TALK ISN'T CHEAP
From the start, the fight for control of talk-radio station KNUS-AM/710 has seemed like a nineteenth-century melodrama--a crusty rich guy who's the self-described "meanest man in Denver" versus a heartbroken blind man. And while the final chapter has yet to be written, the latest developments are positively Dickensian: A Jefferson County jury has ordered Al Martishang, the former, to pay Paul Stebbins, the latter, hundreds of thousands of dollars for fraud and outrageous conduct in connection with his efforts to take over KNUS.
The case is strewn with claims and counterclaims revolving around a host of financial and legal sticking points ("Technical Difficulties," September 22, 1993). Exactly how much money Martishang and his company, Alameda Enterprises, will have to pay Stebbins--whose Mile High Broadcasting was issued the broadcast license to operate KNUS but has had nothing to do with running it for nearly a year--is not yet known. But it could be as much as $1.8 million. Jefferson County judge Ruthanne Polidori will rule by April 28 on the question of who owns KNUS.
The trial, which began March 21 and ended with a jury verdict on April Fools' Day, was a little like talk radio itself. Stebbins appeared as a witness four separate times, and when he told those assembled that he had been unable to afford an engagement ring for his fiance because of what had been done to him, he broke down and cried.
"It was a very sincere, emotional reaction on my part," Stebbins says. "It wasn't planned or contrived. This has been a real hell for me, and I hope I never have to go through something like this again."
Bill Meiers, a mechanical engineer who served as jury foreman, admits that it was a dramatic moment, but says it did not affect the jury's deliberations. "The decision was based 100 percent on the evidence," he says. "It wasn't based on whether Mr. Stebbins was blind and emotional. If he'd been able to see and hadn't broken down, I'm sure the verdict would have been the same."
That decision against Martishang included $200,000 in punitive damages for outrageous conduct and $250,000 for fraud. When asked to respond to the jury's verdict, Martishang refers all questions to his attorney, Glen Keller, whom he says "is good at telling you people to go to hell." Keller declines to comment, saying it's because Judge Polidori has not yetmade a final determination about KNUS ownership.
If Polidori decides that Alameda is the rightful owner, the jury has directed Martishang to pay Stebbins over $1.8 million; when money Stebbins has been told to pay Martishang in connection with additional findings is subtracted, the total amount of damages comes to approximately $1.68 million. If Mile High is named KNUS's owner, Martishang still must pay Stebbins $1.05 million, while Stebbins would owe Martishang nearly $800,000, leaving Stebbins with approximately $250,000 in addition to the station itself.
These awards come a little more than three years after Stebbins, a Chicago-born radio engineer who's been blind since he was only days old, purchased KNUS from Boulder entrepreneur David Corman. Stebbins paid $460,000 in cash and signed a note with Corman for $500,000 to complete the transaction. By mid-1992, though, KNUS was losing a great deal of money, and Stebbins was unable to turn the situation around. Desperate, he hired Ron Crider, a colorful Floridian who claims to have served as a communications consultant to former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, to act as general manager. In short order Crider arranged with Martishang, a wealthy real estate developer, to move KNUS into one of Martishang's buildings, at 5800 West Alameda. According to Stebbins, Crider subsequently started spending money at so prodigious a pace that Stebbins feared he would go bankrupt. Former staffer Owen Beaver adds that Martishang denounced KNUS employees as "nothing but fags, queers and perverts," and once demonstrated his control over the station by throwing a switch that threw it off the air.
In the midst of this turmoil, Stebbins missed a payment on his $500,000 note; Stebbins says Crider used money earmarked for this purpose to pay staff salaries. Later, Stebbins learned that Martishang had purchased the note from Corman and was threatening to foreclose on it unless Stebbins sold KNUS to him. Stebbins eventually agreed, accepting a letter of intent from Martishang to purchase the station for $1.665 million.
This deal was never formalized, however, and when Stebbins determined in June 1993 that Crider was secretly working with Martishang to seize control of KNUS without meeting the obligations set forth in the letter of intent, he gave Crider his walking papers. Stebbins's attempt to hire a replacement was thwarted when Martishang filed suit, requesting the appointment of a receiver to run the station until the sale was completed (this request was soon granted). The suit also sought to foreclose on the station's collateral as security for the $500,000 note.
Stebbins filed counterclaims, and the dispute headed to court. Despite the verdict, Stebbins is cautious, saying he doesn't yet know what he'll do if Judge Polidori decides that KNUS belongs to him.
"My dream was to own and operate KNUS," he says, "but I might have to make a business decision to sell it. And if I get my money, I will walk away and live to see another day.