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If change is good, then things are wonderful at Channel 9. During the just-completed May sweeps ratings period, the station retained its news lead in most major time slots even though key personnel continue to come and go like J.Lo fiancés.
The station acknowledged three significant switches on the air. Longtime anchor Ed Sardella, who has retired and unretired as frequently as Michael Jordan during the past few years, supposedly waved goodbye once and for all on May 28, to his great relief. (He may not want to get too comfortable; his photo and bio were online at www.9news.com until just days ago.) Number-one weathercaster Mike Nelson received a lower-key farewell, which made sense, given that he left in order to sign a big-money deal with struggling rival Channel 7. Meanwhile, the cast of Channel 9's morning news program feted Nelson's replacement, Kathy Sabine, during a goofy tribute that ended with her feebly hammering an alarm clock she presumably won't need any longer.
No such salutes were staged on behalf of Tony Zarrella, Channel 9's chief sportscaster since 2000, when he replaced long-timer Ron Zappolo, now a news anchor at Channel 31. Zarrella simply disappeared in mid-May, leaving behind no definitive explanation for his absence. Roger Ogden, the station's president and general manager, is mum on the topic: "There are some circumstances you simply can't comment on," he maintains, "and this is one." Zarrella says virtually the same thing, and a passel of phone calls to Zarrella's lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, went unreturned, as did an e-mail to Steinberg's partner, Jeffrey Springer.
Faced with similar stonewalling, Dusty Saunders at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post's Bill Husted filled in the gaps by noting that in March 2001, Zarrella spent a span in rehab due to assorted substance-control issues. This fact led many to assume that Zarrella had been handed his head after falling off the wagon. Typical were participants in a May cyber-chat that took place at www.orangemane.com, a Denver Broncos fan site that describes itself as "the online tailgate party that never ends." A handful of folks speculated that Zarrella was done in by overindulging before they tackled the question of which local female TV personalities are the most babelicious. The boys especially dug Channel 4's Kim Kobel and 9News's Sabine and Adele Arakawa. Apparently, the appeal of big hair never goes out of style.
As for Saunders and Husted, they disagreed about the impact of libations and the like on Zarrella's ouster. In a May 24 News column about the present dearth of strong sports anchors in Denver, Saunders wrote that Zarrella's "away-from-the-camera problems [were] the reason for his departure." In contrast, Husted's May 18 offering in the Post mentioned that "insiders say substance abuse is not involved."
Numerous industry sources contacted by Westword, all of whom asked not be identified, side with Husted. They believe that booze and drugs probably weren't involved in the Zarrella-Channel 9 divorce. Instead, they cite personality conflicts within the station that allegedly went well beyond the sort of ego jousts that are common in media outlets. Everyone agrees that Zarrella was smooth and personable in front of the lens, but they say friction escalated when the red light clicked off.
Before coming to Denver, Zarrella moved through a slew of markets, including Syracuse, Providence, Boston, Miami and Pittsburgh. In 1995, Channel 7 hired him to man the weekend sports desk, and early the next year, he was promoted to replace main sportscaster Jeff Passolt. Zarrella had a powerful ally in news director Melissa Klinzing, who'd worked in Miami at the same time he had. Unfortunately for her, Denver never warmed to her zany tabloid-TV format, dubbed "Real Life, Real News." The stain of this experiment-gone-wrong lingers at Channel 7 almost a decade later, but Zarrella earned high marks, and a pair of local Emmys, for his efforts.
These awards should have solidified his position at the station, but he lost his biggest advocate in early 1998, when Klinzing scurried out of town in favor of a gig in Tampa, Florida. A few months later, Zarrella was gone, too, with new management taking the unusual tack of paying off the remainder of his contract to get rid of him sooner. In a late-'90s interview with the Rocky's Saunders, Zarrella blamed the end of his job at Channel 7 on his "partying lifestyle," and sources verify that his wild-and-crazy ways had a negative impact on his employment prospects. These observers say Zarrella sometimes missed assignments, or showed up late for them, and was unusually tough on the sports department's support staff. Two producers left the station shortly after Zarrella was promoted, ostensibly because they found it impossible to work with him.
After getting the heave-ho from Channel 7, Zarrella hustled to make ends meet in Denver, even doing sports for the Peak, a defunct FM-radio station. Then, in 1999, Channel 9 threw him a lifeline, bringing him aboard as a weekend anchor and heir apparent to Zappolo. When Zappolo vacated, Zarrella was put on Channel 9's main squad, but his stint in rehab during 2001 seemed to make management wary. His bosses kept him on a tight leash, signing him to relatively short-term contracts.