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Undercover Fox

Ask typical area viewers to list the most influential figures in Denver TV, and you'll probably wind up with a roster filled with on-air talent. In truth, general managers have the real clout. Channel 9's Roger Ogden has assembled so strong a news organization that the comings and goings of pretty faces seldom threaten his outlet's popularity ("Weighing Anchors," April 10). As for Ogden's crosstown peers -- Channel 2's Derek Dalton, Channel 4's Walt DeHaven and Channel 7's Cindy Velasquez -- they're ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their respective stations, and act accordingly.

By this measure, Bill Schneider, the recently named vice president and general manager of Channel 31, is already an extremely significant person on the local broadcasting landscape, despite having gotten here mere months ago. After all, he inherited a notably popular signature program. The outlet's 9 p.m. newscast, launched in July 2000 and anchored by Ron Zappolo and Libby Weaver, clobbered Channel 2, its most direct competitor, in the February sweeps, and earned bigger ratings in its time slot than did Channel 7 at 10 p.m.

Nonetheless, Schneider's profile since he hit town has been subterranean. Aside from a blurb or two that Denver publications printed in January, he's received virtually no attention -- and that appears to be fine by him. He's in a powerful position vis-à-vis the Denver media, but he seems determined to do his business in the shadows.

Within the halls of Channel 31, however, Schneider is making his presence felt in ways some of his charges haven't enjoyed. In mid-April, Bob Goosmann, recently named the market's top weather predictor by the Colorado Broadcasters Association and this paper, sent an e-mail to Fox staffers announcing that he would be leaving the station as of May 21, the date his current deal expires. Goosmann doesn't mention Schneider's name when explaining why he's cutting the tether prior to lining up another gig, but he comes close. In his opinion, contract-renewal negotiations were progressing well under previous general manager Bob Simone before going into a four-wheel skid earlier this year -- a time period that just happens to coincide with Schneider's arrival.

Goosmann is joining other staffers who've split from Channel 31 of late. Robert Thompson, one of the station's most solid reporters, and veteran sportscaster Les Shapiro, a far stronger anchor than number-one man David Treadwell, weren't offered new contracts, and sources say a few others on the Fox team chose to leave on their own -- among them Schneider's own secretary. In addition, various insiders contacted by Westword complain about the workplace atmosphere on Schneider's watch. Several are unhappy about increased scrutiny of online activity, including the sporadic blocking of benign Web sites, as well as building-security measures that at one point discouraged personnel from admitting interviewees or members of their own family. There's also the matter of Schneider's personal style. Whereas Simone is universally described as a "people person" who was extremely accessible and enjoyed visiting the newsroom, Schneider is labeled by some as a comparatively standoffish fellow who's interested in the news operation only insofar as it affects the bottom line.

Schneider's response to these claims is unknown. Last week, voice-mail messages requesting interviews were left for Schneider, local Fox public-relations specialist Clyde Becker, and Ivey Van Allen, a California-based media-relations veep who's charged with filtering press inquiries to the more than thirty stations owned and operated by Fox -- a layer of bureaucracy and control that's unique among Denver TV stations. Of this trio, only Van Allen replied. She asked about the focus of questions, and after being told it dealt primarily with departing employees such as Goosmann and the morale of those who remain, she promised to check with Schneider to see if he had any comments. The next day, she called back to say that he didn't.

Fortunately, Schneider proved moderately more loquacious on a previous occasion. Yet setting up this conversation was hardly as easy as reaching Ogden, who often answers his own phone. Following the mid-January announcement of Schneider's hiring, an interview request left for Becker was forwarded to Van Allen. Shortly thereafter, Van Allen phoned to say that while Schneider wasn't averse to a conversation, he wanted to wait a month to "get his feet wet." Once that amount of time had passed, several more calls were placed over a two-week period, to little result. Only after another message was left for Van Allen -- this one asking if Schneider should be identified in a future column item as having declined to speak -- was any progress made. Within hours, Van Allen rang back to say that Schneider was on the line with her at that very instant and would chat then, or perhaps not at all. During the impromptu twenty-minute interview, Van Allen stayed connected, listening to Schneider's answers and sometimes aiming them in new directions with observations of her own.

Considering these fairly bizarre conditions, it's no surprise that Schneider, who came across as pleasant but somewhat diffident, stuck to the vaguest of generalities. "From my perspective, I'm not here to make news within the news," he said. "It's not really important who's sitting in the GM's office."

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