Taking on the Empire

Page 4 of 10

Perhaps -- but within the industry, Clear Channel wasn't widely loathed until 1998, when it agreed to merge with Covington, Kentucky's Jacor Communications, the company that previously owned all the stations named in NIPP's suit plus three others in Denver (KOA, KHOW and KTLK, all on the AM band).

Over and over again, sources contacted for this story emphasized that Clear Channel didn't traffic in the behavior for which it's now reviled until after the Jacor merger and the installation of Jacor head man Randy Michaels atop Clear Channel's radio division. "It's a Randy Michaels culture," says one. "Back in the Jacor days, some of the things they did, the personal attacks, were so beyond business it was crazy, and that's the way it is in Clear Channel today."

Adds another source, "They're worse in Denver than anywhere else in the country. Compared to anywhere else, Denver is absolutely Vietnam."

Terry Jacobs, the founder of Jacor, incorporated the company in late 1979 and bought his first three radio stations in early 1981; that these outlets specialized in religious programming is an irony radio historians appreciate. Jacobs bought more stations as the decade wore on, including those encompassed by the 1986 purchase of Republic Broadcasting, a Cincinnati chain. Michaels, a former shock jock who'd risen in the executive ranks of another company, Taft Broadcasting, came aboard at the same time.

The next year, in April, Jacor moved into Denver, buying news-talk specialist KOA and KOAQ, an adult-contemporary station, from the A.H. Belo Corporation for $24 million. Cincinnati native Don Howe was soon hired to oversee the sales department at KOAQ, which limped along for two years until the station's format was flipped to classic rock, its call letters were switched to KRFX, and its nickname became the Fox. When stand-up comic Michael Floorwax was made the co-host of the Fox morning show, success followed.

Elsewhere in Jacor Nation, things weren't going as smoothly. As the '90s dawned, the company was so far in debt (the hole was $156 million deep) that it was forced to restructure, selling off several of its acquisitions and slashing management salaries by 15 percent. But a 1992 deal with Chicago's Zell-Chilmark Fund, which is run by Sam Zell, who dubbed himself "the grave dancer" because of his fondness for scooping up companies on the verge of death, kept creditors at bay, and after Jacobs was put out to pasture in 1993, new chairman Michaels went into a buying mode that was only accelerated by the Telecommunication Act of 1996. When it was subsumed into Clear Channel, Jacor held the deeds to 450 stations.

As Jacor mushroomed, many of its stations took on the character of Michaels, a man characterized by supporters as bold and visionary and by enemies as arrogant and cruel. Denver emerged as a microcosm of these qualities. Jacor stations eventually dominated both local ratings and the advertising revenues, but they also earned negative headlines for questionable doings on and off the air.

One notorious Jacor stunt took place in May 1996 on KBPI's morning show, when Joey Teehan, operating at the behest of hosts Dean Myers and Roger Beaty, disrupted services at a local mosque in a moronic attempt to needle former Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for declining to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Dean and Rog were suspended, then shipped to another station in Phoenix, and Teehan was briefly excommunicated as well before returning to host the KBPI morning show. The next time he left, it was for a far greater sin, by Jacor standards: poor ratings.

The shenanigans continued behind the scenes, with rival stations usually in the crosshairs. Current Clear Channel executive Mike O'Connor was even on the receiving end of one such prank. In late 1995, when O'Connor was program director of KBCO, which at that time was a few months away from being purchased by Jacor, a station-sponsored charity auction at the Boulder Theater took on an unpleasant aroma when a truck filled with fertilizer and emblazoned with the logo of another rival of Jacor's, the Peak, was left parked directly in front of the venue. An angry O'Connor called the Peak to gripe, only to be told by Peak personnel that they had nothing to do with the truck -- and shortly thereafter, Jacor was revealed to have been the actual perpetrator. Then Jacor-Denver boss Jack Evans, who's now a senior vice president with Clear Channel, wasn't repentant about the gag, saying, "I have spoken directly with the culprits, and they understand now that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. The next time, they are to use a larger truck."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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