The Story of Adele H

There's a thing or two you don't know about Adele Arakawa.

In the year 2000, Channel 9's Adele Arakawa is Denver's undisputed local news queen, the reliable, levelheaded, take-no-crap senior anchor for the city's highest-profile newscast. The departures earlier this year of Channel 9 longtimers Ed Sardella and Ron Zappolo had TV insiders predicting that the station's ratings winning streak might well be near its end, but that hasn't come to pass -- not yet, anyhow. Although the outlet's numbers have eroded to some degree since the arrival of sturdy sidekick Jim Benemann and full-time Broncos pimp Tony Zarrella, it has continued to outdistance head-to-head competitors at channels 4 and 7, and a victory in this month's ratings, or "sweeps," period would reconfirm Arakawa's star power. But if such a triumph comes to pass, it will also testify to her successful reinvention -- because, as it turns out, she wasn't always the respected personage she's become in Colorado.

Exhibit A is "'Hillbilly'? 'Airhead'? Or a Ch. 2 Anchor?," a September 1988 column by veteran media critic Robert Feder that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times several months prior to Arakawa's arrival at Chicago's WBBM -- the station where she was working in 1993 when she agreed to join Channel 9. In the piece, Feder noted that she hadn't been born with the "Arakawa" moniker: Instead, she was christened "Adele Hausser," but subsequently assumed the Arakawa appellation (her mother's maiden name) at the suggestion of Hal Wanzer, news director at WTVK-TV in Arakawa's hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Such a switch is hardly unique; plenty of TV news types operate under the equivalent of stage names. But it looked worse in this case because Feder quoted Wanzer as saying he'd recommended the change "as a minority-ethnic thing" -- the implication being that it could be used as a marketing tool that might appeal to stations interested in seeming more diverse. Wanzer added, "She's really an east Tennessee hillbilly."

The bad publicity didn't stop there. After pointing out that Arakawa had virtually no formal journalism education (her Channel 9 bio states that she attended the University of Tennessee but doesn't mention that she dropped out as a freshman), Feder included the remarks of Bob Langford, entertainment editor at the Raleigh News & Observer, which served the Raleigh-Durham area, where Arakawa worked for five years prior to going to WBBM. In describing Arakawa, who had become a favorite with viewers at WTVD, the region's ABC affiliate, Langford said, "'Airhead' is probably the first word that comes to mind...She's strictly a [news] reader who never gets out of the newsroom except to do an occasional puff piece."

Editor Chris Magyar tries to keep Go-Go from being a no-go.
Rand Carlson
Editor Chris Magyar tries to keep Go-Go from being a no-go.
Rand Carlson

These opinions seemed especially damning since they resounded in a vacuum: Arakawa ignored repeated requests by Feder for comment because, she grumbles today, "I didn't want to call him back." But that doesn't stop her from criticizing Feder for going ahead without her cooperation. "I can't imagine someone doing an article on someone else without talking to them first," she snaps. "But the media critics at the newspapers there are a lot different. They're very gentle and tame here" -- duh! -- "but there they tend to go for the jugular. And articles like those are very hurtful and painful when you haven't had a chance to defend yourself."

At the same time, Arakawa doesn't dispute the facts of Feder's piece. Indeed, her only specific gripe is with the insinuation that taking the Arakawa name was a calculated ploy to get mileage out of her ethnicity: "There are a lot of us who keep their ancestral names, and I took it twenty years ago because I'm proud of my Asian heritage." As for Feder, Arakawa believes her four years or so in Chicago changed his mind about her. Contacted at the Sun-Times, where he's still monitoring Chicagoland broadcasting, Feder confirms that Arakawa "did a solid and professional job while she was here." But he thinks that her introduction to the city's viewers via his column may have haunted her stay to some degree, making the fresh start she got in Denver all the more important.

She's certainly taken advantage of it. Mere weeks after her late 1993 on-air debut at Channel 9, she was live at the scene of a multiple homicide at a Chuck E Cheese restaurant, and although her resumé up to that point was mighty anemic when it came to hard news -- she first stepped behind a microphone at age sixteen, as a DJ in Knoxville, and spent the vast majority of the years afterward reading instead of reporting -- she acquitted herself ably. Before long, the public had embraced her even though she'd replaced a broadcaster, slickster Mike Landess, who along with Sardella had helped establish Channel 9's newscast as the class of the community. She also broke up a boys' club -- an all-male anchor team -- but avoided being typecast as a news bimbo, partly, she says, as a result of changing times.

"I remember the days when women were always younger than their male counterparts and always had a lot less experience. But I think women have grown and matured in the business. You're finding a lot of women who are of baby-boomer age coming into their own, and a lot of markets that won't make a 25-year old with two or three years in television an anchor because they know she doesn't have the experience.

"I sure hope that 'set decoration' banner that used to be put on women has gone away forever -- but I don't think that could have ever been put on me," she goes on. "Set decoration is usually meant to be attractive, and if there was a beauty contest, I certainly wouldn't win."

That's a bit disingenuous. Arakawa is hardly the most hideous gargoyle on the cathedral, as numerous Denver scribes have noticed. For instance, she was named "hottest female reporter" in 1995 by the folks at Quest, a gay-themed magazine. In addition, a song on the latest CD by local rapper Apostle ("The Wisdom of the Saint," March 23) features the couplet "Fantasize in the shower/Of Adele Arakawa."

But at age 43, this married mother of a fifteen-year-old son seems relieved to have reached a place in her career where she no longer has to worry so much about being babe-a-licious. She still doesn't do much field reporting -- she most recently left her desk in June to cover fires in the foothills -- but because she's had the chance to be seen live from the settings of the Oklahoma City bombing and the shootings at Columbine High School, she's been able to position herself as a defender of old-fashioned news values against the creeping influence of infotainment.

"There are some days when you go in there and you try to lead the charge and you lose the battle," she says. "And on those days, I get frustrated with the industry and with some of the newbies coming on line who you want to teach about legacy and about what the business is all about. It isn't necessarily all ratings-driven; it has to be content-driven. You have to double-check your facts and your sources and those kinds of things. It's not just about being on TV."

Nonetheless, she's not nearly as eager to blast the compromises and banality inherent in her line of work as Sardella has been. In a June conversation with the Denver Post conducted shortly before his semi-retirement from a trade that paid him nicely for decades, he dismissed TV news as little more than "a sales vehicle. Even management has come to a point where they don't try to hide it." Arakawa stops well short of these observations. "I have my criticisms of the business," she concedes. "But the industry has been very good to me, and if you take too negative a view you tend not to be as constructive in your criticism."

She's right to be cautious, because, as a failed experiment at her old station in Chicago demonstrates, television news types who insist on taking the high road may find that it leads straight out the door. Earlier this year, WBBM, which has struggled for fans since back when Arakawa was a staffer, introduced a fluff-free newscast helmed by Carol Marin. But this old-school approach failed to attract enough enthusiasts, and in late October, just nine months after the show's launch, Marin was ousted. Although Marin landed on her feet (she'll report for 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II ), Arakawa, who knows the anchor from her WBBM stint, isn't willing to follow her into journalism martyrdom by demanding an end to soft news, cute banter and weather segments that seem to last as long as Berlin Alexanderplatz.

"We need to maintain a balance by informing and educating, but also making the newscast appealing," she allows. "It can be frustrating dealing with time constraints; our news hole is only thirteen minutes, and I can't tell you everything you need to know to be fully informed in that amount of time. But I can tell you a lot of it -- and that's what I try to do."

By the same token, she doesn't think people need to know everything about her -- particularly the factoids in Feder's column. "It's unfortunate that you have to dispel some of the things that are written about you," she says tersely. "But that's not really what's driven me. I'm more interested in having women be respected for the work that they do as opposed to their hair and what they wear. To me, reputations and respect are two things that come with hard work. And I hope they have."

Daily confusion: Boulder's Colorado Daily is a newspaper accustomed to making news: Its reporting helped lead to the ouster of University of Colorado-Boulder president John Buechner last year. But the latest ink reaped by the Daily was unwanted, since it cast a light on internal dealings that are as curious as curious can be.

The latest chapter begins on October 20, when the Boulder County Business Journal ran an article headlined "Colorado Daily Up for Sale After Alleged Embezzlement." In it, writer Alisha Jeter Rhines reported that former Daily finance director Mark Breese, current location unknown, was given the sack earlier this year after allegedly squirreling away around $250,000. While the Daily reached an out-of-court agreement with Breese for repayment, the likelihood that he would fail to comply convinced representatives of the paper to list it on a Web site called publicationsforsale.com for a mere $3.9 million. Daily publisher Russell Puls added credence to the piece by saying that buyers would have to cover the sheet's debts and guarantee that its style wouldn't be changed.

Four days later, however, something did change -- Puls's tune. On October 24, the Boulder Daily Camera ran an item titled "Publisher: Colorado Daily No Longer for Sale." In it, Puls claimed that the cyber-listing hadn't been authorized by current management, and even though the paper might consider an especially lucrative offer, it wasn't actively courting one.

Speaking to Puls doesn't clear up this jumble. According to him, he learned that the Daily was up for sale from Journal reporter Rhines: "She said, 'You're selling the Daily,' and I said, 'I am?'" But Puls didn't ask her to wait on the story until he found out what was going on, and he insists that he has no problem with the version that hit print. Moreover, he identifies the Daily's previous publisher, Chris Harburg, as having hung the for-sale sign on the paper, adding that she apparently told no one she'd done so even though the Daily is employee owned. Daily editor Pam White echoes these comments: "When the Boulder County Business Journal hit the streets, everybody was like, 'What the hell?'"

Clint Talbot, a former Daily editor who's now a columnist with the Daily Camera, was considerably less surprised. Prior to his departure from the Daily, he says Harburg openly discussed the possibility of peddling the paper and even had him feel out staff members to get their opinions. Last year, Talbot discloses, the Daily offered to buy back shares of the publication from former employees -- and since the proposal was made at a time when the Daily was especially strapped for dough (the money came from a loan made mainly to purchase a printing press), it raised speculation that a sale was being seriously contemplated.

Harburg, who now lives in Philadelphia, verifies some of Talbot's remarks while muddying others. She says she did discuss the possibility of a sale with staff members but agreed to list the paper only after a broker claimed that he had lined up a potential purchaser who wouldn't step forward until she'd done so. Still, she's certain that the agreement would have expired long ago -- and she denies that buying back shares from former Daily workers was done as a precursor to a sale, chalking it up instead to "an interest in consolidation."

Amid all this mayhem, Puls argues that the Daily is doing better than ever, having just expanded its distribution to some institutions of higher learning outside Boulder, including the Auraria campus. But at press time, a listing for the Daily (referred to generically as a "Rocky Mtn. Free Daily") remained on the publicationsforsale.com site, alongside a request that the $3.9 million be paid in cash.

Wait a second. I think I've got that much on me...

Fridays on their mind: The November 17 debut of the Denver Post's redesigned Weekend section begged the question, "Why did they bother?" After all, the division of the guide into two separate segments, with movies (and TV) in the first and the rest of the entertainment universe banished to the second, offered minimum cosmetic improvements and only one notable new feature, a local music/club column by KTCL jock Kat Valentine that, on week one at least, was every bit as superficial as the Post's other pop-music coverage.

A likely explanation is the impending joint operating agreement between the Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Since the JOA will eliminate the Sunday News, thereby shifting the papers' main entertainment battleground to Fridays, the Post is apparently positioning itself to better compete with the Rocky's more user-friendly Spotlight insert. And the timing? In all likelihood, the powers at the Post thought the feds would have approved the JOA by now -- but as it turns out, Justice Department types have been sorta busy with what's been going on in Florida for the past couple of weeks. Speaking of which...

Every vote matters: Lost in the blizzard of numbers relating to this year's never-ending presidential campaign were at least three more totals just begging for further calculation.

In the November 9 Denver Post, writer Susan Greene kicked off an article about Gail Schoettler's narrow loss to Bill Owens in the 1998 Colorado governor's race with this lead: "5,416. That number will haunt Gail Schoettler for the rest of her days. It's the votes by which Colorado's former treasurer and lieutenant governor lost to Bill Owens..." But the next day, the Post's busy corrections box noted that while Schoettler had been told by the late Colorado secretary of state Vikki Buckley that she'd fallen 5,416 ballots short, "the official secretary of state's abstract lists the margin as 7,928 votes." But the correction didn't mention that one page after Greene's piece, in a graphic labeled "A Look at Various Races Decided by Less Than 1 Percent of the Vote" that also ran on November 9, Owens was shown to have beaten Schoettler by 8,151 votes.

Demand a recount, Ms. Schoettler! You might have been governor for the past two years and not even have known it!

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