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Radio for (Lots of) Change

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Those conservative politicians who routinely bellyache about the alleged liberal bias of the media seldom include mainstream talk radio in their rants, and for good reason: Most hosts with an overt ideological slant, be they local or national, are only slightly less right-wing than was Benito Mussolini.Understanding that, the folks behind KWAB, or Working Assets Broadcasting, a 1,000-watt operation that can be heard in Boulder (its home base) and communities near it at 1490 AM, set out to craft an alternative: a commercial station that looks at issues from a more politically progressive point of view.

Their creation, which has been operating under the banner "Radio for Change" since last year, is a work in progress, as Chuck Lontine, its general manager, readily acknowledges; it has a growing listenership on the Internet (at radioforchange.com), but it's still struggling to gain a foothold in Boulder -- and its anemic signal makes it difficult to hear at all in most parts of Denver. Nonetheless, it's already become the target of complaints, and not only from listeners opposed to its leftward slant (a predictable turn of events). Also raising questions are fellow liberals fearful that the for-profit nature of the business is actually a deal with the devil, a former KWAB air personality who accuses the outlet of allowing ideals to degenerate into timidity, and ex-employees who believe that the way they were dealt with wasn't nearly as laudable as the principles professed by Working Assets, the San Francisco Bay-area firm that owns the station.

The fifteen-year-old company, which generated revenues of about $140 million last year from a variety of long-distance, credit-card and Internet services, pledges a percentage of its revenues to nonprofit groups such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Sweatshop Watch; its goal for donations this year is $5 million. Even KWAB critics like Dani Newsum, a veteran broadcaster who was among the first to be fired under the new regime, are impressed by such ambitions. "Working Assets has set the board high," she says. "That's part of their strategy: "Go with us, because we're better.' And in a lot of ways, they appear to be."

But, adds Newsum, "what's the difference between the way people are treated at KWAB versus, say, KOA or KHOW [where Newsum once worked]? I didn't see a damn bit of difference."

By some estimates, as many as thirty employees have been shown the door since Working Assets took over 1490 AM, which previously was known as KBVI. Of the members of this group contacted by Westword, most remain aggrieved by their experiences, and among the issues contributing to this condition is the one suggested by Newsum: Staffers expected that the negatives they associated with commercial radio, a notoriously ruthless business, wouldn't come into play at KWAB, and they were thunderstruck when they did.

Working Assets president Michael Kieschnick, who categorically denies that either Working Assets or KWAB has done anything wrong, thinks this factor explains a lot. "The complaints you're hearing are motivated by a level of personal animus that is way out of proportion to the actual facts of employment, and that's sad but not completely unexpected," he says. "There was a wonderful article in Inc. magazine a few years ago called "The Seven Deadly Sins of Socially Responsible Business,' and it made the point that when it comes to socially responsible businesses like Working Assets, employee expectations are often infinite and that separations, terminations and resignations tend to have more charge to them because of the expectations."

General manager Lontine echoes these sentiments. "It's impossible to meet everyone's expectations when your own expectations are so impossibly high. And that's led to my challenges and my disappointments and, in some instances, my heartaches. I've had to go by the best judgment that I have, and in some cases I've made mistakes, painful mistakes. But I've learned from them, and the station has grown from them. And we're still growing."

Given his background, Lontine seems an unlikely advocate for radio with a higher purpose. A Denver native, he got his start in radio at age sixteen when he landed a job as a gofer at what is now KIMN-FM. After an early-'80s stint as a news anchor for departed rock outlet KAZY, he moved into broadcast sales. That position eventually led him to New York-based Infinity Broadcasting, where he was a national sales rep for shock jock Howard Stern's show. In an understatement of mammoth proportions, he describes the latter as "slightly antithetical to what I'm doing now." Former co-workers of Lontine's from his commercial-radio period second this emotion; they remember him as tough, driven and brutally honest, especially when it came to assessing talent. "Who wants to hear that they suck?" asks one.

In the mid-'90s he took a post with Denver's Noble Broadcasting, onetime owner of KBCO, and eventually moved on to Tribune, parent company of KOSI and the Hawk. But over the next several years, he grew increasingly disillusioned with his chosen profession. "The homogenization of programming around the country is incredible," he says. "Right now there are two companies, CBS/Infinity and Clear Channel, that are calling the shots to the point where you have no idea if you're listening to KOA or a station in Los Angeles. And there's been a conservative shift that has dumbed down radio unbelievably."

With these thoughts in mind, Lontine began developing a concept that merged elements of commercial and public radio into a hybrid designed for dissemination over the Internet, but with a strong local component. "I bored more people at cocktail parties talking about it," he concedes.

Around the same time, Working Assets was looking to get into the radio game and had already purchased the 1490 AM frequency. At first Lontine didn't think his ideas meshed with Working Assets' initial notion, which he dubs "earth radio." But he changed his mind following the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999.

"I had hurt myself skiing a couple weeks before Columbine, and because I was recuperating from surgery, I was watching more TV than I'd ever watched in my life," he says. "And I was absolutely disgusted by the media hype and how all the responses to what happened -- the healing funds, the songs, the remote units all over the neighborhoods -- weren't getting to the heart of the matter. That's when I started thinking that there was no reason why "earth radio' couldn't be "earth, gun control, peace and humanity radio.'"

Within weeks, Lontine contacted Working Assets, and the deal was soon done. In the months that followed, the antiquated station was renovated and updated as Lontine and company refined the KWAB model. Today its components include the airing of far more public-service announcements than any other Denver-area commercial station, "action alerts" that urge listeners to get involved in various causes, and twice-weekly giveaways of $5,000 to nonprofit groups nominated by members of the community. Some Boulderites see the station as a threat to KGNU, a public broadcaster that's been a liberal mainstay in the city for ages, but Lontine swears that's not the case -- and as evidence, he notes that five grand of Working Assets' money recently went into KGNU's account.

The highest-profile host on KWAB's schedule at present is Los Angeles-based morning-drive host Bob Harris, whose resumé has more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. He's a standup comic, an author (his works include Steal This Book and Get Life Without Parole), a Web maven (his site can be accessed at bobharris.com), a columnist and commentator (he's contributed to Mother Jones and Z, among many other publications), and a pal of intellectuals (he narrates the audio version of the Noam Chomsky tome The New Military Humanism, making him, he says, "literally the voice of reason"). On top of that, he's a five-time champion on Jeopardy and recently racked up $200,000 on Greed, the fairly distasteful (and recently canceled) Fox game show hosted by that genius of modern TV, Chuck Woolery. About this booty Harris says, "I look at it as me winning an irony grant from the Murdoch Institute of Progressive Journalism. A couple of people have suggested that I was dirty because I had some of Rupert Murdoch's money, but I'm putting it to a good purpose by using it to support a career investigating the Rupert Murdochs of the world."

Harris sees his stint on KWAB as doing just that. "To get me out of bed at 4 a.m. every day, it's got to be something I really believe in, because I'm used to going to bed around the time I now get up," he says. "And I truly believe in what they're doing."

So, too, does Mike Flanagan, who stars in Real Time, weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. Flanagan is a veteran of public radio, having hosted Midday Mozart on Denver's KCFR for eight years, but he likes what he's doing at KWAB much better. "KCFR is a corporation trying to model itself after the big conglomerates, which is a long way from what public radio started out to be," he says. "Plus, I was only a voice there, whereas here I'm allowed a great deal of freedom. If I'd wanted to express an opinion on KCFR, it would have taken many days of meetings to decide whether I could or not. Yes, KWAB is a for-profit station. But being a nonprofit doesn't necessarily mean that you're working for the public good, by any stretch of the imagination. And in my mind, KWAB is working for the public good."

Both Working Assets and KWAB use this liberal rep as a marketing tool, which makes some listeners feel uncomfortable; they see the station's commercial element as running counter to its mission. Lontine hears gripes like this all the time; he remembers a recent conversation with a man who said that running a Priceline.com ad featuring William Shatner made it impossible for KWAB to stake out the moral high ground. "What can you say to that?" he wants to know.

And then there's the matter of whether or not the outlet has compromised its vision by taking money from companies that aren't planet-friendly. Kieschnick says advertisers are regularly scrutinized to make sure that their activities are honorable, adding that he wouldn't think twice about turning down money from those that aren't up to snuff. But Lontine sees some gray areas. For instance, Mitsubishi is a frequent target of boycotters because of what they see as environmental sins committed in Mexico and Canada. Yet he's proud that Boulder Mitsubishi was one of KWAB's first advertisers. "They're a fine dealership that's locally owned, and it's doing no harm," he says. "They're just selling cars."

Such rationalizations strike Bob Feldman, a self-proclaimed "movement writer-activist" who's contributedto publications such as New York's Downtown and New Jersey's Aquarian Weekly, as especially problematic. But Feldman takes his complaints several steps further, even chiding KWAB host Harris for featuring a guest on his program from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) because of alleged connections between FAIR and "establishment" groups such as the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

Harris, who recently e-mailed Feldman that any future attempts to contact him will be considered harassment and forwarded to his attorney, sees this kind of criticism as a wrongheaded search for purity that undermines KWAB's attributes. "I had someone on the air the other week from Z magazine talking about participatory economics, and even if I bathed in Noam Chomsky's blood, I couldn't get any leftier than that," he asserts. "If anyone can find a radio station that tries harder to give the working people a voice in the media, I would be very surprised -- but still you get these complaints. There comes a point where you have to throw up your hands and say, "Well, you can't please everyone.'"

But does KWAB have its own ideological litmus test? Peter Jones, a onetime KCFR reporter who until recently co-hosted a KWAB skepticism show, Prove It!, with radio newcomer T. John Hughes, is afraid the answer is "yes." Jones describes his baby, which debuted last November, as "a program that focused on critical inquiry and healthy skepticism, subjecting both sides of an issue to the same scrutiny in a way that was respectful but not afraid to be controversial," and he says Lontine was initially enthusiastic about it. But by the second show, about so-called reparative therapy intended to transform gays into straights, Jones was in hot water.

"It wasn't a perfect show, but it was fair," Jones insists. "But as soon as we got off the air, we got a call from Chuck saying we were reckless and basically inferring that we pitched him the show under false pretenses, and that we were actually a bunch of right-wing Christians who were trying to sabotage his radio station."

Afterward, Jones and Hughes promised to tell Lontine in advance about any program that might be especially contentious and to solicit his advice. Jones believes that this system worked well for a while, but it came apart following an early April program featuring Randy Thornhill, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico who co-authored the book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion with University of Colorado at Colorado Springs anthropologist Craig Palmer ("Origin of the Specious," February 10). The notorious tract argues that while rape may be a violent act, its roots are in reproduction and the cave-male's drive to ensure that his rancid DNA is passed to future generations.

Four guests were on the show with Thornhill -- two of whom thought that his theories were nuts, and two who agreed with some conclusions and disagreed with others -- and Jones feels that he and Hughes gave them each an equal opportunity to make their points. "We didn't bully anyone," he says. The next day, Jones went on vacation, and upon his return, he found messages from Lontine revealing that he'd gotten a complaint from a listener about the show (as far as Jones knows, it was the only one KWAB received) and had serious concerns. The show was subsequently yanked, and Jones says Lontine told him the two hosts had been "irresponsible and politically incorrect." About this last term, Jones says, "That struck me as funny, since "politically incorrect' has turned into a well-deserved joke. I didn't think anyone used it seriously anymore."

For his part, Lontine denies that politics, correct or otherwise, had anything to do with his decision. Prove It! was deep-sixed around the same time as about half of KWAB's weekend schedule; among other shows that died were programs about pets and dreams, plus what Lontine calls "a celebration of ecumenicism." Why? "They just weren't working," he says. "We do have to earn revenue and maintain listeners to support the radio station, and they simply couldn't attract enough advertisers. So we had to make some hard choices."

Of course, the weekend shakeup isn't the only one that's occurred since Working Assets took over. Some employees weren't shocked by the atmosphere these changes created. "Startups are usually volatile, so it didn't surprise me that this one was," says Laurie Howell, who oversaw the morning show for three months prior to Harris's arrival. But Patty Carpenter, an office manager and sometime commentator who got her pink slip in March, was bothered by the discharges. "People were getting fired so often that everyone was walking around wondering when it was going to happen to them," she says. Even contractor Andrew Rosenberg wasn't immune. He says he was hired to rebuild the KWAB studio without a set deadline, then canned after one was imposed out of the blue. In his words, "I've built 32 studios around the country, and this was the first time I was ever fired.

For Dani Newsum, the end came within weeks of Lontine's arrival at the station, in early summer 1999. (She had been hired by an interim manager employed by Working Assets a couple months earlier and teamed during the morning drive with Tony Kindelspire, a holdover from the KBVI regime.) But while she's miffed that Lontine never sat down with her to offer suggestions about what kind of show he wanted rather than simply lowering the boom, she's most upset by the way she discovered her fate. "On a Friday we had a going-away party for an employee who was going out the door on his own, if you can believe it," says Newsum, who's seen often on Channel 12's public-affairs programming, "and all of us were in the conference room, which was a very public area. When I got there, Tony seemed gloomy, and when I asked him why, he pointed to the message board -- and posted on it was a schedule for the next week that we weren't on. Boy, did I feel like an idiot." Lontine wasn't at the party, but he made Newsum's dismissal official the next Monday.

Other departed KWAB types talk about mixed signals, claiming that Lontine would praise them before suddenly changing his opinion and cutting them loose. Greg Berman, who'd done weather reporting on the frequency since 1990, says Lontine promised that he would be a big part of the station's morning show, then concluded a few weeks later that his accent was too Southern-sounding and minimized his role. When Berman asked for a few weeks off in January, he says he was given approval by someone in station management -- "but then Chuck called back ten minutes later and said, "I'm severing our relationship as of right now. I don't ever want to hear from you again.'" The pattern was much the same for host Lydia Smith: positive feedback followed by a certain coolness that reached its logical conclusion in August, when she was fired the day she returned from a vacation. "That's Chuck's m.o.," Smith says. (At present, Berman handles weather chores at Longmont's KLMO-AM, while Smith, a staffer at Denver's Westwind Media, can be heard Wednesdays on the Internet site iVillage.com. Rosenberg and Kindelspire are also working at Westwind.)

For Jenny Griffin, the end came more slowly. She started working at the station in early 1999, and after Lontine took charge, he offered her the opportunity to co-host Real Time with Flanagan. At first, she says, Lontine treated her like "the golden child," but the compliments stopped coming after she began grousing about a lack of production resources and what she regarded as biased coverage. "I wanted to strive for some semblance of objective journalism. I think a multiplicity of voices is great, and certainly, liberal voices should have been a big part of that. But those were the only voices we were being allowed to hear. Instead of being allowed to look at both sides of hot-button issues, we were expected to just look at one.

"I was perceived as difficult for raising those questions, but anyone who raised any questions was perceived as difficult," adds Griffin, who was sacked weeks before appearing alongside Flanagan in the photo that accompanied a superficial KWAB profile published in the May 15 Rocky Mountain News. Griffin also makes note of the dearth of women on the KWAB lineup since her firing. "How progressive is that?" she asks.

This situation changed to some degree on May 22, when Laura Flanders, a New York-based journalist who's been handling the news chores during Harris's show, took over the 9 p.m. to midnight program -- but this move was made only after the abrupt May 19 resignation of Gary Tessler, a veteran Denver host (he was KOA's liberal voice until the station decided it didn't need one), who'd been with KWAB since almost the beginning.

Tessler praised KWAB and Working Assets in a May 2 interview for this column, and he didn't eat his words after quitting. Moreover, he says he'd definitely consider rejoining the station if it expands (negotiations for stations in San Francisco and Denver have been rumored, but nothing has come to fruition yet). But he decided to bow out for now, in part because of frustration over the small number of listeners the outlet's attracted thus far. "We get calls, but not nearly the number we need to have," he says, adding, "I think the station is sounding good, but unless it gets into a bigger market, it won't matter -- because you can only pour so much money into something. Otherwise, it's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Right now, KWAB is still afloat, and company president Kieschnick aims to keep it that way. Numerous former employees have sent e-mails and letters protesting their treatment to Working Assets, and Kieschnick says every one that's come to his attention as part of what he sees as "a remarkably vicious campaign" has been thoroughly investigated, with the vast majority of them proving to be "simply false." Beyond that, he declines to discuss specific accusations "due to politeness and longstanding tradition. But in the creation of a new format, there may be many people who just can't quite pass the bar, so KWAB has many former employees. Many of them are good radio people, many of them are nice people, and I am confident that they'll do well at other radio stations." He says that even though the station is far from profitable at present, he's confident and committed to it for the long term.

Lontine follows Kieschnick's lead regarding comments on ex-employees: "I don't think it's appropriate, and to a certain extent, it's classless." Instead, he focuses on new additions, including exclusive contributions from Saturday Night Live alum Brad Hall that will begin appearing soon on Flanagan's Real Time program. "This is the most meaningful broadcasting project I've ever been involved with," he says, "and it's also been the most challenging, and sometimes the most troubling. But in the end, we're making a difference -- and we will make change."

Bill De La Cruz hopes so. The vice president of the Boulder Valley School Board, De La Cruz produced Youth Talk, a show for and about teenagers in Boulder, for two and a half years prior to Lontine's hiring. At a meeting last summer, De La Cruz says, Lontine seemed enthusiastic about continuing the program on KWAB. But whenever De La Cruz called after that to inquire about getting Youth Talk on the schedule, he says he was put off -- and now, the better part of a year later, he's given up. "It's too bad, because the kids really miss it, and it would have fit in perfectly with everything they say about social consciousness," he says. "It's disappointing."

De La Cruz may still benefit from KWAB, though: He runs a nonprofit organization, Restoring Choices, that's been nominated for the station's twice-weekly $5,000 giveaway. "But you have to be listening to the station to win," he says. "And lately, that's been hard for me to do.

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