Clearing the Channels
Finally, it has come to pass.
On March 6, Texas's Clear Channel Communications announced that 72 of the 125 or so radio stations it must divest as a result of its early-October merger with another Texas-based broadcasting colossus, AMFM, have been sold. Since that total includes five of the six Denver stations Clear Channel needed to spin off locally, the result makes the area radio picture a bit clearer, but it certainly doesn't answer every question. The bomb has dropped, but the casualty reports won't be official for around ninety days.
This much we know: Three stations -- rock-oldies purveyor KOOL 105, rhythmic-oldies expert Jammin' and KIMN/The Mix -- are slated to join the portfolio of New York's Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, the biggest challenger to Clear Channel nationwide; Alice has been picked up by Salem Communications, a California company that concentrates on religious programming and conservative talk -- two specialties not shared by Alice's biggest current names, groin-fixated yakkers Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce; and the Peak is now part of Hispanic Broadcasting, another Texas firm. The last deal makes "El Peako," a satire about the Peak being purchased by just such a company staged last year by Rover MacDaniels ("Son of Stern," November 25, 1999), seem like mind-reading.
That leaves classical KVOD as the only local station slated for divestiture that's presently without a home. But few observers expect the station to retain its classical format when someone does buy it. The Peak, too, is almost certainly dead: One radio insider snickers that Howard Stern, whose morning show has aired on the Peak since 1998, will disappear from his current slot "unless he learns to speak Spanish." As for other potential changes, they're supported only by gossip at this point -- but some of that gossip is mighty fine.
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What follows are the rumors that make the most sense.
Infinity, which has long hungered for a slice of the Denver market, now has one -- and the smart money argues that the firm, which owns more than 160 radio stations across the country (as opposed to Clear Channel's 830), won't be satisfied with only three signals. Dana McClintock, vice president of communications for CBS, which owns Infinity, doesn't flat-out confirm this hypothesis, but he comes close: "We're always looking to expand," he says, "and there's room for us to buy more stations in Denver. It's just a question of if there's a seller."
In the meantime, look for changes at one or more of the stations Infinity just purchased. Why? In most of its markets, Infinity has an FM news/talk outlet -- and such a station would be especially advantageous in Denver, where it would complement Channel 4, a TV station also owned by CBS. McClintock hints that such a signal is in Denver's future: "We have FM talk stations around the country, and they've been quite successful. And it's nice that we have a TV station in Denver, as well as an AFC team [the Denver Broncos] that our station has the rights to broadcast."
Then there's the little matter of Stern, whose program is also in the CBS/Infinity family. Because Stern will soon be disappearing from the Peak, where he's generated big ratings numbers (if not big revenues), he could wind up on the proposed Infinity FM talker. But that's a potentially awkward fit given that Channel 4 stopped airing Stern's TV show after he made controversial comments about the shootings at Columbine High; Channel 4 chieftain Marv Rockford would have to do some serious spinning to make sense of that. So there's a viable chance that Stern might become part of an Infinity station other than the one affiliated with Channel 4. Of the three new Infinity stations, KOOL 105 is probably the least apt to face a format switch, since it fits a well-established niche. But Jammin' is relatively new on the scene and has cut into KOOL's audience share. Betcha it's history. KIMN is also a candidate for remodeling; its historic call letters might match perfectly with an FM talk approach.
On the Alice front, Salem of Colorado general manager Carolyn Bernhardt says that there are no plans to change the format at this time -- a claim that generates peals of laughter from almost everyone. Of the four other Salem stations in Denver, three (KRKS-AM and FM and KBJD-AM/The Beat) are Christian in focus, and the fourth, KNUS, is a news outlet with a right-wing bent. Moreover, all of the more than sixty Salem stations fit one of these descriptions -- something that Tricia Whitehead, Salem's corporate spokesperson, emphasizes. According to her, "It's safe to say that Salem's strategy has been to reformat stations into religious or conservative-talk stations." This fact hasn't escaped White and Bonaduce; on their March 7 show, they joked that the terms "Jesus Christ" and "penis" will be off-limits for them until they're run out of Denver for good.
Not so fast. Last week, grapevine monitors were guessing that Salem would keep the Alice format, citing as evidence the recent hiring of Gregg Cassidy, who helped launch Alice in 1994, as program director for the Beat, which debuted in January at 1650 on the expanded AM-stereo band. But Cassidy denies that he's going back to one of his previous triumphs: "The whole Alice thing is a thing of the past for me," he says. In addition, both he and Bernhardt note that the Beat is intended to have wide appeal, with none of the block programming associated with Christian stations and a seamless music blend that should appeal to Christian and secular audiences alike. And since neither downplay the difficulties of getting audiences to turn to 1650, a part of the dial that can't be accessed on many older stereos, the possibility exists that Salem will dump Alice to simulcast the Beat at its current AM locale and at Alice's 105.9 FM frequency, just as Radio Disney is heard on regular AM and stereo AM.
The Alice concept, meanwhile, could wind up in Clear Channel's pocket. Numerous sources report that the company is interested in buying the format despite the hit it took in the fall '99 ratings book (it tumbled from a 5.8 mark among listeners twelve and over to a 4.2). To make room for Alice, these folks say, Clear Channel could insert it at the 106.7 frequency currently occupied by struggling hard-rocker KBPI, shift KBPI to the 93.3 space home to alterna-rocker KTCL, and push KTCL back to Fort Collins, whence it sprang many years ago. (Some observers feel that Clear Channel's lite-jazz station, K-High, could be disappeared in favor of Alice, but that's doubtful; even though it doesn't fit in with what KTCL program director Mike O'Connor calls Clear Channel's "rock and talk" focus in Denver, it costs little to run and is quite profitable.)
To add more credence to the Alice/Clear Channel pairing, onlookers note that AMFM -- which, as you might recall, merged with Clear Channel -- already owns the Internet domain name www.Alice1067.com. The explanation for that likely has to do with the existence of a Detroit station that uses the Alice handle and broadcasts at 106.7 FM; because its Web site is www.TheNewAlice1067.com, the other name was probably procured for use once the station is no longer "new." But the two domain names would certainly give Clear Channel some options, wouldn't they?
There's no logical survival scenario for the Peak. Hispanic Broadcasting hadn't responded to repeated calls for comment by press time, but of its 45 U.S. stations, not a single one broadcasts in a language other than Spanish. This sets up a high-stakes battle for Spanish-language listeners in Denver, pitting Hispanic against California's EXCL, owner of KJMN-FM/92.1 and KMXA-AM/1090. It also leaves Peak staffers such as Rover MacDaniels up a creek. By the morning of March 6, MacDaniels had already updated his Web site, www.roverradio.com, with a new item: "Hey, Rover's Looking For a Job!"
MacDaniels doesn't have anything to worry about. His Arbitron triumph in the fall book, which saw his ratings for male listeners 18-34 climb from 4.7 points to 8.9, is a nifty calling card that's seized the attention of at least four stations outside Denver. But that doesn't mean he'll enjoy leaving. "I love Denver," he says, "and for a while, when CBS was trying to buy the station, it looked like I might be able to stay. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that with Howard Stern beating Lewis & Floorwax [the Fox morning team] and us neck and neck with KBPI, they didn't want to sell to a real competitor.
"The people of Denver really embraced the station," he adds, "so I'm a little disappointed. But with the big corporate behemoths that run radio anymore, what else can you expect?"
Clear Channel has been making news on other fronts as well; last week it announced that it was merging with New York's SFX Entertainment, owner of Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents (BGP/CMP), a major player in Denver concert promotion. Considering the obvious potential for anti-competitive abuses, the pact is sure to catch the Justice Department's eye. Would Clear Channel restrict the access of other promoters to its airwaves to protect SFX's operation? Might SFX have an unfair advantage over its competitors because of its guaranteed access to major info conduits? No one can say for certain, but neither prospect can be dismissed out of hand.
Right now, though, Clear Channel clearly has a stranglehold on high-profile Denver radio stations -- so much so that until Infinity hits town, there are few executives from rival companies to even ask about the impact of the SFX purchase. North Carolina's Jefferson-Pilot Communications, which owns C&W-king KYGO and R&B-oriented KS-107.5, has the country and hip-hop markets sewn up, and will be largely unaffected by the Clear Channel-SFX marriage. That leaves just one other significant player -- Chicago's Tribune Broadcasting, whose holdings include classic-rocker the Hawk, adult contemporary KOSI and nostalgic KEZW -- outside Clear Channel's circle of influence. Yowza.
David Juris, vice president of Denver Tribune Radio, doesn't see Clear Channel's move as a reason to hit the panic button. He's worked with BGP/CMP often and expects that relationship to continue. "SFX will still need radio stations outside the Clear Channel group to help sell tickets to shows," Juris argues, "and I don't think it would make a lot of sense for them to exclude us or other stations outside the group." When asked if the Hawk, especially, will have difficulty lining up exclusive concerts, as it's done in the past with acts such as Boston, Juris underlines Tribune's attributes: "We benefit by being relatively independent. We're not threatening to record companies and promoters, and we're not looking to leverage or control the marketplace, which is something they're very concerned about."
Perhaps they should be. Music-biz insiders in Denver have long claimed that Clear Channel stations (especially when they were owned by Jacor Communications, a Kentucky firm subsequently swallowed by Clear Channel) threatened acts that chose to hook up with other stations in the market with airplay boycotts. Some area promoters have also whispered that the company made advertising difficult, particularly during the period when Jacor was putting a major push behind its concert division, Jacor Concerts.
Clear Channel executives have always denied that they've employed such tactics, and company vice president Don Howe rules out the practices in the future. "Our job is to grow our radio stations," Howe says, "and we'll continue to work with any promoters who bring bands to town that make sense for our radio stations. We've never turned anyone down who's brought something of value to the table for us, and that will continue, regardless of our partnership with SFX." Howe sees the merger as demonstrating the "natural synergy that exists between radio stations and the concert business, which is something we started to explore with Jacor Concerts four or five years ago." But he skips the part about how Jacor Concerts had to be scaled back when a number of its shows became disastrous money-losers.
Predictably, BGP/CMP's Chuck Morris sees nothing but upside in the Clear Channel/SFX deal: "It came as a surprise, but we think it's going to be very exciting," he says. Mark Norman, Denver head of House of Blues, BGP/CMP's chief rival, is far quieter, referring all questions to House of Blues's corporate office -- an indication that his leash has been shortened since an embarrassing ticketing scandal involving the Backstreet Boys that broke late last year. But Doug Kauffman, head of nobody in particular presents, a defiantly independent concert firm, isn't afraid to speak up.
"I'm glad we're an independent and not subject to these tidal waves of change in the music and radio businesses," Kauffman says. "And I think this kind of consolidation will only increase the numbers of bands that will have to depend on touring to make their living, because less bands will be broken through the traditional format of radio. That just won't be available to a lot of bands anymore."
Now, there's a cheery thought.
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