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  1. #1

    Default Mavericks to be found in the ocean of southern Colorado's corporate radio

    From Colorado Springs Gazette:

    On a recent day, Mountain County radio personalities Dave West and Lo Harris had a typical morning show.

    They announced some upcoming El Paso County events, gave the area forecast, and some shout-outs to a few Colorado Springs charities. They also played a recording they took of the Palmer High School Chamber Singers, which was supposed to be backup to Barry Manilow at the World Arena before he canceled the performance.

    "Dave and I had this lightbulb that maybe we could make it up to them in small way," said Harris on the air before playing the choir.

    And throughout the morning, they were playing music with their signature genre - "country music that sounds like country."

    "What we put on is a blend of country that not only has country roots and some great old songs, but also the new artists and a mix of the Red Dirt Country (out of Texas and Oklahoma) that is new to a lot of people," West said. "It's kind of its own brand of country."

    The music and the local focus make them different from a lot of stations these days in Colorado Springs, but it's the ownership that really sets Mountain Country apart. According to Federal Communication Commission records, Mountain Country is one of just a few for-profit Colorado Springs-based radio stations that are also owned here. The station started in February and is owned by West, his wife and in-laws who also make up half of the staff.

    Mountain Country is an anomaly not just here but nationally, where most radio stations are owned by large corporations rather than local owners.

    "The competition is difficult in radio," said Sharon Hogg, radio station manager at Pikes Peak Community College and associate dean for the Division of Communications, Humanities and Technical Studies. "You have to have money, stay on the air, have great employees, and a great format. I certainly hope he can do it, because it's hard."

    The station will have an uphill battle against corporations that have the ability to put advertisers in the ears of more customers and can play music that has been tested and proven to be a hit.

    "It would be like opening a little five-and-dime store next to a Walmart," she said of owning a radio station in today's environment. "I just couldn't offer what they can."

    Mike Knar thought he was ready for ownership after 32 years in the radio business. Before starting out on his own, he was manager for the Colorado Springs-based Cumulus radio stations, which include longtime stations like 98.9 Magic FM and 92.9 Peak FM. He now owns Southern Colorado Radio, which includes a couple of Pueblo stations and the brand-new hip hop station Blazin 98.5 FM, 1040 AM.

    "I thought my experience would be able to carry me through. I knew it was going to be a struggle, but it was harder than I expected in every way," he said. "Stations like Mountain Country and myself, we have to work a lot harder than the big guys. It's like David vs. Goliath times 10."

    West said he knows he can't compete on their level, so he's not even trying.

    "We are the small fish in the big sea, but we're not focused on competing," he said. "We're focused on doing our own thing."

    Jody McCoy, a veteran broadcaster and previous president of KRDO FM, said the radio landscape has changed a lot since the mid-1990s, when laws changed allowing owners to buy multiple stations in a market.

    "From the consolidator's perspective, they could buy five radio stations, have one general manager instead of five, take the best salespeople and consolidate it," he said. "It worked really well as long as the industry was growing. . Then the great meltdown happened in 2008 and all of the assets, the real estate, stocks - it all tanked."

    To save money, the radio conglomerate companies began cutting back even more, playing the same music on all of their stations and having on-air talent broadcasting across the country instead of locally, he said.

    "Now you have the two largest companies iHeartMedia and Cumulus, which has the larger cluster here, and both companies have too much debt, and it's difficult for them to put the money back into programming that many people think is important."

    Cumulus Media owns six Colorado Springs stations, records show. IHeartMedia owns four Pueblo stations, one based in Fountain and another broadcasting from the Widefield/Security area. Other national owners Salem Communications and Bahakel Communications own another four southern Colorado stations.

    "The big groups, just as a general rule, they take 90 to 95 percent of the revenue out of the market," Knar said. "That doesn't leave much room for Mountain Country or myself." What's more, he said, many of the stations owned by the large corporations have been in the community for a long time and have already built up their brands and advertising base.

    Despite the challenges, there's still room for local ownership if it's done properly, McCoy said.

    "The old business model was live and local and involved in the community," McCoy said. "That's a model that still works."

    West said it was that traditional model that made him want to buy the station in the first place. He's a radio veteran, most recently working at KAFA radio at the Air Force Academy for 11 years.

    "Through the last 15 years, I've been hearing the same story - 'we're tired of the same songs being played over and over. We're tired of not hearing anything local,'" West said. "So it was always my dream to own a station and then this opportunity was kind of a godsend."

    What separates Mountain Country from the rest is its freedom to adapt and focus on what it wants, West and Harris said. While other stations have their hands tied about what they play and who they promote, Mountain Country doesn't have those constraints. The station is free to try out new, untested music and play local bands that would never have a chance to be heard on other stations.

    "If they want to compete with our format, they can't," Harris said. "They don't make the decisions about what they play."

    Still, they admit, they have a tough job ahead. First, they have to convince advertisers that they're a viable station with a large listening base.

    "Advertisers at first had to take a leap of faith - they didn't know if our radio station would work," Harris said. "But now it's getting easier and easier."

    They say they've been getting lots of positive feedback from their fans and the station's live stream had 15,000 individual listeners in March. After just a couple of months, they already have more than 1,300 Facebook fans.

    West knows how tough it is to start a radio station these days, but he said he had to give it a shot and he hopes listeners respond by giving Mountain Country a chance, as well.

    "Either it will prove to be a huge failure, or it will prove to be something people are wanting.


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