In radio, station format changes are called flips for a reason: They often happen so suddenly that the people involved find themselves head over heels -- and often not in a good way. That's what happened Friday, when conservative talk outlet 101.5 FM The Truth became Jammin' 101.5 five minutes before yakker Mike Zinna's program was set to begin.
"It was right before showtime," recalls Noelle Leavitt, news director for the Zinna program. "And Mike comes in and says, 'Show's over, guys.' And I was like, 'Whoa.' It totally sideswiped me."
The 101.5 frequency, owned by Max Media, has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. The program had featured an independent-rock sound dubbed Indie 101.5, but ratings never matched the acclaim it received. Program director John Wilbur, aka Whip, mounted a campaign to save Indie 101.5, but to no avail.
In late July 2009, Indie 101.5 moved online, initially replaced by The Pole, which featured music for strippers and a website boasting shots from a faux bathroom cam. The Pole results were surprisingly enjoyable -- but the flip turned out to be a stunt. The real format was The Truth, which Max Media general manager Jeff Norman touted in an August 2009 interview, paying particular homage to syndicated yakker Michael Savage, one of several nationally known right-wing gabbers to be heard on the signal.
"We wanted to launch the station with the biggest and best personalities we could possibly get," Norman noted at the time. "Michael Savage, he's the number-two syndicated talk-show host behind Rush Limbaugh -- the type of person we couldn't have gotten locally."
Nonetheless, ratings for the Truth remained anemic. Hence, the addition of some local programs, including Green Rights Radio, which focused on medical marijuana, and, of course, the block starring Zinna, a local gadfly who made his name going after officials in Jefferson County before broadening his focus.
As Leavitt points out, she wasn't an employee of Max Media. Rather, she was hired by Zinna Worldwide Media to work on the program, which originally aired weekdays from 7 to 9 p.m. before being bumped up to the drive-time slot, 4 to 7 p.m.
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As a freelance journalist who'd previously worked on podcasts for the Denver Post's website, Leavitt loved the gig -- and she had no inkling of trouble when Zinna sat down with Norman shortly before his Friday show was set to get under way. But the preparation they'd put into the broadcast came to naught.
As they were clearing out, Leavitt asked Norman how long he'd known about the switch. She says he told her he'd gotten the call just half an hour earlier. Nonetheless, the promotional imaging for the new Jammin' 101.5 format, which essentially duplicates a style heard at 92.5 FM beginning in the late '90s, is elaborate -- the kind of thing that can't be thrown together in a matter of minutes.
For Leavitt, the move made her identify with what reporters at the Rocky Mountain News went through when the tabloid closed. "Journalists in Denver have been through the wringer," she points out. Now she'll go back to freelancing even as she looks back fondly on her radio experience.
"It was a great opportunity to be a news director of a non-partisan talk show like the Zinna show," she notes. "But the rug got pulled out from under me."