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KHIG bets on untried marijuana-centric radio format

AM radio is dying, says Len Williams — who is the program director of a recently launched AM station.

"It's a slow death, but it's a death," he explains, "and it's virtually impossible to make a dollar off it."

Such was the challenge that faced Williams and Mike Knar, the general manager and co-owner of Southern Colorado Radio, as they looked at picking up a lease on the AM 1580 station in the Springs area. KREL had a strong signal, but a weak sports-talk following; what could they broadcast instead?

"We had a meeting," Williams explains, a brainstorming session. "What could be out there? Finally, Mike said, 'How about a 24-hour station dedicated to weed?'

"We looked at him like he had two heads ... After about five minutes of explaining, we all bought in."

Marijuana is a booming phenomenon in Colorado, Knar told them, but one without a dedicated broadcast voice. And that's how KREL became KHIG or "K-HIGH," the station now at 1580 AM, which began broadcasting with its new pot format April 13.

"Part of the appeal was the upside of advertising," Williams says. "The number-one thing [Knar] said was that" — here Williams enunciates carefully — "there are more dispensaries in Colorado than liquor stores and car dealerships combined."

Hence, morning commuters can now turn to K-HIGH for "The Wake and Bake Morning Show" from 7 to 9 a.m., which, Williams says, is "just like any other morning show that you would want — hyped, energetic, gets you moving — but the main thing is, it's about marijuana." And on the drive home, there's a show hosted by four men known as the Weed Pimps.

"None of these guys have done radio before, like 95 percent of the guys we have on the air," Williams says. "Mostly these guys do [weed] advocacy, but they're funny."

That show, which starts at 5 p.m., is called "The High Drive at Five."

It would be difficult to imagine a radio station going on the air with a 24-hour booze format, or an afternoon-drive show called, say, "The Drunk Drive at Five." But Williams and company seem unconcerned about the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcasting content and which has yet to take a public stance on pot content or advertising. (K-HIGH has been running periodic announcements, however, saying the station is intended for people 21 and up — and telling younger listeners to go away.)

The Colorado Broadcasters Association, a trade group that represents most TV and radio stations in the state, but not KHIG, has a cautious stance. "We do tell our members who inquire about running advertising for retail and medical marijuana not to advertise," says CBA president and CEO Justin Sasso, "because while it is recognized as legal by the state of Colorado, it is not by the federal government. ... On the other hand, the format in question is really just freedom of speech."

Bobby Irwin, operations manager for Cumulus Media, which operates local AM news-and-talk station KVOR, says his first reaction upon hearing of the new competitor was, "It's a very clever idea, a great way of calling attention to a frequency that wasn't getting much attention." Pressed on whether he thinks it's a good idea, Irwin pauses and says, "It's an idea. It's novel."

As for business, Williams says selling ads to dispensaries was slow going before the station launched. But after a Gazette story about the new format ran two days after it hit the air, dispensaries "started calling us and lining up ... Some are playing [the station] in the dispensaries now." At the same time, he says, a lot of their advertising inventory is still unsold. But he's optimistic.

"Here you have a booming industry with people making money hand over three fists, and no one will touch it ... and all [industry members] want in the end is a voice."

The station is currently playing a mix of content relating to pot and to wellness. Does Williams worry about exhausting marijuana subjects in the all-talk format?

"Absolutely not," he replies. "I haven't [smoked pot] in 10 years, so diving back into it, I was surprised just by the number of strains and the names. I seriously doubt we're gonna run out of things to talk about ... I'm having a blast.

"This is definitely not what I expected with a radio career, but the one thing I was taught when I started was, if it's new and innovative, before you cut it out, try it. So now our thing is, let's keep it working."

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