Man Without a City
Here's a startling statement: It's entirely possible that more people in this nation are familiar with Ken Hamblin than any other Denver-based media figure. After all, his radio program, which airs from 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, is heard on more than a hundred stations in the U.S., his newspaper columns are distributed from coast to coast by the New York Times Syndicate, the two books he's authored (including Plain Talk and Common Sense From the Black Avenger, released a few months ago) can be found in practically every major bookstore in the country, and he commonly appears on high-profile television programs. In late October he was the primary guest on HBO's The Chris Rock Show, and he's part of the panel on the Thanksgiving-Day edition of ABC's Politically Incorrect.
But these days, the man whom uninventive scribes have dubbed the black Rush Limbaugh is virtually a stranger in his own hometown. His column appears three times a week in the Denver Post as part of an editorial section that he believes is a bastion of liberalism -- a predictable view, considering that there are probably National Rifle Association jeremiads that aren't conservative enough for his tastes. But he gripes that the Post has never adequately hyped his contributions to it -- in spite of the untold readers he's convinced his presence attracts. And the paper didn't even bother to review Plain Talk, a choice Hamblin interprets as a slight. (Post book editor Tom Walker says there was "nothing personal.") In addition, local fans of his show who don't have access to the Internet -- his program airs live at www.hamblin.com -- can't hear him at all, since no station in Denver carries it. (The show does air in Grand Junction, Durango and Colorado Springs.) Hamblin claims not to be bothered by this state of affairs and mentions how happy he is about his life with a regularity that would please any laxative manufacturer. But despite his frequently expressed impatience with anyone who blames his troubles on others, he seems to harbor a persecution complex as big as all outdoors. According to him, "I'm not isolated from Denver. Denver's isolated itself from me. I have enemies in the political and radio arenas around here, so I've been blackballed."
Of course, Hamblin detractors can list a great many credible reasons for this state of affairs, and plenty of them have nothing to do with comments about "black trash" and "quota Negroes" that have led countless members of the African-American community to charge him with ideological treason. In 1994 he was cited for misdemeanor harassment for a New Year's Eve incident involving a co-worker at KNUS, his broadcast base at the time. Thanks to a deferred-prosecution offer from Lakewood prosecutors, the matter was later stricken from Hamblin's record, but not before he was briefly suspended by KNUS management for mentioning the name of his accuser over the air. That same year, the Post suspended Hamblin's column for two months after he was accused of plagiarizing a huge chunk of an article written by the Rocky Mountain News's Brian Weber -- an offense for which he was lucky not to be sacked. (He's said the incident was the result of "sloppy work" on his part.) Furthermore, the Denver-area ratings he received during the early and mid-Nineties while working at KNUS, KUVO and (for a few months) the defunct 1280 Ralph fell far short of blockbuster status. Can it be considered blackballing to not hire a host without much of an audience?
In Hamblin's mind it can. He chalks up his lousy numbers at the aforementioned outlets to bad management and lack of promotion and says, "I'd put a thousand dollars on the table betting you that if I was on in Denver right now, I'd get a three share [rating] in the first [Arbitron] book, and it would build from there -- because this is my town." Yet with no such offers forthcoming, he falls back on philosophy. "What has happened to me as far as exclusion is pretty common when you consider how many men aren't stars in their own community. And I might have been one if I'd been willing to pucker up and kiss derrieres. But I wasn't interested in that. Just like Frank Sinatra, I did it my way."
And he continues to do so, thanks to the success of The Ken Hamblin Show, which marked its fifth year of syndication in September. Prior to a broadcast last week, the quiet, relaxed atmosphere in his headquarters, located in an office building on South Colorado Boulevard, was a world apart from the bustling, behind-the-scenes frenzy at most big-time radio stations, with only Hamblin, producer Roger Alan, call screener Sarah Kolega and board op Jason McBride occupying a roomy suite of offices. The decor is a tribute to the main man's healthy self-image: An enormous blow-up of Hamblin in his trademark fedora hangs near the main entrance, and another turns up in his studio opposite a display of hundreds of patches he's collected from law-enforcement agencies. "That's my public-safety wall. I'm a strong supporter of police," he boasts, pointing out that he's an honorary deputy sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona. His desk, meanwhile, features a glowing computer, a neat stack of books (including, prominently, his own), a few right-wing novelty items, including a bottle of "Monica Mouthwash," good for washing the taste of Bill Clinton out of your yap, and a photograph of his plane, which he uses to fly to TV tapings and personal appearances. He probably mentions his adult children -- Ken Jr., better known to aficionados of Denver dance culture as DJ K-NEE, and Linda, a California-based producer for the National Enquirer TV show -- and his two grandchildren more often than the aircraft, but it's surprisingly close.
The show itself (owned by Fredericksburg, Virginia's American View Radio Inc.) opens to the strains of the national anthem, which Hamblin, clad in trim slacks and an Izod-style shirt with the collar folded up, plays each day because "it's a nice thing to do." Then he settles down on an oversized fitness ball that he credits with helping him recover from back surgery two years ago and begins speaking over pre-recorded applause that simulates the adulation he seeks. "The sky is blue in Colorado," he says over the air, "and I'm in a good mood."
So, too, are the callers, the majority of whom seem to be Caucasian men with twangy Southern accents. ("We're very strong in the South," Hamblin says later while showing off a map of the United States with push pins designating the various markets where his program is carried.) Typical is the first fellow on the phone, who opens with, "I'm thankful there's a black man in America who expresses being justice-minded and equilibrium-minded like you do."
"It's not easy making a colored man blush," Hamblin responds. "But you just did it."
That's pretty much how it goes for the next several hours. Hamblin expounds on a variety of conservative issues -- including man's God-given right to pack the firearm of his choice -- but habitually returns to matters of race, generally noting his own before chastising those with similar pigmentation for thinking that their hue gives them additional privileges. He's particularly tough on the Reverend Jesse Jackson's protests in Decatur, Illinois, on behalf of several black students who were suspended for two years because of a brawl that took place there in September. To the school board that passed down this sentence, which was subsequently reduced to one year, he says, "Godspeed and good luck, because there will be no John Wayne leading the cavalry against those who would seek to defeat you. Lose this battle and you've lost the battle for discipline forever." Afterward, a slew of people from the amen corner, including a representative of the Decatur school district, tell him they couldn't have said it better themselves. The applause button gets a workout.
Finally, in the show's last half-hour, a caller who's waited on hold for two hours challenges Hamblin on a topic from the previous day's program -- actor Danny Glover's claim that New York cabbies are racist because he couldn't get a taxi to pick him up near Columbia University after two hours of trying. Hamblin responds by suggesting that Glover is being used as a pawn by the Al Sharptons of the world, but to his credit, he gives the caller ample chance to dispute him. Otherwise, the only debate over any of Hamblin's statements comes from board op McBride, a big man with a big Afro who grew up in the Park Hill area of town. When asked what he thinks of Hamblin's first book, Pick a Better Country, which he's been reading, McBride chuckles in apparent acknowledgment that anything he says will come out sounding wrong. But over the couple of months he's worked for the show (after a stretch at Clear Channel), McBride has grown to like Hamblin personally, and even though he doesn't always agree with his boss's views, he respects them. "People in northeast Denver think he's an Uncle Tom, but he's not," McBride says. "I see him as someone who loves his country because things have worked out for him, and he thinks that's available to anyone who wants to go out and get them."
That's how Hamblin thinks of himself, too. His attire and his deportment are certainly theatrical, and he's more than willing to make bold gestures that can make him seem like a caricature at times: While chatting with Chris Rock on HBO, he purposefully insulted an audience that was starting to turn against him ("They cut that part out," he says), and when they reacted to his departure with boos and catcalls, he walked off defiantly waving a pair of peace signs in their faces. "I wasn't being Nixon-esque," he explains. "That was my way of saying, 'Screw you.'" But when asked about critics who accuse him of being more shtick than substance and of playing into the white man's hands for commercial gain, he drops the civility he loves to tout like a hot rock. "If it's true that I'm just doing this for the money, then why aren't I on the Fox network or CNN? Because I've had my chances. But I turned them down because I'm doing things the way I want to do them, and I believe in what I'm doing. I work seven days a week, and if people think what I do is a cakewalk, I don't really give a shit about them. I really don't care."
But he does. Deep down, it frosts him that he's not on a Denver radio station and that the current merger mania will likely prevent that from changing: "With consolidation, you don't have competition, and you have only a couple of people calling the shots. And if they don't like you..." Nonetheless, he plans to stay in Denver, proud that the powers that be still haven't found a way to grind him out of existence.
"When people told me I wasn't talented, I proved them wrong," he says. "And when they told me a black guy couldn't do a syndicated show, I proved them wrong, too. The politics of Denver is what it is, but it has not been powerful enough to reach out and touch me across this land."
The release last week of circulation figures from the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News occasioned one of the most entertaining examples of spin this side of a Pedro Martinez curveball. The numbers, compiled by the Illinois-based Audit Bureau of Circulations, showed sizable jumps for both papers, but the News, which had already touted its growth in an article last month (The Message, October 21), made by far the bigger splash, topping the Post's weekday totals for the first time since 1996 and narrowing the Post's lead on Sundays by approximately two-thirds. The News ballyhooed this accomplishment on its November 11 cover and in a page-five article, "News Takes Daily Circulation Lead," that overflowed with hyperbole from the likes of "elated" publisher Larry Strutton. The Post, meanwhile, stuck its circulation report in the business section, pairing the headline "Post Sets Records for Sales" with the subhead "Circulation shows 'real' strong growth." The key to the latter statement was the emphasis on the word "real"; the unsigned article went on to argue that the News had won by virtually giving away its papers in a penny-a-day subscription offer that was badly hurting its parent company, Cincinnati's E.W. Scripps, while Post customers actually paid a decent rate for their copies. To counter this argument, the News reported that the Post was peddling subscriptions "for the deepest discount ever offered in this market" as late as 4 p.m. the previous day. Then, to rub in its victory, the News ran a double-truck ad that screamed, "Look Who's Colorado Now!" a snotty play on the Post's Columbine-like slogan "We Are Colorado."
Of course, the stories in both papers left out or tinkered with facts that might not have cast them in the best light, but that's nothing new. Consider the pieces about sexual predators on the Internet that ran on the front page of the November 8 Post, neither of which mentioned perhaps the most prominent local to be convicted for such a crime in the last year or so: former Post business reporter David Algeo. Or maybe it's just that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand has been doing.
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.
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