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Shakeup in Denver Radio

Doomy pundits have been predicting the death of terrestrial radio for several years now, and recent reports about nationwide advertising-revenue declines in the 5- to 15-percent range won't convince them to swallow their words. The profit pool is slowly draining everywhere, including Denver, the scene of copious high-profile shifts over the past several months. "It's the whole market," says Beau Raines, program director at The Mountain/99.5-FM. "I'm in radio, and I can't even keep up with it."

No wonder, since the list of stations undergoing modifications includes the Mountain; One FM (formerly Sassy)/107.1-FM; Martini/101.5; The Wolf/92.5-FM; KOOL/105.1-FM; and AM-760, with a shift by KCFR/1340-AM, the flagship of Colorado Public Radio, in the offing. Pending FCC approval, KCFR will head to 90.1 FM, while classical-music-oriented sister station KVOD will relocate from that position to newly purchased 88.1 FM.

Turnover on so large a scale may turn out to be an exciting development in the long run. But during this chaotic early stage, none of the outlets sound substantially better, and the number of those going after the same demographic in pretty much the same way portends even more bedlam down the line.

Sassy, originally advertised as a female-friendly station, and Martini, which juxtaposed vintage crooners like Frank Sinatra with Norah Jones and other softer-skewing contemporaries, exemplify the growing confusion. The Denver Radio Co., which owns the signals, filed for bankruptcy in late December, and while general manager Steve Keeney emphasizes that agreements have already been reached with creditors, freeing up cash for major technical upgrades, he and his fellow execs decided to adjust them anyway. "Both stations were, by design, skewing 35-54 or above, but we couldn't grow them sufficiently to leverage the older demos," Keeney says. "So it was pretty clear to us that we had to move the stations younger."

To say the least. The new One FM is programming tuneage by Beyoncé and her peers in a manner that's all but indistinguishable from the stuff aired on 95.7-FM/The Party, which has also turned back the clock of late. In contrast, Martini seems to be going in a modern-rock direction; a February 28 set featured the likes of Franz Ferdinand and the Foo Fighters. That seems a lot closer to Jägermeister than Martini, and the incongruities don't stop there. At present, the stations' websites look just as they did before their respective libraries were turned upside down. Hope seniors surfing for some Ol' Blue Eyes don't suffer a fatal grabber when they discover what Martini's currently pouring.

Aficionados of the Wolf's music won't be nearly as surprised by what emerges from their speakers — but if the songs remain much the same, the approach is very different. The station, which is part of CBS Radio's Denver troika along with KOOL and The Mix/100.3-FM, was called Willie when it first went country, but CBS chieftain Don Howe rebranded it as the Wolf, ostensibly because too many people thought it concentrated on Willie Nelson cuts. Shortly thereafter, he sent a provocative message to KYGO/98.5-FM, the longtime country kingpin and frequent Denver ratings champ, by snaking Jonathan Wilde from the latter's morning show and Tracy Taylor from its afternoon-drive slot. The month before the pair's February 2007 debut as co-hosts of the Wolf's afternoon show, Howe told Westword that he expected to bag some big game. "KYGO is figuring out that not only are we in this for the long haul, but we're going to have a real good shot at beating them," he said.

What a difference a year makes. Howe recently swapped Wilde and Taylor to KOOL and dialed down the Wolf's competition with KYGO — although he doesn't put it quite that way. "There already was a lot of personality over at KYGO, so I think our upside is to play more music and fewer commercials: Launch the day with [morning team] Jesse and Shotgun and then pare back the personality after 9 a.m.," he maintains. "And simultaneously, we knew that we needed a big morning show at KOOL, and we were fortunate to have one right in our own back yard."

In the meantime, Howe is busily "rebuilding" KOOL's image, ditching its venerable "Good Times, Great Oldies" slogan in favor of "The Greatest Hits of All Time" and younging up the playlist to include '80s hits, represented by artists that vary from the unexpected (Blondie) to the execrable (Huey Lewis and the News). The reason for the realignment has everything to do with the age of listeners beloved by advertisers — folks between 25 and 54. "If you asked a lot of people to describe KOOL, they'd say music from the '50s and '60s," he points out. "Well, we don't play any '50s anymore, and people who listen to music we're playing from the '70s and '80s might be forty or fifty years old. That fits right into the wheelhouse for our target audience at KOOL."

Problem is, everyone has the same wheelhouse, and that's led to increased homogenization. The once-distinctive KOOL is now spinning tunes like the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," which can be heard on KBCO/97.3-FM, The Fox/103.5-FM, KCUV/102.3-FM, Jack/105.5-FM and even the Mountain, which has gone from what program director Raines describes as a "niche, eclectic format" that gave airtime to worthy but less prominent rock acts to a style "that's a little more accessible, a little more mass appeal," with mainly major artists getting the deep-track treatment. "We don't just play two songs from Hotel California. We play all of them," he says in a statement that's either a promise or a threat depending upon one's tolerance for the Eagles.

Thus far, the evolving methodology isn't paying off at the bank. Indeed, the Mountain recently bid farewell to Archer, a founding "Mountain guide" who was among the station's most popular personalities. Raines doesn't explain this decision, choosing instead to praise Archer and wish him well. But given that no replacement was hired (DJ Mike Casey is simply working a longer shift), the canning appears to have been about cutting costs.

There's a lot of that going around. In January, Lee Larsen, who oversees the eight Denver-area radio properties owned by the enormous Clear Channel concern, sent a memo to staffers pointing out the corporation is "slowing the amount of marketing we do for our stations and holding off on filling open positions" due to "a slowdown in revenue." Larsen says he's optimistic this will be short-lived, but he acknowledges that "terrestrial radio has its challenges, just like traditional print and television and all of that. It's a changing world, and we've got to be moving at all times to stay ahead."

One expenditure Clear Channel has made involves AM-760, its progressive-talk station. In the beginning, the outlet teamed closely with Air America, but the liberal network subsequently lost its biggest name — Minnesota senatorial candidate Al Franken — and remains financially unstable, having been sold for the second time in around a year. With that in mind, Kris Olinger, head of AM programming for Clear Channel's Denver cluster, has reached beyond the Air America roster for the syndicated Ed Schultz show, and she recently hired Mario Solis-Marich to helm an afternoon-drive show unique to the station. But unlike morning personality Jay Marvin, who's live and local, Solis-Marich typically broadcasts from Los Angeles, and during his first few weeks on the air, he's definitely sounded like an out-of-towner more comfortable talking about national issues than the local kind.

To complicate things further, the addition of Solis-Marich displaced syndicated yakker Thom Hartman, prompting an unexpected freakout among Hartman's fans. "We got more than a thousand e-mails and many, many phone calls," Olinger says — a reaction far beyond what she anticipated considering that Hartman's ratings were often less than a quarter the size Franken generated during the same time period. In the end, Olinger placated the masses by returning Hartman's show to the schedule, albeit in the early-evening slot, and she expects that this lineup will hold steady in the near term. After all, she put these pieces in place with an eye toward the upcoming Democratic convention, which she hopes will bring AM-760 a much-needed boost.

Still, there are no guarantees. Given the struggles today's radio industry is experiencing, everything's subject to change.


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