Many Rivers to Cross
"I honestly thought back in October that I'd probably get fired," says KHOW's Reggie Rivers. "We had quite a few advertisers who pulled off my show, and my bosses and the sales department were upset. I went to work most days thinking this could be my last day."
His fears weren't mere paranoia: Not only had he unwittingly stumbled into a serious situation, but his response to its repercussions only made things worse. The trouble began on September 18, when, having just read up on the Middle East ("I knew a little about it, although not that many details," he says), Rivers launched into a discussion of Israel. In his view, the Jewish homeland is frequently in the wrong when it comes to disputes with Palestinians, yet the United States invariably supports it anyway rather than attempting to be more evenhanded.
Such an argument would have stirred the pot at any time, but because Rivers just happened to be making it on Rosh Hashanah, he provoked a blizzard of anger that caught him by surprise. He admits, convincingly, that he hadn't known it was the Jewish New Year until an hour into his show, when he was told that "it's a major holiday" -- one that begins a ten-day period leading to Yom Kippur, the most sacred date on the Hebrew calendar. But once armed with this knowledge, Rivers refused to retreat: "I said, 'That's water under the bridge. I'm going to continue.'" And man, did he ever, keeping the subject roiling throughout the next day (the remainder of Rosh Hashanah) and for four consecutive days thereafter, during which time callers regularly accused him of anti-Semitism.
Rivers denies this charge, which, from all evidence, is utterly groundless. But when it comes to naiveté, he pleads guilty: "After somebody called in, I said, 'I'm not talking about Jews. I'm talking about Israel.' Now I've learned you can't talk about one without talking about the other." Likewise, he confesses that when given the opportunity to douse the flames, he reacted in a highly flammable manner. "I'm stubborn," he notes. "When somebody calls up screaming that I'm anti-Semitic, I'm a despicable person, there's something in me that says, 'If someone's attacking me personally instead of the issue, there's something there.'"
On the surface, this approach would seem perfect for a talk-show host, many of whom see controversy as a holy calling. But Rivers isn't a shock jock (he likes talking more than hollering), and he seems to lack the gene for calculation. He doesn't always have a clear idea about how people will react to his words, and he's prone to bulling ahead, no matter what. "I try to be fair about my opinions," he says. "I might be wrong, and in a lot of people's view, I am. But I don't believe I'm wrong. I'm sincere."
He's also a walking contradiction: a former professional athlete who's equally comfortable discussing Attorney General John Ashcroft and quarterback Brian Griese; a likable personality -- he was just named one of Denver's hottest singles by 5280 magazine -- who inspires hatred among certain listeners; a liberal in a sea of conservatism; a big-time broadcaster with a voice nearly as nasal as Fran Drescher's; and a highly intelligent speaker who enjoys diving into topics he hasn't completely thought through. He admits that his bosses have told him to stop warning his listeners when he's about to enter territory that's unfamiliar to him, but he keeps doing it anyway. "I prefer to confess my ignorance up front and say, 'We're all learning,'" he maintains.
When discussing his ratings at KHOW, one of eight stations owned locally by industry behemoth Clear Channel, Rivers is just as forthright -- brutally so. "My numbers have always been mediocre," he allows. "Never bad, never good. In the middle. After September 11, all of talk radio got a spike, but by mid-November, the spike had settled out, and the numbers returned to where they were." He adds, "I don't really worry about that. I do what I think of as good radio, and the numbers will either be good or bad or indifferent. But obviously, my bosses have to worry about it."
And worried they are. Robin Bertolucci, the departing head of AM programming for Clear Channel-Denver (she'll plug the same hole for Clear Channel in Los Angeles beginning next week), acknowledges that "we are still not hitting the critical audience mass that we need to hit in the afternoons." Elizabeth Estes-Cooper, KHOW's program director, responds even more bluntly: "We've received some phone calls and letters about Reggie, and a lot of people would like us to make him shut up -- but I defend his right to have an opinion," she says. "Still, radio is a business, and we have to be concerned that the product we're putting on the air is appealing to the largest group of people possible. And I'd be lying if I said I'm not concerned about that in his case."
Fortunately for Rivers, he's accustomed to being the underdog. A Texas native, he grew up in the San Antonio area with his mother, a middle-school librarian, his father, a Southern Baptist pastor who often guests on his son's show, and four siblings. Upon seeing All the President's Men as a high-schooler, he became interested in journalism, eventually interning for the Austin American-Statesman and Newsday and writing obituaries for the defunct San Antonio Light. But while attending Southwest Texas State in San Marcus, he also played football, and after a strong senior season as running back, he decided to take a swing at a pro career. In 1991 he made the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent and actually started the following year, winding up with "about 45 receptions and somewhere around 300 yards rushing" during head coach Dan Reeves's final hurrah with the team.
The next season, Rivers was demoted to second-string running back and special-teamer, but he remained a fan favorite, largely because of his high profile in the media. The Rocky Mountain News asked Rivers to provide a diary of his rookie campaign and assigned Adam Schefter, now with the Denver Post, to ghost-write it for him. But when Schefter showed up, Rivers had already scratched out the column himself, beginning what would turn out to be an eight-and-a-half-year association with the paper. Better yet, the success of the column led first to co-hosting opportunities on local television and radio programs, and later to an off-season show on Clear Channel-owned KOA. By then, Rivers was near the end of his six-year run with the Broncos. "Each training camp, there'd be the same stories: 'Rivers Is on the Bubble Again.' And that made the transition easier for me. Every year I had to visit with the possibility that I might not make the team, so when I finally did get cut, I had a way to deal with it. And two weeks later, I went to work for KOA."
At first, Rivers recalls, the station wanted him to host a sports program. "But I said, 'Believe me, you don't want that. It'll be death for both of us.' So much of talk radio about sports is not really about having a particular knowledge, but about opinion -- should this guy be signed or not, or what's wrong with the team. And that doesn't interest me as much. I'm interested in issues where there are court decisions and real facts that can be argued."
For two years, Rivers helmed the 10 p.m.-1 a.m. slot on KOA, learning in the process how to fill time when no one was calling and the best way to handle the sort of nutballs who like to phone stations after midnight. Then, in August 1999, he took over KHOW's afternoon-drive slot from Jay Marvin, an oversized talent currently gabbing in Chicago. But a percentage of Marvin's boosters didn't warm to Rivers, and because new admirers weren't in strong supply, KHOW executives sliced the show down the middle last March, allowing Rivers just two hours of microphone time leading up to 5 p.m., when syndicated yakker Phil Hendrie took over. Clear Channel sources claimed that Hendrie was moved to the slot because they wanted to run his program live rather than on a delayed basis, but this assertion made no sense given that Hendrie's program is quasi-radio theater and doesn't rely on traditional call-ins. Therefore, most observers assumed that Rivers was playing out his contract, and would be shown the door the instant it expired.
But things didn't go down that way. In early September, Rivers was asked to fill his previous four-hour slot on a temporary basis, and following 9/11, the assignment became permanent. The terrorist attacks also had the effect of pushing Rivers into a more political direction. Suddenly he became the area's most vocal critic of military tribunals and government policies that might infringe on civil liberties in the name of national security.
Some people believe he regularly gets in over his head when debating such complex issues, among them Andrew Cohen, the locally based legal expert for CBS News and Channel 4. "He isn't always able to adequately frame the issues or describe the ramifications of the law," Cohen says. "If you're going to ruminate about them without having the background and experience, you've got to be much more careful than he sometimes is." But Sue O'Brien, editorial-page editor of the Post, to which Rivers contributes columns, is thoroughly impressed by his work. "I lean on Reggie to stay local," she says. "We have lots of syndicated columnists, and we hired Reggie because he has a handle on the community, which talk radio strengthens. But he has chosen for himself a portfolio in regard to civil liberties that is national, and he's doing it with more passion than any of our syndicated writers are doing. And that, I think, has real value."
O'Brien brought Rivers to the Post after his editors at the News grew dissatisfied with his writing outside the sports arena, and she concedes that "his columns for the Rocky were pretty soft. He still writes a nice, soft column, but I wanted him to get a little harder-edged -- and Lord knows, after September 11, he's gotten a lot harder-edged." She says he receives a steady stream of letters that "are nicely balanced between people who say he doesn't know what he's talking about and a larger number saying, 'Thank God someone is saying this stuff.'"
A percentage of KHOW devotees echo this viewpoint, but others have grown alienated -- and program director Estes-Cooper's exceedingly lukewarm endorsement suggests that the latter group may be larger than the former. Furthermore, a shakeup at the signal could well be in the offing. Estes-Cooper is pleased with the ratings being generated by Peter Boyles, who, other than Rivers, is the only non-syndicated host at the outlet, and directs kudos at Hendrie, Art Bell and troubleshooter Tom Martino, a local product whose show is heard on 275 stations nationwide. But she excludes Dr. Laura Schlessinger's daily scold-a-thon from her roster of compliments. "The numbers have been better in the history of the show," she says. "We're not sure what's going to happen with that, but we might do something different with it in the future." If the plug is pulled on Dr. Laura, expect a grateful city to offer a silent prayer of thanks.
In the meantime, Rivers is keeping busy with a slew of non-radio projects. He's a regular contributor to Channel 4, writes eight columns annually for Pro Football Weekly, has a gig calling college football games for ABC that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen helped make happen, and is the author of two books -- The Vance: The Beginning and the End, co-written with former Bronco behavior problem Vance Johnson, and Power Shift, a murder mystery set in the NFL. He'd love to remain on KHOW as well, but he doesn't seem ready to change his methodology to do so: Just weeks ago, he revisited the Israel-Palestine topic via a debate between University of Denver professor Jonathan Adelman, representing Israel, and Husni S. Sayed, founder of Americans for the Truth About Palestine.
"I know some of my opinions will be more controversial than others," he says. "But if I'm going to be honest with myself and true to what I am and what I believe in, I can't let people intimidate me away from having those opinions."
Supplemental information: Three words inspired by "The Denver Newspaper Agency Celebrates Its First Anniversary," an advertising feature that appeared in the Post and the News on January 31: Oh...my...God.
There remain lotsa people for whom the joint operating agreement that created the DNA remains a sore subject; for them, having this orgy of self-congratulations land on their stoop must have been like a French Resistance fighter during World War II receiving an invitation to a bash honoring the Vichy government. Others, hopefully, were better able to enjoy unintentional comedy, such as a page that touted items included in "The Denver Newspaper Agency's Full Product Portfolio" -- especially "polybags," which were described as "functional and fun." Equally riotous were a series of employee profiles titled "I Am the DNA" (sounds like the title of an Isaac Asimov novel) and cryptic congratulatory ads credited to (I'm not making this up) "your friends in the industry" and "your partners in progress." But best of all was the full-page spread offering congratulations from none other than American Furniture Warehouse magnate Jake Jabs, who last year filed a failed lawsuit in an effort to break the DNA into itty-bitty chromosomes. Attaboy, tiger!
That's not all, folks. Another hilarious surprise was tucked into "Colorado: A Special Advertising Section From Colorado Ski Country," which also appeared in the Post and News on January 31. Specifically, an advertorial about "Colorado's In-Bounds Backcountry" by writer Tom Winter kicked off with a bold-print salute to a portion of the Vail resort dubbed "Oh Shit."
Which is probably what people at the DNA said to themselves when they opened up the paper.
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