The Story of Adele H

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."

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts