In recent days, three major on-air personalities have been fired at iHeartRadio stations in Denver: onetime KOA host (and former Department of Homeland Security undersecretary) Michael Brown, ex-KHOW evening talker (and Westword wine writer) Krista Kafer and JJ Kincaid, co-star of the JJ & Nina morning-drive staple on KPTT-FM/The Party.
Why? A slew of knowledgeable sources who spoke to Westword anonymously disagree about the rationale. Several say the sackings, as well as the February dismissal of Orange & Blue 760 staffers Andy Lindahl and ex-Denver Broncos standout Ray Crockett, are tied to the need to pay another former Bronco, Alfred Williams, who was recently lured away from his longtime radio home at 104.3 The Fan and his popular partnership with Darren "D-Mac" McKee. But another insider insists that the moves are unrelated to the Williams acquisition and represent typical decisions about how to manage resources in a difficult media environment.
There's no question that money is tight at Denver's iHeartRadio signals. Its parent company, iHeartMedia, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2018 — a tough turn of events for the giant concern, which owns more than 800 stations across the country, but an unsurprising one given the financial struggles being experienced by so-called terrestrial radio.
Yet Denver remains a stronger market for legacy stations than most, and the decision to bring Williams aboard was a throwback to a much more affluent period. Although details of his contract have not been released, we're told it was huge by current standards — and his departure has certainly forced an unanticipated change of course for The Drive, the name of his program with McKee.
After Williams's late February announcement that he was moving on, 104.3 The Fan has tried out a series of co-hosts with McKee, including Nicki Jhabvala, a writer for The Athletic (and ex-Denver Post scribe) now on the station's payroll, Denver7's Troy Renck, retired NFL ballers Chad Brown and Orlando Franklin and more, more, more. But thus far, there's been no decision made about a permanent replacement for Williams, whose chemistry with McKee made The Drive a smash for a decade-plus, generating big ratings in the key 25-54 male demographic.
When Williams left 104.3 The Fan, he told us negotiations were under way to shorten a clause in his contract that prevented him from broadcasting on a rival station in the same market for six months. However, sources say these talks went nowhere. As such, Williams won't be able to broadcast in any iHeartRadio outlet in Denver until August 28 at the earliest.
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What precisely he'll be doing on that date is still unknown, too. The most logical station and slot is the afternoon show on 850 KOA, but the studio is already packed with stars — Dave Logan, Rick Lewis and Kathy Lee — at that time. Of course, Lewis and Lee also deliver the morning show at 103.5 The Fox, and ending their double duty would make room for Williams to pair with Logan. But such a move would be complicated in myriad ways, including the new contract Lewis signed in October to keep doing both programs, plus Logan's sideline as a high school football coach, which limits his time in the booth throughout the fall.
Meanwhile, silence is the rule among the pink-slipped radio personalities. Lindahl and Crockett didn't respond to Westword interview requests in late February, shortly before the Williams announcement, and in recent days, Kincaid declined comment. As for Brown, who began his radio career in Denver after his infamous stint as director of FEMA under President George W. Bush (who memorably nicknamed him "Brownie"), he released a statement that reads in part: "In announcing the departure, Mr. Brown cited format changes according to his conversations with JoJo Turnbeaugh, Region Senior Vice President of Programming in Denver. Brown stated that while it wasn’t something he expected or wanted, he has fond memories of his time in radio and is looking forward to getting behind the microphone as quickly as possible."
That leaves Kafer as the only person to directly address the latest developments. She turns down the chance to chat about the reasons she was given for the move but stresses, "I'm on good terms with the company." She's agreed to do fill-in and substitute work on a piecemeal basis, in part because she feels she brings something different to the talk-radio table. In remarks she directs to the industry in general and not iHeartRadio specifically, she notes, "It's sad there aren't more moderate voices out there — and now there's one less. One of the reasons people like podcasting is because it's not all hard-right stuff. It's interesting, and I think there's a market for interesting."
As for Tim Hager, region president for iHeartRadio in Denver, he says he can't comment on personnel issues, leaving the discussion about whether the canning of Brown, Kafer and Kincaid were related to the necessity of clearing salary for Williams to others. But behind the scenes, he's no doubt busy trying to figure out the best way to maximize Big Al when he's finally allowed to slide behind a microphone again.