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The Message

Along with station manager Marty Durlin (background), Kris Abrams, KGNU's Denver campaign coordinator, is shaking the money tree.
Mark Manger

Last week, Boulder community radio station KGNU announced the purchase of Denver's KJME/1390-AM for $4.1 million, plus an extra $100,000 fee for an operating agreement that allowed the new signal to begin broadcasting on August 29, just in time for the opening of the Republican National Convention. KGNU only had a bit over $1 million of that sum when the transaction went down and now faces the biggest fundraising challenge of its 26-year existence, not to mention rivalry with a slew of long-entrenched Denver outlets and a prominent new one: New York-based Air America Radio, which took over KKZN/760-AM on August 30 with an assist from improbable ally Clear Channel. Nonetheless, Kris Abrams, KGNU's Denver campaign coordinator, seems as confident as Howard Dean at a screaming contest.

"I don't think this is a risk, because the cost of broadcasting in Denver is so low," Abrams says. "We already have a staff and a building. All we have to do is pay off the signal."

To accomplish this goal, KGNU needs to line up plenty of previously untapped Denver donors -- hence a campaign to attract 1,390 benefactors willing to part with $1,390 apiece. "If we can pull that off, we can raise close to a couple of million dollars," notes station manager Marty Durlin.

Doing so won't be easy. Nonprofits in general have struggled to separate patrons from their pay since 9/11, and while KGNU has defied that trend of late by appealing to liberals who dislike President George W. Bush, there's no guarantee he'll be around forever. Because a John Kerry victory in November could well cause a significant dip in donations, KGNU staffers may be tempted to support Dubya.

Okay, probably not, but you get the point.

Denver already has two public-radio operations: KUVO and Colorado Public Radio, a statewide service with a well-earned reputation for relentlessly seeking and retaining contributors. KUVO president and CEO Florence Hernandez-Ramos doesn't seem threatened by the new kid on the block. "They'll bring in a whole new market to Denver," she says. "They're a welcome addition."

CPR president Max Wycisk is even more effusive. Although his critics haven't always believed him, he's long preached that having more public-radio stations in a given area is advantageous for all. "Whenever there are multiple public-radio services, the total audience increases dramatically, and listeners are better served," he declares.

Even so, KGNU is starting from close to scratch in its search for philanthropic dollars, not to mention Denver listeners disenfranchised by the collapse of the city's last great progressive-radio hope. That station, KNRC, bowed in 2002 with the idea of offering "both sides" of issues, but that was evidently one side too many. It folded earlier this summer.

This flop hasn't scared off Air America, which keeps chugging along despite a rough launch. The network, whose marquee names remain lefty comics Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, was booted from affiliates in Los Angeles and Chicago shortly after debuting, but it's now in more than twenty markets nationwide. Ratings aren't spectacular everywhere, but the network has helped its New York City affiliate become what Air America CEO Doug Kreeger calls the Apple's "number-one talk-radio station." And when KPOJ in Portland, Oregon, signed with the network, its ratings shot upward almost immediately.

Irony alert: KPOJ is owned by Clear Channel, a favorite whipping boy of Democrats. Citizens who oppose media consolidation see the San Antonio-based firm, which holds the deeds to over 1,200 stations nationwide, as a communications cancer that could spread if current FCC rules are slackened. Peace activists, meanwhile, charge that the company is in the pocket of the Bush administration. Troop-supporting rallies like the one sponsored by the Fox in 2003 hardly dispelled this impression.

Nonetheless, Clear Channel began trying the Air America format in other markets following its success in Portland, with Denver being the latest locale. KKZN, previously known as the Zone, was the obvious dial spot at which to try this experiment, since the station's recent mix of a business morning show and multiple broadcasts of Jim Rome's syndicated sports yak-fest was attracting a listenership small enough to fit into the average Denny's. Rome, by the way, migrated to the Fan on August 30.

Veteran Colorado radio exec Kris Olinger, Clear Channel's director of AM programming in Denver, who returned to the area in June following six years in Seattle, rebranded the Zone as "760 AM, Boulder's Progressive Talk." The station is actually licensed in Thornton, but its offices have been placed in the Boulder building occupied by KBCO to justify the new moniker. Most of Air America's fare will be heard here, supplemented by Ed Schultz, a liberal who's under contract to the Jones Radio Network, and Phil Hendrie, whose program used to air on KHOW.  

Olinger insists that ideology is much less important to her employer than is the bottom line. "There are a lot of misconceptions about Clear Channel," she says. "We're in the radio business, and that means we want to serve the community and provide the kind of radio that can get ratings and make money -- and we think Air America will work here."

Because Air America CEO Kreeger feels the same way, he's in the strange position of having to speak in positive terms about a corporation that progressives like him routinely bash. "Ultimately, they're a broadcaster looking for the best format in each of their markets," he notes, "and this represents to them a format that works and delivers ratings. That's why we've met with such success with them. We're the only alternative voice they can turn to that can create a format capable of reaching a very different audience."

In Kreeger's opinion, Air America will do so in Denver because it avoids straddling the political fence, as KNRC did. "Our programming isn't sandwiched between conservative talk the way it was usually done in the past," he says. "That's like having a classical-music station all of a sudden throw in something from a hard-rock format. No one would ever do that on a music station, so why should we try to do that in talk? By offering a full format of progressive talk, we really fit the model that's best for radio."

The coincidental timing of Air America's and KGNU's bows, which increased the number of aggressively progressive Denver stations from zero to two in a 24-hour span, doesn't bother Kreeger, and KGNU's Abrams is fine with it as well. "I think there's such a demand out there for diversity of debate that the more, the better," she maintains.

At the same time, Abrams makes it clear that her station has a far different approach to programming than does Air America. KGNU plays music from the fringes (an interesting place to hang out), and she says its information shows aren't as overtly partisan as Air America's: "We've been criticized by Democrats for our critical reporting, because it's aimed not just at Republicans, but Democrats and Greens and whoever else. We take a critical look at everyone, which I think gives us more credibility than any other media outlet out there."

Abrams came to KGNU in December 2003, following three years as a senior producer for Democracy Now, a news program hosted by Amy Goodman. Along the way, she observed a bruising fight for the heart and soul of Pacifica, a community radio network with several stations and a distribution arm that's used by affiliates like KGNU. To Abrams, the scrap was "the equivalent of a corporate takeover" by people who wanted to move Pacifica in a more pro-Democrat direction. In the end, the mainstreamers lost, and KGNU's Durlin became the board's chair. As she and Abrams got to know each other, Durlin mentioned her goal of purchasing a Denver station. "I said, 'What's holding you back?'" Abrams remembers. "And she said, 'We need someone who can run the campaign.'"

That someone turned out to be Abrams. She had relatively little fundraising experience, but after getting up to speed, she began contacting well-heeled locals like Rutt Bridges, an entrepreneur who recently donated a new headquarters building to Colorado Public Radio. With help from Bridges and others, Abrams collected about $1.2 million -- enough to purchase KJME from Andres Neidig, whose family played Spanish-language music on the station.

The agreement with the Neidigs calls for KGNU to deliver $750,000 during each of the next two years, with a subsequent balloon payment to wrap things up. Amounts like these, which don't encompass the $500,000 per annum needed to keep the Boulder operation running, worry people like Rob Smoke, a former KGNU volunteer who recently left the station under complicated circumstances; Durlin refers to him as "disgruntled." He doesn't think staffers put enough effort into trying to bounce KGNU's current FM signal into Denver, which would have been much less expensive (Durlin denies the charge), and fears that expansion will lessen the station's unique-to-Boulder feel.

The Denver Radio Coalition's Doug Bohm has similar concerns, but he comes at them from a different angle. The Coalition was involved in the mission to bring KGNU to Denver early on, but bailed out after learning that there wouldn't be any specific Denver programming, at least at first. Another Coalition member, who goes by the name Wrench, is channeling his efforts into starting a pirate radio station designed for Denverites; he's confident it'll be on the air within weeks. He likes what KGNU does, but wishes more people from Denver were directly involved. "They claim that they want to be inclusive, but then they outsource the campaign to someone from New York," he says, in reference to Abrams. "What the hell does she know about Denver radio?"  

More than she did a year ago. Abrams points out that KGNU is stepping up its drive to add Denver volunteers and will do everything it can to make them feel a part of the station. She thinks listeners in Denver and Boulder alike will be pleased by the results. "While the corporate media was embedding hundreds of reporters with the military, KGNU was providing un-embedded news," she says, "and we'll continue to be an independent voice."

Setting Scott free: KKZN isn't the only Clear Channel station that's been reshuffled. On August 30, tepidly performing KHOW added Bill O'Reilly's syndicated program, which has been homeless in Denver since KNRC tanked, and shifted Dr. Laura Schlessinger's daily lectures from mornings to evenings in a move that should further reduce the size of her already shrinking listenership. (It couldn't happen to a nicer person.) Tom Martino's consumer show is now in the KHOW slot Dr. Laura once occupied, and dueling attorneys Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman have been put in charge during p.m. drive time.

Military expert Bob Newman, an afternoon-driver until last week, has survived to jaw again; he'll fly solo for an hour prior to the Caplis-Silverman opus, then head over to KOA for three more hours of evening duty. Scott Redmond, Newman's co-host, wasn't so lucky. As the only KHOW casualty, he seems to be the designated scapegoat. Clear Channel's Olinger refutes that interpretation. "He's not the fall guy," she says. "He worked very hard, and he's a great talent, but I think that the new show is probably better suited for our listeners."

That remains to be seen. The legal expertise shared by Caplis and Silverman will be a boost during the Kobe Bryant trial, but Silverman's voice, which is as soothing as an air-raid siren, raises doubts about long-term prospects. Only good chemistry will win them a continuance.

Odd but true: In the TV version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, compulsive neatnik Felix Unger (Tony Randall) rooms with Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), a sportswriter who's also an inveterate slob. Madison's lack of tidiness is shared by a great many journalists across the globe, but Rocky Mountain News managing editor Deb Goeken wants to inspire the pigs who work for her to give their sties a makeover.

Last month, in a memo to staffers titled "Cleanup Part II," Goeken wrote, "It only seems like yesterday that we had pristine desktops, that books and files weren't threatening to cascade from the tops of overloaded cabinets, that long-ago lunch leftovers and calcified candy wrappers weren't dotting our beautiful (and newly shampooed) carpet. But it's been years. And it's time to take a deep breath and clean again."

Goeken made it clear that this wasn't her idea alone. "Our latest employee survey shows that most of you give the lowest marks to the state of our newsroom," she maintains. "In fact, it is your No. 1 concern. No one, you told us, wants to work in a cluttered, dingy, smelly (OK, maybe it's not smelly!) workplace." Besides, she noted, the Rocky's move to a new building it will share with joint-operating-agreement partner the Denver Post is still years away -- so everyone needs to work together to keep the old joint tolerable until then.

To that end, Goeken revealed that a crew would soon move dumpsters into the newsroom. According to her, "These are the goals: nothing on the floor under or around your desk; nothing on top of filing cabinets and coat cabinets (with some exceptions approved by Deb); tidy desktops." She also offered to provide boxes for essential documents, to "update the filing cabinet situation," and so on. As an incentive for employees to not simply laugh off her request/command, she stated that the spiffiest four-person pod on September 1, the deadline day, "will be declared the Cleanup Winner, and each pod member will receive a day off with pay." Goeken went on to announce that second-place finishers would wind up with "really good Rockies tickets" (isn't that an oxymoron?), with bronze medalists taking home "five books each at the next book sale."

These enticements apparently weren't enough to inspire instant compliance. Goeken sent out additional cleanup memos in late July and early August, offering bonuses like Rockies-Cubs tickets, complete with a parking pass, and ducats for the Reggae on the Rocks and Indigo Girls concerts to the first folks who transformed their little section of the News into a pristine wonderland.

The ultimate champs hadn't been named at press time, so there's no telling if their free day off will compensate for being seen by their peers as the biggest brown-nosers on the staff. In any event, odds are strong that the Rocky's pad will be back to its formerly slovenly self in short order. Somewhere, Jack Klugman is laughing.


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