Appearances are important at Channel 31, Denver's Fox affiliate. For example, while a request for an interview with news director Bill Dallman, who is putting together a 9-to-10 p.m. newscast tentatively scheduled to debut in late spring or summer, is happily granted, there's a string attached: Promotion and marketing manager John O'Laughlin needs to be in on the chat as well. Not that Channel 31 higher-ups are so afraid that Dallman might say something loony ("All of our anchors will deliver the news naked," maybe, or perhaps, "On slow news days, I'll assign one of our reporters to knock over the nearest liquor store") that they've ordered O'Laughlin to watch him every single minute of every single day. Dallman is press-savvy enough to avoid committing career hara-kiri, and the folks at the station know it. But there's no harm in making sure, right?
Predictably, Dallman says nothing likely to humiliate either Channel 31 or himself (damn it!). But the presence of O'Laughlin, who in the proud tradition of publicists worldwide tends to fill the slightest conversational vacuum with rah-rahs, clearly demonstrates that this venture is as much about business as it is about news.
Like the decision-makers at Channel 2, which launches WB2day, a new Colorado-based morning program, on January 17 ("Wake-Up Call," December 23, 1999), the chief Foxes in Denver see the newscast as a way to put a local face on a station that has been defined until now by NFL football, recycled sitcoms and Ally McBeal kissing a woman on the mouth.
The popularity of such Channel 31 staples shouldn't be dismissed. During the November 1999 ratings period, The Simpsons, which airs at 5:30 p.m. weeknights, easily outdistanced all other programming, including national news roundups starring Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings (seen on Channel 9 and Channel 7, respectively), in every major demographic category, and Seinfeld reruns viewable weeknightly at 6:30 p.m. also stomped all comers across the board. ("I'm happy about that, but it kind of scares me, too," Dallman jokes.) On top of that, the station tied for the number-one slot in prime time among adults 18 to 34 years old. Still, a successful newscast can contribute even more lucre to a station than syndicated or network fare, since almost all the money it generates stays at home rather than floating away to New York or Los Angeles -- and Channel 31 types want a piece of that action.
As O'Laughlin puts it, "The station has done exceptionally well with sports and prime-time entertainment, but we've taken that as far as we can go. It's time to move to the next stage."
The investment thus far has been hefty. A sprawling, 80,000-square-foot headquarters at 100 East Speer Boulevard, ponderously dubbed the Fox-31 News and Technology Center, is nearing completion and should be ready for occupation within months; its accoutrements include twelve digital-editing suites, an 8,000-square-foot news studio, a 10,500-square-foot newsroom and, most crucial of all, covered employee parking. Fortunately, there are plenty of spaces in the lot, because Dallman's staff is expected to wind up in the range of fifty souls, not counting technical personnel.
With the exception of news operations manager Kevin Scofield, who most recently performed a similar task at an NBC station in Charlotte, North Carolina, and self-proclaimed troubleshooter Tom Martino, fresh from a noisy departure from Channel 4, where he's appeared since 1981, no other hires have been announced. But virtually every slab of TV talent who's been sacked in these parts of late is angling for a Channel 31 gig. Take Les Shapiro, formerly of Channel 4: While guest-hosting KTLK-AM's Hardcore Sports (whose regular co-star, David Treadwell, has been rumored to be a candidate for the sports-anchor position), ol' Les recently suggested that his newly acquired facial hair might fit in perfectly with that edgy Fox style.
"Edgy," of course, is a descriptive term that can apply just as well to When Animals Attack VI: Intestines on Parade as to The X-Files. For that reason, Dallman goes to great lengths to emphasize that he has a healthy respect for old-style news values ("I'm very big on investigative reporting") even though he's part of the younger generation of TV newshounds. His rise has been a rapid one; since he's just 35, how could it be otherwise? He studied broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, his hometown, and right after graduation, he landed a reporting post at a tiny station in Austin, Minnesota, the 147th largest market in the country (yes, there are some that are smaller, but not many). He soon discovered that being in front of the camera wasn't for him, for a couple of reasons. "I sucked at it," he admits. "But I also realized that as a producer, you could shape the entire half-hour or hour newscast instead of working all day to come up with something that's just a minute and a half or two minutes long." With that in mind, he moved to Minneapolis and wound up as the producer of a newscast there at age 22. That was followed by an executive-producer job in Sacramento and a news directorship at a station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that went from third place to first over the course of his four years there.
That's when Channel 31 came calling, and since "building a staff from the ground up and building a newscast from scratch is the most exciting thing I can think of," Dallman jumped at the opportunity to plant himself in Denver. He acknowledges that Fox is urging its affiliates to air hour-long news shows that will end prior to the start of the more established network wrap-ups in order to take advantage of entertainment lead-ins. But other than that, he says there's no Fox-prescribed blueprint he's been commanded to use.
"If you look at Fox markets around the country," he says, "some of them are quite cutting-edge and others are very conservative; if there were no network identifiers on the station in Washington, D.C., I don't think most people would think it's Fox. So what we're going to put on the air is what the people of Denver are asking for and telling us they want to watch. But there are some universal truths. First, the content of the newscast needs to be relevant to people who are watching it. Secondly, you need to provide viewers with useful information in an understandable manner. Thirdly, you should provide some sort of outlet for people if they want to take action, get more questions answered, express their opinion, get more involved. And I'm also a believer that you can have an energetic, fun presentation of some elements of the newscast."
In other words, air personalities must have, well, personality, because they won't just be reading copy, but serving as walking, talking sandwich boards for Channel 31. "It's a two-way street," O'Laughlin notes, while Dallman says, "It's always been important to me to have people who can represent us in the community and build a team that listens to people. I've always looked for those kinds of people." Likewise, he's a fan of outreach ventures that push the product via do-gooder splashiness. In Grand Rapids, he says, "we focused on a few key community projects that were terribly important and then put the full presence of the news department behind them -- like a 'Care for Kosovo' project, and regular Toys for Tots campaigns. People are searching for ways to help, and you can provide them a conduit. That helps make the station an extension of the community. It works."
That's what Channel 31 vice president and general manager Bob Simone is banking on; Dallman says Simone considers the newscast "the final step in our completion as a marquee station in Denver." But how will the news operation fit in with the network as a whole? Declares O'Laughlin, "News will be news, and Fox will be Fox."
Thank goodness for that. Wouldn't want Ally McBeal kissing a woman newscaster on the mouth. Then again...
Quick hitters: Jim Hawthorne, a former KOA exec who's spent the last sixteen months doing trenchant and enjoyably opinionated reporting about Denver radio for RadioDigest.com, is taking a new position at the site. From here on out, he'll be contributing weekly pieces focusing on radio history and nostalgia. No word yet on who'll be trying to fill Hawthorne's cyber-shoes on the Denver beat, but at least Jim is moving on with the satisfaction of knowing that the fella he took the most pleasure in pillorying -- AMFM bigwig Bob Visotcky -- won't need to be kicked around anymore, at least for a while. Specifically, Visotcky, whose ultra-controversial stay in Denver was previously detailed in this space ("The Man You Hate to Love," August 26, 1999), was sacked as manager of AMFM's cluster of stations in Los Angeles as part of deck-clearing required by the corporation's merger with the massive Clear Channel concern; his last day was January 2. Imagine the smile on Hawthorne's face.
Also exiting is Steven Smith, who resigned as editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette on January 4 after a four-year stint. His resignation letter to Gazette publisher and president Scott Fischer was diplomatically vague -- in it, he wrote, "I recognize fully your desire to have an editor who shares your management philosophy, style and strategic vision" -- and Fischer declines to comment further on it. However, the publisher says that neither editorial content nor a sweeping redesign were factors in Smith's departure, driving speculation that the real problem was that fewer people were picking up the paper: Although the population of Colorado Springs is growing, the Gazette's weekday circulation as tracked by Illinois's Audit Bureau of Circulations fell from 99,476 in September 30, 1998, to 93,883 a year later, and the Sunday numbers suffered a very similar hit.
More goings: Reporter Charlie Brennan is leaving the Rocky Mountain News amid grapevine buzz that he may be taking a job as a television news producer. Might that mean the News will no longer list him as co-author of writer Lawrence Schiller's JonBenét Ramsey tome Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, as it did again in a January 5 Kevin McCullen article about scheduled filming in Boulder last week for a TV movie based on the book? (Brennan took a leave of absence to work as a researcher for Schiller, but he received only an inside-the-book thanks for his efforts, not a co-author's credit.) My money's on "yes."
As for Perfect Murder, a planned Friday, January 7, shoot in Boulder was canceled largely because staffers and supporters of the Boulder Weekly threatened to disrupt filming by blowing horns, whistles and kazoos while the cameras rolled (filler footage of DIA was captured instead). But the Associated Press reported that a Saturday shoot was completed sans protest, suggesting that the alleged indignation of Boulderites melted at the starry sight of the man who would be John Ramsey, Deliverance banjo picker Ronny Cox. This response was appropriate considering that the Weekly's approach to preventing the supposed exploitation of a dead child pretty much boiled down to anti-free-speech boosterism that played right into the hands of chamber of commerce sorts worried that Boulder's image would be further besmirched. How alternative.
Besides, kazoo-toodlers, if there's tragedy, they will come. Right now there are more national news outfits with a regular presence in the Denver area than at any time in recent memory, including Time, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR and many more -- and CNN's recent announcement that it will start up a bureau here in the near future means more are on the way. In addition, USA Today is expanding the bureau it inaugurated in 1997: Tom Kenworthy, formerly of the Washington Post, is set to arrive in late February or early March, with an as-yet-unnamed sports specialist to follow around mid-year. Patrick O'Driscoll, a onetime Denver Post employee who's been holding down the USA Today fort by himself until now, says his publication's expansion is part of a nationwide strategy fueled by circulation gains (with over 2.2 million readers, it has passed the Wall Street Journal to became America's most popular newspaper). He concedes, though, that the volume of headlines coming out of Colorado has probably influenced many media bosses. "Even if you don't include Columbine and JonBenét and the Oklahoma City bombing trial and Matt Shepard, this is a newsmaking area around here, and most news organizations recognize that," he points out. "As an editor on the East Coast, you can't help but say, 'Denver? Oh, yeah, there seems to be lots of stuff going on in that region.'"
You're at the center of the universe, my friends. Whether you like it or not.
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The art of headlining took some shots on Sunday, January 9. Several anecdotes in the Scene section of the Denver Post appeared under the gripping banner "A Fairly Interesting Factoid About Your Bathtub," which was basically a way of saying, "We were sort of bored by this article. Our advice is to move on to the next one." Meanwhile, inside the sports section of the Rocky Mountain News, a Reggie Rivers column headlined "Upon Further Review, Indy Deserves a Title" ran right next to a Bob Kravitz compendium labeled "Upon Further Review, Instant Replay Can't Get It Right." Upon further review, maybe someone at the News should make sure that variations on the same damn headline idea aren't juxtaposed in a single edition.
Then again, the headline of this column has a definite millennial feel even though the new millennium doesn't start until next year. So who are we to talk?
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com. To read related stories, visit www.westword.com.