ON THE AIR
|Schopp keeps wits about him on talk radio|
When a caller gets the voice mailbox of Mike Schopp's cell phone, the message from Schopp is brief and to the point: "Interesting."
He set up his mailbox a few months before WNSA-FM began using Schopp's favorite word in its billboard campaign for his daily sports talk show from 2 to 6 p.m.
In just a year talking about Johnson or Flutie and Biron or Hasek, Schopp has developed into the most thoughtful, logical, entertaining and, yes, interesting sports talk host on the air. The 1989 graduate of Grand Island High School already has attracted the attention of stations in bigger markets, as well as ESPN Radio.
The route that the deep-voiced host took to become a sports talk host in his hometown certainly is unusual.
Schopp, who turns 30 this week, isn't your typical talk host. He isn't an ex-coach with a grudge, a fan who was hired after impressing management with nasty opinions or someone whose whole life has been devoted to memorizing statistics in the Sporting News.
He's a member of the high-IQ society Mensa. He was an All-County tuba player who performed at Kleinhans Music Hall five times in high school. A classical music lover, he enjoys listening to Bach and Mozart much more than talk radio. In fact, he doesn't like listening to talk radio at all. He is a former newspaper reporter. And he is fluent in French, close to fluent in Spanish and is adding Italian to his languages.
More amazingly, he doesn't speak the ugly and mean-spirited language of today's typical host, preferring logic to the verbal assassination of players and coaches heard elsewhere.
"It is sad, isn't it?" Schopp, in an interview over coffee, said about the assassination trend. "It would be unnatural to me to contrive an opinion for the simple sake of attracting phone calls. However, I think many people do it. That's the game, isn't it? I understand my style is not generally the way it is done. I recognize that I'm not right out of the handbook.
"Being logical just comes down to having a foundation, having something of substance. In newspapers you just can't blow off steam, and that's where I learned. You just have to have structure to your stories. You should have a point and substantiate it, build it and, hopefully, people will want to comment and respond to it."
Schopp's show is a clear alternative to the daily afternoon spin from WGR's Chuck Dickerson. While Schopp bills his show as "sports talk for smart people," the mean-spirited Dickerson sets a daily record for the use of the term "dumb ass" when talking about players, coaches or callers.
Schopp's show is WNSA's highest-rated talk show, and last spring, compared to Dickerson, he had more listeners over the age of 12 and among men aged 25-54, who are key to advertisers. During the slow summer sports days, Dickerson reclaimed the lead in both categories. Of course, the competition for the sports audience is at its peak during the current Bills and Sabres seasons. The winner in the fall and winter certainly should be, well, "interesting."
When Schopp arrived at WNSA, one scouting report suggested that he was a Buffalo-basher during his previous radio job in Rochester. He says he wasn't bashing Buffalo, just sports talk here before WNSA signed on.
"What I said was, "As evidenced by their sports shows, what happened to my hometown?' " Schopp explained. " "If Buffalo is those people, they ought to put a customs office in Batavia. That's not the Buffalo I remember. It wasn't the city. Some people might think that you listen to talk radio to get a feel for the city. If that's true, I don't know if I ever want to go back.' "
Schopp has a feel for his native area and a sense of its sports history. He's never been too far away from Buffalo, having received a degree in communications journalism from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, the city where he started his media career.
He worked at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in various positions for five years, at one point writing features on such topics as pickup lines, personal ads and psychics.
"As a little kid, it was always told to me that writing is a very critical part of the process, whether it be in broadcasting or anything," Schopp said. "I always focused on writing as a student. My first five years after college were spent in newspapers. So many guys in sports are just so only about sports. That limits a person. There is so much more to life than sports. Our profession has become sports-only guys."
As a youngster, Schopp knew he wanted to be involved in covering sports. He called John Murphy's WBEN show about once a month and considers Murphy a role model.
"While I never thought of doing a show like that, I just always liked listening to John," Schopp said. "He sounded good and he sounded knowledgeable. That was enough."
Schopp's radio career really began in college, where he was the co-host of a weekly sports show. From there, he got involved in the Rochester sports scene, doing part-time public address announcing and radio analysis for sports teams at the same time he was writing about pickup lines for the newspaper.
His ability to make a living with his voice may have surprised a certain music teacher in Grand Island.
"I had a real feminine voice until late in high school," said Schopp, who now has a deeper, distinctive voice. "I remember being teased by a music teacher: "You're still a soprano.' "
He wasn't getting rich, making $25 a game to do PA work in 1994 for the Rochester Red Wings and $25 a game the next year when he became backup play-by-play man and color analyst on 40 home games. He didn't last long as the Red Wings' announcer, being let go after one season.
"I wouldn't shill for them," Schopp said. "They didn't feel that I was a team player. They were right. To be paid by a team wasn't my calling at that age."
He did play-by-play for professional lacrosse and professional soccer (including the Buffalo Blizzard) and in 1998 he got a break, becoming the sports guy on morning drive on Rochester's top AM station, WHAM. He was making $40 a day, which supplemented his newspaper salary.
Shortly after that, he left the newspaper and lived on his $40 a day radio salary for several months before getting a radio job as a sports host from 10 a.m. to noon on a smaller AM station in Rochester, WHTK. He was impressive enough on that station to attract the Adelphia people putting together a new sports station, WNSA, to compete with WGR. He met producer John DeMerle at the Bills' training camp, which had moved to Schopp's alma mater.
"The Bills being in Rochester might have made this happen because Howard Simon and John were listening to WHTK while they were on their way to cover the Bills," Schopp said. "That was like an audition."
The idea of doing a show in his hometown was exciting to him.
"What a cool thing, what a thrill. I feel so lucky to be here. It is a big-league sports town. Rochester was not. It has been a rush to come back here."
Soon, he was doing shows with respected figures Larry Felser, Jim Kelley, Steve Tasker and Mike Robitaille and wondering how he could earn their respect.
"My instinct said, "Spar with them, run with them, and we'll see what happens,' " Schopp said.
Kelley, Felser and Tasker have been impressed.
"He is exceptionally bright and a quick study," Kelley said. "He doesn't pretend to know everything, but he does his homework. I can't remember him getting his facts wrong."
Kelley isn't certain that Schopp's talk show style will sell in Western New York, which has been known to embrace passion over logic.
"I'm praying Mike is extremely successful," Kelley said. "What he is selling could be the best thing to happen to sports radio in Western New York."
Felser, who joins Schopp for football talk, also has been impressed.
"The guy's professionalism for someone so young is impressive," Felser said. "He has respect for the language, for the callers and for journalism. And he stands on his head not to be a homer."
"He never ceases to amaze me remembering details about Bills games that I'd forgotten," Tasker said. "I like his point of view on a lot of issues and I agree with him. He seems to be fair. He doesn't take himself too seriously and he's fun to work with."
Felser discounts one criticism of Schopp - that he knows how good he is and is a little full of himself and his Mensa membership.
"Tell me a radio or television guy that's never's been full of himself," Felser said.
Schopp certainly has reason to be confident. Within two months of joining WNSA, a Columbus, Ohio, station called and asked him about a morning drive position.
"I didn't want to leave yet," he said.
The day after Schopp turned down Columbus, a Denver station called.
"They wanted me to replace Jim Rome's show. They didn't make an offer, they were looking. I said, "Just not now, I just got here.' "
Months later, an ESPN Radio talent scout heard Schopp after a Sabres game and was impressed enough to ask him to do a weekend tryout. WNSA officials generally allow their employees to pursue job options. Schopp doesn't have a contract, which is company policy. But he wasn't allowed to pursue the weekend tryout because ESPN radio is carried by WGR, WNSA's rival.
"It will come, it will happen," said Schopp, who is in no rush to leave the job that gives him a rush. "I don't have a timetable. I like being here, seeing my family once a week. The fact I know these teams and franchises helps me. In Columbus (and elsewhere), I'd start from zero."
His ambition is to be in a booth somewhere, working for a network.
"I'd love to be able to do this job in Buffalo as long as I can see and still have some network visibility," he said.
Logically speaking, Schopp will eventually move on. ESPN Radio called again recently and told Schopp it plans to pursue him more aggressively.
As Schopp knows from having done his newspaper story on fortune
telling, predicting one's future can be difficult in the broadcasting
business. But you don't have to be a Mensa member to know that Schopp's
future seems unlimited.