The Old College Try
To say that KVCU-AM, known as Radio 1190, is in the bowels of the University Memorial Center on CU's Boulder campus is no exaggeration; it's located in the UMC basement at the tail end of a crowded labyrinth of corridors and is so near an open-air loading dock that DJs must move quickly to avoid being run over by workers making deliveries to the nearby university bookstore. Its offices are similarly lacking in luxury: Tattered posters cover up the few patches of wall that aren't lined with compact discs or well-worn albums, and much of the furniture looks as if it should be waiting on a curb for the Salvation Army. But to the dozens of bright, hip, eager students on Radio 1190's staff, it's both a fabulous chill-out zone and a cultural oasis that allows them to share -- with friends and strangers alike -- intriguing music that's not being played anywhere else in the area. And their enthusiasm is a big reason that Radio 1190, which is celebrating its first anniversary this month, is by far the freshest spot on the Denver-Boulder dial.
The birth of the outlet lends credence to the Jungian theory of synchronicity. CU-Boulder got its first station, dubbed KUCB, in 1978, but instead of sending its signal through the air via a tower, it used carrier current that wormed into the school's dorms through the electrical system -- and because the sound was so lousy, few students bothered to listen to it. "Some of the programming was a little self-congratulatory, because usually it seemed like nobody was listening," admits Mark Von Minden, a onetime KUCB staffer who now has a show on Radio 1190. "I remember getting calls a couple of times, and I was so surprised."
In the early Nineties, certain elements within the school administration wanted to pull the plug, but energetic lobbying kept it percolating, and in 1994, students voted to establish a fund to buy a broadcast-worthy station. Over the next few years, around $320,000 in student fees was earmarked for this purpose, yet the prices of radio stations had escalated so quickly that the amount fell far short of what was needed. Fortunately, Jacor, the corporate giant now known as Clear Channel, entered the picture. The firm wanted to buy KTCL-FM, but FCC regulations forbade it from doing so until it unloaded one of the eight properties already in its portfolio. So in exchange for some good publicity and a nice tax deduction, Jacor gave CU-Boulder KHOW2-AM/1190, a station that had been idle for some time.
The gift led to debate over whether the station should continue to be a music-intensive, student-run broadcaster like KUCB or a comparatively stuffy public-relations arm of the university. In the end, the former proposition won out, and administrators hired Jim Musil, who'd previously helped start up a station at the University of Minnesota, to oversee the operation as general manager. The 29-year-old Musil says that for a while, he was "the enemy" in the eyes of some KUCB students because he wanted to establish a rotation of songs that would be played more often than others. "But I certainly didn't come in here with an iron fist. What forms a station's identity is the listeners and the staff, and I was receptive to what the staff wanted, and tried to help them turn it into viable radio."
What Musil and the students came up with is an effective compromise between free-form musical anarchy and the sort of anti-spontaneous structuring that can make commercial stations so redundant (Radio 1190's slogan is "Destroying Corporate Rock Since 1998"). Music director Denise Rogers explains that jocks are asked to spin between six and ten songs an hour from designated albums, with certain cuts suggested but none mandated; otherwise, the show is theirs. "Doing it this way really helps students who come in with a good amount of passion for the music but not a lot of knowledge of different things," she says. In addition, the station spotlights a slew of specialty programs, including a local-music program co-hosted by KVCU training director Sharon Gatliffe Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m., a Brit-pop undertaking assembled by Lisa Wallace from 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesdays, and Basementalism, a hip-hop extravaganza from 9 to11 p.m. Tuesdays that's quickly earned a reputation as the finest show of its type in the state. Basementalism co-host Mike Merriman, who's frequently joined on the air by skilled local mixers such as DJ Vajra and DJ Resonant and touring hip-hoppers such as Slick Rick and members of the Jurassic 5, has a busy November planned; he's put together what he calls "a hip-hop miniseries" that will explore the artistry of emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing and graffiti art in successive weeks. "We want to teach people the difference between real hip-hop and the corporate trash you hear on other stations around here," he says. "It sounds great, but it also has an educational aspect to it."
Incorporating more traditional forms of instruction appeals to the CU administrators charged with keeping an eye on the station. Philip DiStefano, vice chancellor for academic affairs, is solidly behind Musil's plan to provide opportunities for theater students interested in producing radio dramas and hopes that members of business and entrepreneurship programs will get involved as well, while Stewart Hoover, dean of the school of journalism and mass communication, is eager to see the fledgling news department develop. But on the whole, both seem thrilled with the station thus far. "In talking to our students and members of other constituent groups in the area, it seems that listenership is up and people are enjoying what they're hearing," DiStefano says. "I think the station is doing a great job of carrying our message." Hoover agrees: "Everything I've heard from people has been very positive, and if we're doing something people are interested in and it's identified with the university, that's good PR for us."
Such benefits are significant, especially these days. Questions of impropriety surrounding CU president John Buechner and his October announcement that he'll be stepping down from his position next year resulted in reams of bad publicity that's unlikely to stop anytime soon. By contrast, Radio 1190 has been a magnet for praise in publications such as the Onion, the Boulder Weekly and the newspaper you're holding, and even scored a laudatory article in the Denver Post last week. Predictably, that piece, penned by Michael Booth, was a doltish exercise riddled with hoary music cliches ("Don't go changin' to try and please me. Don't take those old records off the shelf. Just break on through to the other side..."), and Jim Musil, Booth's primary source, was twice referred to as "Jeff." But Musil doesn't mind. "We've gotten great press," he says, "and I think that's really reassured the university. The biggest fear for them going in, I think, was that we were going to be an embarrassment to them, and we haven't been an embarrassment. Compared to some of the other coverage, we've been a jewel."
Equally successful was Radio 1190's recent fundraiser, in which listeners were induced to "buy watts" in support of the station; the goal of collecting $15,000 was exceeded by more than $6,000. If that rate of growth holds for the next three or four years, Musil believes the station will be able to raise $100,000 annually as a supplement to the budget of approximately $300,000 provided by the university. He also wants to boost the station's power from 5,000 watts to 7,000 watts, and because the $320,000 in student fees set aside earlier this decade can be used for capital improvements, he has the money to do so. "That would really help our signal," he says. "There are some areas, especially in downtown Denver, that are a little weak, and that boost could make all the difference."
Right now, however, students are concentrating on several events celebrating Radio 1190's first birthday. On November 4 and 5, the Bluebird Theater presents "Local Shakedown," a showcase for area acts such as the Kalamath Brothers, the Down-N-Outs, Sarina Simoom and O'er th' Rampart (who appear on the 4th), and Space Team Electra, Munly, Hoochie and the Pin Downs (the stars on the 5th). That's followed a week later by "The Rocky Mountain Pop Fest": On November 12, the Minders, Bright Eyes, Marbles, the Maybellines, Breezy Porticos and Josh Bloom bow at Denver's 15th Street Tavern, and on November 13, the Apples in Stereo, Dressy Bessy, Barcelona, Electrogroup and Mates of State head to Club 156, a Boulder venue at the University Memorial Center, not far from Radio 1190. There's also an increased focus on lining up businesses to sponsor programs -- something that's become easier as the buzz on the station has intensified. "Before, it was almost impossible to sell," says underwriting staffer Nate Harris, another KUCB survivor flourishing at the new station. "But now I hear people talk about Radio 1190 all the time. My attitude is a lot better."
Aaron Johnson's is, too. When he was at KUCB, "it was awful," he says. "No one was out there." But now Johnson, using the air name Loki, has become the best-known member of the staff owing to his drive-time shift, weekdays from 7 to 10 a.m. Still, he's reluctant to commit himself to a career in radio after his graduation next year. "The only way I'd want to do it is if it could be as fun and creative as what I'm doing now." He pauses before noting, "Which probably means I'm not going to."
These kids learn fast, don't they?
Because of its apparent good intentions, most public-service programming receives a free pass from reviewers -- and that was certainly the case with Opening the Door to Diversity: Voices From the Middle School, a program produced by AT&T and Court TV that was beamed from a Denver-area studio to schools and cable systems across the country on October 26. Locally, the show didn't get a critical look but was treated instead as a news event with a notable celebrity quotient -- Court TV's Catherine Crier and Today weatherman Al Roker were the moderators, and President Bill Clinton made a videotaped guest appearance. But while Diversity deserves commendation for touching on topics like peer pressure, cliques and prejudice, it did so in dull and extremely canned fashion; the students seemed extremely rehearsed, often using ten-dollar terms like "desensitized" that don't naturally flow from the mouths of thirteen-year-olds. Crier, for her part, was at her most unctuous, demonstrating absolutely zero rapport with anyone. But worst of all was AT&T's need to constantly advertise its participation. The company's name was on signage that popped up in shot after shot, and real-time linkups with schools in Georgia, Wyoming and Illinois so prominently included its logo that Diversity at times looked like an infomercial for teleconferencing. Good intentions are fine just as long as you keep pushing the product.
No doubt Diversity's genesis and its setting owed something to the Columbine shootings, proving yet again that the story's last chunk of ore has not yet been mined. But reporting about the tale so many months after the fact can have plenty of pitfalls. Examples? When Carla Hochhalter, the 48-year-old mother of paralyzed Columbine survivor Anne Marie Hochhalter, committed suicide in an Englewood pawn shop October 22, staffers at the Denver Post found out about it before her family or others in their community; thus, reporters broke the news to some neighbors, resulting in trauma for all concerned. Six days later, Posters on the Columbine beat met to discuss situations like these -- a welcome attempt to get perspective on a developing story that other news organizations would do well to emulate. The Associated Press, meanwhile, stirred up a great deal of discussion among media types when journalist Steve Gutterman attended Carla Hochhalter's October 26 funeral and quoted from remarks by the pastor overseeing the service even though the Hochhalter family requested that the press keep its distance. Pete Mattiace, the chief of bureau at Denver's AP office, says his people never received notice that the Hochhalters had asked the media to respect their privacy and concedes that he probably would not have sent Gutterman if he'd known. But, he adds, "some people who are private people become public people through no effort of their own. I don't think any reporter wants to intrude, but it was a public place." In this case, staying out of the spotlight, as the Hochhalters have studiously tried to do, is a lot harder than taking center stage.
Unlike the Hochhalters, Michael and Vonda Shoels, parents of murdered Columbine student Isaiah Shoels, have actively courted the press, and on October 31 they earned even more attention as the cover subjects of the New York Times Magazine. But the article in question -- "Parents Blaming Parents," by Lisa Belkin -- is neither a puff piece nor an assault on a couple who have inspired no shortage of grumbling over the past six months. Instead, it's an intelligent and well-written look at the lawsuits filed against the parents of students who've killed fellow classmates. Following intriguing mini-profiles of the Shoelses and their lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, Belkin looks into suits brought against the parents of fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal by relatives of three girls he shot in West Paducah, Kentucky, focusing on the information provided by mother Ann and father John Carneal in the discovery process. This material implies that the Carneals were as involved in the life of their son as most parents and were totally unaware of the homicidal instincts welling up within Michael -- yet the Kentucky courts have declined to dismiss the case. If this pattern holds true in Littleton, litigation initiated by the Shoelses and others will likely spend years winding its way through the system, with the media following it every step of the way. Some stories fade away, but Columbine is forever.
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.
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