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CONTINUING ADELPHIA QUAKES RATTLE LOCAL INTERESTS

Enron and Adelphia. Put them together and you have the kind of corporate scandal the press can't resist.

It's a corporate soap opera with a plot thick with big money, small families, fuzzy accounting, boardroom politics and that old, familiar sin known as greed.

The fall of Adelphia is the biggest business story to hit Buffalo in recent years and its reverberations have been felt around the country as well as on Wall Street.

In some ways, Adelphia was the perfect media sequel to Enron.

"I jumped on this story, and I would have jumped on it regardless of what happened at Enron," said Floyd Norris, senior financial writer for the New York Times, in a phone interview Thursday.

In March, Norris wrote one of the first major national stories about the brewing Adelphia crisis. It told how the Rigas family, founders of the Coudersport, Pa., company, appeared to have borrowed "$1 billion or more in loans guaranteed by the company" and used money to buy Adelphia stocks and bonds.

"For the family to borrow a billion dollars was extraordinary," Norris said. And until the Rigas family came along, the biggest scandals involving corporate borrowing was in the "hundreds of millions of dollars. They went for a billion. Now the figure is higher," the reporter added.

The Adelphia story has legs, Norris said, because of the money involved and the lack of disclosure by the Rigas family.

Back home, reporting the Adelphia story has been a special challenge for the Empire Sports Network - the cable TV outlet owned by Adelphia.

"Obviously, this is a tough story for us," said Bob Koshinski, general manager of Empire and local radio station WNSA-FM 107.7.

"No one in the company is commenting, and they're not telling us anything. We don't have any inside information."

When asked to assess his outlets' coverage of the Adelphia crisis, Koshinski said, "We've done what we had to do."

"We're not a news operation," Koshinski explained. But "as a sports entity, we have to report how all this affects the Buffalo Sabres."

Empire reported the resignation of John J. Rigas, Adelphia founder and owner of the Sabres, and his three sons from the company's board of directors.

There are no special ground rules for his sports talk hosts, Koshinski said.

"We haven't told them what to say about Adelphia," he said. "The only ground rule is the one we always have: just use common sense."

Right now, his biggest concern is staff morale.

"Uncertainty is the biggest enemy," said Koshinski, who spent nearly two decades as a television sports reporter before moving to Empire in the 1990s.

"As a manager, you try to keep a level head about you and demonstrate the sky is not falling. At least it's not falling yet, as far as I know."

Empire, a regional network that televises sports events and shows, has 1.5 million cable subscribers in New York State and reaches about 5 million homes around the nation, Koshinski said. WNSA reaches thousands more with its local sports talk and coverage of Buffalo Sabres hockey games.

Koshinski said that the torrent of bad publicity and the company's tumbling stock prices have been emotionally trying.

"Everything has happened so fast there has been no way to prepare for it," Koshinski said. "We feel like we're out on this island and don't know what's going to happen next.

"I've talked to my friends in the industry, and they agree there's nothing to compare with this."

Empire employees don't know whether the media outlets will be sold, retained or shut down, Koshinski said.

"Every day," he added, "there's something else."

Next week: Adelphia and the national media.

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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