Desi Cortez appeared regularly on Denver talk-radio stations from the first half of the 1990s to 2004. Since then, he's made intermittent attempts to get back on the airwaves, and he feels strongly that he hasn't gotten another chance for two reasons: his progressive views and the color of his skin.
"It's fifty shades of angry white men," Cortez says. "If you listen, it sounds like a 1957 white citizens' council 24 hours a day."
The scenario Cortez describes isn't unique to Denver. Rather, it's typical of pretty much every sizable city around the country. But rather than accepting that talk radio has evolved into an exclusively conservative zone and looking for other ways to convey his message, Cortez is speaking out.
"We need to take back the people's airwaves," he argues. "There's no way the airwaves around this country should sound like this around the clock. I just don't know how that's okay, and I don't understand how other mediums, like television and print, don't comment on it. I've got to be honest: I don't understand why that's not a story in a city like this. Denver is diverse, with a heavy Latino population, and yet there's nobody on the radio talking about immigration and DACA."
Moreover, Cortez continues, the powers that be at local talk-radio outlets "are really okay with that. There's no desire to have all opinions voiced."
Once upon a time, Cortez had a platform at Clear Channel, the largest radio conglomerate in the area. Now called iHeartMedia, the San Antonio-based firm owns Channel 93.3 (KTCL), 95.7 The Party (KPTT), 97.3 KBCO, 103.5 The Fox (KRFX), KOA NewsRadio (at 850 AM and 94.1 FM), 107.9 KBPI, 630 KHOW, Orange and Blue 760 (KDSP) and 106.7 The Bull (KWBL) — but recently filed for bankruptcy.
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"I worked for them from '93 or '94 until 2001," Cortez recalls. "I did the overnights and the weekends, and I did fill in for Peter [Boyles, then on KHOW], [Mike] Rosen [a staple on KOA] and other guys in prime time. And I also covered for Jay Marvin," who moved from KHOW to 760 AM during the period when it focused on progressive talk, with tie-ins to another doomed liberal-radio project, Air America.
The latter format limped along until 2014 before being rebranded as Real Talk 760, a strange business-news hybrid that also failed to catch on. The outlet flipped again last summer to Orange and Blue 760, which boasts about being all Broncos, all the time.
For his part, Cortez was without a regular radio gig until 2004, when he was given an opportunity at KNRC, at 1150 AM, which was owned by billionaire Phil Anschutz and programmed by his son-in-law, Tim Brown. The concept was a station that would offer a variety of ideologies instead of just one, and Cortez was hopeful it would succeed. But that was before the demise of the Gipper.
"I worked there for six months, and then Reagan died," he remembers. "I was on the air that weekend, and I explained who and what Reagan was in the eyes of a lot of people, from a progressive-liberal perspective. I tried to honor the fact that he had died, but I also didn't suck up and blow hot air up his ass. After that, on Monday, they went on the air and apologized for what I said about Reagan over the weekend, and about ten days later, they closed down the station and reformatted it. And that was the last time I did radio in this city."
During the years that followed, Cortez became a behavior coach with Denver Public Schools, and he's written columns for websites such as BlackCommentator.com and NegusWhoRead.com. In his words, "I've stayed in the struggle."
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In the meantime, traditional talk radio has been battered by the rise of the digital age and appears to be considerably less powerful than it once was. But Cortez knows there's still a significant audience out there, and he finds it positively galling that only one specific segment is being served.
"They're preaching to the choir every day — like, 'Okie dokie, you're right!'" he exclaims. "They speak on behalf of people of color, say what they think we would say, and then tear apart that argument. It seems obvious to me that there's a sign up that says, 'No Latinos, no Asians and no blacks unless you're a moderate negro who sounds like Herman Cain or Ben Carson.' And it's much more than happenstance or coincidental. It's strategic, and it's in every market. I think they understand that, if nothing else, they're silencing the opposition by not allowing anyone else to speak."
The result of separate-but-unequal radio, in Cortez's view, is an increase in racial hostility, and he admits that "if I was doing talk radio right now, I think I would fear for my life. I got death threats at KOA, so I can only imagine if I went on the air now and said what I think about Donald Trump and the Republican party. Could I walk to my car? Could I walk to King Soopers and not be approached by somebody who's irate?"
After a pause, Cortez says, "Don't get me wrong. I'd take that chance. Because right now, there's no radio along the Front Range that's fair, balanced, normal and represents most people in the demographic. It's just what angry white guys want to hear."