Running into Rick Sallinger on the job could have been the best or worst day of your life.
The 73-year-old television journalist, who’s stepping down this month after more than three decades on Denver’s airwaves, could change lives for the better by spotlighting underdogs and working-class issues. He used the power of broadcast to raise money and resources for good causes. He never ambushed anyone who didn’t deserve it, colleagues said. And woe to those who did.
“He would put in the time and discipline to make sure anybody impacted (by a story) would get a chance to comment early on,” said Walt DeHaven, who retired in July as general manager of KCNC-TV, the CBS affiliate also known as The Denver Channel.
“But he could be equally as dogged in making sure he got you on the record,” DeHaven added. “He was one of the first people that dropped into my office when I got to KCNC in 2001, and he basically said in the most diplomatic way possible, ‘I’m Rick Sallinger, this is what I do, and you’re not going to get in the way of that, are you?’”
Sallinger said earlier this month he was retiring due to undisclosed health reasons that are being covered by disability insurance. The Chicago native and Peabody Award-winning journalist spoke to The Denver Post in a wide-ranging interview about his global career, biggest stories and unique perspective on the Mile High City’s boom-and-bust evolution. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Your son Marc penned a tribute to you on 9News with a picture of him as a child “anchoring” a broadcast. Did you make that little desk for him?
A: That was in our basement. He was sitting in a chair and I had an old News4 sign they had left me. So I put masking tape on the back and put it on the wall, and gave him some headlines to read. As he was reading the sign fell off the wall and hit him on the head. And now all these years later he’s a reporter and anchor for Channel 9.
Q: That’s about as good a metaphor for journalism as I’ve heard.
A: I know a father-daughter duo at Channel 7, Tony Kovaleski and his daughter Jennifer. But it’s funny when I show up at a story and see my son there competing with me. We don’t carpool, and we’ve got to draw a line about work — what we can talk about, and what we can’t.
Q: How has the response to your retirement been in the industry?
A: It’s been overwhelming, the amount of calls texts, emails, and posts that I’ve gotten since I announced it (earlier this month). We had a goodbye party at Channel 4 the other day and one by one, people got up to say things very kind about me. And I said to myself, “Who is this person they’re talking about? Is this really me?” What I learned, to be honest, is that some people have a higher opinion and respect for me than I give myself.
Q: That must be a strange feeling.
A: Yes, it is. It’s kind of like attending your own funeral while you’re still alive, and I think that’s a good thing. You get to hear all these nice things that people say about you while you can still hear them.
Q: TV news, radio and other legacy media, as it’s called, has lost its command of local news in recent years. How do you feel about the future of the industry?
A: I was grateful I was in television, which wasn’t hit as hard as print, and I think there’s always going to be a need for local news. While television isn’t making the money that it used to — there are now so many sources for news and programming — TV news is still vital.
Q: What have you learned about human nature as a reporter, both in the U.S. and when you worked as a CNN correspondent in the London bureau in the 1990s?
A: Too often we have to deal with those who have suffered sudden and great losses, such as we’ve seen in so many cases including the Columbine mass shooting, the Aurora theater shooting, and the Boulder King Soopers shooting. Those are just some of the largest ones. And those stories are some of the most difficult and painful because of the number of victims. It’s the hardest part of the job to approach family members of those who have lost loved ones, so what I’ve learned is to be respectful and take a “no” for an answer — which is the opposite of when I’m doing investigations.
Q: How has Denver changed since you first came here in 1980?
A: First I worked at Channel 9 for about six years, and Denver was obviously smaller then. It seemed like when they built C-470 it was on the edge of the world. I remember I-25 expanding and the traffic not getting any better. When I left in 1986 to go back to Chicago, Denver was in a down period because the oil and gas economy was in a rut. When I came back at the very end of 1993 (to work for KCNC-TV), it was on an upward swing and home prices had skyrocketed from when I had left.
Q: That sure sounds familiar.
A: Denver has become quite an unaffordable place for a lot of people now. I’m very saddened to see the tent encampments that are throughout the area, particularly around downtown. And I don’t see that in every city I’ve been, so there’s got to be a way to help these people and get rid of that problem. I think Mayor Johnston is trying to do that but it’s a difficult problem to solve. I’m also saddened to see after the pandemic how downtown has become more vacant. I hope they can return some of its glory.
Q: You’ve covered a lot of heartbreaking stories, but what’s one that showed the best of Denver?
A: I had worked in Indianapolis prior to getting the job at Channel 9 (in 1980), and had a month off between jobs. I said, “What can I do for a month?” and I saw PanAm advertising a trip around the world for $1,111. So I went. And I was in India on a bus and the woman next to me happened to be from Evergreen. I told her that I was coming to work in Denver and she said, “Where are you going next?” I said Bangkok, and she said, “You ought to do a story about a friend of mine, a nurse, in a Cambodian refugee camp.” So I went to the Cambodian border, hired a photographer, and found her friend.
She just casually mentioned that what refugees really need are shoes, so I went back to Denver and put this story on the air. All of a sudden this giant, grassroots drive sprouted up. It started with a store in Glenwood Springs that said “we’ll donate shoes,” and all these other places jumped in. We collected 5,000 pairs and with the help of the International Rescue Committee, we were able to fly them over to Thailand and deliver them. That showed the hearts of the people of Colorado.
Q: What were some others that stuck with you, for better or worse?
A: Among my most eye-opening stories when I started here was the murder of radio host Alan Berg by a band of neo-Nazis with a plot to potentially overthrow the government. That was really disturbing to see. I was working in Chicago in 1988 when I got sent back to Colorado to cover the disappearance of a sports writer from Chicago named Keith Reinhardt. He’s gone for a hike from Silver Plume and to this day has never been found. I was working for NBC in Chicago and they actually hooked me up with Channel 4, and we went up in a helicopter looking for the guy. Unfortunately there was also a civil air patrolman crash that was a result of the search. The mystery of that story is still on my mind.
Q: Why did you stay in Denver all these years?
A: I’ve covered the Gulf War, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and fighting in Somalia. And when I was in one of those awful wars I was thinking to myself, “Where are the people that I know the happiest?” Of all the places I’ve lived, the answer was Denver. They were usually there by choice, and were friendly with smiles on their faces. I thought, “That’s where I should settle down.” I got married to a journalist from Spain — my wife Isabel — and we have two wonderful kids.
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