By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Tremendous temptation surfaces in the years of profiling talk radio personalities to make an occasional obligatory James Brown-inspired reference.
Specifically, a justifiable desire eventuates to compare certain talk hosts to the late entertainer (as opposed to the CBS-TV and former Sporting News Radio broadcaster of the same name) who – in addition to “The Godfather of Soul” was often dubbed the “hardest-working” person in show business.
Not that those in other genres of this medium are slackers – Ryan Seacrest represents the definitive textbook example of a supremely ambitious music radio star – but a select group of talk radio hosts do the improbable of overseeing multiple long-form weekday programs (often back-to-back).
That handful of Herculean talk realm performers has at various times included, among others, the likes of Thom Hartmann, Rusty Humphries, Lars Larson, Michael Smerconish, and Ed Schultz. Some such as Alan Colmes and Sean Hannity have had and continue to have a daily radio/daily TV mix.
As laudatory as that most assuredly is, someone in Tampa took conscientiousness and mindboggling to an even more impressive level.
Unique twists to Schnitt’s iron-person situation were that his daily 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm program on Clear Channel talk WFLA followed a morning drive (6:00 am -10:00 am) broadcast, where he utilized the moniker “MJ Kelli” on CHR sibling WFLZ.
Thus, for those of you scoring at home or in the office, that was two daily shows in two different formats under two different names. Given that his core beliefs remained consistent from show to show and station to station, Schnitt’s personality and delivery likewise stayed the same. It was a matter of different content for different audiences.
Essentially though, the daily FM effort was talk-intensive, with very little reliance on music. “I have really been doing talk radio for 20 years,” maintains Schnitt, who now uses his real name on-air (rather than the assumed “MJ Kelli” handle). “The interesting challenge of doing those shows was that it was two opposite sides of the clock – morning drive and afternoon drive.”
Although he no longer faces the dreaded mandatory wakeup alarm at the peculiarly odd, self-imposed random time of 4:53 am, Schnitt nonetheless finds himself “cranking at 6:00″ each weekday morning for a Compass Media Networks program that begins nine hours later. “The day is full of reading, prep, and getting a real grip on what is going on,” he explains. “I want to see what will capture my attention, what interests me, and what – in turn – I think will interest the audience so they have the best entertainment bang for their buck.”
Over and above the lifestyle change where Schnitt now concentrates his energy on delivering one daily show is a modification in the talk program’s direction. “My feelings have been bolstered by many experts and consultants in the field regarding the burn on conservative talk radio,” he remarks.
Some of his syndicated colleagues, as well as those on the local level, continue the daily grind of recycling material day in and day out. “You hear the same pounding on Democrats and liberals every single day,” Schnitt observes. “It is to the point with a bunch of hosts in my space where you can pull one of their shows from last month and it would sound the same as what they are saying today. I have always approached a talk radio show so that it fits on any conservative radio station, but with more of an intrinsic entertainment value.”
First and foremost is that Schnitt identifies himself as a “radio entertainer” and he stresses, “That is key. I want to deliver entertainment value with the correct amount of politics. My show fits on any conservative radio station but I am different from the other guys because of my top 40 radio background and the fact that I do a lot of other material. When they make sense, I deal with the most important political stories of the day. If – however – there is a day with no pressing political story, I will not bash an individual or a party just for the heck of it.”
Instead, the philosophy Schnitt adopts is to unearth other material that he believes will capture and hold his audience’s attention. “My involvement as a talk show host has been trying to be a programming solution to the talk radio burn,” he comments. “The bulk of those in talk radio are still doing the same daily routine. We have seen audience erosion due to that and I am trying to be a solution.”
Emotional interest pieces, mainstream water cooler items, and “weird” stories help to fill in the gaps rather than a steady diet of politics. “There are a great number of things that affect everyone,” Schnitt opines. “I am able to balance for the person wanting a dose of politics with other material that is going to be interesting to them. It involves hunting out particular items such as debunking crazy conspiracy theories or a story where you can laugh at some of the dopes in the human race. It is about putting together a daily package that really delivers a variety of information, entertainment, and opinion.”
In many cases, bashing – Schnitt contends – is all some other talk radio hosts know how to do. “They don’t have the background or the experience to deal on multiple levels of radio entertainment,” he states. “It is their comfort zone. They fall into the trap of the loud voices from their most active audience members. They feel they must super-serve and appease that group every day even though it ends up turning off a larger potential audience.”
From ABC to “Z-104″
The days of being a music partisan can be traced to Schnitt’s childhood on the East Coast, with his earliest memory of listening dating back to 1971 when he was five years old. “I just love the early- and mid-1970s songs,” he points out. “I became fascinated with the music and then with the delivery system.
For him, that meant New York’s then powerhouse top 40 WABC. “I became a young student of the business, including the production aspects and cool sounds. Other than the songs I liked, I was amazingly aware of all the interesting elements that came out of that radio speaker.”
Listening to a small mustard-colored, transistor radio he brought to school, Schnitt was curious how records “faded” and how some other radio mechanics worked. Understanding techniques of on-air personalities extended to his captivation with such things as reverb. “Everything about the business was gripping to me,” he recounts. It happened to me at a very young age.”
More precisely, heavy radio listener Schnitt knew he wanted to pursue a career in the medium by the time he was just seven. Four years later, his family left greater New York City for Norfolk, where – in addition to FM music signals – Schnitt listened to talk outlets. Therefore, his roots to that part of the business go back to his very early teens.
At a time when his high school friends were getting their initial exposure to the job market by bagging groceries, a then-16-year-old Schnitt landed his first industry opportunity as a weekender at suburban Norfolk’s WCPK. Former WINS, New York City general manager Charlie Payne owned the small daytime outlet at 1600. “He left the New York rat race and picked up a CP in the late-1960s,” Schnitt details of Payne. “He, his wife, and their son ran the radio station.”
Nine months later, Schnitt transitioned to a board-op position at Norfolk talker WNIS, before segueing to another AM day-timer in the market, WVAB. “After several months there, I was able to get a weekend job at CHR WNVZ ‘Z-104,’ where they were doing the ‘actual’ Mike Joseph ‘Hot Hits’ format,” he explains.
All of that job-hopping transpired while Schnitt was still in high school and he emphasizes that, “Norfolk was where I got some great discipline. ‘Z-104′ was the closest I got to do the WABC format in its heyday. WABC instilled that curiosity and desire to get into the radio business.”
Notwithstanding Ithaca College’s well-known and respected reputation for its broadcasting curriculum, Schnitt began attending the New York State institution in the fall of 1984 as a business major/political science minor.
During his time there though, he did not work at that campus’ station, but rather at WVBR, the commercial, student-run Cornell facility, where Coleman Insights current president/chief operating officer Warren Kurtzman was the general manager. Clear Channel national programming platforms president Tom Poleman and former Mad Dog Radio sports anchor Bill Pidto were there the same time Schnitt was, while ESPN’s Keith Olbermann worked at WVBR about eight years earlier. “Many media folks have come out of that station,” confirms Schnitt, who did not finish at Ithaca. “I went back to Virginia Beach and enrolled at Old Dominion University.”
Part-time radio jobs materialized for Schnitt in Norfolk, including one at “Z-104″ competitor (now country) WGH-FM. “I became the music director and nighttime talent,” he notes of the then-top 40 outlet. “My 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm daypart was the only one beating ‘Z-104.’
Consultant Alan Burns was working with “Z-104″ at the time (1988) and he approached Schnitt at a Bobby Poe convention. They talked the following week with Burns broaching the subject of Schnitt crossing the street to work at WNVZ. “I did and got to work there again, only that time as a fulltime employee,” recalls Schnitt, who turned 48 last month. “I was assistant program director/imaging talent/nighttime talent. In the late-1980s, ‘Z-104′ and WGH-FM were locked in a pretty good CHR battle. ‘Z-104′ offered me a great deal and WGH-FM didn’t match it.”
Stimulating Shannon’s Mojo
There for a little over a year, Schnitt in a convoluted way caught the attention of Scott Shannon, who had relocated from New York City to Los Angeles to launch KQLZ “Pirate Radio.” Apparently, without Schnitt’s knowledge, someone sent an air-check of him to the legendary programmer, then searching for an imaging person. “He called me and said he had plenty of on-air talent, but he needed a creative director,” Schnitt reveals while doing his best Scott Shannon imitation.
Four months after Westwood One-owned “Pirate Radio” debuted, Schnitt was hired – over the phone – for $60,000 a year as its assistant program director/creative services director.
Instructed to be in Los Angeles in three weeks, the 23-year-old Schnitt was “thrilled” to get a call from Shannon although, at first, he nearly hung up, convinced the call was a hoax. “When ‘Pirate Radio’ fell apart in February 1991, I was one of two people Scott took to New York,” he points out. “It was just Adam Goodman, who was our research director, and me. I became the assistant program director/creative director of WPLJ.”
A member of the WPLJ “Mojo Radio” wakeup show, Schnitt performed many of the same “on-the-fly morning show production and parody” duties there as he did in Los Angeles. Remaining at WPLJ until October 1992, Schnitt was offered his first morning show lead role in West Palm Beach at WOVV, which coincidentally occupies the same frequency (95.5), as WPLJ.
Spearheaded by “MJ in the Morning,” numbers increased for WOVV and Schnitt would later add program director responsibilities.
Gaining (K)New Affiliates
Driving through West Palm Beach in January 1994, WFLZ “Power Pig” morning talent Marc Chase – about to be transferred to Cincinnati to run WLW and WEBN – heard “MJ” Schnitt and wanted to hire him as his Tampa replacement. The two got together over a Saturday lunch and Schnitt was offered the job the next day. Consequently, “The MJ & BJ Show” was born in Tampa 20 years ago (February 1994); BJ Harris left in 2001.
Very much accustomed to talking on-air for prolonged periods, Schnitt took advantage of the opportunity to do just that when WFLA’s Glenn Beck was hired by Premiere Radio Networks immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Clear Channel Miami’s WIOD unveiled “The Todd Schnitt Show” on October 1, 2001, with Schnitt doing the program from Tampa for about three months before inheriting Beck’s WFLA afternoon slot on January 7, 2002. Nowadays in Tampa, Clear Channel-owned WHNZ airs the three-hour “Schnitt Show” live starting at 3:00 pm; a replay on sibling WFLA follows Sean Hannity beginning shortly after 6:00 pm.
Conceding that he misses FM music radio and the morning show aspects integrated into that genre, Schnitt confides that he has recently fielded inquiries for him to consider resurrecting his former wakeup program. “It is very intriguing but I am 100% focused on ‘The Schnitt Show,'” he declares as he ramps up to the thirteenth year of doing it, after performing double-duty for an astounding 11 years. “This is my number one priority as I try to make it the best product as I possibly can. The show is growing and we are adding affiliates. We are on approximately 60 stations. Syndication is still a very competitive landscape – there is a battle out there to fight for shelf space.”
Since the start of calendar year 2014, roughly five stations have joined “The Schnitt Show” roster, including San Francisco’s KNEW. “That station has re-branded itself as ‘The Patriot,’ and I am very excited to be part of it,” the host proclaims. “I would encourage anyone who wants to shake things up and is looking for something different to listen to my show online. I love making market visits; I love doing promotional activity; and I enjoy doing custom work for my affiliates.”
On top of that, Schnitt is heard on weekly hits with several of his stations’ morning shows. “I go above-and-beyond in offering things to stations that some other talk radio hosts do not have the ability to do,” he boasts. “Compass Media Networks has been fantastic to work with and founder/chief executive officer Peter Kosann is a clear visionary. In just a few short years, he has built Compass to an incredible level. My relationship with Peter has been topnotch – he is one of the best people I have ever encountered in this business. I continue to be very proud of the daily work on ‘The Schnitt Show.'”
Getting to Vail (Colorado) several times a year is one of the leisure-time activities Schnitt most enjoys. “That is my favorite spot in the country for skiing,” he remarks. “I also like scuba diving and it helps that I am in Florida for that.”
Owing to an agreement reached last March (2013) between Schnitt and fellow high-profile Sunshine State-based personality Todd “Bubba the Love Sponge” Klem, the latter is prevented from making any disparaging on-air remarks about Schnitt’s wife Michelle, or Schnitt’s children. According to Schnitt, “My 12-year-old daughter has become a very good soccer player and my son plays baseball and lacrosse, so they keep me busy. I get to spend a lot of time with my family and kids – that is great.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@talkers.com. Meet Mike Kinosian at Talkers New York 2014 on Friday, June 20, 2014.