In late July, Indie 101.5, an acclaimed but low-rated local station, suddenly flipped formats, emerging as The Pole, aka "Stripper Radio." Yes, the switch was a stunt, and it did what it was supposed to do -- attract attention for the outlet's new, long-term identity: The Truth, a right-wing talk purveyor. In the meantime, the Indie 101.5 format gravitated to the web via the Indie303.com website.
The man who oversaw all these changes is Jeff Norman, president and general manager for The Truth and its sister station, Hot 107.1, both of which are owned by Virginia-based Max Media. In a conversation yesterday, Norman shared details about the radio roundelay, noting that it wasn't his decision to dump Indie 101.5, pledging to add local content to The Truth's current all-syndicated lineup, and confirming that The Pole will live on two days a week, at least for now.
The Pole's publicity grab succeeded far beyond Norman's expectations. "I got calls from Fox News, CNBC, CNN -- and I got three or four calls for interviews in Dallas," he says. "I don't know why the Dallas market had so much interest, but it did. The story spread rapidly, spread virally. People were tweeting about it, and we got a lot of good press, and a lot of negative press, too, even though we weren't trying to offend anybody."
Of course, the folks who were most cheesed off were Indie 101.5 fans, and Norman insists that he feels their pain. He was previously involved with a similar station in Orange County, California that he says provided the model for the Denver version, and he describes himself as a regular, and passionate, listener. But the outlet barely showed up in Arbitron surveys despite an audience he feels was bigger than official tallies indicated. He believes the sort of people drawn to Indie 101.5 are "too cool to fill out Arbitron diaries for $5 a week" or carry around a new Portable People Meter device (known as a PPM), which "looks like a 1980s pager," he says.
As such, Indie 101.5 registered low numbers that repressed the pricetag staffers could put on advertising. "Whereas some stations in this market are getting $150 to $200 a commercial, we were getting $20 to $50," Norman says. When those figures didn't grow, execs in Virginia decided to pull the plug, to Norman's chagrin. "It wasn't my decision, and it was unfortunate," he allows. "I strongly believe if I could have come to Denver sooner and had more time to work with Indie, we might not be having this conversation. We were doing better, but it just wasn't happening fast enough. And when you're not bringing in enough money to cover any of your expenses, you just can't run a business. We're not a non-profit."
The move prompted well over a hundred e-mail complaints, many likely prompted by a de facto manifesto posted on Indie's Facebook page that advised unhappy campers to contact Norman directly. Norman understands, but he thinks the attempts to cast Max Media as a typical corporate behemoth are misplaced. "We're a private company," he notes, "and even though we have around 35 radio and TV stations, they're all owned by just four guys. That allows us to do cool things that a lot of corporations wouldn't do."
Like, for instance, keep the Indie concept alive online at Indie303.com. Norman's pleased that the outlet's two main employees, Whip and Ralphie, are still on the Max Media payroll (both are working behind the scenes at The Truth in addition to their Indie303 duties), and Lynne Ryan, who was earning her keep through an advertising trade out, continues to be involved as well. Moreover, he doesn't close the door on the possibility that the Indie 101.5 sound might come back to the terrestrial airwaves -- although it would likely take the purchase of another station or what he calls "an act of God" to turn this dream into a reality. "I can't make any guarantees," he emphasizes, "but I'd love to see it happen."
He's also eager to add some Denver-based talent to The Truth, which is currently dominated by nationally known ultra-right yakkers such as Michael Savage. "We wanted to launch the station with the biggest and best personalities we could possibly get," he notes. "Michael Savage, he's the number two syndicated talk-show host behind Rush Limbaugh -- the type of person we couldn't have gotten locally. But once we get the station off the ground and generate some traction, I want to bring in a local program director who will also host a local show."
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And on the weekends? The Pole will be back -- or at least a variation of it at those times when no block programming has been sold. (The station will also air University of Nebraska football games once the season gets underway.) Norman says cock-rock content will dominate, while the hip-hop strip anthems that were also part of The Pole 1.0's sound will mostly go away, and the purposefully sleazy imaging produced as a joke is being tweaked. "There'll be an upscale female voice saying, 'You're listening to Pole Radio on 101.5 The Truth, Denver's FM-talk station,'" he reports, "so that The Pole will seem more like a feature of The Truth instead of us confusing people by making them think it's a separate station."
Norman admits that, on the surface, The Pole and The Truth don't have much in common; he calls them "oxymorons." Still, he says a number of talk outlets nationwide -- particularly one in Orlando -- have scored of late by programming talk during the week and music on the weekends, when talk listenership tends to drop off.
"You might have a station that cumes a million people during the week, and on the weekends, that number might drop to as low as 150,000," he explains. "So we want to bring other people to the station who normally wouldn't listen during the week to help smooth out that dip." And by branding The Truth amid The Pole's gyrations, he feels he might be able to broaden the talkers' audience: "If a 22-year-old male listens to The Pole on Sunday, maybe he'll tune in Mancow on Monday morning."
Thus completing what's likely to be the weirdest circle in Denver radio.