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Two-Way Player

Mark Schlereth tries to balance local radio with a rising TV career.

A January episode of the fine HBO series Real Sports looked at the devastating effects such competition-fueled butchery can have on athletes, with one startling segment focusing on ex-Oakland Raider Jim Otto, who has artificial knees and shoulders and is barely ambulatory. But Schlereth, throughout his camera time on the program, maintained an upbeat demeanor despite the likelihood that he'll one day end up in Otto's position, effectively offsetting the sober reality with good-humored riffs. At the end, Real Sports anchor Bryant Gumbel asked Jim Lampley, who reported the piece, what Schlereth was planning to do once his playing days were done, and Lampley answered, "He's going into broadcasting -- and I can't wait to hear him."

Unsolicited testimonials such as these served Schlereth well. With the assistance of a big-deal New York agency, RLR and Associates, he was given the opportunity to call an NFL Europe game, and his performance mightily impressed the folks at ESPN. A contract was offered almost immediately, with Schlereth debuting in July. "They just threw me in there," he says. "When I went into the studio the first time, they put a mike on me, told me to comment on camera one and said, 'We're live in ten seconds. Good luck.' And that was it."

He soon proved his worth, commenting intelligently on SportsCenter, ESPN's signature show, after the training-camp death of Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer. More positive attention came his way a few weeks later, when Dennis Miller gave him a special shout-out during a pre-season matchup between the Broncos and the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. Miller mispronounced Schlereth's name, but it was the thought that counted.

Publicity like this can only help KTLK, which continues to struggle for an audience. As program director Martin points out, Schlereth misses approximately two hours of broadcast time each week due to overlaps with his ESPN schedule, "but we get a lot of exposure for those two hours." Martin promises to build on the "steam we get from ESPN" with a sizable promotional campaign for Stink and the Ump, "because this is a show worth promoting."

Not yet. Schlereth made an extremely positive impression during his cameos on KOA's Sports Zoo, but most science professors would give a failing grade to the chemistry he's generated to date with Davidson. Granted, most of the blame for that belongs to his partner, who's not nearly as funny as he thinks he is, has a voice that sounds lousy on the radio, and comes up with hardly any interesting insights. (If Davidson were reinstated as an umpire -- he lost his job after sticking with the union during a 1999 contract dispute but has put himself at the mercy of commissioner Bud Selig -- it would be better for all concerned.) Yet Schlereth, too, is struggling to keep the laughs rolling. Without the structure of NFL 2Night and the assistance of a crew accustomed to working within the system, his rough edges show.

To his credit, Schlereth isn't claiming to have this broadcasting shtick nailed. "I have always looked at myself with a very pessimistic attitude; I'm always my worst critic," he says. "I think that's what kept me in the league for twelve years. My biggest asset is my ability to assess my weaknesses and to find ways to do things better or more efficiently. I try to do that every show.

"I'm still learning," he concludes, "and still trying to make the cut."

Snipe hunt: As Schlereth concentrates on self-improvement, his station continues to position itself as a direct competitor with the Fan, which calls itself "Denver's only all-sports radio station." The Zone's promos are filled with jabs at its rival, such as "Get out of the hunt" (a reference to a catchphrase used by Fan afternooners Irv Brown and Joe Williams), and "For the real sports fan." There's also been plenty of chest-beating about landing the gabfest helmed by Jim Rome, a show owned by a subsidiary of Clear Channel, KTLK's parent, that was heard on the Fan until July.

The Fan struck back with a straight-faced spot voiced by Brown in which he suggested that Rome's decision to go with KTLK showed he was neither loyal nor as independently minded as he claims, as well as with a series of promos designed to needle Clear Channel. Ads for its "20-20 Sports Updates" crow, "We do it; others don't" (the Zone has named its own updates "20-20 Sports Insiders"), and another promo features an alleged caller complaining about phoning a station to talk Broncos only to discover that the topic of conversation was (eesh!) politics -- a jeer aimed at KOA.

Such counterattacks seem to fire up KTLK's Martin, who says, "What you have is two small radio stations that exist on a niche, and they're going head to head for it -- and that's fun. It's great that KTLK finally has a clear direction and a single competitor."

Not that Clear Channel is pouring a lot of local resources into the Zone. Stink and the Ump is the one and only locally originating weekday sports program on the station; with the exception of Business for Breakfast, KTLK's Denver-based morning show, everything else is syndicated. Moreover, two of these national shows, hosted, respectively, by Rome and JT the Brick, used to be on the Fan. Finally, the most profitable sports properties owned by Clear Channel -- the rights to Broncos, Colorado Rockies and CU Buffalos games -- remain on KOA, as do star sports talkers Dave Logan and Scott Hastings. And when a midday Rockies game preempts Rush Limbaugh, who's normally heard on KOA, his program is aired on the Zone.

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