Hammer Time

Wing tips: Plane-spoken radio traffic reporter Sam Hammer.
Jonathan Castner

It's four o'clock on a late September afternoon, and Sam Hammer, the flying traffic cowboy for Country 104.3 and 950 AM/The Fan, would already be in the air if it weren't for one little problem: He can't find his plane. So he picks up the handset of the mobile radio mounted under the dash of a 104.3-owned SUV parked near a runway at Jeffco's Centennial Airport and, armed with the sketchiest notes imaginable, turns one city's traffic woes into a gruff-voiced stand-up routine.

"There's a minor accident on Kittredge Highway 74 near Evergreen, but the two drivers are out of their vehicles and fighting. Hey, you idiots, this is just traffic. Don't be killing each other over it."

Anyone wondering if Sam Hammer's name is actually Sam Hammer won't get an answer here. "If I told you, I'd have to kill you -- and I'd do it, too." He's just as guarded about his age. He came to Colorado in 1973 after dropping out of Oaktown Community College in his home town of Chicago, so he's almost certainly in his forties. But Hammer offers no confirmation. "I don't tell anyone how old I am," he points out. "I'm dating too many young girls."

As well he should be. Getting an eyeful of many radio personalities can be a frightening experience; the disparity between their voices and their appearances is why a lot of them went into radio in the first place. But Hammer is just as his pipes suggest -- a big slab of man's man, with broad shoulders, a Magnum, P.I. mustache, a chiseled jaw and a demeanor that's every bit as swaggering as his bottomless delivery. He's got three marriages under his belt and he's "taking auditions" for number four -- and doing so with a vengeance. Since becoming single again two years ago, he's led a ridiculously active social life. "Maybe I can't name everyone I've dated, but I'll bet I could come up with two-thirds of them," he says. "I have a habit of staying friends with everyone I've gone out with, which didn't always go over that well with some of my wives." And although he's also been spending a lot of quality time with the teenage son of his most recent ex, discovering in the process a fatherly instinct he didn't know he had, he's still been able to maintain a database of over 1,000 people whom he phones annually on their birthdays ("Some days, I make five calls") and invites to his famous "crab parties," so named because of his zodiac sign: "I'm a Cancerian," he boasts. At last year's edition, more than 800 revelers showed up at a bash that raised over $15,000 for the Special Olympics. Thanks to Hammer's connections, Budweiser donated beer for the event, and food was provided by Cucina! Cucina!, Caldonia's and Hooters, whose annual bikini contests Hammer hosts. "Two of my roommates over the years have worked at Hooters," he says. "I've been a Hooters poster child for a long time."

But before Hammer can start lining up his next conquest, he needs to track down his bird -- and after driving around for a few more aimless minutes, he spots the Eighties-vintage Cessna 182 sitting about a hundred yards from where he'd been parked originally. The white, brown-striped exterior of the little craft hardly inspires awe, and its interior is even dumpier: a pair of battered brown-vinyl bucket seats up front, a matching bench stacked with broadcasting equipment that most pawn shops would reject to the rear, and little head or leg room anywhere. The plane reminds Hammer of a Karmann Ghia he once owned.

Yet even though the Cessna's motor sounds like an aging Toro and the fuselage shudders vigorously as the plane taxis down the runway (safety pilot Jon Erickson explains that its tires are "kind of lopsided"), Hammer isn't complaining. "Choppers are great for TV stations, because you have to get video, and they can get a steadier shot. But when you're doing a traffic report for radio, all you have to do is glance at it, and Denver is so big you need to zip back and forth and check this out and that out, and airplanes can do that faster. And if you have to look at something, you just circle. Besides, a rollover accident downtown may look good on TV, but it might only affect 200 cars. But a stall on I-25 that doesn't look good on TV may affect 2,000 cars. And that's what people want to know about."

"All the action's on I-25 right now -- it's a good one-mile jam. Get prepared: You're about to waste seven minutes of your life."

Hammer first became interested in radio when he was in high school, but despite being blessed with vocal cords that rumbled when those of his peers squawked, he had a tough time getting into the field. He mainly made his living via sales gigs and club deejaying until late 1987, when his friend Dean Curfman (presently a newsman for Metro News Network) asked if he'd be interested in replacing the just-sacked "traffic girl" at KS-104, the station Curfman worked for back then. During Hammer's first weekend on the job, a plane crashed at Stapleton International, and he was assigned to cover it. "That was a real trial by fire," he remembers. "Literally." Two years later he got his pilot's license, initially paying for his flying expenses out of his own pocket. But the investment paid off; before long, he was supplementing his radio income by doing updates for Channel 9. When KS-104 disappeared in the swirl of a local marketing agreement a few years later, he spent a year as a reporter for KHOW before being hired in 1997 by Jefferson Pilot, the company that owns Country 104.3 and the Fan. He immediately made his presence felt. Whereas airborne traffic peers such as KOA's Al Verley and KHOW's Tony LaMonica mainly stick to a straightforward recitation of the facts, Hammer freely editorializes about issues that in his mind make a bad traffic situation worse. For instance, he regularly knocks cops who insist on writing up paperwork on minor accidents in the middle of rush hour. "Officers should get the licenses of anyone involved and have them follow them off the highway where they can't be seen," he says. "Because it doesn't take much to slow down traffic. Plant a new bush on the highway and people will slow down and go, 'Look, Martha, a new bush.' So you know they're going to slow down when there's a police car there."  

Another pet peeve is "left-lane loafers," whom Hammer defines as "selfish asses that get onto a highway and automatically head for the left lane and drive slower than the surrounding traffic because they're lazy and want to cut their concentration in half by not worrying about any traffic on their left." Falling into the same category are "speed governors" -- "arrogant jerks who decided long ago that they were placed on this earth to pace their flock of followers at some random speed that they deem fit for conditions and prevent those 'maniacs' from whizzing by them on the left. They have no concept of the meaning of that black-and-white regulatory sign 'Slower Traffic Keep Right.'" And he's equally incensed by "merge virgins." Hammer says, "With these idiotic, time-wasting, pollution-increasing metered traffic signals, you have to get from zero to 55 miles per hour, right? So the object is to reach that speed before you insert yourself in between the cars that are already motoring along. But too many idiots enter the flow and then speed up from 35 to 55, making the red lights come on behind them, which starts the inchworm effect of a slow-down that's transmitted backwards like a wave. And sometimes this idiot is followed by some imbecile who is concentrating on his chosen slot to his left and ends up climbing up the idiot's ass. Result? Tow-truck bait."

"As usual, there's a problem on that stupid merge lane where all the traffic from I-76 goes down to one lane. And over on 225, we've got a Hyundai that's not a Hyundai anymore; it's a paperweight."

There's no shortage of stimuli during Hammer's flight. As the Cessna cruises at 7,600 feet, he must watch out for inattentive fliers; alternately communicate with flight control at Centennial, Front Range/Adams County and DIA; gather information from representatives of Air Watch America (his primary information provider), the Colorado Department of Transportation, the occasional ham-radio operator and his two stations, all of whom can be heard in his headset; estimate delay times; monitor police, fire and rescue scanner reports; and deliver more than twenty updates per shift. But while Erickson, his helper, is a more-than-able pilot, Hammer prefers to handle the controls himself. As he looks down at the metro area -- the cars toy-like, the roadways serpentine, the subdivisions and commercial properties interlocking à la puzzle pieces -- he says, "I like to stay busy." His stock reply to news of a crash is, "Great. I mean, oh, what a shame."

Hammer also relishes the moments when he can interact with the on-air talent. After one bulletin, he banters with Irv Brown and Joe Williams of the Fan, with Brown ribbing his partner about a time when Hammer drank him under the table. He'd like to do the same with Todd Grimsted, the afternoon DJ on Country 104.3, but the station's program director put the kibosh on that. "We used to do it all the time, and we got along great. But I guess they thought we were a little too funny, so they separated us," Hammer says. "We've got to sit in separate corners now."  

That's hardly the only time Hammer has had his wings clipped. During the construction of the elaborate tower that tops the just-opened Ritchie Center at the University of Denver, Hammer called the structure a "golden erection," which he thinks was right on the mark. "It was a building that was being erected, and it was golden. That makes it a golden erection in my book. And it's not like I called it a golden penis. But I got a call from Tim Spence [the Fan's program director] telling me, 'That's the end of the golden erection.'"

In July 1998, Hammer caused a larger flap via his use of another colorful image. "I was circling around I-25 and 225, and I said, 'I know why southbound I-25 is backed up: There's a Tijuana taxi on the right shoulder.' And then I went on to tell what I meant. See, these Mexican nationals come up here towards the end of the week and go to the auto auctions, and they'll buy eight beater cars. But since they've only got four guys to drive them back to Mexico, they hook them up in pairs. And invariably, one of them will break down, and they'll have to pull over to the side of the road and switch it around so that the car that works is in the front, and while they're doing it, it totally stops traffic. And people call them Tijuana taxis, after that Herb Alpert song from 1966."

To Hammer, there was no harm in simply describing this phenomenon. But an irate Denver police officer of Mexican descent complained to the Fan, and Hammer wound up saying sorry to him personally, as well as penning a mea culpa about the incident to air on the station. But producers tinkered with his words prior to their broadcast. "I wrote, 'I'd like to take a moment to sincerely apologize to Mexican nationals for a comment I made yesterday that could have been construed as a disparaging remark,'" Hammer recalls. "But they made me change it to, 'I'd like to take a moment to sincerely apologize to the Latin community.' So I wound up apologizing to people from South America and Spain, too."

For the most part, though, Hammer doesn't have to apologize anyone. When he's on a roll, he dishes out abuse like Don Rickles at his prickliest, but most of his victims seem to feel proud that he bothered to single them out. He frequently receives kudos from cops he's needled for their ticket-writing habits, and a lot of folks who've turned their autos into accordions appear to be grateful for the brief instant of fame he bequeathed upon them. As Hammer tells it, "I'll have people come up to me and say, 'Do you remember that accident a couple of weeks ago when a car started burning and you called it a "car-be-que"? That was me.' And I'll say, 'Geez, I'm sorry.' And they'll say, 'No, you're not. You called me an idiot.' And I'll say, 'Yeah, you're right. I did.' And then both of us will laugh."

"Supposedly there's a slow-down on southbound I-25 at Alameda because some idiot just left his car there, but nobody's slowing down. Nobody cares."

By the time his plane touches down at around six o'clock, the list of trouble spots Hammer has checked out has grown to an impressive length -- he even got to observe an apartment fire at Quebec and Leetsdale. But over the last few years, as Denver's traffic situation has worsened, Hammer has grown spoiled. Recently, a fuel-filled tanker was separated from a semi on I-25 within a few hundred yards of his apartment: "I had to call my roommate and tell him to bail out," he says. Compared with that, this day's rush hour was "boring. Nothing I could really sink my teeth into." He's much more satisfied the next morning, after a fire engine trying to douse a blazing van breaks down on southbound I-25 at Orchard. He calls it "the ultimate crack attack," a term he invented for drivers who slow down to watch "someone bending over to jack up their car."

Truth be told, Hammer likes looking at such things every bit as much as the mobile voyeurs he ridicules for rubbernecking at crash sites; he's just lucky that his Cessna allows him to do so without making anyone else late. But while he's not above buzzing the beach at Cherry Creek Reservoir to scope the sunbathers on nice afternoons, he takes his job seriously. After all, he's not just an information provider. He's Denver's traffic avenger.  

"There's this transition from southbound 225 to southbound I-25 where people want to get off at Belleview, which is the first exit," he says. "So they have to cut across five lanes of traffic to do that. And because they've never outlawed that, never put a solid white line forbidding you from doing that, there's a lot of accidents there -- and no one's saying anything about it. No one but me."

October 4 brought an event that will likely reverberate through Denver radio for years: Clear Channel, the San Antonio, Texas-based owner of eight local stations, announced its purchase of AMFM, a Dallas conglomerate that owns six area signals. Company spokesmen estimate that the $23.5 billion deal may not be finalized until the last half of next year, and for good reason: According to FCC regulations, companies can own only eight broadcast outlets per market. As a result, the operation will have to unload approximately 125 stations, including six properties in Denver.

What that means to you, the radio listener, is utter confusion. Clear Channel vice president Lee Larsen told several local media outlets that the six AMFM stations would probably be sold as a block. But in an interview with Westword, fellow Clear Channel veep Don Howe said that although a half-dozen of the properties will likely be packaged for sale, it's far too early to speculate about which ones -- and since several AMFM outlets get better ratings and make more money than the weakest Clear Channel stations, mixing and matching makes sense. Knowledgeable observers see KTCL, KIMN, K-High, the Peak, KTLK and the much-set-upon KVOD as the likeliest signals to be peddled. Other outlets could wind up hopping around the dial willy-nilly. For instance, the successful Jammin' Oldies 92.5 might be shifted to a more powerful frequency (KIMN's, perhaps). And there's also the possibility that Clear Channel (as the combined entity will be called) might sell or trade multiple properties to a big player that's not in the market yet, such as CBS/ Infinity, owner of Howard Stern's show. In other words, here comes the new corporation, same as the old corporation.

Suddenly out of the picture locally is Bob Visotcky, who's overseen Denver's AMFM properties since late last year ("The Man You Love to Hate," August 26); on October 4, he took over as senior vice president and cluster manager in Los Angeles. Like Denver, L.A. was heavily impacted by the big sale -- AMFM and Clear Channel have a combined thirteen stations there -- and Visotcky admits to finding out about it only the evening before the news went public. Nonetheless, he predicts swift action on divestiture: "It's going to take nine months for the merger to happen, but the company will have to act fast to get the numbers straightened out. I'm only speculating, but I'll bet most of it will be done in the next two or three months." He's already assembling an assessment of the Denver market for Clear Channel bigwigs. The Peak, he insists, is on the right track, even though a recent revenue summary shows it bringing in around half the cash it was at this time last year; he also says that the Alice morning program, which he had previously praised in these pages, needed the shaking-up it got several weeks back when two longtimers were replaced by Partridge Family survivor Danny Bonaduce; and he scoffs at critics who imply that he was run out of town. "This is a big promotion, from a market that bills $42 million a year to one that bills $200 million," he declares. "So saying that is hilarious. But I don't care about any of that crap. I just care about what the people I work with think. And they obviously think I did a great job."

Finally, the move of Dave Otto from the Fan to Jammin' Oldies 92.5 predicted here two weeks back has come to pass. The number of callers to his October 4 debut who welcomed him back to the area (he was a big Denver ratings-getter back in the Eighties) was an indication of just how few people heard him doing drive time since last year on the Fan, which replaced Otto with intelligent but long-winded veteran yakker Sandy Clough. (Considering that Clough flopped in this slot prior to Otto's arrival, the move is probably a temporary, stopgap one.) As for Craig Carton, Otto's panties-sniffing partner at the Fan, he's been hired to work mornings at hard-rocking KBPI starting October 11 alongside dimunitive sports updater Mark Stout -- meaning that conversation about Godsmack and Creed is apt to play second fiddle to more pissing and moaning about the Broncos. What metalhead wouldn't love to pump his fist to that?  

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