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As the Smoke Clears

On September 13, two major stories took place in Denver: Governor Bill Owens announced the grades earned by public schools across the state as part of the sweeping, much-discussed educational reform package put in place by the Colorado legislature, and Assistant Denver Fire Chief Charles Drennan Jr. was shot to death by a Denver Fire Department captain, Bob Cronin, who then turned a gun on himself.

On any other day, these reports would have led every local newscast -- but September 13, two days after terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, wasn't any other day. Patti Dennis, news director for Channel 9, still chose to break into regular programming when word of the murder-suicide surfaced, but doing so was more complicated than it would have been ordinarily. "We decided we had to transition from the attack story into local news," she says. "But at least the local story had some ties to the national story, because it involved firemen." By that evening, however, national news had reasserted itself. On Channel 9's top-rated late news, the Drennan-Cronin shootings and the school grading reports had been relegated to the very end of the broadcast, in the slot usually reserved for video essays about new baby animals at the zoo. Immediately thereafter, the station aired a photo of rescue workers raising the Stars and Stripes over the Trade Center wreckage as anchor Adele Arakawa paraphrased Francis Scott Key's declaration, "Our flag was still there."

It's hard to argue with this call. Even now, most Coloradans remain obsessed with each and every development in New York City and Washington, D.C., and the media nationally and in Denver has by and large done an impressive job of getting information to them. But as time goes on, new challenges will arise, with one of the first for Denver stations and publications being to cover events of potentially global significance without giving local news short shrift.

Early on, the ride was bumpy, especially at outlets unaccustomed to covering news, such as hard-rock radio station KBPI. On the morning of September 11, the Willie B.-led a.m. team was clearly out of its depth when bantering about what was happening in New York; comments included "Where's Bruce Willis -- you know what I'm sayin'?" and "Dude, this is right out of Die Hard!" Not long after these strained witticisms were supplemented by reminiscences about Towering Inferno ("O.J. was in that flick!"), management at Clear Channel, KBPI's owner, wisely began broadcasting syndicated news over the station, as well as on its other Denver FM properties; KTCL fanciers hoping to hear some Moby likely were caught off guard when they found Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel there instead, but it was still the right move. Nonetheless, this couldn't go on forever, and when KBPI went back to its regular broadcasting schedule on September 12, callers still wanted to focus on the attacks, forcing DJs used to gabbing about screaming riffs and bodacious ta-tas to touch on far more serious topics. Doing so unexpectedly well that afternoon was afternoon-drive host Uncle Nasty (aka Gregg Stone), who found a way to relate information compassionately and without condescension. Who'da thunk it?

Other yakkers working outside their comfort zones, such as the Fan's Sandy Clough, also acquitted themselves well. But local talk radio very quickly turned into a rhetorical minefield, especially when callers were driving the conversations. On September 12, a caller to KHOW told the temporary pairing of Reggie Rivers and Bob Davidson that we shouldn't be discussing on the radio what we might do to retaliate against terrorists, because the perpetrators could be listening and would then know how to protect themselves. Davidson responded to this bizarre statement logically, noting that it was totally idiotic. But instead of hurriedly making this guy go away, Rivers tried to get through to him using (eeesh) a football analogy concerning the subsequently postponed contest between the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts. (Not surprisingly, the caller didn't understand.) Two days later, on September 14, Clear Channel stations KHOW, KOA and KTLK combined forces to raise approximately $275,000 for Trade Center-related causes -- an astounding figure by any measure. But in between accepting donations that morning, host Peter Boyles was inundated with calls from people teetering on the brink of irrationality; topics included predictions by Nostradamus (bogus prophecies are flooding the Web) and a photo of the Trade Center in which a devil's head allegedly can be seen in the smoke (the Post ran a wire story about the latter).

Blessedly, the network newscasts largely downplayed such flotsam in favor of substantive matters. Misinformation did pop up now and again, and other matters slipped through the cracks, such as when the St. Petersburg Times reported that Fox News ran a toll-free Scientology number as a source for mental-health assistance. But the gaffes were small in number, understandable given the hysteria following the assaults, and invariably corrected as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, debate arose over the rawness of the footage that was screened in the day or so after the crashes. Some viewers felt U.S. fare was too sanitized and so turned to the tougher stuff provided by the BBC (seen locally for a time on the Learning Channel) and Univision, which, says one viewer, showed "bodies raining down" from the World Trade Center, including "a man trying to hold his coat up like a makeshift parachute before it was ripped from his hands." But many others objected when American channels showed similar snippets. In a September 13 New York Times piece, NBC vice president Bill Wheatley said his network's decision to run one such image was wrong.  

Or was it? In the same Times article, Denver Post editor Glenn Guzzo responded to complaints spurred by his paper's publication of a disturbing but stunning and evocative photo of a man plummeting to earth, head down, with the line "The terrible truth is the truth that we should not deny folks." (Guzzo made the same point in a September 16 column.) Hear, hear.

Other items in the dailies were tougher to understand. On September 11, the News and the Post found ways to publish extra editions, which the Denver Newspaper Agency hyped with a highly questionable press release on PR Newswire (only two of the over 100 other newspapers that printed extras did likewise), but somehow the papers couldn't yank blurbs about long-canceled events from entertainment sections that appeared the following Friday. And shouldn't someone at the Post have suggested holding a September 16 video-game column that included the deadpan line "War makes for some pretty good video gaming"? Like local TV, however, the News and the Post generally acquitted themselves well, with even the papers' fashion editors, Lesley Kennedy and Suzanne Brown (in New York for a big show at the time of the assaults), making valuable contributions.

Most of the local tie-ins found in the dailies revolved around the shutdown and startup of Denver International Airport and local victims, with sports, business and other non-news sections appearing in truncated form. The same was true of TV newscasts. On September 11, local sports and weather was virtually nonexistent, but by the next night, these staples were slowly beginning to reassert themselves. For example, the September 13 broadcast by Channel 4 devoted less than half the usual time to weather, with weatherman Larry Green squeezing in forecasts both for Colorado and New York City -- a smart decision that provided information people thirsted for even as it tied Green into a story to which he'd previously had little opportunity to contribute. Channel 4 news director Angie Kucharski thinks this particular choice illustrates the station's approach as a whole. "We know there's an overriding interest in the events happening on the East Coast," she says, "so we want to make sure and be responsible enough to provide proper context and coverage even as we look for appropriate and respectful ways to provide local coverage."

Bill Dallman, news director at Channel 31, is trying to walk this tightrope as well: "Being a local news entity, we want to cover the local impact, but not at the expense of the universal story that we all want to tune into. So we're trying to balance both -- and I think we've been able to do it."

Trying to achieve this goal hasn't been easy -- but the rough edges have sometimes been more revealing than perfection might have. Channel 31's newscasts usually conclude as follows: The sportscaster completes his segment and hands off to the two news anchors, who then give the weatherman a chance to synopsize the forecast one more time before all four say a cheerful goodbye. But on September 12, cheerfulness was out of the question, leaving primary sports anchor David Treadwell at sea. He glumly wrapped up his approximately sixty-second report about sporting events that might be called off (all of them were) before throwing to anchor Ron Zappolo, who did likewise to seemingly speechless weatherman Bob Goosmann. An instant later, this threesome plus fill-in anchor Kim Posey turned to face the main camera, apparently unable to find something to say. Finally, Zappolo saved the day, admitting, in one of the more honest moments in Denver's coverage of this story, "This has been another incredibly difficult day."

Unfortunately, there are more to come. Even now, there's fallout in unanticipated areas. For example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that The Onion, America's preeminent satirical newspaper (and a Denver favorite), is publishing "light and diversionary articles" from previous issues this week because of the impossibility of finding fun amid the carnage.  

In such an environment, pros like Channel 9's Dennis are relying on the most basic tenets of news judgment. "Every day we make decisions based on what we think is most important for viewers to know," she says. "And I don't know that the criteria has changed."

In a world where everything else has, that's good to know.

Erratum: The roster of journalists who made mistakes following last week's events includes yours truly. In my previous column, I wrote that Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce can be heard on Alice, when in fact they're now on KISS-FM.

Clearing out: During the September 14 Clear Channel fundraiser alluded to above, Don Howe, vice president and general manager of the Denver radio outlets owned by the Texas-based behemoth, spent the day in front of the operation's headquarters collecting money alongside his family (he's married and has three sons, ages fifteen, thirteen and ten). The occasion was emotional, Howe says, and not simply for the obvious reasons. Why? Howe already knew he would be leaving Denver, where he's spent the last fourteen years.

Howe's new title with Clear Channel is West Coast Senior Vice President, and his duties entail overseeing 125 stations, most of them in California (the Denver market is part of the Plains/Northwest region, under the supervision of Jay Meyers). As such, he'll be relocating to San Diego at year's end. Until then, he'll handle his chores from Denver, with Lee Larsen, previously in charge of Clear Channel's local AM properties, sliding into Howe's old post. "I was hesitant to leave, because we have deep roots in Colorado," Howe says. "But I'm looking forward to working at this new level."

The legacy Howe leaves behind is a complicated one. When he arrived in Denver during the late '80s as an employee of Jacor Communications (a firm Clear Channel subsequently swallowed), his company owned just two stations, KOA and what became the Fox. But in short order, Jacor picked up KAZY, which Howe used to destroy a rival outlet, KBPI, that Jacor later picked off the scrap heap and returned to powerhouse status. (Howe calls this accomplishment his greatest in Denver.) He was also at the helm when, following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- a law that allowed businesses to own eight stations in any market and an unlimited number overall -- Jacor hit the FCC maximum here. Denver, Howe notes, was the first city in which this happened. Finally, Howe birthed Jacor Concerts, a precursor to Clear Channel Concerts, currently the largest concert-promotion outfit in the nation.

Many observers see such consolidation as bad for competition and consumers alike, including the partners in Nobody in Particular Presents, a local promotion company that filed a lawsuit against Clear Channel in U.S. District Court, alleging innumerable monopolistic practices ("Taking on the Empire," August 23). NIPP's Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale declined to comment about what Howe's departure might mean to them, but Barry Fey, the venerable head of another Clear Channel adversary, House of Blues, wasn't so reticent. He feels Howe is being moved because of heat from the lawsuit and an ongoing Justice Department investigation of Clear Channel. "Don Howe and his merry men are responsible for all of that," he says. "The first domino has fallen."

Howe denies that the suit was factored into his new gig, and circumstantial evidence backs him up. When Clear Channel announced its regional supervision plan on August 27, former AMFM executive Jim Donahoe was named West Coast head. But weeks later, Donahoe resigned because of what he told Radio & Record were differences between his vision and Clear Channel's; Howe was then hurriedly recruited to take his place.

Still, Howe's departure may mean shifts in the way Clear Channel does business in Denver. Fey, for one, is thrilled that Larsen, whom he calls "a good, decent man," has been put in charge, and he's equally pleased that director of FM programming Mike O'Connor, who shares Howe's hard-nosed reputation, didn't get the nod. "That would be like putting Adolf Eichmann in charge of United Jewish Appeal," he says.

The normally pugnacious Howe doesn't rise to such bait. With the clock winding down on his time in Denver, he seems downright sentimental. "This is bittersweet," he says. "But it's the right move."

Turmoil a-Go-Go: The biweekly known as Go-Go has been among the more resilient zines to hit Denver in recent years. Founded by Gary Haney in 1999, it began life as a quasi-pornographic mag but was soon transformed into a more mainstream entertainment source -- and lately, its page count has been inching upward despite the generally lousy economic climate. But what took place behind the scenes last week -- specifically, the firing of longtime editor Chris Magyar and the resignation of art director Marilyn Taylor -- implies that Go-Go may be shakier than it seems.  

Go-Go publisher Sean Weaver, who's also the editor of the Metropolitan, the Metro State student paper, insists that the paper is doing well largely because of a new and talented sales staff, and so does its owner, Trygve Lode, a local actor, bodybuilder and entrepreneur whose association with the magazine isn't known in many quarters. But as the paper expanded, Magyar suggests, the wallets of Go-Go contributors shrank. Specifically, he says, most freelance writers and drivers working for the circulation department weren't receiving checks for their work on time, with many payments late by as much as six weeks, not counting a standard thirty-day delay instituted by the accounting department.

Magyar says he received numerous questions from writers about this situation but received no satisfaction from Weaver -- and when a friend of his owed several hundred dollars by Go-Go was threatened with eviction, the editor finally lost patience. Before long, Magyar cooked up a plan with Taylor to shake some cash loose from Go-Go's coffers. The two decided they would confront Weaver about the non-payments, telling him that they would give him a disc loaded with the contents of the next Go-Go only if he either paid all the freelancers and drivers or contacted these individuals to explain why their money had yet to arrive. And on September 10, that's what they did.

According to Magyar, he and Taylor had no intention of actually sabotaging the issue; the articles and artwork were safely buried on Magyar's hard drive, and the disc they waved at Weaver was blank. But Weaver, who grabbed the empty disc from Magyar's hand during the confrontation, says their intentions are immaterial. As Weaver puts it, "Chris wasn't let go because of his demands. He was let go because of the way he handled his demands."

After Weaver told Magyar to fork over his keys and clean out his desk, Taylor quit in protest. "Chris is an extremely honorable person who's always been honest with me -- and honesty is one thing I didn't get from the other leaders there," she says. "That's why I followed him out."

Where that leaves Go-Go, which sports a circulation around 35,000, is anyone's guess. Magyar, who informed his freelancers of his firing by e-mail (a copy of which found its way to Westword), says he didn't ask any of his scribes to quit but adds that eight have told him that they won't work for Go-Go again. For his part, Weaver insists that "90 percent" of Go-Go's freelancers have told him they'd like to stay -- a claim that certainly doesn't jibe with Magyar's. Weaver also maintains that checks went out to some writers and drivers last week, with more to come.

Lode, too, emphasizes that payments are being made and says that, to his knowledge, no one was owed money for as long as Magyar contends. He purchased Go-Go last year, he adds, but initially kept the transaction quiet for fear that people would think a cover story the publication put out about a film he produced and stars in (Dragon and the Hawk, set for video release in November) was linked to his ownership. In fact, he says he knew almost nothing about Go-Go prior to being interviewed and didn't buy it until two months after the profile hit the streets. More recently, he says, "I haven't either made a lot of owning Go-Go nor made a point of hiding it." Supporting this statement is the presence of Go-Go Media LLC on his Web site, trygve.com; contradicting it is a restaurant review Go-Go offered in July, in which Lode is prominently featured but never identified as the magazine's owner.

Whatever the case, Lode says Go-Go isn't going anywhere: "It's not in any particular danger or anything like that. Go-Go has to keep to a budget, but that's the case with any small business. And I'm utterly committed to making this work."

Weaver is now interviewing applicants for the editor and art director openings, but he guaranteed that the next Go-Go, slated for September 27, would arrive on time whether he's hired anyone or not. "We've made it through some tough waters before, and this is just another wave the boat will go over," he says.

Magyar, whom Weaver praises as "a talented guy," hopes that's the case; he says he'd be saddened if Go-Go wound up gone-gone. But he believes his departure, and Taylor's, will be felt for quite some time. "The publication can't continue as it has been, because I had such an amount of control and impact over it that without me, it couldn't," he says. "There may still be something called Go-Go, but without Marilyn and me, it'll read differently and look differently. That's not overstating or bragging; that's just the way it is."


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