It's 12:45 a.m., and the spacious new Clear Channel headquarters, located in the vicinity of the Denver Tech Center, isn't exactly hopping. Aside from a mysterious-looking man who's sitting behind the wheel of an older model car in the building's parking lot as if he's waiting for Alan Berg to show up, the entire area is deserted -- and things aren't much more lively inside the offices of KOA, the self-described "50,000 Watt Voice of the West." Late-night newsman Bill Jones is on hand, as is board op Steve Seidenfeld, and in the main studio, talk-show host Russ Johnson is gathering his belongings after completing a program largely dedicated to the preparation, cooking and eating of squirrels, America's most misunderstood culinary delight. But their occasional conversations hardly shatter the stillness. Compared to this joint, the average library is deafening.
Welcome to Rick Barber's world.
Barber's profile at KOA isn't just low; it's subterranean. The outlet, perennially among Denver's most popular stations, has lately been running a series of promos in which its various air personalities greet their listeners with a friendly "Hey, everybody": "Hey, everybody, this is Scott Hastings"; "Hey, everybody, this is Mike Rosen"; and so on. Even Governor Bill Owens participates, offering a de facto endorsement that's more than a little questionable. (Is he covering his bets in case this politics thing doesn't work out?) But while Barber says he's included on one of these spots, his never seems to run -- and the story's much the same on the www.850koa.com Web site. Each person with a show on KOA has his or her own Web page, with a single exception: Rick Barber. And not only is the blurb about Barber shorter than those dedicated to any of his fellow hosts, but it's in a smaller typeface, with no photo attached.
For all practical purposes, Barber is KOA's invisible man. But he's also the station's most senior talk-show personality, having been part of the operation since 1982 -- several lifetimes, in broadcasting years. In addition, he's the only local yakker on the market's airwaves between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. Every other talk station in town, including Clear Channel's KHOW and KTLK, fills the wee hours with syndicated programming, for obvious reasons: The costs are lower, the product is reliable, and since the listenership is comparatively small, there aren't too many people to complain.
That leaves Barber, who's 53 ("I'm the same age as Bill Clinton"), as Denver radio's lone wolf -- a throwback to an era when every station from coast to coast had a hometown guy to let the dwellers of the dead zone know that there was someone else out there.
"I have a lot of listeners who are truck drivers, or parents who are up late with new babies, or people who are alone for one reason or another," Barber says. "And I try to make things comfortable for them."
To accomplish this goal, Barber sets a leisurely pace that's completely at odds with this go-go age; in his view, "the night moves at a different speed and a different decibel level," so he does, too. Prior to the start of the broadcast, he moves into the studio and drops his leather bag (it's overflowing with random scraps of paper, a coverless paperback book and assorted flotsam) before taking a vigorous sniff or two from an inhaler -- to combat his nettlesome sinuses -- and popping a Hall's cough drop in an attempt to keep his throat moist. Then, after turning his flap hat backward to accommodate his headphones and straightening his style-free windbreaker, he pushes his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose and leans into the microphone.
"It's six minutes after one o'clock," he says in a bottomless tone. "What the hell day is this? Wednesday?"
This casual introduction is followed by equally leisurely chat about famous birthday celebrants (Bret Michaels of the hair-band Poison, margarine salesman Fabio) that leads up to the first block of commercials -- except that the only actual commercial in it is Barber's endorsement of Sam Taylor's Bar-B-Q, which he'll laud several more times over the next four hours. (Barber's other sponsor on this night is Rose's Cafe, whose owner, like Taylor, is a personal friend of his.) Then, after allowing a full minute of a Seal song used as bumper music to play, Barber returns to chat with Phillip Strain, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Colorado at Denver who's spent more than thirty years studying a group whose members had severe behavior problems as children. The conversation is deliberate in the extreme and goes on for twenty-plus minutes. Without a break. And then, after a brief pause, its sequel continues for another fifteen minutes.
Clearly, there's no cutting to the chase with Barber. "People tend to be more attentive at night and a little more reflective, so you can let guests talk," he explains. "There's not so much going on to distract them. They're not in such a rush."
This policy extends to the handful of callers with whom Barber gabs after Professor Strain's departure. KOA's incredible signal reaches a huge chunk of the U.S. after nightfall, and sometimes beyond -- Barber reports getting calls from Finland and France long before the station was on the Internet -- and he seems to give extra leeway to fans in far-flung locales. For instance, he allows Kennedy from Kansas to speak at length even after it's obvious that when he's giving his opinions on "corporal punishment," he really means "capital punishment." (Talk about tough love.) Then there's Dan from Dallas, who engages in a rambling philosophical discourse ("Do you see life as a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy?" he asks at one point) for just short of half an hour, and Jim from Nebraska, who swears that Al Gore wants to make sure that Americans will be eating only imported food by the end of his first term. Yet Barber never loses his patience with them. "They've got something to say," he notes. "And I'm here to listen."
He's had plenty of years to polish this approach. A native of New York City who bounced around a lot as a kid (he graduated from high school in Clarksville, Tennessee), he began deejaying at dances when he was fourteen and was doing weekends at a Rhode Island outlet while still in high school. He met his future wife, who'd been raised in Littleton, at Brigham Young University, and after trailing her back to Colorado, joined the Army. His stint in the service included time in Korea, where he was a liaison officer for the Asian command during one of the most frightful phases of the Vietnam War. Upon his return to the States, he wound up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and before long, he was moonlighting on a rock station in nearby Fayetteville. "You can't get out of radio," he says. "It's more of a passion than a business."
By late 1970, Barber was back in Colorado and broadcasting full-time; he went from a news-director gig in Loveland to a job as booth announcer and cameraman at Channel 2 and a succession of positions at now-defunct stations: KBTR, KDEN and KWBZ, where he rubbed shoulders with KHOW's Peter Boyles. After getting a divorce (he subsequently remarried), he left Colorado for a time, working in Wyoming and New Mexico before returning to become the news anchor for a late-night show on KOA that was simulcast on Channel 4, then KOA's sister station. This TV/radio hybrid lasted for two years and gave Barber a chance to meet a whole range of second-tier performers eager for face time, no matter how ungodly late it was. "We had Bernie Kopell, who played Doc on The Love Boat, and Nanette Fabray -- and Rip Taylor was a scream," he remembers.
But even though the show's plug was eventually pulled ("It just got too expensive"), Barber's wasn't. He's been on KOA without interruption for over eighteen years, and swears that he's happy with his slot. "I've done morning-drive before, and it's the hardest job in radio," he says. "I'm much happier where I am. I've been very lucky in this business."
At the same time, he's not blind to financial realities, especially as it concerns syndication. "That's the trend in radio in general," he says. "I recognize that doing a local late-night show is probably an archaic concept in the age of chain restaurants and chain everything. But such is the nature of business."
Lee Larsen, the vice president of Denver Clear Channel, admits as much. He says he can't afford to have a local host on all of his company's talk outlets at that hour because of "economic issues. It costs you more at night than you can generate in revenue, since it's a day part that traditional advertisers mostly ignore. So you have to have a good reason for doing it." And what's his? "KOA has to be local," he asserts, "so with Rick, we have that base covered. And because we're running syndicated programming on our other stations [Art Bell on KHOW and ESPN Radio shows on KTLK], we're not competing with ourselves."
Larsen insists that Barber is "a very big part of our staff. He's not an island." But Barber certainly seems to be a free agent. For about fifteen minutes of his show prior to the four o'clock hour, he presents "Comedy Theater," which turns out to be uninterrupted routines from various comedy albums in his collection. Upon his return on this day, he interviews Dr. Barry Sears, author of the best-selling diet book The Zone, and after taking several calls (bringing the total over the course of the show to eight), he bids Sears farewell, casually drops his copy of The Zone into an adjacent trash can, and signs off with the least fanfare imaginable. Steve Kelley and April Zesbaugh, two of KOA's biggest stars, are due to arrive within minutes, but Barber doesn't hang around to shoot the breeze with them.
"They're extremely busy in the mornings, and they don't have time for that," he says. "I don't get in their way, and believe me, I'm sure they're grateful. Besides, when I get done with my show, I'm tired, and I have to get home to make breakfast for my wife. I've got my priorities."
Overwhelming notoriety doesn't seem to be among them. When asked if he would like KOA to do a better job of promoting his show, he says, "I suppose everybody could use more of that -- even me. But I'm not going to worry about it. The checks don't bounce and they leave me alone. It's all a tradeoff."
So is his schedule, which has him ending his day's work when most folks are beginning theirs. But as he steps into the crisp morning air outside Clear Channel HQ, he seems at peace with his lot in radio life.
"I suppose I've become a fixture. I'm sort of like a piece of furniture -- the couch no one wants to move. I guess they're afraid to find out what's behind it."
A complete recap of Columbine anniversary-week press coverage would take a lot more space than is available here; tune in next week for a more wide-ranging roundup. But the Sunday, April 16, editions of the Denver dailies offered a good indication of the media saturation to which we'll all be subjected.
In addition to several Columbine-related articles in the main body of the paper, the Rocky Mountain News presented "Hope From Heartbreak," a sixteen-page special section (a contest entry for next year, perhaps?) dominated by moist-eyed profiles notable primarily for their redundancy, and a Sunday Spotlight in which each of the publication's critics contributed a thumbsucker on the "culture of violence." The latter project, a throwback to the days immediately following the shootings when some observers were seriously trying to blame the whole thing on Marilyn Manson, even forced classical-music scribe Marc Shulgold to drag out Adolf Hitler's admiration for Richard Wagner one more time. The poor guy deserves combat pay.
Meanwhile, the Denver Post, apparently emboldened by its recent breaking-news Pulitzer prize, actually wrote more about Columbine than the News -- a fairly startling turn of events. Front and center was the Post's own sixteen- page Columbine special section, "Voices of Columbine," which featured one of the worst layouts in modern newspapering history and a brand-new Columbine logo (betcha the folks at Jeffco schools are pissed that the Post isn't using the one they created). Moreover, the editors managed to get a Columbine piece (with logo affixed) onto the first page of virtually every segment of the paper: the main section, Denver and the West, Business, Lifestyles, Perspective, the Scene, even Sports (untold thousands are no doubt grateful to writer Jim Armstrong for revealing Denver Broncos media-relations director Jim Saccomano's take on the tragedy). Too bad they failed to get something on the Travel opener -- maybe about how Columbine students love to shout obscenities at goggle-eyed tourists who are still stopping by the school.
Of course, this blanket coverage might have been less suffocating had it contained something new. Unfortunately, the papers merely offered rehashes of tales that have been told over and over again during the past year. Get ready for more of the same.
On April 15, Channel 31 finally relocated to its posh new facility at the intersection of Speer and Lincoln, a mere three weeks after its initial announced date for doing so. The day before the move, it was obvious the folks at Fox were serious this time; dialing the main number prompted a message revealing that the line would be out of service until the next Monday. Lucky thing the news operation, which is set to debut this summer, wasn't up and running yet, or else they would have had to put the whole world on hold.
Nonetheless, the timing of Fox's impending entry into the Denver news market is looking mighty fortuitous, if only because Channel 9, the longtime ratings frontrunner, seems more vulnerable than it has in ages. The departure of sportscaster Ron Zappolo, recently hired as the main anchor at Fox, has sucked much of the life out of 9's broadcast (pretty face Tony Zarrella, Zappolo's replacement, is also pretty vacant), and the reporting staff seems equally listless without the contributions of its longtime theatrical spark plug, Phil Keating.
A veteran of almost ten years at Channel 9, where he landed after gigs in Georgia, Washington and Ohio, Keating understands his talents very well. "My personality isn't the typical just-give-me-the-facts-ma'am personality that a lot of journalism schools produce," he says. Indeed, he actually considered ditching straight news for showbiz reporting along the lines of Entertainment Tonight following the expiration of his contract with Channel 9 and the strong implication that the station wasn't interested in significantly broadening his role there. But after a six-month search for intriguing opportunities came up dry, he received an offer from Channel 31 that fit the bill: anchoring the weekend broadcasts in addition to reporting three days a week. "It was perfect," he says. "Now I'll still be able to go out in the field and cover stories, but I'll also be able to utilize my personality as an anchor."
Keating is careful not to rip Channel 9: "My time there was very productive for my career," he says. But in talking about his excitement over his new post, he gives yet another indication that Channel 31 may be planning to buck the conservatism characteristic of Denver television.
"It's a good fit," he points out. "I've been wanting to work for Fox for years, because their style is much hipper and less stuffy than traditional TV news. And that's a good thing."
Channel 4's Vic Lombardi, the subject of last week's column, loves the cable sports channel ESPN but turned down the opportunity to join the team. But Denver Post sports editor Neal Scarbrough didn't give the operation the brush: He's been hired as football editor by the channel's print equivalent, ESPN: The Magazine.
Scarbrough's star has been on the rise for quite some time; ESPN: The Magazine romanced him two years ago, but he turned down the offer because he'd just arrived at the Post. More recently, Sports Illustrated dangled a senior-editor post in front of him, and when word got out that he was considering the proposal, ESPN contacted him again and won his services because of the multimedia opportunities it offered. "Since I'll be doing the NFL, which is what ESPN has the biggest stake in, I wanted to make sure I could be involved on the dot-com and TV network fronts," he says.
This departure, which becomes official April 21, is a considerable blow to the Post's sports department, which has lately been scooping its counterpart at the Rocky Mountain News on a regular basis; breaking the news about troubled Broncos cornerback Dale Carter's impending suspension by the NFL is just one recent example. Scarbrough, who confirms that the Post is considering candidates inside and outside the paper to succeed him, also takes pride in the wide-ranging nature of the section. "We realize that there are lots of areas that people haven't been covering that aggressively in Denver, like secondary sports. And I think we've been doing a lot better job of covering them." His biggest frustration during his two years on the job? That the News was recently recognized for its daily and Sunday sports sections by the Associated Press Sports Editors while the Post was not. "If they got awards for what they're doing now," he says, "then covering a women's sports story will probably get them a ticker-tape parade."
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael.Roberts@westword.com.