At a few minutes past midnight on May 18, after more than half a day of uninterrupted radio listening, I felt my will to live gradually slipping away. Which was good news, actually, since I thought I'd lost it entirely during the late afternoon.
I had no one to blame for my predicament but me. I'd heard radio consumers complain that the quality of music, talk and information shows on the local airwaves had gotten worse ever since the '90s rise of corporate consolidation, when Clear Channel and other companies began taking ever larger bites out of the Denver market. Broadcasting professionals countered that, in truth, residents are blessed with more, and better, programming choices than ever before, even without satellite radio. To determine which theory more closely resembled reality, I decided to go where no sane radio fan had gone before: I would totally immerse myself in radio, radio, radio, from one morning to the next and let the brain cells fall where they might.
As a location for this experiment, I chose my office, tucked inside Westword's 969 Broadway base of operations. At approximately eight feet by eleven feet and featuring a pair of windows that don't afford a view of the great outdoors, the space seemed ideal for focusing entirely on sound. As a bonus, the ancient Sony Mega Bass boombox on my desk is able to receive a whopping 46 stations from the Denver area and beyond, not counting the FM broadcast of Channel 6's television signal. When, at one point, Barney's voice filled the room, I briefly wondered if I'd been possessed by the devil -- and as of now, the jury's still out.
To ensure that I learned as much as possible about the maximum number of outlets, I self-imposed some harsh regulations. I had to sample every station in turn unless I arrived at one during a commercial break. Moreover, I was required to listen for at least two minutes, in order to give each station a fair shake, and couldn't linger for more than five minutes, so playing favorites was impossible.
Additional rules? No communication with outsiders. No using the phone. No reading or answering e-mail. In fact, no reading anything. No Internet -- because after twenty hours or so of visual starvation, there's no telling how large a pornography bill I could have run up. No beverages other than water, thereby removing drinking myself into a stupor from my list of options. No food other than the breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions: Count Chocula. No leaving the office except to visit the lavatory. And on those side trips, I had to wear headphones and bring a portable radio with me so I wouldn't be away from a broadcast for a nanosecond.
What follows are chronological highlights and lowlights from my 24 hours in the Denver radio bubble, which took place from 9:36 a.m. May 17 to 9:36 a.m. May 18, along with a related story (see page 34) identifying trends and themes, disturbing and otherwise. In the end, I got a sense of how much information is coursing through the ether every minute of every day.
And it terrified me.
9:36 a.m. The Fox (103.5 FM)
In the early '90s, plenty of people thought Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax, who anchor this classic-rock station, were shock jocks. Now, however, the FCC and Congress are threatening to punish radio stations for the teensiest transgression. On this morning, at least, Lewis and Floorwax don't make any. In fact, they sound about as edgy as John Tesh. Sure, Lewis reads an item in which retro-rocker Lenny Kravitz says people should forgo underwear after the first date, but the boys resist the urge to respond with wacky commentary about dangling, chafing, bulging or smegma. They spend more time talking about an e-mail thanking them for their kind words about the local high school rodeo association. Controversial!
9:43 a.m. Jack-FM (105.5 FM)
This new rock-era music station promotes itself with the counterintuitive slogan "Playing what we want." I decide it would be interesting to see how long it takes for the folks there to play what I want. The first attempt, George Michael's "Father Figure," is a failure. If the song wasn't creepy in the first place, it certainly is now.
9:45 a.m. Alice (105.9 FM)
At its peak of popularity, the Alice morning show co-starring Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds was among the least sexist in Denver. Now that Greg is matched with Shea Maddox, have things changed? Well, as part of a contest to hire "Alice's $30,000 Apprentice," Greg and Shea interview a young woman who says the station would be better if it paid more attention to lesser-known sports. When the caller notes that she competed in the hammer throw, Greg zeroes in on what he apparently assumes is a hefty target. "You're kind of a big girl, then," he says before declaring, "Maybe you wouldn't be single if you didn't know how to throw the hammer so well." Turns out she's married and is no longer a hammer-thrower -- although she might want to come out of retirement to toss one at Greg.
9:50 a.m. KBPI (106.7 FM)
Okay, so Lewis and Floorwax are holding their tongues, but surely Willie B., Marc Stout and D-Mak of The Locker Room, once the bawdiest program in Denver, are still sticking them out at the feds, the politicians, and anyone else offended by an eyeful of Janet Jackson's nipple. So what are the bad boys of hard-rock radio talking about? Getting listeners to guess the real name of ancient game-show host Wink Martindale, who probably means less than nothing to the youthful demographic KBPI is trying to attract. What's next? Silent-movie trivia? Name that Al Jolson song?
9:57 a.m. KYGO (98.5 FM)
Sales-wise, country music is experiencing a downturn nationwide, but perennial powerhouse KYGO remains the most listened-to station in Denver by dishing out an allegedly hot form of C&W. First example: Diamond Rio's "Wrinkles," a goopy dad-and-his-lad narrative replete with whiny vocals and lines like "Son, you're still young. You're gonna be okay." If this is hot, then Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" is scorching!
10:18 a.m. KRKS (94.7 FM)
Christian stations KRKS-FM and KRKS-AM/990 are loaded with syndicated talk fare such as Jay Sekulow Live, produced by Virginia's American Center for Law & Justice. In this edition, Sekulow is extremely agitated by the gay marriages taking place in Massachusetts, where judges declared the practice to be legal as of today. "In the midst of this chaotic situation, one thing is increasingly clear -- the need for a federal marriage amendment," Sekulow says. Marilyn Musgrave couldn't agree more.
10:21 a.m. KISS (95.7 FM)
The Fox and KBPI are walking on eggshells -- but Jamie White'll stomp on them, right? After all, she was known as Denver's potty-mouth gal before moving to Los Angeles to pair with child-star-turned-nutball Danny Bonaduce. The chances for envelope-pushing on KISS-FM, their hit-music-specializing Denver affiliate, look good once Danny starts telling about a motorcycle trip with a guy he describes as a "bitch." It's the first profanity of the morning, albeit one that's okay to use on Animal Planet. It's also the only one Bonaduce unleashes. No more curses -- foiled again!
10:38 a.m. KLTT (670 AM)
On Darren: Live in Denver, a locally produced program aired by this Christian-oriented station, the host talks about having a problem with one of his rental car's tires. Fortunately, he says, "God provided a Wal-Mart six miles down the road." So that's who's responsible for those places.
10:45 a.m. KLDC (800 AM)
The first happy discovery of the morning. KLDC is a Christian station, which doesn't exactly make it unique in Denver. The twist? The musical focus is on old-style gospel music so soulful and heartfelt that it can be enjoyed by believer and heathen alike. Amen.
10:47 a.m. KOA (850 AM)
Pity the poor weak-kneed liberal who thinks he can win over Denver conservative icon Mike Rosen. When the guy tries to argue that our war in Iraq is motivated by our thirst for oil, Rosen barks, "That's simplistic nonsense.... If we only cared about oil, we would have gone to Saudi Arabia, because they've got a lot more oil. We would have taken over their oil fields." Rather than express fear that someone in the current administration might think this is a good idea, the caller crumbles in the face of Rosen's onslaught. The display is impressive, but not pretty.
10:53 a.m. Radio 1190 (1190 AM)
The music being pumped out at the outlet affiliated with the University of Colorado at Boulder raises my spirits. Odds are strong that at any given moment, the most interesting song on Denver radio is being played by Radio 1190.
11:10 a.m. KCUV (1510 AM)
And when Radio 1190 drops the ball? KCUV, an Americana station that fills a long-vacant niche for area listeners, is there to pick it up. Whiskeytown's "Midway Park," the current track, symbolizes the good taste of KCUV's programmers.
11:12 a.m. 16 Kicks (1600 AM)
The mainstream press seldom acknowledges it, but 16 Kicks, once known as KYGO-AM, deserves notice. Instead of concentrating on what passes for country music these days, the station digs into the authentic stuff, such as "Charlie's Shoes," by Charlie Walker. The right end of the AM dial has got more good stuff than most people realize.
11:17 a.m. Radio Disney (1690 AM)
There's still plenty of danger in this part of the spectrum, though -- as when I'm suddenly thrust into the middle of a tune in which a perky-voiced dude yelps, "C'mon, everybody! Let's clean up the house!" as women in the background chant, "Tidy it up! Tidy it up!" Seconds later, Winnie the Pooh is rockin' "A Little Black Rain Cloud." Luckily, I don't have any Drano in my office, or I'd be gobbling it like Dippin' Dots.
11:33 a.m. KRKS-FM
On Abounding Grace, Pastor Ed Taylor reaches into the Bible, proclaiming, "For the uncircumcised had been committed to me, Paul says, as the gospel of the circumcised was committed to Peter." Who'da thunk that Christian radio would sound dirtier than the secular kind?
11:47 a.m. KOSI (101.1 FM)
To the age-old question, "Is there any station sadistic enough to still play ŒSailing,' by Christopher Cross?," Denver's soft-rock leader answers in the affirmative.
11:53 a.m. Jack FM
The Eagles' "New Kid in Town." Playing what I don't want -- again.
12:05 p.m. KS-107.5 (107.5 FM)
The FCC crackdown presents problems to stations like KS-107.5, which is trying to keep it real with the hip-hop faithful without having to pay a real big fine. Take "Oochie Wally," by the Bravehearts, featuring Nas. The cut contains loads o' obscenities ("He really, really, really fucked my coochie.... I fuck a bitch face more than her waist"), and even the lines without them, such as "He really, really tried to hurt me, hurt me/I really love his thug and gangsta style" would raise the feds' collective eyebrows. What to do? The station plays the song but bleeps it so often that it sounds like the signal is drifting.
12:34 p.m. KNRC (1150 AM)
When talk station KNRC debuted, it boasted about offering programs catering to those on "both sides" of topical issues. Two years later, everyone on the station while the sun shines is a conservative with the exception of Enid Goldstein, whose show was moved opposite of Rush Limbaugh's, either as counter-programming or as a tactic to make sure no one ever hears her again. Today she's decrying the position of certain leaders within the Catholic Church, who've tried to use the sacrament of communion to political ends. Too bad she undermines her points by continually mispronouncing the name of Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput: She says "SHAY-poo" instead of "sha-POO." Timber! Credibility falling!
1:14 p.m. KBCO (97.3 FM)
The station that launched the Adult Album Alternative, or Triple-A, format is still a ratings machine, but it's not exactly breaking new ground. This is my third stop at the station today, and thus far I've heard the Grateful Dead's "Estimated Prophet" (snooze), David and David's "Welcome to the Boomtown" (zzzzzz) and Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe," which is being played on half a dozen other local stations. Wake me when it's over.
1:18 p.m. The Mountain (99.5 FM)
Considerably more innovative is the Mountain, which manages to make a lot of old rock sound new again. Things get more promising when "Mountain guide" Mike Casey mentions a band he describes as "a key link between punk and grunge." Then he says he won't play the song until after the next commercial break, by which time I'll be tuned to something else. Talk about a missing link.
1:27 p.m. KOSI (101.1 FM)
Horror has a name: Clay Aiken.
2:01 p.m. Radio 1190
Thank goodness for Radio 1190. The Minutemen, followed by Argentine electro artist Juana Molina. Ahhhh...
3:19 p.m. KLTT
Aaaargh! It's Bob Enyart, Colorado's proudest homophobe! Predictably, Bob's going off on the gay marriages in Massachusetts. "Probably in city after city, we'll have city council referendums recognizing May 17 as what? Official Homo Liberation Day? The first homosexual, perverted couple to get married?" A moment later, he tries to explain himself in more detail: "I realize that sounds a little harsh to some Christians, but let me just clarify. We have, as a Christian community, respected and tolerated homosexuals, and as a result, millions of people have destroyed their lives by experimenting with homosexuality.... The Bible taught us to stigmatize the behavior. We should restigmatize the behavior, and recriminalize it, and try to get them to repent." Thanks for the explanation.
4:15 p.m. KRKS-FM
The Gino Geraci Show also takes a swing at gay marriage, with Gino saying that the depravity of homosexuality "is compounded when they say we should approve of and validate through our laws their acting on their sinful desires... We should never say, 'Okay, you're struggling with your wrongful desires. Bless your heart. Go ahead and do what you want to do.'" Betcha gay people are really enjoying radio today.
4:47 p.m. Alice
Bo Reynolds, Greg Thunder's former morning partner, is now helming Alice's afternoon shift with local-radio vet Slacker, and they're trying to find a way to talk about the collapse of a girder on I-70, which killed a family of three, without bringing anybody down -- a mission every bit as doomed as Apollo 13's. "The next of kin are going to be gajillionaires," Slacker enthuses, before asking, "Does this mean the family was decapitated, or were they just crushed?" Radio wit just hit a new high!
5:01 p.m. KS-107.5
Finally, my timing is right. I arrive at KS-107.5 at the start of the "5 O'Clock Commercial-Free Traffic Jam," a live mix show overseen by DJ Chonz. Commercial stations in major population centers have had mix programs like this for years, but Denver lagged behind. Now, Chonz and his crew are getting the opportunity to display their skills five days a week. It's a little slice of hip-hop heaven.
5:54 p.m. Jammin' 92.5 (92.5 FM)
"Wild Thing," by Tone Loc, isn't hip-hop heaven; more like purgatory. But the folks at Jammin', which is trying to enliven its playlist of super-familiar R&B and soul classics with a smidgen of rap, apparently thinks it won't scare anyone off. Wrong.
6:11 p.m. The Mountain
Here comes "Bittersweet," by Big Head Todd and the Monsters, which will turn out to be the only song by a local artist I'll hear in a 24-hour period. The...only...one. Pathetic.
6:27 p.m. KBPI
After DJ Uncle Nasty plugs Ozzfest, a disembodied voice announces, "This hour sponsored by Rogaine." No, I'm not making this up.
6:47 p.m. The Fan (950 AM)
At last, some challenging sports talk to make up for the all-too-typical chats I've heard on the Zone/760 AM and ESPN Radio, at 560 AM. The reason is the Fan's Sandy Clough, the smartest and crankiest sports personality on Denver's airwaves. He's discussing the possible repercussions of a report about the CU recruiting scandal, and unlike most of his peers, he's doing so as a serious commentator, not an inveterate homer who's less concerned about rape than he is the Buffs' chances of beating the Cornhuskers. No wonder the station has moved his slot out of prime time.
9:33 p.m. Jack FM
"Would I Lie to You?," by the Eurythmics -- a song I actually like! At last, the people at Jack played something I wanted. Only took twelve hours.
10:07 p.m. KRKS-AM
Host Dr. Albert Mohler says that because of the gay marriages taking place in Massachusetts, May 17, 2004, is "a day that will live in moral infamy," much like December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001. Seems to me that he's equating the deaths of thousands of people to a couple of guys saying vows to each other -- but maybe I'm just losing focus. I down a caffeine pill I bought at King Soopers and hope for the best.
10:12 p.m. Radio 1190
My hope is false. As night has fallen, I've lost reception on several stations. The absence of Radio 1190, which has been reduced to static, hurts the most.
11:05 p.m. KOOL 105 (105.1 FM)
KOOL generally plays only those rock oldies that everyone over the age of two knows by heart, to make sure nothing startles its increasingly fragile audience. So I'm caught off-guard when, for the first time today (and maybe ever), I hear a song I don't immediately recognize. Turns out to be "Drip Drop," by Dion and the Belmonts, a song that didn't even make the Top 40. Stay up late enough and anything can happen.
11:41 p.m. KNRC
Sean Hannity was on KNUS, at 710 AM, in the afternoon, when normal people could hear him. On the other hand, Hannity's lame-o liberal partner, Alan Colmes, is consigned to the wee hours, just after another syndicated liberal, the uni-monikered Lionel, whom KNRC continues to run in an attempt to hang onto its increasingly dubious "both sides" slogan. Other syndicators who come out at night and early in the morning are on the right side of the fence: Michael Medved, Laura Ingraham, Bill Bennett, Michael Savage and Mike Gallagher on KNUS, Lars Larson and a sprinkling of the aforementioned hosts on KBJD-AM/1650 (also known as KNUS 2), and Michael Reagan on, yes, KNRC. John Kerry wouldn't like what they've got to say.
12:27 a.m. KYGO
Throughout the day and into the night, KYGO has interspersed the occasional up-tempo party tune, like Blue Country's "Good Little Girls" (who apparently make "some mighty wild women"), with sap like "My Last Name," in which Dierks Bentley warbles, "Darling, if you're wonderin' why I've got you here tonight/I want to be your husband/I want you to be my wife." Nausea rising. Might be the caffeine pill, might be something else.
2:44 a.m. KOA
How many live humans are on the air in Denver during the middle of the night? Hard to say. News, sports and Christian stations generally switch over to syndication services after midnight, and other specialty programs begin popping up, like Loveline, with Dr. Drew Pinsky and Adam Carolla, on KBPI, and Ask the Dream Doctor, featuring dream interpreter Charles McPhee, on the Mix. FM music stations keep playing songs over this span, and sometimes voices sound between them, but most, if not all, are pre-recorded. That leaves Rick Barber, the last live local talk-show host in Denver, who's still hanging on at KOA. Call him Ol' Lonesome.
3:43 a.m. The Mountain
I've hated the purring male voice who says "99.5, the Mountain" between songs on the Mountain since the first moment I heard it. For a station that makes such a point of humanizing radio, using links that recall HAL 9000 is a terrible idea. But only now, after more than eighteen hours of listening, do I realize how evil his tone is. Get me to a Christian station...fast!
4:09 a.m. KLTT
"We are like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden.... We fear that He will judge us and kill us." At this point, everything sounds evil.
5:07 a.m. KISS
That includes Jamie and Danny, back to haunt me for another day. They steer clear of profanities, but when Jamie starts talking about the "fat pockets" on her legs, and how she likes to rub them because they give her comfort -- well, I think even Michael Powell would prefer a nice F-bomb.
5:18 a.m. KOSI
That kind of talk would undoubtedly freak out Murphy Huston and Jo Myers, the most inoffensive, rigorously pleasant morning team in town. Today they dish about a thousand-dollar omelet at a Manhattan hotel and play a clip from LIVE With Regis and Kelly. Crazy!
5:20 a.m. The Mix (100.3 FM)
Equally saucy is the banter between Mix hosts Dom Testa and Jane London. They're talking about favorite chores to do around the house, with everyone agreeing that laundry is easy. Later, Dom, catering to the Mix's demographic, declares that "cooking is a joy, not a chore." My excitement level just shot off the scale!
5:37 a.m. KBPI
Meanwhile, Willie B., Marc and D-Mak are mulling over car leases. I'm all a-quiver.
5:48 a.m. KHOW (630 AM)
As for talk host Peter Boyles, he's discussing reports that traces of the deadly poison sarin was found in an artillery shell near Baghdad -- a discovery that, according to many yakkers I heard during the night, proved there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In discussing the charge that the mainstream media buried the story, Boyles is dismissive of what he calls "Michael Reagan characters." Doesn't he know on which side his bread is buttered?
6:00 a.m. KOA
Not too awfully long ago, before station consolidation and vigorous cost-cutting, Denver had several radio stations with live newscasts, news departments and reporters. No more: KOA's Morning News pretty much has the field to itself. As reporter Alex Stone reports from the scene of the I-70 girder collapse, he may be within earshot of journalists from newspapers and TV stations, but that's probably it. Progress? Doubt it.
6:27 a.m. KBCO
Morning host Bret Saunders discusses the girder accident with news reader Robbyn Hart -- and unlike most of his brethren, who compulsively try to wring chuckles out of everything, he moderates his tone, treating the subject with appropriate somberness. Doesn't seem like that should be a rare skill, but apparently it is. An hour and a half from now, KISS's Jamie and Danny will tackle the topic, and after keeping a straight face for as long as he can, Danny bursts into mock tears, proclaiming, "I'm feeling kinda sad!" Me, too, pal.
6:41 a.m. KS-107.5
In previous years, KS-107.5's music may have been urban, but its morning show would have fit in fine on many other stations. These days, the team of Larry Ulibarri, Kendall B. and Kathie J. are finally adding a little more flava, and that's a good thing. This morning, listeners are giving shout-outs to retiring Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, a benign exercise that gets weird only when a woman with a breathy baby-doll voice declares, "King Kong, Tinkerbell's going to miiiisssss you." The trio breaks up laughing, but I don't, especially after a vivid picture of King Kong and Tinkerbell in a compromising position blooms in my brain. The hallucinations have begun.
6:57 a.m. KNRC
New KNRC morning host Jimmy Lakey doesn't help the situation much. He's running his mouth about a New York Times piece featuring quotes from Tom and Sue Klebold, parents of Columbine High School slayer Dylan Klebold -- but he's pronouncing the name "Clay-bold" instead of the more accurate "Klee-bold." Remembering Enid Goldstein's butchering of Archbishop Chaput's handle yesterday, I realize that at KNRC, the "both sides" motto must mean that its hosts are just as poorly informed no matter their ideology.
9:06 a.m. Jammin' 92.5
Now playing: Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up." With a half hour to go in my marathon, that's good advice.
9:19 a.m. Jack FM
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"We Didn't Start the Fire," by Billy Joel. That playing-what-I-want thing ended a long time ago.
9:36 a.m. The Fox
I'm back where I started 24 hours ago, only more so. Earlier on Tuesday, Lewis and Floorwax seemed a bit more like their old selves as they promoted a "beer-belly contest" and asked one potential contestant if he had "man boobs." Yet, as my time winds down, the two are discussing the repercussions of the CU-scandal report with attorney/KOA host Dan Caplis, and there are no jokes, no gags, nothing distasteful whatsoever.
No wonder I feel like sleeping.