Radio guy Raj Sharan channels his inner fifth grader
Raj Sharan grew up Vinny Castilla, Dikembe Mutombo, John Elway. He grew up LaPhonso and Larry and Peter. Not so different from a typical Colorado kid.
But by fifth grade, Sharan’s family had uprooted him to Baltimore, exiling him from the teams and players he loved. Except for the occasional cameo in a Sports Illustrated photo, the only indicator of what his favorite Nuggets player looked like was a pixelated image in the video game NBA Jam.
The instrument of Sharan’s epiphany would be streaming audio. In 2007, out of college but still in Maryland, Sharan discovered the online signal of a Denver radio station, AM 950 “The Fan,” where hosts like Scott Hastings and Alfred Williams talked Nuggets, Avs, Broncos and Rockies.
Tuning in over a PC connected to a modem, Sharan was captivated. Within a week, he made a vow: He was going to work in Denver. For a radio station. This station. Sharan left a comfortable job as a public relations copywriter and headed back to Colorado.
Sharan got a job in radio, alright, but it was the kind of job you get when your only experience is having worked at a college station: late nights alone in the studio, keeping the Wyoming-Hawaii game on the air when nobody is listening.
Over time, Sharan rose to become assistant program director for Colorado’s Front Range Sports Network, contributing play-by-play work for Denver University lacrosse and basketball, until the network went off the air in 2015. By then Sharan had a credible resume, enough to help him land a job as an assistant program director for KKFN, the successor station that had inherited the mantle of “The Fan.”
Sharan has worked at KKFN (104.3 FM) and sister station AM 1600 ever since. In February 2019, he impressed the bosses at the Utah-based parent Bonneville International sufficiently to get the job he’d coveted: program director for the leading sports-talk station in one of the nation’s top sports markets. Now, he’s the guy shaping the shows and setting the tone.
This year, that hasn’t been easy. Beginning in March, Sharan faced an existential question: How do you program a sports station when there aren’t any sports?
Sharan doesn’t have a throaty deejay brogue, but talks with rapid-fire, purposeful enthusiasm. COVID-19, he says, was a chance for the station to shine. “I told our guys: Find every angle you can,” he says. He instructed hosts to go deep with creative takes, and he insisted they out-research the competition.
When the Broncos hired offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Sharan sent links to the on-air staff, instructing every host to zero in on the coach’s skills, faults, tendencies. Apparently, it all worked. In July, when big-league baseball, basketball and hockey returned, KKFN remained in familiar territory, as the market’s top-rated sports talk station.
One reason is a mix of personalities that seems to work, including an irrepressible morning show pairing ex-Bronco Mark Schlereth with media veteran Mike Evans, along with “The Drive,” (get it, Denver?) the signature p.m. show teaming former Bronco Tyler Polumbus and Darren McKee, a familiar Denver radio voice.
Sports radio has come a long way from 1980s call-in shows that often devolved into frat-bro blather. Sharan’s KKFN is a polished aural blend of host conversation, guest interviews, colorful audio clips and the occasional watershed moment, such as the March 2019 in-studio jousting match between former Bronco Emmanuel Sanders and the clamorous McKee. The two had been at odds over comments McKee had made, and the ensuing 37 minutes was a gripping back-and-forth that had fans talking for weeks. (The two men seemed to end up on friendly terms.)
Sharan is proud of garnishes that hold the show together. On Oct. 8, the NFL announced the Broncos-Patriots game would be moved to an unusual 3 p.m. start time the following Monday. Sharan heard the news at 4:45 p.m. He typed a promo script and whisked it to a voiceover contractor in New York City. In another minute, a recorded audio file was in Dallas, where a second contractor added music and effects. By 4:52, seven minutes after Sharan had heard the news, the clip was ready to air.
Thinking of Sharan purely as a radio guy misses the mark, though. The name of the game today is content, delivered over podcasts, Twitter, blogs and more. Radio remains the anchor, but it’s also a feeder for “the brand,” which is Sharan’s vision for what KKFN must be if it wants to remain relevant in a shifting media environment.
Regardless of where KKFN’s content turns up, Sharan likes to keep in mind that somewhere out there is the listener he used to be, turning up the volume when hosts like the erudite Sandy Clough offer a Drew Lock take. Sharan gets that sports talk is mostly entertainment, but bristles when people dismiss it as “the toy store” of the media. He knows it runs deeper than that. “Don’t tell me it’s not important,” Sharan says. “I’ve been that kid.”