Not so many decades ago, stations across the country employed overnight talk-show hosts, who kept lonely listeners company as they lingered in the dead zone between yesterday and today. Now, they're almost all gone -- victims of sinking revenues and budget cutting. So it's no surprise that Rick Barber's KOA 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. staple ended this morning, thirty years after it launched. More startling is that he's managed to survive so long as Denver radio's last past-midnight man.
Barber isn't the only KOA staple to get the heave-ho in the face of ugly 21st century economics. Steve Seidenfeld, his faithful Man Friday for the past fifteen years, and his Friday fill-in for nine-and-a-half years (from 2001 until May 2011), is also bidding farewell. Given that Barber will be replaced with syndicated programming -- Coast to Coast AM -- the powers that be have decided no one needs to be minding the sound board during the time period. And pugnacious commentator Jon Caldara will be departing from his 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. slot, although not from the airwaves affiliated with Clear Channel, KOA's owner. He notes that he'll still be at the microphone on Sunday evening's over at sister station KHOW, and will substitute at both outlets, as Barber, who's in his mid-sixties, hopes to do as well.
Our conversation with Barber is below. As for Seidenfeld, he declined to comment for this story -- but Caldara spoke with nostalgia about the slot that he'll fill for the last time on a regular basis this evening.
"It's been great to have that piece of radio real estate," he concedes, "and for us insomniac night owls, it's a great part of my social life. I'll certainly miss that. But I'm not going anywhere. I'm joined at the hip with Denver. This just means I'll finally be able to get a good night's sleep."
Indeed, Caldara will remain a prominent player on Denver media landscape, not only through his regular appearances on his Channel 12 Devil's Advocate program, but also via the political work he does as the leader of the Independence Institute. Love him or hate him (and plenty of folks do both), Caldara is the rare radio personality who's actually reporting from the trenches, where he fights for his libertarian values, as opposed to standing on the sidelines sniping at the actual movers and shakers.
In contrast, Barber is largely apolitical -- a gentle, reassuring voice in the night, or, in Caldara's words, "the Johnny Carson of late-night radio. There's nobody who does radio better than Rick Barber late at night."
That's a point we made back in 2000, with a Message column profile with the subhead "At 3 a.m., KOA's Rick Barber Is the Only Game in Town." Even back then, Barber was the sole live-and-local overnight radio host in the market -- an anachronism in some ways, but an exceedingly welcome one. In discussing his longevity, he made a joke that Caldara repeated earlier this week: "I'm sort of like a piece of furniture -- the couch no one wants to move. I guess they're afraid to find out what's behind it."
His last segment this morning was as decidedly low-key as most of those that preceded it. Barber rolled out a long snippet of an appropriate tune (Frank Sinatra's "My Way") before taking calls from well-wishers, including one apiece from Wisconsin and Manitoba -- an indication of just how far KOA's blowtorch signal can travel. Then, prior to the final commercial break, he noted that while some people consider his exit the end of an era, he sees it as a new beginning. He added that there's no such thing as permanent change in radio. "This is what we do," he said.
Not any more -- at least not every night. The wee hours will be a little lonelier without him.
Update, 9:53 a.m. January 6: Rick Barber gave us a shout a few hours after closing out his final overnight show for KOA, and his tone was entirely bitterness-free.
"I've got to tell you, the people here have been just great to me," he says, singling out past executive Lee Larsen and current honchos Pat Connor and Greg Foster. "This whole thing was a decision made at the corporate level -- and my presence here is not going to end. It's just that the status has changed. I'm going to do a bunch of fill-ins, especially during baseball season, and I'm looking at this as a new opportunity. The way it is now, I'll be able to not only do fill-in work, but it might break me out to do some syndication."
Not that Barber would consider relocating to broaden his reach. "There's no reason to leave. I could do the syndy right out of here. And I've lived here since I got out of the Army in 1970. My son, my grandkids, both my ex-wives and all my girlfriends -- everybody's here."
Will the end of the shift change his sleeping patterns? Probably not. "I'm a night owl, and I have been since I was a teenager -- although I've done a lot of morning-drive radio over the years, and that's a killer, as anyone who's done it will tell you. You've got to get up at 3:30 in the morning, and go to bed at eight. That's a tough gig, and I admire people who do it. I did it long enough to know I was happier doing overnights."
Lots of folks will miss him. He's gotten hundreds of e-mails, plus phone calls, Facebook messages and more from longtime admirers. And the affection is mutual. "My audience kept me sane," he maintains.
While plenty of folks see traditional broadcast radio as lurching toward extinction, Barber isn't among them. "It still fulfills a very necessary niche. The digital age is just something you can add on -- another layer. Terrestrial radio is never going to go away."
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Live and local overnight hosts seem to be doing so, though, and he understands why. His succinct explanation: "Economics rules the game."
By the way, this week also marks the retirement of another longtime Denver media personality. CBS4's Paul Day. To watch a video tribute to Day, click here.
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More from our Media archive: "102.3 ESPN replaces The Ticket with national-local mix, Jack FM survives."