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WILL THE PEAK INHERIT THE EARTH?

In the media business, it's considered suicidal to admit feeling panicked. But given the latest report from the Arbitron ratings service--a report that could portend the biggest power shift in Denver radio this decade--you can bet that more than a few local media pros are running scared.

The reason? KXPK-FM/96.5 (known as the Peak) and KALC-FM/106 (nicknamed Alice) have come out of nowhere to become major players in the market. Neither existed at this time last year; Alice first sounded off last April, while the Peak debuted in June. But each has leapt into the Denver top ten by appealing to new fans and chipping away at the audiences of established stations. Clearly, the time for complacency among radio veterans is over. Or, as Doug Clifton, program director for the Peak, puts it, "We've already reached a lot of the goals that were part of our three-year plan in the first six months. But that just means that we're going to establish new goals."

The most successful pair on the ratings roster--KOA-AM/850 and KYGO-FM/ 98.5--have been generally unaffected by the appearances of the Peak and Alice; they continue to take turns on top. This time around, KOA's mix of talk, news and sports made it the winner, with a 9.9 share of the market. For its part, KYGO's mainstream country pulled an 8.1 share. However, classic-rock broadcaster KRFX-FM/103.5 (the Fox), which had been figuratively breathing down KYGO's neck, saw its share plummet from 7.3 to 5.6, resulting in a lackluster fifth-place finish. Perennial juggernaut KBCO-FM/97.3, widely seen as the innovator of the Adult Album Alternative--or AAA--format now gaining steam nationwide, also took a hit; its 4.0 share (a total derived by combining numbers from KBCO-AM and FM) was a half-point lower than those in the previous ratings book, causing it to slide to tenth. And while modern-rock KTCL-FM/93.3, the twentieth-place finisher, actually improved its ratings (from 1.6 to 1.9), its current share is more than a point lower than its recent zenith, achieved a year ago.

By contrast, the Peak zoomed from zero to a 5.2 share, putting it just behind the Fox (the Peak outpolled KXKL-FM/105.1--KOOL 105--but has slightly fewer listeners than KOOL when its AM and FM branches are combined). And Alice grabbed a 4.3 share and eighth place citywide. Just as important, neither shows any indication of having, er, peaked.

Aside from their success, the two newest Denver radio combatants have little in common. Alice, for example, is most often slapped with the industry term Hot AC--meaning an outlet that plays a somewhat progressive selection of adult-contemporary music. Greg Cassidy, Alice's program director, rejects this and other tags, but he does allow that the station's sound is designed to interest females between 18 and 34; he seems as proud that Alice is the third favorite among women of this vintage as he is of the 4.3 share, which is intended to measure the habits of all the market's radio consumers over age 12.

Still, Cassidy feels that Alice goes beyond the kind of housewife pop that is associated with the adult-contemporary descriptive. "The days of Bolton radio are over," he says. "There's no Michael Bolton at this radio station. We play contemporary music, music from the Eighties and new artists as well--the songs that we feel appeal directly to our primary target audience." Featured tunes, which range from midtempo melodies by the Gin Blossoms and Crowded House to the more accessible efforts of Depeche Mode and New Order, are introduced by disc jockeys who are more boisterous than the golden-throated seducers employed at the majority of ACs. "We're trying to make Alice a personality-driven radio station," Cassidy confirms. The most prominent Alice voices belong to morning-team members Frosty, Frank and Jamie, whose giggly banter often seems straight out of a particularly obnoxious margarine commercial.

Jocks at the Peak are laid-back by comparison: They have the same relaxed tone that has been a signature at KBCO for nearly twenty years. The Peak's Clifton comes by this approach honestly--he was a manager at KBCO for many years before jumping to his present home. Nonetheless, he doesn't want anyone thinking that the Peak is nothing more than a KBCO clone. "The whole concept behind this radio station," he insists, "is for us to be an alternative to other rock stations in town. We want to be fresh and innovative."

Just how fresh and innovative the Peak is is a topic of debate among radio competitors. Jack Evans, the operations manager for both the Fox and KBPI-FM/106.7, the area's primary provider of hard rock, dismisses the Peak's mix as "Eighties-based music," and there's something to that. Clifton estimates that 60 percent of what the Peak plays on an average day is older material, and much of that has roots in the early Eighties sounds exemplified by performers such as Talking Heads, the Police and Peter Gabriel. The station tries to avoid being rapped as classic new wave--a Fox for a subsequent generation--by playing work by newer artists, too: Clifton's current playlist includes the Cranberries, Jesus and Mary Chain, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, Smashing Pumpkins, Hootie and the Blowfish and Portishead. But by and large, even the more contemporary tracks the Peak airs are smooth enough not to disrupt a flow dominated by ditties that most listeners younger than 35 already know by heart. The result, says KTCL program director John Hayes, is "very safe. Even the new music they're playing sounds like Eighties music. What they've done is, they've planted themselves between KBCO on the right and us on the left." His name for the Peak format? "New Coke."

Whatever its flavor, the Peak's tack is working--although number-crunchers at outlets suffering ratings declines suggest it all could be temporary. According to Mary Rawlins, KBCO's vice president and general manager, "What you're seeing is incredible sampling going on. For example, Peak listeners are also listening to KBCO and KTCL and the Fox and Alice--even to KOA. So their audience is being drawn from a lot of different places. It's not like they're sticking with the Peak all day long." KTCL's Hayes adds that some of the Peak's and Alice's aficionados may be part of what he calls "the phantom cume." In layman's terms, that means that thanks to heavy TV advertising and good word of mouth, the two latest additions to the market are attracting people who haven't listened to radio for a while, or folks who just moved to town. When they tire of the Peak and Alice, Hayes believes, they may check out stations like KTCL. "We're trying to look at all this as a blessing in disguise," he says.

Don't blame Hayes for this glass-is-half-full mindset. After all, KTCL is the most vulnerable of those feeling the impact of the Peak. A contract to buy KTCL has been tendered by Cincinnati-based Tsunami Communications, but the purchase has not yet been made official. Hayes says the deal may be consummated at any time, or it may fall apart--and until something definite occurs, a long-awaited scheme to relocate the KTCL broadcasting tower, thereby dramatically improving its signal in Denver, won't happen. KTCL staffers also are in limbo--and if ratings don't keep improving, Tsunami might consider changing the format (Tsunami representatives decline comment about this possibility). "The thinking here is that we offer enough of a radical approach that Tsunami would retain us the way we are, musically speaking," Hayes notes. "But everyone's certainly anxious."

In the meantime, Hayes concedes that KTCL's sound is undergoing subtle changes prompted in part by its competition: "We're really trying to get on newer stuff earlier and present a wider variety of current music. The Peak is turning on people to a softer, safer sound--and then, when the listener is ready, he'll turn over to us."

Over at the Fox, Evans believes that KBCO has the most to lose in its wrestling match with the Peak. "KBCO is so bad that it's not any competition," he says. "It's so unfocused and is missing the mark by so much that the listener who enjoys the alternative sound or feel isn't punching back and forth between KBCO and the Peak anymore." But despite this bravado (espoused even though the Fox's ratings drop was far more precipitous than KBCO's), Evans admits that he, too, has been doing some musical fine-tuning of late: "Because of the Peak, we now focus a little more on the segues, how an overall hour sounds--being more selective and thinking more about the tempo and the types of songs that we're playing in a row." The Fox is also stepping up its edgy promotions. The latest alleged sidesplitter is a billboard featuring the likeness of recently murdered serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer alongside a slogan that reads "Grateful Dead."

KBCO is also doing some tweaking. Program director Judy McNutt says they've been conducting more Studio C sessions (in which acts are brought into the KBCO facility for interviews and extended acoustic performances) and focusing more than ever before on the quality and variety of the music it features. "We give our listeners credit for being open-minded and intelligent," she says. "We would expect them to be interested in checking out a station that has some similarities to--as well as some differences from--KBCO. But we're confident that they'll remain loyal over time." KBCO's Rawlins adds, "We already know that's happening from the phone calls to the studio and quite a few letters we've gotten. Our listeners are adventurous people who like checking out new things, but they're finding it feels good to come home."

If the Peak and Alice continue to expand their respective audiences throughout the rest of this year, confident claims like these may turn into the radio equivalent of whistling in a graveyard. The Peak's Clifton isn't cocky enough to guarantee this will happen, but he's clearly happy with the outlet's progress thus far. "There's been a whole reshaping of the radio market in the last year," he says. "It's been exciting for the Denver radio listener--and it's been exciting for us.


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