¿Qué Pasó, Denver?

John Johnson

The rising popularity of Latin music isn't just hype. It's fact -- but you wouldn't know that by looking at the ratings of Denver's Spanish-language radio stations.

On the most recent Billboard Hot 100 chart, five of the thirteen biggest-selling tunes in the United States -- 'N Sync and Gloria Estefan's "Music of My Heart," Santana's "Smooth" (featuring Rob Thomas), Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of...)," Ricky Martin's "She's All I Ever Had" and Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know" -- all sport a Latin link, if not an enormously Latin sound. Tracks by Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez continue to move plenty of units as well. Of course, these artists are singing these hits in English. Nonetheless, the appeal of their music, combined with the growth of the Latino population, has fueled a jump in the popularity of Latin radio. In Los Angeles, for example, a pair of Spanish-language stations have ranked first and second in the market's Arbitron ratings for three consecutive quarters -- one of them has maintained its numbers for nearly three years.

In Denver, however, it's a much different story. Even though some estimates put the metro-area's Hispanic population at around 20 percent, Spanish-language stations languish near the bottom of the Arbitron roster. Only one outlet, KJMN, at 92.1 on your FM dial, even registers on the most recent survey of listeners twelve or older, and its relatively anemic 1.1 share puts it in twentieth place. That means signals such as KMXA, KJME, KCUV and KBNO didn't surface on the main Arbitron report at all -- and the last operation, known as K-Bueno, won't get a shot to redeem itself next time. In late September, Zee Ferrufino and Frank Ponce, who had purchased the station out of bankruptcy in 1990, sold it to Pennsylvania's Crawford Broadcasting, which promptly dumped the Spanish format in favor of the same contemporary Christian music it had been peddling at KLZ, another of its Denver properties. (KLZ, at 560 AM, is now going the big band/nostalgia route.) Ferrufino has said he wants to purchase another, more powerful station in the near future, but few people in the broadcasting community think he has anywhere close to the resources he'd need to do so.

Of the four remaining Spanish-language stations in Denver, only one, KJME, at 1390 AM, is locally owned, operated or programmed. KJMN, along with KMXA at 1090 AM, are properties of EXCL, a San Jose, California, company with fifteen stations nationwide, while KCUV, at 1190 AM, was packaged for sale in June by Denverites Manuel and Magaly Fernandez to Radio Unica, a Miami-based chain of talk stations. Thus far, the corporate entities haven't put big promotional budgets behind their Denver properties in an effort to get them on the mainstream map. They seem content to focus on niche audiences in the most cost-effective way possible -- by using material that's delivered via satellite, not generated in Colorado. The main Denver flavor comes from local commercials, not the stuff that surrounds them.

Neither Radio Unica reps in Florida nor Denver-based general manager Richard Rocha would offer quotes about the future of KCUV because the station is in an FCC-mandated "quiet period" until the transaction receives final approval. But William Neidig, KJME's program director, and Rob Quinn, the general manager of both KJMN and KMXA, were not only eager to talk but surprised at being asked to do so by a representative of what they think of as the Anglo media. "We hold no resentment toward the lack of press," says Quinn, a gringo who got into Latin radio only after EXCL bought 92X, an alternative-rock station he'd helped to start up in the early Nineties. "We are just doing a very good job of smiling, working hard and making progress everyday. And we figure those guys will catch up sooner or later."

EXCL's stations are music-based: KMXA focuses on a ranchero/norteño format that Quinn describes as "Mexican country music," while KJMN offers up "Radio Romantica," a mildly spicy Latin variation on adult contemporary that spotlights Martin, Estefan, not one but two Iglesiases (Enrique and his father, Julio) and other similar artists who haven't yet managed a pop crossover singing in Spanish. Given the commercial punch packed by the artists on KJMN's playlist, its ratings seem shockingly modest -- but Quinn, whose stations are the only ones of their type in the Denver market to subscribe to the Arbitron service, insists that numbers don't tell the whole story about his stations -- or Spanish-language radio overall. "Hispanics are generally very bad candidates for filling out and returning ratings diaries, for cultural reasons," he says as cautiously as he can. "There's often paperwork issues in a given house; a lot of people in Denver contributing to this society don't have their papers together, so any kind of written survey is usually met with some skepticism. The 18-to-34-year-old Hispanic male, especially, is one of the toughest demographics to pin down, so it's almost impossible to get a valid sample. It's an inexact science at best."  

Quinn guesses his stations might have twice as many listeners as the Arbitrons suggest, and he insists that convincing advertisers he's right isn't difficult: "We've been very successful in the last few years at keeping them with us, because after they buy in, their cash registers start ringing." To back up this claim, he cites reports assembled by the accounting firm of Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co., to which all stations west of the Mississippi submit records of their ad revenues on a monthly basis. The results of these surveys aren't made public, and Quinn declines to share his. But, he says, "Our stations haven't been far off the top ten here in Denver, which is pretty incredible when you look at the ratings. Business is booming."

KJME's Neidig whistles the same tune. His father, Andres Neidig, bought the station in early 1989, and he's doing well enough to support an eleven-person staff playing what the younger Neidig refers to as "a mix of Mexican country and Mexican Top 40." From Arbitron's perspective, its ratings are nonexistent, but Neidig feels that has to do with Arbitron's inability to get a handle on its fans: "A lot of the Hispanics in our audience don't have a lot of education, or they just won't take the time to fill out a diary for two weeks straight. To them, it's like someone asking, 'What did you have for breakfast three days ago?'" He says he can tell how many folks are tuned in because of the support they give advertisers and their response to events sponsored by the station. In September, a KJME-promoted concert by the Mexican band El Recodo drew more than 4,000 people to the Denver Coliseum, and last year 7,500 folks jammed the National Western Stock Show facility for an appearance by Mexican singer and movie star Joan Sebastian -- and Neidig says another 2,500 were outside, clamoring to get in. "It was a huge success that didn't get any coverage at all," he notes. "It really opened my eyes." He's also expecting big things from a turn by the Mexican act Grupo Modelo at a Friday, October 29, pre-Halloween bash at the Regency Hotel.

Like all program directors of mom-and-pop stations battling out-of-town behemoths, Neidig emphasizes his station's grassroots connections: "We do local traffic updates and local news in the mornings, and during all the natural disasters that Mexico has been experiencing, we were the only ones in direct contact with Mexico City updating people about things. And when a hurricane hit El Salvador last year, we were the only station doing fundraisers, having people go by Denver fire stations and drop off donated goods. The other stations only care about putting money in their pocket, but we care about the local community." As more and more Latinos make Denver their home, he adds, "There's the potential for a station like ours to get a lot bigger. I don't see a Mexican or Hispanic station being number one in the general market for a while, but in another three or four years, it could happen."

On this point, at least, Quinn agrees. He isn't going out of his way to lure Anglos to his spots on the dial: "Our target first and foremost is the Spanish-speaking population." But, he says, "the Latin pop boom has been very good to us, and it's helping people realize that the growth in this market is absolutely astounding. The winds of change are blowing."

On October 20, six months to the day after the shootings at Columbine High School, news broke that a student there had been arrested after allegedly threatening to finish the job begun by killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. In reporting this story, local TV stations such as Channels 4 and 7 did not identify the teen, noting that Jefferson County authorities had not released his name, and the Denver Post and the Denver Rocky Mountain News took the same tack the following morning. But those who caught the October 20 newscast on Channel 2 not only heard the suspect identified as Eric Veik, but they saw what appeared to be his high-school yearbook photograph. The next evening, the station didn't use his name, but the photo popped up again.

Channel 2's move wasn't especially revelatory. It's likely that the majority of Columbine students and their families already knew the student's identity, and anyone else who wanted to know it could figure it out easily enough. The News article reproduced several quotes Veik had given to the paper back on April 21, and since the News's Web site (at includes a complete Columbine archive, anyone with Internet access can confirm their suspicions in less than five minutes by looking up the original piece. Indeed, Veik, who'd helped Harris and Klebold make a controversial video prior to the attack, became a bit of a public figure last spring because of his openness to the press. A Nexis-Lexis search reveals 63 articles that mention him in publications ranging from U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post to France's International Herald Tribune and London's Sunday Telegraph.  

Still, Channel 2 news director Steve Grund concedes that such considerations weren't initially a big part of his decision to use the name. "We simply didn't know it was being withheld at that point, and if we'd been told, we probably wouldn't have done it," he says. But in retrospect, he believes that there was plenty of journalistic justification for going forward. "Generally speaking, it's a good policy to protect juveniles. But it's a small community, a small school, and the young man's name has come up before -- and after all that's transpired on this story, there's a good argument for identifying him."

Channel 4 news director Angie Kucharski made a different call in this instance, noting, "Traditionally, we have not named juveniles involved in the criminal justice system unless the system deems them worthy of being charged as an adult for the crime." Channel 7 news director Diane Mulligan uses a similar philosophy, but she acknowledges that "there are a lot of gray areas, and you have to look at everything on a case-by-case basis. For example, we went with Harris and Klebold's names before they were released, because of the seriousness of their crimes. But you have to be careful with kids. No matter what happens in the case of this student, the media will be watching him the rest of his life."

This probably won't come as good news to the focus of the latest Colorado controversy to grip the planet's attention, an eleven-year-old Swiss child arrested for aggravated incest who, coincidentally, is regularly referred to in news reports by his first name, Raoul. The names of his parents, Andreas and Beverly Wuthrich, are widely known. That area's getting grayer all the time.

The August 19 edition of this column mentioned a letter published in the July/August edition of the media publication Brill's Content, in which Denver Post staffer Mark Obmascik complained about the magazine's puffy treatment of the Rocky Mountain News's Columbine coverage. Obmascik also noted that Content failed to report that the paper had been "suckered" by an alleged Eric Harris suicide note that turned out to be an Internet hoax in an April 24 story co-authored by Kevin Vaughan and ex-News gossip columnist Norm Clarke. Now, in the letters section of the November Content, News staffers Lynn Bartels and Vaughan fire back at Obmascik, arguing that the April 24 article he cited, boldly headlined "Note Blames the Victims," stated only that the police were investigating the note, which was in fact true, and carefully identified it as something "purportedly written by Columbine gunman Eric Harris." (For Clarke's take on this topic, see Letters, page 6.) In a conversation with Westword, Bartels adds that there was actually a longer version of the letter she and Vaughan sent to Content (it was trimmed to avoid unwanted editing by the magazine's editors) that charged Obmascik, dubbed "Mark O'Massacre" by News wags, with making more than his fair share of mistakes in his own Columbine reporting. To back up her argument, she cites a June 13 Obmascik opus in which she says the writer got the sequence of events wrong, among other botches; furthermore, she chides the Post for never correcting the errors. For his part, Obmascik not only stands by his article but chides Bartels and Vaughan for trying to excuse the News's decision to ballyhoo the discovery of something that turned out to be bogus -- a tremendous lapse of judgment, in his mind. "The issues in the hoax note were so inciteful and fearsome, with the threat of more random killings, that you've really got to have it nailed down before you needlessly scare the community," he says. "And they didn't." On other playing fields: If you've ever wondered why tough-nosed sports reporting is such a rarity, look no further than the reaction to an interview with banned baseball legend Pete Rose by NBC reporter Jim Gray just prior to game two of the World Series on October 24. Gray, who started his journalism career in Denver, approached Rose with serious questions about his alleged bets on baseball -- but instead of applauding him for his nerve, a big chunk of the public reacted with anger. Channel 9 led its 10 p.m. newscast that day with a report about the dozens of complaints it had received, bumping news of the Broncos' latest loss to second place (a stunning turn of events), and the next day, even KOA yakker Mike Rosen dedicated the majority of his show to the controversy. Apparently, most fans want the press to lob softballs when reporting about this hardball game.  

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