The Man You Hate to Love
Bob Visotcky attracts negative press like the Backstreet Boys attract preteen girls.
The overseer of six Denver-area radio stations owned by Dallas's AMFM Inc., a brand-spanking-new conglomerate created by the merger of media giants Chancellor and Capstar, Visotcky has spent most of the past four months being publicly pilloried. He was the primary local heat-taker following controversial comments by veteran shock jock Howard Stern the day after the Columbine shootings. (For those of you with long-term-memory problems, Stern, who is heard locally on KXPK-FM/96.5 [the Peak], puzzled over the fact that gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn't tried to force sex on any of the extremely "good-looking" female students at Columbine prior to killing themselves.) Then, in late May, Visotcky was again cast as the bad guy when he relocated Denver's only commercial classical-music station, KVOD-FM/92.5, to an acoustically suspect frequency -- 1280-AM, previously the home of the late, unlamented talk station KRRF-AM (Ralph) -- in order to bring to Denver an R&B-oriented format dubbed "jammin' oldies." (The call letters for the FM outlet were subsequently changed to KDJM, while the AM was designated KVOD.)
Supporters of KVOD-FM, led by Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole (who co-founded the station), reacted to the switch with horror, castigating Visotcky for putting profits ahead of community service. And inside the industry, Visotcky earned the nickname "The Killer V" for his willingness to sack anyone and everyone he sees as dead weight.
Amid this turmoil, Visotcky has tried to keep the focus off his peppery self and on AMFM's local holdings. But get him talking and there's no stopping him. In conversation, Visotcky comes across as an exuberant booster of the medium, waxing nostalgic about the thrill of listening to New York's WABC-AM during his New Jersey boyhood. "I was totally fascinated by the DJs and everything," he says. "I got completely hooked -- and I still am." But at the same time, he's a man who understands that the radio business is a game judged by ratings and profits, not good intentions, and he makes no apologies for playing to win.
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"Why should I?" he asks. "When you go into a market that's doing poorly, there's got to be change or else it's going to continue to do poorly. Look at Bill Parcells -- when he went to the Jets, he made a lot of changes when he first got there. And the same thing with Jimmy Johnson in Dallas and Miami. But do people remember that? No. What they remember is that they built unbelievably successful franchises. And do you know why? Because they don't surround themselves with mediocrity -- and neither do I. If people are happy with just getting by, then go work for another company, because, hey, we owe our bosses and ourselves the best we can possibly give them on a daily basis -- and if I'm not getting that from people, they're not going to be around me. People can call that whatever they want, but if you want mediocrity, then you should hire mediocrity and leave me alone."
In the beginning, Visotcky's temperament wasn't so fiery -- but it didn't take long for him to stoke the flames. He first got wired into radio in the mid-Seventies while attending West Virginia University, where he majored in broadcast journalism. Before long, he'd landed an internship as a newscaster at two radio stations in Morgantown, the college's headquarters, and a weekend DJ gig at a Top 40 purveyor in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, about an hour's drive away. One night, he remembers, he was heading home in the middle of a snowstorm, "and I was off the highway and didn't even know it. True story: I didn't see any signs or anything like that, so I followed my tracks back to the highway -- and that's when I realized I was in the middle of a field."
But Visotcky had a more serious problem than a dangerous commute: By his own admission, he sucked behind the microphone. "I did one newscast in Morgantown so badly that when I got off the air, the general manager and the news director were waiting for me. They said, 'Bob, you're terrible. You've got to stop doing this and do what your niche is.' And I said, 'What's my niche?' And they said, 'You're a people person -- a natural salesman.'"
At first Visotcky resisted this advice: "I didn't go to college to be a salesman," he points out. But with graduation looming, he finally saw the light and canceled a spring-break trip to Fort Lauderdale in favor of going to New York and trying to talk his way into a job. He managed to line up three interviews through sheer chutzpah, returning with an amorphous promise of employment from WPLJ-FM big shot Larry Divney, who went on to executive positions at MTV and Comedy Central. After graduating in May, Visotcky went back to WPLJ, where Divney told him he'd arranged for him to meet the station's general manager. "I walked into the GM's office, and I was so nervous, I tripped over his coffee table and fell right on my ass," Visotcky remembers. "He looked at me lying there and said, 'Oh, good -- this is the kind of guy we need working here.'"
Apparently he wasn't joking: Visotcky was hired. Over the next several years, he moved from sales jobs in New York and Chicago to general-manager gigs in a slew of top radio markets, including Denver; he helped launch classic-rocking KRFX-FM/103.5 (the Fox) in the mid-Eighties and subsequently helmed KHIH-FM/95.7 (K-High), a station that played smooth jazz before the term was invented. (Today both the Fox and K-High are owned by San Antonio-based Clear Channel, AMFM's primary corporate adversary in Denver; the signals were previously held by Kentucky's Jacor Broadcasting, whose assets Clear Channel recently swallowed.) Along the way, Visotcky, a married father of two, had a number of stations sold out from under him, leaving him so frustrated with radio's gypsy lifestyle that he insists he briefly considered getting out of the racket altogether. Instead he headed to San Francisco in the mid-Nineties and re-enlivened a longtime under-performer known as Wild 94.9, then landed in Los Angeles in time to participate in a bit of radio history -- the creation of Mega 100, the first jammin'-oldies station in the country.
"I had to put a staff together in thirty days, and because I'm not from L.A. and had never lived there, I didn't know anybody from Adam," Visotcky notes. "But I was able to hire unbelievable people because I shared my vision with them. I said, 'Ten years from now, you're going to kick yourself in the ass if this thing hits and you didn't sign up, because you could have been part of building a legendary radio station.' And it worked. The revenues went from $7 million when I started to $17 million last year, and they're going to do close to $30 million this year -- and now jammin' oldies is being copied all over the country."
Visotcky didn't get long to bask in this triumph. Last year, Jimmy de Castro, his figurative godfather at Chancellor (de Castro is now vice chairman of the board, president and CEO of the 485-station AMFM), "tapped me on the shoulder and told me, 'We have a disaster in Denver. We've got six radio stations, and we think every one of them needs a lot of work. We want to make sure all of our clusters are strong, and if any cluster is weak, we want to fix it.' But they also wanted to try something a little different. They wanted to have a general manager who not only oversaw a couple stations, but was also the market manager who could make tough decisions and try to consolidate -- and they thought I was the man to do it."
After some initial reluctance ("I was in the biggest market in the country, and I'd already been in Denver twice. Why would I want to go back?"), Visotcky returned to Denver and began remodeling the stations, which included KALC-FM/105.9 (Alice), KIMN-FM/100.3 and KXKL-FM/105.1 (Kool 105). Alice, for example, sounded "embarrassing," because the previous regime had gotten away from what had made it successful in the first place. "It wasn't the music that was the problem," he explains. "It was the attitude. Alice was built on irreverence. It was a fun radio station, but the fun was gone." He also disapproved of the previous management's treatment of morning-show personalities Jamie White, Frosty Stillwell and Frank Kramer, whose show, which began in Denver, is now beamed in via satellite from Los Angeles. "The program director was trying to push them out, and since corporate wouldn't let him do it, he was trying to undermine them from the inside," he says. "I picked up on that the second I got here and fired him two days later."
Visotcky believes that Alice's strong recent performance -- in the spring Arbitron ratings, it's the seventh-most-listened-to station in the market, and the morning show is number one in the 18-34 demographic category -- can be traced to the recruitment of a more energetic on-air crew and a renewed commitment to Jamie, Frosty and Frank. "Now they know that we love them," Visotcky says, "and just that minor change of letting them know that we care has made all the difference."
For KOOL 105, which Visotcky says was "one of the worst-sounding oldies stations I'd ever heard" when he returned to Denver, he brought back the morning team of Paxson and the Coach and chose new, more chipper DJs. "Now it sounds like people are having fun inside that station," he declares. "I believe that if people are having fun inside the station, it'll come out on the speakers, and listeners are picking up on that. KOOL had huge numbers in the last ratings book."
The same can't be said of KIMN, currently known as the Mix; its cumulative spring Arbitrons were actually down -- a fact Visotcky blames on "confusion. It's had something like ten different formats in the past five years." But as usual, he's aggressively confident that this situation will soon change, thanks to tweaking intended to differentiate the Mix from its primary rival, KOSI-FM/101.1. "We're 'Denver's Bright Mix,' not elevator music," he says. "Instead of playing background music, we're a foreground station that people are actively listening to, so advertisers will actually get more bang for their buck."
Folks tuned to the Mix morning show on August 20 got a taste of these grabbier tactics: After an interview set up by producer Matt "Slacker" Levy failed to happen (the fourth such problem that week), program director Ron Harrell went on the air at the behest of co-stars Dom Testa and Jane London and suspended Levy for a week with pay, prompting a barrage of phone calls both pro and con. In explaining the situation, Harrell sounds very much like Visotcky: "Dom and Jane were very frustrated, and so was I. It didn't contribute to the integrity of the show or of the radio station for things that we were promoting to keep falling through, and we had to do something about it." He adds, "Personally, I would have preferred to have it happen behind the scenes, but I try to give the morning show full creative freedom. And in the end, it was entertaining radio, which is what we're trying to make."
The jury's still out on whether the Peak is succeeding on that score. A hard alternative station designed to take chunks out of KBPI-FM/106.7 and KTCL-FM/93.3, both Clear Channel stations, it hasn't been blowing away the competition; in the spring book, the Peak trails KBPI by a substantial margin in cumulative ratings and is barely ahead of KTCL, and revenues are a question mark. But from a ratings standpoint, the Howard Stern experiment has been a smash with the 18-34 market, landing in third place just a whisker behind the Fox's meal ticket, Lewis and Floorwax. Yet Visotcky, who insists that the Stern program had already been purchased by the Peak prior to his arrival "despite what my critics say," refuses to gloat about its performance. Instead he fixates on what he sees as unfair attacks directed at him and his station following Stern's remarks -- attacks that he feels, with some justification, were spearheaded by enemies at Jacor using News media columnist Dusty Saunders and his Denver Post counterpart, Joanne Ostrow, as weapons.
"This whole thing was manufactured by Jacor," he fumes. "The first day it happened, which was a Wednesday, I got thirty or forty phone calls -- that's all -- and none on Thursday. But on Friday, it's plastered all over the place by Dusty Saunders, who's actually a Jacor employee [Saunders and Ostrow co-host a media show Sunday mornings on Clear Channel-owned KHOW-AM/630]. To me, that's totally against ethics. I majored in journalism, but people like Dusty Saunders are the reason I didn't go into it. In the long run, though, they did me a big favor. We had this whole ad campaign set up for Howard before any of this happened, and they just went ahead and told everyone where he was. And people found him, for whatever reason, and they realized that everything they'd been told about him wasn't true, and they liked what they heard. So thank you, Dusty and Joanne. Thank you very much."
The News's Amole, who called Visotcky a "tasteless boob" in a May 25 column protesting the move of KVOD from FM to AM, comes in for the same sort of paddling from Bobby V. "Gene Amole is a hypocrite and a sellout," Visotcky says. "He sold the radio station -- and Gene-o, if you wanted to make sure it never was anything other than classical, you shouldn't have done that. But because of the big controversy he stirred up, its ratings have actually gone up since moving to AM. So he actually did us a big favor." As for the substance of Amole's argument -- that AM doesn't have a sonic range sufficient for the broadcast of classical music -- Visotcky begs to differ. "There's a lot of people I could put in front of a car radio and play FM and then play them AM, and I'll bet they couldn't tell the difference. But people in this society always need something to bitch about, so they're bitching about this."
No one at AMFM is complaining about Jammin' 92.5. KDJM's first several weeks on the air were a bit bizarre -- the outlet endlessly hyped a $25,000 name-this-station contest only to pay the dough to a woman who suggested that execs keep the "jammin' oldies" tag they were already using -- but the profits were immediate; according to Visotcky, its revenue beat KVOD's during the first month. "KVOD was making no money, and it's my job to maximize what I've got," he says. "Jammin' oldies is the hottest format in the country right now, and I knew it would work here just like it's worked everywhere else. And right now, the ratings we're getting for Jammin' are triple what KVOD's had been. Triple."
Visotcky claims to be satisfied with KVOD-AM's current numbers. But when asked if he's committed to keeping the station alive, he replies: "Hey, I'm committed to results. I'll tell you right now, if KVOD loses all its advertisers and the people don't follow it, I will blow that station up in a heartbeat. We are not a non-profit company. We are a for-profit company. We have a responsibility to our advertisers and to our stockholders to make AMFM a great company, and if KVOD isn't making it greater, it's gone."
Such talk won't win Visotcky many fans, but he's not about to adjust his style for public-relations purposes. "I'd be lying to you if I told you what some people have said didn't bother me," he concedes. "But the people who work for me know I care about them immensely. I care about their families, too, and I sleep very well at night knowing that I'm giving it the best I've got. So if people want to throw rocks at me, go ahead. Throw all you want."
Shortly after last week's issue hit the streets, Robin Bertolucci, director of AM programming for Clear Channel in Denver, confirmed what's been rumored for months -- that former Denver Bronco Reggie Rivers, a late shifter at KOA-AM/ 850 for the past two years, is taking over the 3-7 p.m. slot at KHOW manned until August 20 by Jay Marvin. (Daily papers in Chicago report that Marvin will start gabbing at WLS-AM early next month.) "People love Reggie, and we think he'll kick butt in the afternoon drive," Bertolucci says. "He's a fixture in the community, and he's smart, personable, insightful, thoughtful. He's got it all."
There's something to that: Rivers is indeed an articulate host, and as a bonus, he specializes in current events, not the jock talk that's not exactly in short supply around here. But at this point, the idea of Rivers is frequently better than the experience of actually listening to him. He's not nearly as unpredictable as Marvin was and can be a bit dull, since he tends to stake out a position and reiterate it endlessly rather than elaborate on his ideas or move into surprising areas. But Rivers has the potential to improve, which is more than can be said of most of the mooks KHOW could have chosen.
Marvin's departure isn't the only personnel move at Clear Channel; Jeff Hillery, the program director at KHOW and KTLK-AM/760, and Zach Gilltrap, the production and imaging director at both outlets, split to work at a small FM talk station starting up in Philadelphia. But Bertolucci maintains that "there will not be any radical changes here -- because I'm still around."
Likewise, the Rocky Mountain News, whose execs apparently believe that the Pulitzer Prize committee determines winners using a scale rather than by reading, shows no signs of modifying its policy of ballyhooing any item even tangentially connected with Columbine High School, no matter how unnecessary or unenlightening. A laughable low point was "Paint Thief Stirs Up Hard Feelings by Stealing From Columbine Victim's House," an August 19 article about a five-gallon bucket of paint lifted from the home of shooting victim Sean Graves. (If this was judged newsworthy, expect to see the headline "All Light Switches Seem to Be Working at Columbine" in the near future.) But this offense was minor compared to August 22's "Fatal Friendship," a twelve-page, no-ad special section (read: contest entry) detailing "the untold story of the Columbine killers' deadly bond." In fact, the article, accompanied by a noxious illustration that looks as if it were painted on black velvet, added only a handful of semi-fresh details and a slew of photos from junior-high annuals to a tale that has been told and told and told again. At this late date, such a piece serves only to rebrutalize a community that has had far more than its fill of exploitation.
Cecil B. DeMille, director of such films as The Ten Commandments, specialized in a vastly enjoyable brand of hypocritical sanctimony: When staging an orgy scene, for example, he seemed to be saying, "Depravity is bad -- and I'll prove to you how bad it is by showing you examples in extraordinarily lurid detail." During its 10 p.m. newscast on August 18, KUSA-TV/Channel 9 employed the same tactic in a report about the media's use of 911 calls. After viewers heard a recording of a hysterical William Shatner informing an operator that his wife was at the bottom of his swimming pool, wonderfully theatrical reporter Phil Keating, whose fabulous hair has been looking a bit mussy of late, supplemented footage of the Post's Sue O'Brien arguing that such material was exploitative with a generous sampling from 911's greatest hits, including Nicole Brown Simpson's post-abuse call fingering then-husband O.J. Simpson and a teacher desperately alerting authorities to the Columbine High School assault.
When they do a story about the problem of sexually explicit TV programming, how much nudity do you think Channel 9 can work in?
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.
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