Sage Advice

Bret Saunders is no ordinary jock.
Susan Goldstein

In the Denver radio market, the morning show personalities who get the most attention are the naughtiest ones: the Peak's Howard Stern (last week he had an extended conversation with Sandra Bernhard about her fondness for anal sex), Alice's Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce (Jamie once told Sigourney Weaver that her husband used to "pleasure himself" to an Alien-era photo of the actress), and the Fox's Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax, whose humor would be at home in locker rooms everywhere.

As it turns out, though, talking smack or tittering over groin-region body parts isn't necessarily a prerequisite for Denver radio success. Indeed, according to the most recent Arbitron trend reports, another drive-timer -- KBCO's Bret Saunders -- is the most-listened-to morning jock in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic the station targets and is running neck-and-neck with Stern in the eighteen- to 34-year-old demo that supposedly belongs to Howard by birthright. Moreover, Saunders has hit these heights without chortling about threesomes or enticing female guests to show him their mammaries.

Not that Saunders rejects humor -- far from it. The self-proclaimed radio "Sage" is probably the quickest-witted person on area airwaves at present, but he delivers his material in a smart, low-key manner that won't make anyone feel the slightest bit guilty for laughing at it. "I don't want to be considered to be someone who's lame or terrified of being controversial or shocking. I really admire Howard Stern -- and I mean it," Saunders insists. "But I guess my contention is that a lot of things like that are being done on the radio. To say that we're an antidote to that is probably too strong, and 'alternative' is a dead word. So just say we're doing something different."

Saunders's rising popularity mirrors that of KBCO (at 97.3 FM), which is back in favor after several years of wandering in the broadcasting wilderness. The outlet was the model for the A3 (adult album alternative) format; that's a big reason why the Gavin A3 Summit, an annual convention for folks who work in the genre, is held in Boulder, KBCO's hometown. But after KBCO, a onetime independent, was purchased by Jacor, a Kentucky firm that subsequently merged with Texas-based media conglomerate Clear Channel, the station went through an identity crisis symbolized by the ill-fated morning team of yukster Kerry Gray, who caused a stir after speculating during a guest stint on KOA that Jesus Christ could have been gay, and Rick Ashton, a standup comic with a style that made most regular KBCO boosters shudder (in one routine, he snickered that even he could punch out Muhammad Ali now that the former champ had Parkinson's disease).

Scott Arbough, KBCO's program director, is reluctant to call the Kerry and Ashton pairing the disaster that it was: "That show was a stepping stone to what we're doing now," he says. But while he argues that Gray is "a brilliant broadcaster," he acknowledges that "he didn't belong in this format. He had a bit too much edge for what we do."

So the powers-that-be turned to Saunders, 36, a poster child for eclecticism. Born Bret Julyk (a program director in Michigan christened him "Saunders" a decade ago) in Great Falls, Montana, he was raised in Detroit, where he picked up a fondness for a wide range of music that sprang from the city -- the Stooges, Parliament-Funkadelic, even Ted Nugent, about whom he can speak in staggering detail: "Last year they reissued Great Gonzos! with 'Yank Me, Crank Me' on it. That was the last truly great Ted Nugent song." But at the same time, he developed a taste for hardcore jazz and the avant-gardisms of performers as disparate as Captain Beefheart and John Cage.

Such open-mindedness served him well in the radio game, in which DJs have to seem enthusiastic about whatever music their current employer chooses to play no matter how repulsive it might be. Usually Saunders found a way to get something out of these experiences; while spinning at a country station, for instance, he discovered "these great, shit-kicking records by people like George Jones and Ernest Tubb, who I love. It was a fantastic cultural education." But even he had his limits. "Doing the adult contemporary thing in the early '90s, when New Kids on the Block were really hot and you had to play things by Taylor Dayne...Well, that music was just heinous to me."

In late 1993, Saunders was hired for the morning show at alterna-station KTCL during the heyday of Nirvana and the modern rockers who appeared in the act's wake. Almost immediately, he made his mark, earning plenty o' praise (and several Westword Best of Denver awards). After the station wound up in the Jacor/Clear Channel portfolio, corporate decision-makers realized they had a genuine talent on their hands, and when attempts to lift KTCL's generally middling ratings to the next level failed, they moved Saunders to the higher-profile KBCO job and charged him with mopping up the mess left by Kerry and Ashton. "He was kind of the morning-show joke guy on KTCL, but he was clearly highly intelligent and had a massive knowledge of music," Arbough explains. "And we thought he'd have more of an opportunity to display that at KBCO."  

They were right. Saunders frequently does interviews with high-profile touring musicians (such as Tom Waits and Lou Reed) and local newsmakers like Governor Bill Owens, who some callers felt didn't belong on the station because of what they perceived as his backward stance on education issues (only in Boulder). And every Wednesday, he dons his Sage persona for trivia challenges that allow him to display a familiarity with pop-culture flotsam that's truly sick. Last week, a caller seemed absolutely positive that he'd be stumped by a question about Steely Dan's first album. But when Saunders noted that the band's alleged debut, Can't Buy a Thrill, was actually preceded by a soundtrack for the ultra-obscure 1971 flick You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (Or You'll Lose That Beat) -- its co-stars included Robert Downey Sr. and Richard Pryor -- the air went out of his balloon mighty quick.

Saunders is so entertaining that it's a shame he has to be interrupted so often by much of the music KBCO is playing these days. The station continues to provide a place for worthy adult acts like Billy Bragg & Wilco and Shelby Lynne, and that's a very good thing -- but to hear them you've got to wade through a lot of white-dude blues by the likes of Robben Ford, loads of predictable "heritage" material, and new music that's often more heavily weighted toward veteran acts like Santana and Eric Clapton than emerging groups. KBCO supplements this mix on its Web site,, with net radio streams spotlighting new music and archival faves, respectively, as well as Channel Sage, a new feature that gives Saunders the opportunity to program whatever tunes he wishes. Last week's maiden voyage, featuring tracks by Yo La Tengo, Belle and Sebastian and Serge Gainsbourg, was almost too good: Checking it out may leave listeners feeling depressed that KBCO itself won't air this stuff.

Thus far, Saunders hasn't gotten nervy enough to put any of his beloved jazz on Channel Sage, but fortunately he's got another outlet in this regard; following the death of much-revered Denver Post jazz scribe Jeff Bradley, Saunders was asked to contribute to the paper's music coverage, and his pieces to date have helped add some spice to a section desperately in need of it. He's also begun turning up on Show, the weekly Channel 4 entertainment program hosted by goggle-eyed Greg Moody. Given this plethora of media opportunities, there's no reason for him to go down the Stern-White-Floorwax road -- which is lucky for him, since he couldn't do it if he tried.

"I don't think I'd be able to say, 'That reminds me of your best booger joke, Bob,' and then leave a pause," he concedes. "So I'm lucky I don't have to."

The Dial Isn't Cast: Stern, meanwhile, won't have to learn how to speak Spanish just yet; the Justice Department refused to approve the previously announced sale of the Peak to Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation because Clear Channel, the company ordered to divest it, owns more than one-quarter of HBC. The Post headlined its article about this development "'Peak' Station to Keep Rocking," even though not even Chad Haldeman, the Peak's general manager (who'll become vice president of sales for six stations in Minneapolis-St. Paul as soon as transactions in Denver are completed), has the slightest idea whether it will be rocking, swinging or programming kazoo music in the future.

The next twist in the tale came just days after the HBC deal tanked: On June 15, Emmis Communications, an Indianapolis company that owns fifteen radio stations in the U.S., signed a letter of intent to purchase the Peak for $36 million (and a Clear Channel station in Phoenix for an additional $72 million). Emmis spokesperson Kate Healey declined to comment about what the Peak's format might eventually be, but she notes that the firm utilizes a variety of styles, including adult alternative in Chicago, country in St. Louis and urban in Los Angeles. "We don't believe in a cookie-cutter approach," she says. But whatever takes place should happen fast: Haldeman says Clear Channel wants to wrap things up during 2000's third quarter, which begins mere days from now. Until then, the company remains in an acquisitive mood, having just sucked up thirty stations from Roberts Radio L.L.C. (no relation -- damn it!), including two in Durango and one in Vail.  

Still on the block is KKYD-AM, the local affiliate of the Catholic Radio Network, which collapsed earlier this month. (Apparently those billboards that advertised the outlet with the slogan "Hear No Evil" emblazoned over a wall of flames made people seek out evil rather than reject it.) KKYD general manager John Ramirez referred all questions about the station's future to John Bitting, CRN's Chicago-based chief operating officer, who did not return calls. But in a letter posted on the Web site, Bitting claims that several of the defunct network's investors are interested in buying back some of the failed stations to continue Catholic programming. That should be a real test for the power of prayer.

Handle With Swear: In "Firing Line," the September 9, 1999, edition of this column, I referred to "Retired Judge Didn't Have Swearwithal to Act," a headline that ran on the front page of the September 1 Post as "tortured." So imagine my surprise when Dale Ulland, the author of that line, sent me a good-humored e-mail divulging that he'd recently won a third-place nod for headline writing in the prestigious Best of the West journalism awards, with the contest judge making particular note of a certain term: "The writer is being rewarded for not being afraid to make up the word 'swearwithal' to make the story work at the top of page one and to catch a reader's fancy."

"When I read your comment months ago, I SWORE that I would, down the road, get a little chuckle, if not the last laugh," Ulland writes -- and he certainly deserves a giggle or two. I'd join in, but I'm afraid I just don't have the swearwithal.

Whatever the hell that means.

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