Even the most ratings-starved radio stations receive listener complaints when programmers decide to switch formats — but such shifts seldom prompt the gusher of regret that inundated NRC Broadcasting after KCUV/102.3 FM clicked off for the last time. In the two days following its midnight August 31 shutdown, approximately 1,000 e-mails or voice mails flooded in — and each one hit NRC head Tim Brown like a body blow. The outlet, known as "The V," never made a profit during its half-decade existence — a situation that most owners would have addressed years before Brown did. Still, he kept hanging on, hoping against hope that the enthusiasm of KCUV's loyalists, who loved the V's eclectic mix of rock, presented deep-cut style, would eventually translate to higher Arbitrons. But it never did.
"That's what's been so disheartening about this whole process," Brown says. "We've had so many committed and passionate listeners. I'd go to philanthropic events we'd do, and a lot of people would show up — and I could tell that they loved the station as much as I did. But we could never seem to garner any noticeable market share. To this day, our number-one competitor in the market, who's been on the air for a long time" — Clear Channel-owned KBCO/97.3 FM — "has an audience that's six or seven times larger."
Brown was able to keep such business realities at bay for as long as he did in part because of a financial safety net by the name of billionaire Phil Anschutz, the holder of a large stake in NRC and, not coincidentally, Brown's father-in-law. But since Anschutz didn't reach his exalted position on Forbes magazine's list of the planet's richest people (he's currently at number 125) by tossing good money after bad, Brown must keep NRC solvent — and in an attempt to do so, he's currently simulcasting the programming from his Jack-FM station, at 105.5 FM, in KCUV's old slot. The move meant laying off four full-time employees, including the V's best-known jock, former Denver Post rock writer G. Brown, and three part-timers. However, Colorado-radio veteran Doug Clifton, who oversaw KCUV's music mix, has joined a Jack-FM team led by John Hayes, who programmed KTCL during much of the '90s.
Of course, that's small solace to KCUV boosters. According to Tim Brown, "We've had a lot of e-mails that have gone from absolute anger to 'What am I going to do now that you're gone? I don't want to listen to commercial radio in Denver anymore.'" After a pause, he admits, "Sometimes, neither do I."
Dissatisfaction with the status quo is nothing new for Brown, who's been trying to change the local radio scene for the better since May 2002, when NRC jumped into the game with its $2.7 million purchase of KDKO-AM/1510. Brown's initial plan was to create a news-talk station in partnership with the Post; NRC originally stood for "Newspaper Radio Corporation." When that deal fell through, he came up with the idea for KNRC, an outlet that would offer a variety of ideological viewpoints rather than dishing out a steady diet of conservatism, as was de rigueur at the time (and, for the most part, continues to be). Despite good word of mouth, this blend, symbolized by the juxtaposition of liberal-leaning morning host Greg Dobbs and syndicated yakker Bill O'Reilly, earned mediocre ratings — but Brown wasn't ready to surrender. Instead, he purchased a station with a stronger signal, at 1150 AM, and put KNRC there.
This scheme didn't work as intended; KNRC died in the summer of 2004. Nonetheless, the move opened up 1510 AM, and during a lunch at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, Brown and Dave Zobl, NRC's vice president of sales, brainstormed about what to do with it.
"Instead of putting some canned satellite program on it, we wondered if it would be possible to create a station that would capture all the people who've become disenfranchised with radio," Brown recalls. "We thought, let's throw out all the traditional rules you're supposed to follow. Just roll the dice and have fun." The result was KCUV, whose call letters came from the 1150 AM station, although Brown recast them as an acronym standing for "Colorado's Unique Voice."
Over the next few years, Brown picked up a slew of signals in the mountains, as well as two FMs on the outskirts of the metro area. The first, at 105.5 FM, was physically located near Timnath, a community between Fort Collins and Loveland, but with a signal that could be bounced toward Denver, and in 2004, he launched it using an era-spanning mélange-of-hits approach branded as Jack-FM, which had been developed in Canada approximately two years earlier. (Since then, dozens of other Jacks have popped up across the country, and most have performed solidly despite being roundly disliked in many quarters.) The second, at 102.3 FM, had originally been licensed in Strasburg, but the Federal Communications Commission granted NRC permission to move the operation to Greenwood Village — and once everything was in place, Brown made it the new home of KCUV.
A happy ending? Not quite. KCUV's redeployment to FM thrilled those who'd discovered the station on AM and attracted some others — but not nearly enough of them to please advertisers needed to push the enterprise into the black. As for Jack-FM, it started strongly only to be knocked off-stride by technical issues. The station remains popular in northern Colorado and the Cheyenne, Wyoming, area, where the reception is best. But its numbers have been deteriorating in Denver ever since broadcasters on either side of it on the dial — KOOL/105.1 FM and Alice/105.9 FM — added HD Radio streams that run alongside their main signals. Given the dearth of HD sets in circulation, these adjuncts don't draw many radio-heads to KOOL or Alice. Yet they're valuable from a tactical standpoint, because they narrow the window through which 105.5 broadcasts, causing Jack to distort in parts of Denver where it once sounded crystal clear. No wonder listenership is dropping.
At least right now, such problems don't afflict 102.3. By broadcasting Jack on that dial position as well as 105.5, Brown feels he can re-establish the format in Denver without losing the profitable audience to the north. But this strategy forced him to pull the plug on KCUV — and he stayed at its bedside until the very end. "My five-year-old son and I sat up until midnight listening to the station and talking about the songs we played — just him and me," he notes.
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Since then, plenty of listeners have asked Brown if he might resurrect KCUV on another station — perhaps even 105.5 — and he doesn't shut the door on this possibility entirely. Among his other stations is KCMV, known as "Colorado's Mountain Voice"; it's officially based in Steamboat Springs, but a series of translators beams it into several other communities as well. The similarity between its format and KCUV's isn't coincidental, since Brown programs it personally. If Jack takes off in Denver again, he can envision simulcasting its fare on another Fort Collins area signal and putting a variation on KCMV at 105.5.
Until that fine day comes, Brown will have to be satisfied knowing that he did his best to elevate Denver radio. "Just think about what we did to expose new artists to the community and to play established artists who aren't being heard as often as they should," he says — and as evidence, he notes that the station signed on with Gram Parsons's "Return of the Grievous Angel" and said farewell following a cut from Ray LaMontagne's most recent CD. "I think we made a positive impact — did something to help improve the quality of life around here.
"Somebody told me this, and it kind of hurt to hear it," he goes on. "He said, 'Tim, KCUV was your attempt to save the world. And it turned out the world didn't want to be saved.'"