Anchor in Waiting

Sportscaster Les Shapiro is rested and ready. But will TV take him back?

"I don't think there's any real TV sports journalism in this market any longer," says veteran Denver broadcaster Les Shapiro. "It's been thrown out the window. The TV stations don't care about it anymore, and evidently, the current anchors don't either, because they don't work it very hard."

Harsh words. But Shapiro, who was canned as Channel 4's number-one sportscaster in 1999 in a cost-cutting, scapegoating move, doesn't back down from them, and his remarks about local newscasts in general are just as pointed. "I'm not very fond of the way this business has gone the last four or five or six years, and I don't think it will get any better. Because the pressures from the corporate side have gotten so great, management has had to cut costs and is continuing to cut costs. That's hurting the product -- and I don't want to be affiliated with a mediocre product."

Given that, why on earth would Shapiro consider taking a job at a Denver TV station, as he admits he might do under the right circumstances? For one thing, he believes he has a lot to offer, and he's right: In comparison with the boosterish pretty boys who are currently in vogue (read: Channel 9's Tony Zarrella), he's incisive, well-informed and quick on the draw. Moreover, this Chicago native likes Denver, where he's lived since 1984. His wife and two sons feel awfully settled here, and damn it, so does he.

The majority of people in his position can't afford such sentiments; they know that if they get kicked in the teeth in one city, they'd better have some dental work done and move somewhere else. Fortunately for Shapiro, his contract with Channel 4 ran until last July, buying him valuable time. But more than six months have passed since then, leaving Shapiro feeling a sense of urgency to find a full-time position that will keep him living in the style to which he's become accustomed. And while he hasn't landed that big fish yet, he notes, "I've got a lot of poles in the water." Some examples:

· Commercials. Shapiro stars in TV ads for Boulder Toyota and radio spots for Colorado Heart Imaging, and he's talking to a prominent local jewelry firm about doing its bidding as well.

· Special projects. During the recent NHL All-Star Game weekend, Shapiro teamed up with ESPN hockey analyst John Buccigross to helm a broadcast intended to show off new technology developed by Nortel, a telecom firm. He's also in negotiations to serve as an interviewer at the hockey venue for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

· Business ventures. Tom Skerritt, an actor best known for his work in TV's Picket Fences and the film version of MASH, also happens to own the Crested Butte Brewery, and he's about to introduce a new product, Paradise Golden Ale. Shapiro, who met Skerritt through a mutual friend, will contribute to its launch by co-writing Paradise advertisements in which he'll appear with the actor and also serve as a liaison for the brewery with area liquor retailers and the media. Which, contrary to popular belief, are not one and the same.

· The Internet. Major League Baseball's official Web site, mlb.com, has hired him as its Denver correspondent; he'll put together regular reports each month and appear on an as-yet-unnamed monthly talk show scheduled for launch during spring training. He served as a consultant for a Web site to be affiliated with the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

· Radio. Shapiro does regular fill-in work for KTLK, bringing some desperately needed wit and insight to the afternoon broadcast normally helmed by Jim Ryan and Bob Davidson. He even managed to break some news on the station in late December, when he reported that the new Broncos stadium would be called "Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium" -- and if the last word was eventually shaved off, that was hardly his fault. Nor Wellington Webb's.

· Public speaking. Shapiro has become the society scene's favorite announcer, voicing events like an auction at the upscale Beaux Arts Ball. On February 23 he'll emcee Channel 12's twentieth-birthday bash at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Shapiro, who emcees for free, doesn't want anyone to think he takes these jobs because they generate ink for him: He says he sees them simply as a way to promote good causes in a community he loves. But there's no denying that they keep him on the media's radar screen. A data search reveals that his name has appeared in the Denver dailies more often since he left Channel 4 than those of Zarrella, Channel 7's Tom Green or Marc Soicher, Shapiro's rather uninspired replacement. It ain't face time, but it ain't bad.

Other possibilities are in the offing as well, including what Shapiro refers to as a "management/ambassadorial role" with one of the area's professional sports franchises -- but he's reluctant to count on them because of the many gigs that have fallen through during the past eighteen months. (For instance, he agreed to do television play-by-play for CU-Boulder's men's and women's basketball teams and the Sky Sox, the Colorado Rockies' Triple A farm club, but because of an inability to hit advertising projections, neither deal happened.) So even though he's distressed about what he sees as the shrinking amount of time devoted to sports during most newscasts -- two to three minutes today, by his count, versus four to five in the good old days -- he's maintaining his contacts on the odd chance that a sports anchor position opens.

The place that's likeliest to happen is Channel 31, where former Bronco David Treadwell has turned out to be an outright catastrophe; his writing and delivery are somewhere between amateurish and abysmal, and he continues to look uncomfortable on the air, especially when conversing with sportscaster-turned-news-anchor Ron Zappolo, who seems much better informed about area squads than he is. Shapiro declines to talk about Treadwell specifically, but he does say that he'd love to work with Zappolo again (they were together at Channel 4 for several years). He acknowledges that his relationship with Zappolo was once marked by "an underlying tension that I think was a product of both of us being so competitive; something nasty was said here, something nasty was said there. But I think Ron and I are both professional enough to know that if we were ever to be on the same team again, we'd get along just fine."

He uses different descriptors when talking about his last few years at Channel 4. Ratings there began to tumble after a mid-'90s affiliate switch to CBS, and even though much of this dropoff can be attributed to weaker lead-in programming, the network demanded cost cuts that resulted in a purge of veteran talent; correspondents such as Jim West and Tom Martino, also now at Channel 31, vanished, and a move to ease out anchor Bill Stuart was dropped only after word that he was being treated for depression associated with his coverage of the shootings at Columbine threatened to turn into a public-relations bloodbath.

In their place, Shapiro notes, Channel 4 "hired a lot of young, inexpensive reporter and anchor talent that was embarrassing on the air and lent to a deterioration of the product." And he let people know he felt that way. "That's probably one of the reasons I got fired," he goes on. "Admittedly, I probably gave my opinion far too much, because I was upset with the product we were putting on the air. It was vastly inferior to what we had been doing in the late '80s and early '90s.

"This market still puts out a fairly good TV news product, and I think it's still better than in most major TV markets," he notes. "But it's not what it used to be, and it's getting worse by the month."

Nonetheless, Shapiro recently, and reluctantly, gave his agent permission to circulate his tapes outside the area "to see what else is out there." But he insists that he'll be very picky, and if the situation isn't suitable, he'll walk away, perhaps for good. "The way things are going, I don't know that I want to go back into TV news. I just don't know."

Empire building: Last week, Colorado Public Radio, the ever-growing network overseen by the ambitious Max Wycisk, attempted to add another pelt to its belt by acquiring KUNC-FM, a station long part of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Such a purchase makes sense business-wise, given CPR's long-stated goal of instituting a statewide two-channel system, with one devoted to news and the other to classical music; not only does KUNC have broad reach in northern Colorado, thanks to a power rating of 100,000 watts (it booms into Boulder and Denver's northern suburbs and can be heard as far south as Castle Rock), but it also sports a system of translators that brings it into communities such as Vail. Yet the free ride initially given the proposal by most Denver media types is growing costlier by the minute, as KUNC boosters, including former hostage Tom Sutherland, stage a frantic effort to prevent their favorite station from becoming another cog in Wycisk's wheel.

CPR's best buddy in its efforts has been former senator turned UNC president Hank Brown. Among his first acts upon taking the university helm in July 1998 was putting KUNC on the block, but initial sales attempts generated no offers. The next February, Brown's minions told station manager Neil Best and KUNC's paid staffers, who currently number fourteen, that direct university funding would be phased out over the next four years. However, listeners to the station, which melds public-affairs programming from National Public Radio and other sources with a "diverse music" mix of jazz, folk and classical, reacted to the edict by opening their wallets. By July 2000, KUNC had weaned itself entirely from the university's contributions (other than in-kind allotments covering such items as office space and accounting) and was building an endowment fund that Best hoped would lead to complete independence.

But Brown's forces were impatient, and when CPR officials made contact in December regarding a possible sale, negotiations quickly got serious. UNC eventually agreed to unload the outlet for the unbelievable bargain price of $1.3 million -- less than one-third of what CPR recently paid to get 1340 AM, a Denver outlet with an iffy signal and a power rating of just 1,000 watts. (Most news agencies have reported that CPR must also fork over $600,000 for the endowment fund, but that's more of a bookkeeping matter than anything else. Since CPR would swap $600,000 of its own cash for an equal amount in the fund, it would incur no additional expenses.)

KUNC employees had no time to prepare for this bombshell; they were informed about the accord on February 8, just one day before the university's board of trustees was slated to rubber-stamp the pact. But they mobilized quickly, and by the next day's meeting, listeners had already pledged around $75,000 toward purchasing KUNC. Best asked boardmembers to grant the station sixty days to match or beat CPR's offer, and while the board didn't go for that, it was sufficiently shamed by its behavior to grant KUNC until month's end to try to achieve this goal.

Aiding immeasurably in this effort is Sutherland, a former Colorado State University professor who was held captive in Beirut from 1985 until 1991 by members of the Islamic Jihad. At press time, he was attending a Washington, D.C., hearing at which he may be given a monetary package as compensation for those lost years -- a move made possible by the passage last year of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. Sutherland may collect a portion of the approximately $400 million in Iranian resources still lingering in the Federal Reserve from a 1979 assets freeze ordered by President Jimmy Carter. (In a 1989 article, the New York Times described this hoard as "cash paid for arms not delivered.") On February 9, Sutherland told the Greeley Tribune that if he receives a payout, he "will guarantee a loan or give a significant amount of money to help KUNC buy its freedom" -- a concept he knows something about.

Whether he'll get his greenbacks in time is another question: Terry Anderson, a onetime hostage awarded $341 million by a jury, agreed to accept $41 million of that total and drop his claim to the rest months ago, but the press has not yet reported that he's taken delivery of the money. For that reason, KUNC's Best cautions against complacency. But there are hopeful signs. Best says several bankers have contacted him to offer their services, and by Tuesday, about $150,000 had been pledged even though the university hasn't allowed the station to solicit donations over the air.

Where does that leave CPR? Spokesman Sean Nethery declines comment, and for good reason. Getting into a bidding war with a former hostage is a no-win situation.

TheDaily on the block: Boulder's Colorado Daily has been owned entirely by its employees, past and present, since breaking away from the University of Colorado during the '70s. But that's likely to change on February 15, when a bankruptcy judge is expected to approve its sale to an as-yet-unidentified buyer for a reported $2.38 million, or a bit more than the paper's current debts, estimated at just under $2.1 million. Shareholders could have expressed their dismay over this transaction at a February 5 meeting, but Daily publisher Russell Puls says they voted overwhelmingly in its favor -- perhaps because the deal was not contingent upon their approval.

Whatever the ruling, none of the shareholders will be getting much richer, and some fear the readers of Boulder will wind up poorer in the bargain.

This new economy is a bitch.

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