Hammer Time

It's four o'clock on a late September afternoon, and Sam Hammer, the flying traffic cowboy for Country 104.3 and 950 AM/The Fan, would already be in the air if it weren't for one little problem: He can't find his plane. So he picks up the handset of the mobile radio mounted under the dash of a 104.3-owned SUV parked near a runway at Jeffco's Centennial Airport and, armed with the sketchiest notes imaginable, turns one city's traffic woes into a gruff-voiced stand-up routine.

"There's a minor accident on Kittredge Highway 74 near Evergreen, but the two drivers are out of their vehicles and fighting. Hey, you idiots, this is just traffic. Don't be killing each other over it."

Anyone wondering if Sam Hammer's name is actually Sam Hammer won't get an answer here. "If I told you, I'd have to kill you -- and I'd do it, too." He's just as guarded about his age. He came to Colorado in 1973 after dropping out of Oaktown Community College in his home town of Chicago, so he's almost certainly in his forties. But Hammer offers no confirmation. "I don't tell anyone how old I am," he points out. "I'm dating too many young girls."

As well he should be. Getting an eyeful of many radio personalities can be a frightening experience; the disparity between their voices and their appearances is why a lot of them went into radio in the first place. But Hammer is just as his pipes suggest -- a big slab of man's man, with broad shoulders, a Magnum, P.I. mustache, a chiseled jaw and a demeanor that's every bit as swaggering as his bottomless delivery. He's got three marriages under his belt and he's "taking auditions" for number four -- and doing so with a vengeance. Since becoming single again two years ago, he's led a ridiculously active social life. "Maybe I can't name everyone I've dated, but I'll bet I could come up with two-thirds of them," he says. "I have a habit of staying friends with everyone I've gone out with, which didn't always go over that well with some of my wives." And although he's also been spending a lot of quality time with the teenage son of his most recent ex, discovering in the process a fatherly instinct he didn't know he had, he's still been able to maintain a database of over 1,000 people whom he phones annually on their birthdays ("Some days, I make five calls") and invites to his famous "crab parties," so named because of his zodiac sign: "I'm a Cancerian," he boasts. At last year's edition, more than 800 revelers showed up at a bash that raised over $15,000 for the Special Olympics. Thanks to Hammer's connections, Budweiser donated beer for the event, and food was provided by Cucina! Cucina!, Caldonia's and Hooters, whose annual bikini contests Hammer hosts. "Two of my roommates over the years have worked at Hooters," he says. "I've been a Hooters poster child for a long time."

But before Hammer can start lining up his next conquest, he needs to track down his bird -- and after driving around for a few more aimless minutes, he spots the Eighties-vintage Cessna 182 sitting about a hundred yards from where he'd been parked originally. The white, brown-striped exterior of the little craft hardly inspires awe, and its interior is even dumpier: a pair of battered brown-vinyl bucket seats up front, a matching bench stacked with broadcasting equipment that most pawn shops would reject to the rear, and little head or leg room anywhere. The plane reminds Hammer of a Karmann Ghia he once owned.

Yet even though the Cessna's motor sounds like an aging Toro and the fuselage shudders vigorously as the plane taxis down the runway (safety pilot Jon Erickson explains that its tires are "kind of lopsided"), Hammer isn't complaining. "Choppers are great for TV stations, because you have to get video, and they can get a steadier shot. But when you're doing a traffic report for radio, all you have to do is glance at it, and Denver is so big you need to zip back and forth and check this out and that out, and airplanes can do that faster. And if you have to look at something, you just circle. Besides, a rollover accident downtown may look good on TV, but it might only affect 200 cars. But a stall on I-25 that doesn't look good on TV may affect 2,000 cars. And that's what people want to know about."

"All the action's on I-25 right now -- it's a good one-mile jam. Get prepared: You're about to waste seven minutes of your life."

Hammer first became interested in radio when he was in high school, but despite being blessed with vocal cords that rumbled when those of his peers squawked, he had a tough time getting into the field. He mainly made his living via sales gigs and club deejaying until late 1987, when his friend Dean Curfman (presently a newsman for Metro News Network) asked if he'd be interested in replacing the just-sacked "traffic girl" at KS-104, the station Curfman worked for back then. During Hammer's first weekend on the job, a plane crashed at Stapleton International, and he was assigned to cover it. "That was a real trial by fire," he remembers. "Literally." Two years later he got his pilot's license, initially paying for his flying expenses out of his own pocket. But the investment paid off; before long, he was supplementing his radio income by doing updates for Channel 9. When KS-104 disappeared in the swirl of a local marketing agreement a few years later, he spent a year as a reporter for KHOW before being hired in 1997 by Jefferson Pilot, the company that owns Country 104.3 and the Fan. He immediately made his presence felt. Whereas airborne traffic peers such as KOA's Al Verley and KHOW's Tony LaMonica mainly stick to a straightforward recitation of the facts, Hammer freely editorializes about issues that in his mind make a bad traffic situation worse. For instance, he regularly knocks cops who insist on writing up paperwork on minor accidents in the middle of rush hour. "Officers should get the licenses of anyone involved and have them follow them off the highway where they can't be seen," he says. "Because it doesn't take much to slow down traffic. Plant a new bush on the highway and people will slow down and go, 'Look, Martha, a new bush.' So you know they're going to slow down when there's a police car there."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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