Might makes right: John Caldara loves to play the press.
Might makes right: John Caldara loves to play the press.
Susan Goldstein

Lighting a Fire

"The liberal media." The phrase is so stale that it's practically fossilized -- not that this condition has prevented politicians of a certain stripe from regularly trotting it out in advance of next week's balloting. But while it might be true that a sizable percentage of reporters, editors, news directors and producers (though seldom owners) tilt leftward in ways that may or may not color their work, another press bias is probably more important in determining what you, the average citizen, see and read: a prejudice against dullness. Simply put, newspapers and broadcast stations have an enormous amount of time and space to fill every day, and if an intriguing option presents itself, decision-makers will grab it, regardless of ideology. You can be left-wing, or you can be right-wing. Just don't be boring.

Although this truism presents opportunities for savvy operators on every side of the political spectrum to make their opinions heard, relatively few of them do so because of one little problem: Try as they might to be compelling, they just aren't. But for those whose very existence doesn't induce unconsciousness, the prospects are practically unlimited. All that's left to do is to take advantage of them.

Enter Jon Caldara, president of the conservative, not-for-profit think tank the Independence Institute, who has become one of the most recognizable voices and faces in Colorado politics, despite holding views that any media liberal worth his Green Party affiliation would despise. While he's actively hated in many circles, Caldara is seen and heard in many more. In the weeks and months leading up to Election 2000, he has regularly appeared on area television newscasts and in both the news and op-ed sections of the Denver dailies in connection with his battle against Amendment 23, which would divert millions in state surplus monies, now winding up in the pockets of taxpayers, to education. In addition, he mans the microphones at KOA, the state's most powerful AM talk outlet, Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Sundays from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.. "I'm the perfect guy for invalids and people who are completely dateless," he jokes. "If you have nothing to do on weekend nights, I'm your man." Caldara also substitutes in other slots at KOA and KHOW whenever he gets the chance -- plus he's the host and producer of Independent Thinking, a public-affairs show screened at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on Channel 12, a station that's widely viewed to be among the leftiest in the entire Public Broadcasting System.

Love him or hate him, Jon Caldara is better at using the media than any other unelected politico in Colorado -- a statement to which the usually cantankerous yakker responds with an uncharacteristically humble "Thank you." Yet he's plenty open about sharing the secret of his success: "I'm not worried about offending people," he says, "and I'm not afraid to use humor. That's one of the great losses in this age of political correctness. You can't have fun anymore because you're going to offend someone. But if we can get our point across, that's a price we're willing to pay."

Nothing illustrates this better than a recent attention-getter he staged for the collection of anti-Amendment 23 crusaders who've cleverly dubbed themselves Children First! On October 4, Caldara stood on the steps of the State Capitol and burned three dollar bills to symbolize the $3,000 per couple that he claims Coloradans will be kissing goodbye if the amendment passes.

In the grand scheme of things, the stunt was mighty modest but stunningly cost-effective. Indeed, the amount of coverage it garnered demonstrates just how unimaginative and media-dense most of this year's campaigns have been. Not only did Caldara make every TV newscast that day and several the next, but he prompted an unintentionally hilarious piece in the Denver Post by writer Pippa Jack, who devoted several inches to information about a federal statute that makes torching U.S. currency illegal. (Oh, how Caldara would have loved to have been led away in handcuffs for that heinous crime.) And the fact that the Post accompanied an October 26 story about poll figures by publishing another photo of Caldara and his blazing bankroll speaks volumes about the dearth of memorable images associated with this year's vote .

(By the way, all the data collected in the aforementioned poll, which was co-sponsored by the Post, Channel 9 and KOA, was divulged at roughly the same time, not parceled out over several days, as yours truly recently needled the parties in question for doing last month on this page ["Survey Says," October 19]. Glad to know you're reading, my friends.)

According to Caldara, his hot-and-bothered gimmick was necessitated by the actions of Jared Polis, the twenty-something multimillionaire who's spending more dough to be elected to the state Board of Education than nearly anyone can believe and is also spreading lucre around in support of Amendment 23. "He's poured $450,000 into this race; that's a lot of coin coming from one kid," says Caldara, who likes to refer to Polis with purposefully insulting diminutives. "So how do you fight that? You can't ask every taxpayer for $20; there's not enough time to do that. So if I can stand on the Capitol steps and burn some dollar bills, and if that gets the point across -- then that's what I'll do."

Caldara's moxie has helped raise him to prominence in a relatively short period. He first came to the public's attention in the mid-'90s as the member of the RTD board most likely to say nasty things about light rail, and he subsequently helmed successful grassroots efforts to defeat two showy proposals, 1997's multi-billion-dollar Guide the Ride mass-transportation package, and 1998's Referendum B, which would have allowed the state to hang on to a portion of the tax surplus. By contrast, he lost bigtime after trying to convince voters that they should reject a proposition to pay for a new stadium for the Broncos, a squad whose power he should have understood.

Why? After his Guide the Ride victory and his discovery that "talk radio was one of the best outlets to look at complex issues without resorting to sound bites," he went to execs at Jacor (now Clear Channel) and asked for a chance to prove his mettle on the air. The folks in charge kindly plugged him into the KHOW schedule at 2 p.m. Sundays, when most Bronco games kick off during the late summer, fall and early winter. "I could not describe the real meaning of lonely before I did that gig," he notes, laughing. "There were no commercial breaks except for one at the bottom of the hour, and it was just basically me talking. I could have done anything -- I could have set puppies on fire in the studio -- and no one would have called me. For anyone who thinks they want to go into radio, here's a bit of advice: Don't get the shift opposite the Broncos."

"We do try out potential hosts at quiet times of the week," confirms Lee Larsen, Clear Channel's vice president and general manager. "Most don't survive that, but Jon did." He insists that despite talk radio's reputation as a bastion for conservative blather, Caldara's political slant had no bearing on his hiring: "I can tell you absolutely that we do not care what someone's viewpoint is. There's no agenda there at all. We liked Jon because he was interesting and outspoken, period. And he's worked out very well."

These days, Caldara is frequently compared with Alan Keyes, a talk-show personality who's done his best to parlay his way with words into political paydirt via two quizzical (and doomed) runs for the presidency. But Caldara is cagey about discussing his own electoral aspirations. He notes that he's not currently running for anything -- but only after pointing out that his two predecessors at the Independence Institute, Tom Tancredo and John Andrews, used the post as a stepping stone to higher office: Tancredo is the congressman from the solidly Republican 6th District (this year, he's facing a tougher-than-anticipated fight from free-spending challenger Ken Toltz), while Andrews is Englewood's righter-than-right state senator. Moreover, Caldara points out that his electability is threatened by his residency in Boulder, a community where only a relative handful of locals share his philosophy. Still, he swears that he likes it there. "It's good to have the liberal factions in a concentrated area, and it's nice to be able to draw comparisons to what they do, because it goes so far to the socialist left. What's Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader?"

So for now, Caldara aims to stick with the Institute despite a budget that probably won't make many of those other think tanks jealous; he says the organization operates on about $600,000 per annum; half the cash comes from small contributors, and half from donations by foundations and the like. And no matter what happens to Amendment 23, he's already preparing another media-friendly exploit: At the Institute's Founders Night dinner, slated for November 30 at the Brown Palace, he'll be announcing the winner of "the first-ever Stupidest Law in Colorado contest," he says. Because of the Colorado focus, the federal restriction against burning money won't be eligible, but a Denver rule forbidding anyone from loaning a vacuum cleaner to a neighbor has a real chance. "If it wins, we're going to rip up this town and lend vacuum cleaners all over the place," he promises.

Already, Post gossip columnist Bill Husted has spilled ink over the Institute's latest gambit even though it's still nearly a month away -- and obviously, I've fallen into Caldara's web as well. We love the way you play us, Big Jon.

It sucked when they had it...but now it's great!: In the same October 22 column that the Post's Husted hyped Caldara, he wrote about the cancellation of the talk show featuring Jamie White and Partridge Family grad Danny Bonaduce, which had been a morning staple on Alice, at 105.9 FM. But Husted didn't get into the details of this change, which were typically Machiavellian and have led to several unexpected twists and turns.

Joe Schwartz, general manager for the Denver arm of Indianapolis's Emmis Communications, which recently purchased Alice and the Peak, says Alice had a contract for the show running through the end of the year. In addition, reliable sources reveal, the document included a non-compete clause that would have prevented any other station in the market from broadcasting it for another six months after the contract's expiration. But for Emmis, renewal wasn't an option: Clear Channel, which owns the program through its Premiere Radio Networks division, sent Emmis a letter informing the firm that it would have to do without Jamie and Danny's sparkling repartee and frequent mentions of male and female groins once the agreement lapsed.

Radio insiders interpreted this move as Clear Channel's way of gut-shooting an opponent even as it laid the groundwork for the possible reappearance of White and Bonaduce on one of its stations. Emmis's subsequent decision to pull the plug on the program over two months early (its last day on Alice was October 20) added credence to this theory. By silencing the dirty-talking duo until the middle of next year, the company would be giving Alice addicts a lengthy amount of time to forget about Danny and Jamie and find new favorites -- namely Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds, who have built up a loyal following doing afternoons at the station. But after Emmis's Schwartz publicly floated the prospect of switching Greg and Bo to mornings, the fireworks started.

As first reported on Rob Hatch's indispensable Web site, denverradio.net, an October 24 discussion about the potential change, with Thunder in favor of it and Reynolds opposed, deteriorated into a verbal fight that ended with Reynolds walking out mid-show and Thunder following shortly thereafter, leaving a producer to finish the program. The fun then continued off the air, with the personalities, joined by Schwartz, Alice program director Jim Lawson and newly named Emmis-Denver operations manager Mike Stern, competing to see who could shout the loudest. The day after, Greg and Bo returned to the studio to kiss and make up, and when a listener suggested that fans vote for or against the morning move, they embraced the idea. The results of the tally are scheduled to be announced on election day, November 7. This solution is so tidy that it's led some to believe that the entire altercation was staged for publicity purposes, something Schwartz denies. But he would, wouldn't he?

Meanwhile, more shenanigans were taking place behind the scenes. As confirmed by two excellent sources who don't want their names to appear in bold print, Clear Channel has been negotiating with Emmis to bring the Jamie and Danny show to one of its properties, KTCL-FM, far earlier than would have been possible under the current no-compete clause. In exchange, Clear Channel would allow White to do a separate program (with no contributions from Bonaduce) for Emmis's KFTK, a new, female-oriented FM talk outlet in St. Louis, where she was raised and got her start in radio. But complications arose: On October 26, KTCL began running spots hyping the impending arrival of Jamie and Danny before any pact had been signed. Since the two are still receiving money from Alice and will do so until January 1, Emmis types weren't pleased -- and at least one hints that the company would go to court to prevent KTCL from debuting the program before 2001. Meanwhile, at Clear Channel, decision-makers aren't saying for sure when the show will start up -- but they'd clearly prefer sooner over later.

Schwartz, who had hoped to spend last week focusing on his other Denver property, the Peak (where ditzy ex-MTV video jock Nina Blackwood introduced that station's new a.m. team, Howie Greene and Lisa Axe, late of San Bernardino, California) didn't have a lot to say about the White-Bonaduce situation; beyond pointing out that "Jamie and Danny are under contract to Alice until the end of the year," he declined comment. Clear Channel exec Mike O'Connor isn't showing all his cards, either, but he does confirm that "we think it's a good show -- and when we bought AMFM [Alice's previous owner], we had every intention of letting the Clear Channel Denver properties benefit from it."

That KTCL is Jamie and Danny's likely destination may leave fans of the outlet from its days as Denver's primary alterna-rock signal feeling disgruntled. But they shouldn't be surprised. Clear Channel has mainly employed it as a battering ram against competitors -- hence its current "'80s, '90s and Beyond" format, intended to counter the Peak's back-to-the-'80s sound -- and the presence of Jamie and Danny could well help the company injure Alice, too. But there's no shortage of irony in the fact that another Clear Channel station, KISS-FM, recently launched with a blitz of promos ridiculing White and Bonaduce as stupid and annoying; one featured a White impressionist whose laugh sounded like a donkey braying and another sported the line "Sorry, Danny, this isn't a Partridge Family reunion."

The timing of these attacks on a program that's soon to be part of the local Clear Channel family "is kind of funny," O'Connor concedes. "But our intention all along was to take the Jamie and Danny show. The stations do what they have to do to remain competitive."

You said a mouthful, pal.


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