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.
Eventually, sources say, many of the complaints levied against Zarrella at Channel 7 began cropping up at Channel 9. Some attribute the tension that arose between Zarrella and the off-air sports crew to his stubborn perfectionism; others portray his behavior as a character flaw. Either way, witnesses report that his unhappiness became more pronounced in his last several months at the station. He stopped attending some team practices and didn't show up as expected to host the Furry Scurry, a May 1 fundraiser for the Denver Dumb Friends League that Channel 9 co-sponsors. He also got into a verbal tiff with executive sports producer David Hunt within earshot of numerous colleagues. (Hunt referred all inquiries about Zarrella to Ogden.) Finally, Ogden and Zarrella met face to face. No one's sharing the content of their exchanges, but on May 17, Channel 9 employees received a tersely worded e-mail from Ogden informing them that Zarrella was no longer an employee of the station.
With Zarrella banished, Channel 9 needs a lot of help, sports-wise. The station still has the services of Denver's best-loved sportscaster, Drew Soicher, a devilishly snarky wit with a weakness for bobbleheads -- but promoting him to the night shift would gut the hugely profitable morning franchise, which is already losing Sabine. Ogden confirms that Soicher isn't going anywhere, saying, "Drew has a very particular set of skills, and a talent that lends itself to the morning program, which is number one in the country in the top 25 markets. We are reluctant to change that formula."
Promoting another in-house prospect appears just as improbable: Neither Rod Mackey, a competent second-stringer, nor Ryan Chiaverini, who comes across as an eager intern, are likely candidates for the A-team. That's why Ogden spent time in early June interviewing outsiders for the job. Prognosticators are guessing that Soicher's brother, Marc Soicher -- who was hired last year by Fox Sports Rocky Mountain after an undistinguished run at Channel 4 and recently made an April Fools' Day cameo on Channel 9 -- is the front-runner, but Ogden doesn't name any names. In all likelihood, he'll hire a sports anchor in a matter of weeks, and he's even closer to bringing aboard a new weather personality. The latter will probably wind up with Sabine's old morning schedule. Nick Carter, who's been filling in, suffers from a severe panache deficiency, a liability that also afflicts Sardella's replacement, Bob Kendrick.
Zarrella doesn't lack charisma -- even his detractors admit that -- and people with difficult personalities are hardly an endangered species in metropolitan newsrooms. If occasionally acting like a jerk were a fireable offense, dead air would dominate many a broadcasting day. Perhaps that's why Zarrella has retained attorney Steinberg, a prominent attorney known for defending high-profile clients such as former Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, who was acquitted of charges that he illegally obtained prescription stimulants, and Mike Anderson, a Broncos fullback suspended last season after testing positive for marijuana. Steinberg doesn't always bat 1.000: He represented financial advisor Will Hoover, who was convicted earlier this month on more than forty counts of swindling investors -- but he has a reputation as an effective and aggressive litigator. He's just the sort of person Zarrella might want to file a lawsuit on his behalf. Such an action could lead to the most colorful inside-media trial since journalist Dave Minshall's age-discrimination claim against Channel 7, whose parent company, McGraw-Hill, wound up paying him over $500,000.
It'll take a trip to court to unveil the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Zarrella's exit. By then, there's no telling how many more bodies will have passed through Channel 9's revolving door.
Size matters: Most readers have reacted positively to the new-look Denver Post, whose consistent homeliness was largely mitigated by a redesign introduced on May 4. Yet some staffers are unhappy about a side effect of the makeover. The additional use of white space intended to lighten up the paper visually, as well as a modified, multi-deck headline approach in some sections, means fewer words fit into the same space. One source estimates a loss of from 11 to 18 percent in many sections, and comparisons of columns by Diane Carman seem to confirm these numbers. Five Carman pieces published prior to May 4 generally ran at about 800 words, while five printed afterward are closer to 650 -- a shortfall of just over 18 percent.
As it turns out, though, these differences have more to do with a rethinking of the metro columns than anything else. When Post editor Greg Moore arrived at the paper in 2002, columns often came in at just 500 words, which struck him as too brief, so he augmented the space to accommodate a lot more text. During preparations for the redesign, he decided to back off a bit. The 650-word length splits the difference between the pre-Moore and post-Moore columns.
Nonetheless, Moore confirms that there has been a word-count loss, albeit a fairly modest one; his best guess is 6 percent. Some scribes think otherwise, he says, because the system on which most of them write wasn't immediately modified to take the new design into account, thereby exaggerating the disparity. In truth, the word deficiency is offset to a large degree by the use of a main-body typeface that's actually one point smaller than its predecessor.
Another detail provided by Moore further illuminates the reasons that a redesign was so overdue. Specifically, the content of the Post used to be downsized, literally, before it ever hit the page.
The reason for this move, predictably, had to do with money. During the '90s, the cost of newsprint began rising rapidly, causing Dean Singleton, the legendarily thrifty (that's a nice term for it) boss of MediaNews Group, which owns the Post, to search for ways to slash expenses. His solution was to literally make the paper smaller. Back then, most dailies were printed on what's called a 54-inch web; that's the width of four pages side by side as they roll off a press. Singleton opted for a 50-inch web, which saved cash by reducing each page's width by an inch. After testing this approach at two of his East Coast properties -- Passaic, New Jersey's North Jersey Herald & News and Easton, Pennsylvania's Express-Times -- Singleton brought the new method to the Post in 1996. Dozens of newspaper companies around the country subsequently followed his lead, for obvious reasons. In an interview with the Associated Press, Singleton said that the transition saved him $30 million over four years. "It's the easiest thing that I've ever done in this industry," Singleton boasted, declaring, "There are no drawbacks."
Well, there was one. All of the Post's equipment was designed for a 54-inch web, "so we shrunk everything down," Moore says. The squeeze took place from side to side, not top to bottom, which is "why the photos were narrower, why everyone looked like coneheads, and why the pages looked so dense, even dirty," he reveals. "The letters were so much taller that they were practically touching each other. It was like taking thirteen pounds of something and putting it in a twelve-pound bag."
Now that the Post is being designed for its actual dimensions, not its size ten years ago, graphic quality and readability have taken major leaps forward, which more than justifies a 6 percent word loss. Moore says that after some initial grumbling, most of his employees concur. So, in a roundabout way, did a woman who recently phoned him. According to Moore, "She said, ŒI've got a complaint. I'm spending more time reading the Post than before, and now I'm always late for work.'"
Apparently, the words no longer get in the way.
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Public piracy: In the May 6 edition of this column, three illicit broadcasters with vivid pseudonyms -- Wrench, Harvey Oswald and John Galt -- talked openly about their scheme to launch an unlicensed FM station called Capitol Underground Radio, despite having had a similar operation shut down by the FCC several years ago. Just as surprising, they announced that they hoped to finance the project by staging benefit concerts expressly for that purpose.
If the first of these fundraisers is any indication, the trio plans to lie low in plain sight. The three-day extravaganza, taking place June 18 through 20 at the Construct Creative Art Space, 3519 Brighton Boulevard, sports a lineup dominated by local acts who'll no doubt earn plenty of airtime when Capitol Underground Radio turns on its equipment. The Pirate Sygnl -- an appropriate participant, to say the least -- will join the Symptoms, Bailer and the Dojo on the first night; Man Alive, the Sleepers, the Very Hush Hush and Orbit Service are among those to be highlighted during night two; and the third night is slated to feature the Susceptibles, 10 Second Epic, Half Blind and loads of their pals. Information about start times and ticket prices can be found at www.denverradio.org.
Shortly after this bash, it should be a good day to dial.