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Two-Way Player

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

The transition from jock to jock talker isn't always easy, especially when the subject is football. On-the-field talent, and the fame that comes with it, is no guarantee of success (Joe Montana, perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, flopped as an analyst), and neither is a controversial nature (longtime lightning rod Eric Dickerson has a high-profile sideline job right now, but chances are strong that he won't this time next year).

So how did former Denver Bronco Mark Schlereth manage to beat the odds so quickly, landing a featured-commentator spot on ESPN's NFL 2Night, not to mention a full-time post during the afternoon drive time on KTLK-AM/760, mere months after announcing his retirement?

"I think a lot of guys wait until they're done playing before they start exploring other options," says Schlereth, who played for twelve years. "And I didn't wait."

This certainly isn't the only reason. Schlereth is actually good, particularly on television, where his blend of wit, charm and pigskin knowledge is seemingly effortless; he appears to be every bit as comfortable and assured as colleagues (and former athletes) Mark Malone, Merril Hoge, Mike Golic and Sean Salisbury, who have several years of experience on him. He's such a natural, in fact, that Denverites may wonder why he's even bothering with KTLK, where he co-stars in a show dubbed Stink and the Ump with former Major League Baseball official Bob Davidson. After all, the station has suffered from mediocre ratings for ages despite being part of the mighty Clear Channel empire, and its latest makeover, as the Zone, a business-and-sports outlet ("stocks and jocks," as program director Don Martin puts it), has not led to a huge boost in listeners, at least so far.

On top of that, doing both ESPN and KTLK sentences Schlereth, 35, who's married and has three kids ranging in age from eight to sixteen, to a travel schedule even more hellish than the one he dealt with as a Bronco. Between July and February, he's slated to spend approximately half the average week in Denver and the other half in fabulous Bristol, Connecticut, where ESPN is based. (When he's in Connecticut, Schlereth connects with KTLK's Tech Center studio from his Bristol hotel room, using a device known colloquially as a "hot shot.")

Who in his right mind would volunteer for that duty? Setting the "right mind" part of that question aside for the moment, the answer is Schlereth, who actually signed a three-year contract with Clear Channel after inking a two-year pact with ESPN. Schlereth had two main reasons for doing so, he says. "I want to keep a very strong local presence in Denver. This is my home, where I'm raising my family. And I also think staying on the radio will help me hone my speaking skills and my ability to ad lib. Right now, I don't know enough about different sports to comment intelligently across the board. I have a great deal of knowledge about football, but when you're talking about professional baseball or basketball, I'm not there yet. So the Zone is a place where I can develop those skills."

Schlereth has applied this same ethic to other areas of his life. An Anchorage, Alaska, native with such severe dyslexia that he didn't learn to read until he was in "seventh or eighth grade," he played his college ball at the University of Idaho -- hardly a gridiron powerhouse. But Schlereth managed to make enough of an impression there to attract the notice of the Washington Redskins, who drafted him in 1989. And during his Redskins tenure, he pushed himself to get better at communicating, speaking once or twice a week at area schools.

Such efforts didn't make Schlereth a household name in the nation's capital, in large part because he was a left guard, among the least glamorous positions on the roster -- and his jump to the Broncos, who signed him up in 1995, initially gave him even fewer opportunities for personal exposure. For much of his tenure with the Denver squad, the men on the offensive line chose not to talk with the press -- period -- as part of a strictly enforced code of silence; anyone who broke it was made to pay a fine. Schlereth may not have always enjoyed following these guidelines ("It was toughest on me, because I like to talk"), but he went along, thus making it all but impossible to stand out from the pack.

Not that he didn't try. In June 1997, Schlereth hired a local agent, who helped him set up a slew of speaking engagements, where he polished his rap. (Much of his radio material is ribald, but he's a non-denominational Christian who enjoys talking football and faith with church groups.) This practice paid dividends when, following the Broncos' 1998 Super Bowl victory, the no-interviews policy began cracking. Schlereth took advantage immediately, stealing the show from two teammates during an appearance on Conan O'Brien's show and appearing regularly as a fill-in yakker on KOA, where he built the number of surgeries he suffered through during his career (29, most of them on his knees) into a sadomasochistic comedy routine.

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.

So how much of a contest is this, really? Fan program director Tim Spence shrugs off KTLK's promotional assaults ("I don't care what the Zone says") as easily as he does rumors that Clear Channel intends to go after broadcasting rights to the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets when the teams' contracts with the Fan expire ("We have good relationships with them, and conversations about the future are ongoing"). Meanwhile, the Fan is running more local shows than ever, even hiring KTLK castoff Jim Ryan -- a strategy Spence feels will serve the station well in the long run. "If someone wants to come along and do some things from a syndication standpoint, good luck," he says. "Because local will always win over syndication."

In a better world, perhaps. But in this one...?

Good things come to those who wait: Few people have done more for hip-hop in Colorado than Francois Baptiste. A co-founder of 3 Deep Productions who's currently serving as promoter Jason Miller's assistant at House of Blues, Baptiste produced and starred in Rhythm Visions, a video show devoted to the music that aired on Channel 12, and was also intimately involved with Eclipse, a program spotlighting the best underground and local hip-hop that was heard for several years on Boulder's excellent public-radio station, KGNU.

But try as they might, Baptiste and DJ Chonz, a veteran spinner who was also heard on Eclipse, could never land a similar offering on KS-107.5, Denver's most-listened-to purveyor of hip-hop. Back in 1998, when interviewed for a column about Colorado rapper Kingdom's inability to get his music into rotation at the outlet, Cat Collins, KS-107.5's program director, claimed that a program with a combination of local and national components wouldn't work at his station.

Baptiste, Chonz and Kingdom didn't give up, however, and in July, Collins finally capitulated, scheduling what's been dubbed The KS-107.5 Mix-Tape Show into a two-hour block starting Sundays at 11 p.m. "I like to call it 'The Update Show,'" Baptiste says. "We really try to turn people on to the newest stuff as soon as it drops and expose them to a whole number of things -- the underground and the overground, if you know what I mean. We may play something by Destiny's Child, and right after that play Jurassic 5 and Pharoahe Monch."

In addition, they've been given the freedom to throw the best stuff by area rappers, Kingdom included, into the hopper. As Baptiste notes, "We aren't going to be able to put every local artist on. The artists who'll get on are the ones who are taking care of business and really trying to make a difference. And when they do, it'll be a really good thing for them to get their music played on this station."

How did Baptiste finally manage to convince Collins that such a show would work on KS-107.5? "He's really an open-minded kind of guy," Baptiste says, "and I think he just noticed that things are changing. There's a bigger market for things like this than there were in the past, which is why this is a much-needed show. And it's really nice to see KS-107.5 step up and acknowledge this subculture here in Colorado."

Headline writing 101: It may seem obvious, but it's always a good idea for the person who comes up with headlines for a story to read the whole thing first. Example: "Town Divided," a Peggy Lowe-penned article in the August 25 Rocky Mountain News, about a Rifle teenager, Kyle Skyock, whose claims that he was beaten because he is gay are disputed by local authorities. Toward the bottom of the complex, sensitive and even-handed piece is this line: "He reads about the Cortez killing of Fred Martinez Jr. and cringes at the headline that starts with 'gay teen.'"

And what two words kicked off the front-page headline teasing Lowe's story? "Gay Teen..."

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