K-High lives -- and Steve Hamilton's devoted to keeping it thriving online

On April 30, K-High, Denver's contemporary-jazz radio outlet, vanished from the airwaves after its owner, Bustos Media, sold the 101.9 FM frequency to Christian broadcaster WAY-FM.

The sale price shows how much radio-property values have plummeted in recent years. In 2006, Bustos bought 101.9 FM for $17.5 million. Four years later, the company sold it for $2,325,000.

That's not the end of the K-High story, though. The station is streaming at KHighonline.com, and veteran personality Steve Hamilton aims to keep it that way.

"I could have walked away," Hamilton notes. "But I said, 'We still have equipment here, we still have a library, we still have a way of getting the music out to the public. Let's do it.' And Bustos Media said, 'Go for it' -- and then they all left."

Bustos is still technically the owner of 101.9 FM. WAY-FM is operating the frequency under a local marketing agreement that will remain in force until the FCC gives its formal blessing to the transaction, probably in two or three months. In practical terms, that means WAY-FM programming (a simulcast of material already being heard at another Denver dial spot, 89.7 FM) is running through the board at K-High's broadcasting facility -- one of the city's most venerable.

"We're at Hampden and Yosemite, in what used to be the old Clear Channel building," Hamilton says. "KBCO was here at one point, KNUS was here at one point, KHOW was here at one point. Hal and Charley used to broadcast from here. The building is ideal, since it was constructed for broadcasting."

As such, Hamilton hopes to continue operating from the location even after the 101.9 FM sale is finalized.

"The arrangement we have now is pretty unique," he maintains. "The building was sold to a health-care company, and they're occupying the second floor -- and they've allowed us to stay here at very affordable rates indefinitely. So we've moved into a little studio downstairs and it's a nice, happy little home -- and we'd like to keep the station operating from here. If you operated from home, that works well, but having a presence in Denver is very important to us."

As this last comment implies, Hamilton has significant ambitions for K-High, despite the dubious track record contemporary jazz has racked up over time in Denver. "I kind of equate it to the Broncos going to the Super Bowl four times and losing," he says. "We've had four contemporary jazz stations now, and all four have gone off the air."

That total includes multiple incarnations of K-High. Hamilton worked for the outlet back in 1991-1992, when it could be found further to the left of its most recent location. As he recalls, K-High broadcast at 94.7 FM and 95.7 FM before being supplanted at the latter position by The Party.

During most of this period, Hamilton worked at KOSI. Then, in June 2008, following a fifteen-year KOSI run, he became the original program director at the reborn K-High, which sought to capture the audience abandoned by another contemporary jazz project, the late CD 104.3.

To a large degree, Hamilton believes, K-High succeeded. Problem is, the contemporary jazz audience is relatively modest in terms of size -- and that's particularly challenging in light of the radio industry's current funk.

"My take on it has a lot to do with corporate radio and the enormous pressure it's under to meet budget as the values of the properties have gone down so dramatically," he says. "Stations that were worth $80 million five years ago are now worth $5 million. That's a drastic drop, and a lot of debt goes along with it. So stations are having to generate a huge amount of cash, and contemporary jazz is a narrow target, a sort of niche format. You're not going to have a million people listening to it in Denver. You'll have 150,000 or 200,000 -- and, in fact, we had a cume of 100,000 when we signed off the station.

"Unfortunately, the ad rates for a station like that cannot generate the kind of cash that needs to come in. But there are also advantages, the biggest being an extremely loyal audience -- and that's good for advertisers. We heard from a lot of advertisers who talked about getting great results running commercials on K-High. Stations like these can generate a good amount of money."

Even so, contemporary jazz outlets in Chicago and Detroit have gone off the air in recent years, with only a handful of others -- Hamilton cites San Diego's KIFM and Seattle's KWJZ -- holding their own.

"Had we been given a longer period of time, I believe we would have turned the corner," he says. As evidence, he reveals that he received "over 1,000 e-mails in the first 36 hours after we went off the air. And the streaming numbers went through the roof."

Hence, Hamilton is personally taking over the property. "I'm going to assume all the costs myself," he says -- and at least right now, they're not crushing. "It's relatively inexpensive to run an online radio station. The streaming costs are minimal -- there are companies out there that will stream a station for ten dollars a month. So all we need are a couple of computers where we have all the music, the licensing fees for the artists, which are fairly small, and the cost of operating the studio -- electricity and that kind of thing. It's not as if I'm on the hook for 100 grand or anything like that. And as we grow, we'll be able to add staff as necessary."

At present, a couple of K-High vets are on-board with Hamilton, including Samantha Sloane. But for the most part, he concedes, "I'm a one-man band," handling programming, commercials and even ad sales -- the biggest challenge of them all given the weakness of the marketplace in general and doubts among businesses about whether online radio spots are a good investment.

Hamilton is confident the station will prove its worth. "The K-High brand is very well known, and that will help this Internet station achieve good numbers a lot faster than a startup operation no one's ever heard of," he says. "We've got 200,000 people in Denver who already know the station, and that's a huge advantage -- almost a built-in marketing campaign. We also have a listener database of over 5,000 people who have been telling us, 'I can't get through my day without this music.'

"People either love this music or they hate it. But the people who love it really love it, and they'll go to great lengths to be able to hear it. And we're going to make sure they still can."

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