired former Peak program director Doug Clifton as the Hawk's new mid-day host and assistant program director, isn't nearly as combative as O'Connor: In fact, he's downright thrilled that Stern has landed on a Denver station other than his. "On the 19th, we received a letter releasing us of our contractual obligations to the Howard Stern show, which was the best news I could possibly have received. I wish the Peak the very best--and I want to tell mature classic-rock listeners who are looking for an adult radio station without the talk and the trash that the Hawk will be there for them." Likewise, he expresses no regrets over having walked away from the Stern situation. "There's no way to prove that the complaints we received were genuine," he concedes. "I answered as many of the calls and so forth that I could, and they seemed very real to me. But we've gotten a tremendous amount of positive feedback after doing what we did. It's been a very good couple of months for us since the announcement, and that makes me think we did the right thing."
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It may take years to discover if the Peak's risk was a wise one. But Strong's confident that the gamble will pay off. "We feel that Howard and the 'Rockies' New Rock' format fit together perfectly," he says. "Denver's been waiting a long time for something like this--and finally, it's coming."
For the first time in years, KBCO-FM/97.3 has actually announced the on-sale date of a benefit album in a timely fashion: KBCO Studio C, Volume 10 will be available at Blockbuster music stores on Friday, November 27.
Also on Friday, November 27, Concentrated Evil plays its last show ever at Cricket on the Hill; the United Dope Front hosts a CD-release party at Round Midnight; and Quixote's True Blue celebrates its second anniversary with a performance by Sherri Jackson (the Tony Furtado Band visits the venue the following night). On Sunday, November 29, Billy Bragg displays his modesty at the Fox Theatre. And on Monday, November 30, Riverdance's Katie McMahon headlines at 9th Avenue West. Bring your clogs.--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.