Radio Age

In much of our society, the young and vital get preferential treatment over the graying and saggy. But cheer up, wrinkled ones: These days, radio types here and elsewhere care much more about you than they do about those damn whippersnappers.

As evidence, consider the music-oriented stations or formats that have been launched in the Denver area during recent years and their general lack of appeal to anyone born after Jimmy Carter left office. Jack-FM targets middle-agers with rock or pop hits from the past, while KCUV goes after the same demographic with a more eclectic blend of material. Willie, a fairly new country outlet, is following a similar path by emphasizing the number of "classic" tracks in its mix -- a tactic that's induced longtime market leader KYGO to follow suit. And the latest two dial additions, Sassy/107.1 FM and Martini/101.5 FM, certainly aren't designed for Young Jeezy fans. According to local radio veteran Steve Keeney, who serves as president and market manager for the two outlets, Sassy is built around "music, issues and information that speak to women, particularly 35-plus years of age," while Martini aims at both genders in this age range with what Keeney calls "a lounge format. I'd even compare it to what you might hear at a Starbucks."

In contrast, only one station that's been launched of late goes after listeners in their teens or early twenties: Mega 95.7, which offers reggaeton and hip-hop mostly in Spanish, with a smattering of English to broaden its appeal. If that doesn't hit your sweet spot, kids, you're out of luck.

Right now, Mega is limping along, with ratings that place it at the lower end of the top-twenty most popular stations in the market. Indeed, the numbers it's garnering are no better -- and in many cases, worse -- than those generated by KISS-FM, the teen-focused outlet it replaced. Still, Joe Bevilacqua, director of FM programming for Clear Channel's Denver cluster of stations, defends the switch as "a growth play" -- meaning Clear Channel is betting that overall Latino radio listenership is on the rise and offers stronger odds of future success.

There's evidence to support this contention, says Mario Carrera, vice president and general manager for Entravision Colorado; Carrera oversees three area radio providers -- KJMN/92.3, KXPK/96.5 FM and KMXA/1090 AM -- in addition to two television stations, KTFD/Telefutura (Channel 14) and KCEC/Univision (Channel 50). "The Hispanic universe skews young," he notes. "The Hispanic population is, on average, at least ten years younger than the non-Hispanic population. So you're going to have a lot more young people listening to radio in the Hispanic market."

As for their non-Hispanic counterparts, they don't seem to care about the medium nearly as much as members of previous generations did. A study issued last month by Bridge Ratings & Research reveals that the youth audience continues to erode mainly because of the proliferation of other music and media sources -- Internet radio, satellite radio, podcasting and, especially, the popularity of iPods. Moreover, findings suggest that this change is taking place at a rapid clip. During the third quarter of 2004, listeners between the ages of 12 and 24 who participated in the survey spent around fifteen hours per week with the radio, as opposed to a little over thirteen hours exploring "alternate media." Those who responded to the same question in 2006's first quarter said they listened to terrestrial radio less than thirteen hours per week but spent seventeen and a half hours enjoying alternatives.

Clear Channel's Bevilacqua isn't ready to write off young audiences. He also oversees KBPI and KTCL, two stations that have catered to the twenty-something-and-younger crowd for decades, and they appear to be holding their own. Yet he understands why no one's starting new stations tailored to youthful tastes. First, there's all that outside competition for their attention. "The younger audiences are harder to galvanize because of all the technology out there," he acknowledges. Profitability, meanwhile, is an even bigger factor. "When grunge came around in the early '90s, there was a big Generation X bump, and everybody was going after them," Bevilacqua says. "But by the late '90s, everyone realized that Generation X really didn't have any money -- and that means there was less advertising money to be made." Today he estimates that the third-most popular station with listeners between 18 and 34 might not bring in as much cash as the tenth-most popular broadcaster among the 25-to-54-year-old demographic.

As a result, the handful of stations that haven't written off young people need to lure them in throngs, then persuade them to stick around. Bevilacqua no longer feels that music alone is enough to turn this trick, since it can be found at such a multiplicity of sources. So he's trying to hold on to youths with personalities, such as KBPI's Uncle Nasty and the pranksters who co-star in The Locker Room morning show. But retention remains a chore, since "they're so ADD it's hard to keep them interested."

That's not as large a problem with Hispanic listeners, if only because they don't have as many entertainment options. "Within the Hispanic-radio universe, there are fewer stations," says Entravision's Carrera, "so things aren't as fragmented, and people are more loyal." Now he just has to convince advertisers that reaching Latinos young and old will pay off for them. In his words, "We address myths and stereotypes every day, and income is one of them. The buying power of Denver Hispanics is about $12.9 billion annually, but there are still people who don't believe it."

Neither do most observers expect that youthful Denverites will turn off their radios once and for all -- and not all of them will. But if younger listeners aren't given a reason to listen to broadcast radio today, they're unlikely to tune back in tomorrow.

For your infomercial: TV stations are every bit as devoted as their radio brethren to keeping those revenues flowing -- and on April 26, Channel 7 found a novel, and worrisome, way to do so. That day, the signal preempted the second half of its 11 a.m. news hour to run an infomercial touting Toll Brothers, identified on its website as "America's luxury home builder."

News broadcasts are in flux at Channel 7. With Oprah, its 4 p.m. staple, moving to Channel 4 at the end of this month, the station is filling the slot with an hour-long newscast -- but it's dropping the 6 p.m. update in favor of Alex Trebek and Jeopardy. Was the April 26 preemption a way of indicating that the bell is about to Toll for the 11 a.m. show as well? Linda Bayley, Channel 7's director of programming, insists otherwise. "It was a contract signed a long time ago that we felt obligated to honor," she writes via e-mail. "It was a one-time situation that won't happen again. KMGH-TV remains committed to providing news and information to our Colorado viewers in the 11 a.m.-12 noon time period."

That's a relief -- unless the news and information is about "America's luxury home builder."

Assume the juxtaposition: Westword cartoonist Kenny Be has a unique view of the world, which helps explain the unfortunate link he found between two Associated Press stories that shared a page in the April 25 Denver Post. The one on top concerned a camp in Phoenix at which investigators said counselors "abused 18 boys by poking them in the rear with broomsticks, a flashlight and a cane." And what was the topic of the article beneath it? Black holes.

I experienced a cosmic connection of a different sort on April 26, after the announcement that the Post's proprietor, MediaNews Group, headed by Dean Singleton, had purchased four former Knight Ridder newspapers for a nifty $1 billion; three of them, including the Contra Costa Times, are based in California's Bay Area, where Singleton already owns several properties. Turns out that in a 2003 column, I identified the Times as a MediaNews paper -- a mistake for which I apologized the next week.

Now, however, I realize that this wasn't an error. It was a prediction.

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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