At this writing, AM-760, Clear Channel Denver's progressive station, continues to exist -- but that's only because no one's bothered to pull its plug yet. The outlet, which has struggled to make an impact on the radio market for the better part of a decade, is on the way out, and morning-show staple Gloria Neal is the latest victim of the famed Best of Denver curse: We named her the city's top radio host in our 2014 edition, mere weeks before she and others at the outlet were shown the door.
Neal divulged the news on her Facebook page on May 7. "Clear Channel is completely changing the format," she wrote, adding, "The official announcement has not been made as to what the format will be, but none of the current hosts will be on the new station."
The specifics about what's coming next are still pending. Via e-mail, Greg Foster, who oversees programming for AM-760 and sister station KHOW, confirms the news even as he refers to the outlet by its call letters, KKZN, rather than the AM-760 brand. "Gloria Neal's show is no longer on KKZN and she is no longer with our company," he notes. "We will be announcing new programming for KKZN in the near future."
This death sentence shouldn't come as a surprise, given that AM-760 has struggled to turn liberal punditry into revenue for its entire existence.
In the beginning, many observers felt Clear Channel had decided to create a forum for liberal voices to counter the popular perception that the firm had a conservative bias. After all, founder/chairman Lowry Mays was a personal friend of both former presidents named Bush. But ex-Denver-based programmer Kris Olinger denied this strategy in a Westword interview.
"Our motives here had to do with us having three AMs -- and finding a format that works on the third AM can be somewhat challenging," she said, referring in passing to Clear Channel outlets KOA and KHOW. "You've got sports, you've got business, but we felt, after researching the market, that progressive talk would be a strong choice, especially when you look at the makeup of the population in Colorado politically. It's a third Democrat and a third Republican and a third independent. So it made sense to give people who are progressive, liberal, what have you, a radio product that reflected their values."
The station began as the local outlet for Air America, a nationally syndicated concept meant to undermine the conservative stranglehold on talk radio. Among its stars was former Saturday Night Live comic Al Franken, who belittled predictions of Air America's demise in a 2006 chat with Westword. "Bill O'Reilly goes on his show and says we'll be off the air in a couple of months -- and he started saying that when we had four stations," he told us at the time. "And then he said it when we had eight, and twelve, and twenty and thirty. He says it all the time, but we're still here."
Franken certainly landed on his feet -- he was elected to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate in 2008. But efforts to develop locally based programming for the outlet were snake-bitten. In 2009, original morning show host Jay Marvin suffered a horrific health crisis that made it impossible for him to return to the show.
Marvin's successor was columnist David Sirota, who certainly delivered when it came to provocative commentary. But after making a mark in the marketplace, he was moved to KHOW in order to team with former FEMA official Michael Brown -- a partnership that ended with Sirota's ouster in January 2013. (See editor's note below.)
Hence, in July 2012, when Sirota left for KHOW, the conglomerate reached out to Neal, who seemed ideally suited to expanding the station's audience. Her background was in mainstream radio, having worked at music-oriented radio stations such as Sassy and Jammin' and assorted TV signals, including Fox31 and CBS4, where she remains on the staff.
"I've said this to David -- and I'm very fond of him -- but his is a very professorial approach," Neal said in a Westword interview around the time she took over.. "He'll be talking and say things like, 'Back in 1860....' And mine is a very no-nonsense layman's approach: Here is the issue, here's what I think, tell me what you think."
Neal more than held up her end of the bargain. But terrestrial radio continues to struggle for revenue, and those for whom the station's politics would seem to appeal couldn't be lured to listen in sufficient numbers to make the enterprise profitable. As such, Neal was let go in favor of syndicated programming from the likes of Randi Rhoads that will run until the new path is chosen.
What's next for the station? Foster isn't saying quite yet, but Clear Channel has limited options. Of the two other formats mentioned above by Olinger, sports is already at a saturation point on the Denver dial and business hasn't been markedly successful in this market for decades. Perhaps the corporation will insert something apolitical in order to blunt claims that AM-760 was never more than a token, or else pivot 180 degrees and try to out-conservative KNUS, which has taken a dent out of KHOW's share, in particular, by way of three prominent hosts who once worked for Clear Channel: Peter Boyles, Dan Caplis and Steve Kelley.
Whatever happens, Clear Channel's great liberal experiment is over -- and if you try holding your breath until someone else gives it a try, you'll likely be gone before long, too.
Note: The original version of this post inaccurately characterized David Sirota's tenure at AM 760 and left out mention of his move to KHOW -- information now corrected in the passage above. We regret the error.
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More from our Media archive circa July 2012: "Gloria Neal on new AM 760 gig, following David Sirota."