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Youth of the Nation

Joel Burke is looking for new country listeners.
Brett Amole

A radio station's success is determined not only by the number of ears listening at any given time, but by the ages of the people attached to them. Programmers pinpoint specific demographics under the theory that particular advertisers will gladly open their wallets in order to reach them; the majority covet consumers between 18 and 34 -- folks with a reputation for buying loads and loads of crap, whether they need it or not.

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, when Garth Brooks was outselling performers of practically every stripe with his hopped-up brand of faux-C&W, a hefty percentage of this group drifted to country radio, a medium previously associated more with forty-and-overs for whom rock and rap were just too scary. But despite the crossover breakthroughs of fresh-faced belters such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain, whose music can make Brooks's seem as authentic as a George Jones ballad by comparison, radio lovers of a more youthful vintage have been drifting away from country in recent years. And Gene Bridges, the chairman for the regional events committee of Country Radio Broadcasters (CRB), wants to stem the flow before it turns into a stampede.

"Country stations, like almost all stations, want all the young people they can get," Bridges says. "Now we just need to figure out how to get them."

Developing such a strategy is among the tasks on the agenda at CRS-Rocky Mountains, CRB's ninth annual regional country-radio seminar, slated to take place August 16 and 17 at the Westin Westminster. The gathering, an adjunct to CRB's yearly get-togethers in Nashville, isn't as high-profile as the R&R Triple A Convention (formerly the Gavin A3 Summit), a Boulder-based radio caucus concentrating on the Adult Album Alternative style, in part because its star power is dimmer. The August 14 through 17 R&R conference features concerts at Boulder's Fox Theatre that will give attendees and the general public the opportunity to get up-close and personal with the likes of Sonia Dada, Coldplay, Aimee Mann, Beth Orton and the Wallflowers, fronted by Jakob Dylan. By contrast, CRS-Rocky Mountains is bringing in major-label signees who've yet to make much of a name for themselves (Michael Peterson, Jameson Clark, James Otto, David Nail) for solo performances before radio insiders only.

But as the first seminar of its type to be staged in the Mountain West, the CRB event remains a landmark for Colorado country. In addition, the bash provides an opportunity for KYGO-FM, which is both Denver's top-rated station and a top-three attraction among 18- to 34-year-olds, to show how it's managed to rope younger cowpokes without spooking too many of the older ones.

"I'm fearful that a lot of country stations have been a bit too passive," says Joel Burke, KYGO's program director, who'll serve as one of CRS-Rocky Mountains' panel moderators. "They've been almost exclusively dependent on what Nashville gives them, and you've got to be more proactive than that. You've got to take control of the areas you can take control of, like having a great morning show and trying to market the station the best you can, versus throwing on the latest songs and stepping back and hoping for the best."

For Burke, accomplishing this goal has been his mandate ever since he was hired nearly two years ago by Jefferson-Pilot Communications, a Greensboro, North Carolina, firm that owns KYGO and four other metro-area stations. "My marching orders were really to reinvent the radio station, try to breathe some new life into it and kind of young it up, so to speak," he notes.

In a stab at doing so, Burke, who helmed an adult-contemporary station in Memphis before coming to KYGO, quickly made changes in the outlet's morning-drive offering. Sandy Travis, the senior member of the so-called "Waking Crew," disappeared approximately four months into Burke's tenure, allegedly for making a questionable joke on the air -- although some observers felt his real sin was an overtly countrified demeanor ("Watch Your Mouth," March 8, 2001). These days, Travis's largely twang-free former partners, Jonathan Wilde and Kelly Ford, are paired with Steve McGrew, a standup comic whose nickname, Mudflap, has a more traditional country sound than he does. The three regularly engage in the sort of shenanigans familiar to morning shows in other genres -- like waxing Mudflap's legs live.

KYGO's current playlist skews to the youthful side, too; it's dominated by the likes of Rascal Flatts, Lonestar and SHeDAISY, with most older artists winding up on its sister station, classic-country 16 Kicks, at 1600 AM. But in other ways, Burke has taken an old-fashioned approach to making sure KYGO connects with radio fans, eschewing voicetracking and other cost-cutting techniques in favor of DJs who are actually in the studio during their shows -- even late at night and on weekends.

 

"We're a rarity," he acknowledges. "But with the results the station has had, it shows that this still works. You can't really add up the benefits of doing it this way on a calculator, and when you're trying to hit the numbers in the short term, pre-recording everything looks great. But if you think about satellite radio and all the other choices out there, the one thing we've got that they don't have is that we're live and local.

"I was reading an article the other day about the guy in the Who that died [John Entwistle], which happened in the evening. And because so many rock stations are in voicetrack mode, not only couldn't they come on the air and talk about what happened and interact with their listeners, but they couldn't do any specialty programming at all, because everything was already recorded. That's an example of missing an opportunity to bond with your listeners. But if something like that happens that touches on our audience and our community, we won't miss the opportunity. We'll be ready."

Because highly placed executives from Clear Channel and other major radio conglomerates, for whom voicetracking is now a given, are among CRS-Rocky Mountains' several hundred registrants, this subject is all but certain to come up. But most of the formal discussions on the slate concern bottom-line issues. According to CRB's Bridges, topics will include new business models for radio and records, talent coaching, marketing ideas, moneymaking sales promotions and "country programming for the masses."

Burke, meanwhile, will oversee a session to discuss the implications of what is likely to spur a revolutionary change in the way ratings are measured. At present, Arbitron, the primary radio-audience tracker, determines listenership by having representative participants keep diaries in which they write down the call letters of stations they tune in and the length of time they stick around. But the company has developed what Burke describes as "a device that people carry like a pager. All the stations will have a signal encoded within their frequency, and when somebody turns on their radio, the device picks up the code and starts counting. Then, at the end of the day, the person puts the device into a docking station that recharges it at the same time it sends the data back to Arbitron."

This process, which is undergoing testing in Philadelphia and may soon be adapted to monitoring television viewing as well, is expected to provide infinitely more accurate statistics; even if someone lingers at a station for just a second or two before pushing the next button, the device will register it. Moreover, the technology is so fast that an executive could theoretically find out on a Tuesday morning how many people checked out his or her programming the day before. "You can imagine someone saying, 'We've been down this past week; time to change formats,'" Burke says, laughing. "God help us if we get to that point."

Perhaps the most anticipated panel, however, is a two-part affair titled "20 Somethings: Those Kids Say the Darndest Things." On day one, country-radio consultant Jaye Albright, president of McVay Media's country division, and Larry Johnson, president of Paragon Media Strategies' North American radio branch, will conduct a live focus group with a collection of 20- to 24-year-olds, to determine how they feel about country music. The next afternoon, the duo will use the data they collect "to try and answer the questions a lot of us have," says Bridges. "Are we going to get any of these people? Are any of them going to be country listeners, or will there be a huge demographic gap for the next two years? And if they're not listening to country radio now, will they switch?"

In Burke's opinion, they will, but only if country radio puts on a new pair of chaps. "Some stations feel you can't get younger people to listen, and I completely, positively disagree with that," he says. "I think if you make your station accessible to them, and talk their language, and hang out where they hang out, and become a friend to them, you can get them."

Changing a channel: TV-news executives, like Denver Post editors, aren't known for lengthy career spans, so Marv Rockford's two decades-plus at Channel 4 was quite an accomplishment. But it's over now. Around 9:15 a.m. on August 6, station insiders say, suits from the CBS affiliate's parent company, Viacom, rolled into Rockford's office. Approximately three hours later, the troops were told that Rockford was no longer Channel 4's vice president and general manager; Walt DeHaven, who until recently had held a similar position at WBBM in Chicago, was announced as his replacement.

 

At press time, neither of these parties was saying much. Rockford issued a statement that clocked in at a whopping three sentences, and it seems to have been written quickly: "I'm very proud of the rich history of News 4, and proud of the many talented people I've been privileged to work with over the past 21 years. I wish everyone there the best, including Walt DeHaven. News 4 is a great station, and it will continue to achieve great things." He didn't respond to a request to expand on these comments, and a Channel 4 spokesperson said DeHaven was declining Westword's interview queries until August 14, his official first day in charge -- although he did find time to talk to the Rocky Mountain News.

This reticence encourages speculation about the whys and wherefores of Rockford's ouster, as well as the actions DeHaven will likely take while attempting to turn the ship -- and it needs turning. During May of this year, the most recent major ratings period, the station's 10 p.m. newscast finished second in its time slot, behind powerhouse Channel 9, but it lost a sizable chunk of viewers; likewise, its news programming failed to make substantial gains at other times. Just as troublesome, personnel changes in its marquee newscasts appear to have been motivated mainly by penny-pinching, not a desire to improve the product.

Several years back, longtime sportscaster Les Shapiro was axed in what was widely perceived as a cost-cutting move. But Shapiro's successor, the rather generic Marc Soicher, never caught on, and he was pink-slipped earlier this year. Instead of bringing in a high-profile personality, though, Channel 4 hired Steve Atkinson, a competent but adamantly non-descript sports dude who'd been doing weekends for a signal in Dallas. What makes this move even more inexplicable is that Vic Lombardi, an internal candidate for the job, would have been just as reasonably priced a hire as Atkinson, and has considerably more pizzazz than the new main man.

Around the same period, anchor Aimee Sporer stepped down, becoming perhaps the first person ever who really meant it when she said she was leaving to spend more time with her family. (Apparently, her youngsters need some new shoes: Sporer's husband, lawyer Dan Caplis, has lately been running TV spots trolling for people who suffered side effects from Fen-Phen.) In this case, Channel 4 did promote from within, elevating morning host Molly Hughes to the top job -- and while her transfer has made nary a ripple among local viewers, her warm, friendly manner may eventually catch on if given time.

Yet time may not be in plentiful supply at Channel 4, especially considering the speed with which DeHaven made changes in Chicago's WBBM. The station shares many characteristics with Denver's Channel 7: It was once a powerhouse, but by the '90s, its ratings were practically at subterranean levels. In a truly desperate effort to raise them, WBBM managers created an anti-puffy hard-news program headlined by respected journalist Carol Marin, who, in 1997, had quit as anchor of an NBC station in Chicago after her bosses asked Jerry Springer to provide regular commentaries. But the good press this noble action received didn't mean squat to Chicagoans, who continued their habit of avoiding WBBM's newscasts.

DeHaven was the man brought in to end WBBM's quality-news experiment. He arrived in August 2000, and shortly before the start of the November ratings period, he handed Marin her head. Afterward, DeHaven paired anchor David Kerley with co-anchor Tracy Townsend under a more standard format, but viewership continued to tumble. By late 2001, WBBM was openly looking to replace Kerley, and eventually did so with a big name -- Antonio Mora, previously the newsreader on Good Morning America. Townsend was on maternity leave when Mora started, and by the time she returned, DeHaven had passed the co-anchor job to Linda MacLennon, who'd been substituting for her. Townsend is still at the station, but in a diminished role.

Steve Johnson, TV writer for the Chicago Tribune, points out that these machinations haven't boosted WBBM's ratings much, but he credits DeHaven with "stabilizing" the station. Still, Johnson wasn't wowed by other initiatives undertaken on DeHaven's watch, including an emphasis on lowest-common-denominator consumer problem-solving and a slogan -- "Works for You" -- that he views as "hopelessly small town, and out of touch with this city."

Sad to say, dopiness like this will probably work better here than it did in Chicago. But Johnson doesn't think such sensibilities are the reason DeHaven was shipped to these environs -- and he doubts that the shift from the third-largest TV market in the country (Chicago) to the eighteenth (Denver) is a reprimand. Instead, he feels the key is DeHaven's replacement at WBBM, Joe Ahern, who's a longtime buddy of Dennis Swanson, the chief operating officer of Viacom's television-stations group. Once upon a time, Swanson and Ahern were colleagues in Chicago, and they're jointly credited with launching Oprah Winfrey in her talk-show career -- a nice resumé item. "Ahern is Swanson's guy," Johnson says, "and when he became available, he was in." That meant finding a place for DeHaven, and Denver filled the bill.

 

The person who may be sweating most profusely over DeHaven's arrival in Denver is Channel 4 anchor Bill Stuart. When he was about to be replaced in 1999, Stuart threatened to sue on charges of age and disability discrimination; he said he was so traumatized by having to cover the shootings at Columbine High School that he had to seek treatment for depression. Confronted with the prospect of a public-relations bloodbath, Channel 4, under Rockford, backed off. But it's three years later now, and DeHaven doesn't have a reputation for sitting on his hands.

Will Stuart follow Rockford out of Channel 4? Could be -- and he may not be alone.

Baa, humbug: We all make mistakes. In our August 1 edition, for instance, I made a reference to a Denver appearance by Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, when Al was actually accompanied by his daughter, Karenna Gore-Schiff. Too bad the gaffe wasn't as funny as a correction in the August 11 Denver Post: "A photo caption in the Denver and the West section Friday incorrectly described dust on the columns on the second floor of the state Capitol as grime." (Are we sure it wasn't "residue"? "Grit"? "Smegma"?) And then there were a couple of recent name butcherings in the Rocky Mountain News. Channel 4's Bill Stuart, mentioned above, was referred to as "Bill Stewart" in one column, while a photo caption identified former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm as "Dick Lamb." Talk about being a mutton for punishment...


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