Voices

Adam Schein Always Has More to Say

Kyle Koster
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Adam Schein is a creature of habit. He eats a turkey sandwich for lunch every day, along with some hot coffee. Never iced. Not even in 97-degree weather.  He’s a meticulous planner who fishes with a wide net to capture the sports conversation, taking notes on a legal pad instead of a computer, like a hardscrabble Richard Price detective. It’s how he prepared for tests in school. It became one of those habits.

He’s always wanted this, to do this type of radio since the genesis of WFAN, which he calls, “an epiphany.” 

Every morning at 9 o’clock, he clenches the leash of Mad Dog Radio on SiriusXM and unfurls a monologue that winds through every inch of the sports terrain with conjunctions and add-ons. There’s always a next point until there are suddenly 40 or 50 of them stacked neatly on top of each other without ever feeling too heavy. Always more to say. Always more corners of the picture to paint based on fancy.

This is how Schein on Sports is built. On the back of what happened last night. Everything that happened last night, punctuated with question marks and exclamation points because a simple period just won’t do. What he doesn’t know and what he’s sure of are of equal value in this economy.  

Basic and elementary as this may be, it works. And it feels right. If aliens needed to be introduced to the concept of sports radio, Schein may be the perfect avenue. He cooks up comfort food with this spartan recipe, sometimes salty: he’s been firing Brian Cashman with a regularity George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin would find jarring and sometimes sweet: bestowing the “My Guy” moniker to particularly productive players, the highest of honors.

Six hours later, after recharging his batteries and spending time at the reflecting pool of takes, Time to Schein begins on CBS Sports Network. This has been the standing double-dip since 2015 for one of the biggest sports fans in sports media. Burning the candle at both ends hasn’t dulled his flame. 

“That was always one of the most interesting things when you get into this business,” Schein tells The Big Lead. “There are actually some people who don’t love sports. Who don’t live and die with the games and storylines. Our producers and our staff, they love it. I love it and think about it 25 hours per day.”

On-air Schein is the opposite of a try-hard hamming it up for attention or engagement. An authentic appreciation and excitement for sports — especially the on-field machinations of those kids’ games —is striking. And that’s part of the secret. It feels like a safe, increasingly rare sphere to inhabit. Though not afraid to criticize, he bucks trends by unabashedly enjoying the things he covers while always seeking to fill in any gaps. 

He’s at his best during the opening monologue. Essentially a one-sheeter on all that happened in sports, why it’s important, and a little taste of the surrounding discourse. It’s reminiscent of the radio so many grew up with, especially in New York, where there isn’t time for nonsense. It’s a pure distillation and, quite frankly, an incredible resource. Few things in punditry feel like this anymore: a place where you can see the entire field without an obstructed view. Specialization dulled the appreciation of generalization.

“The monologue is a tone-setter,” Schein says. “It reflects what I’m most passionate about. Painting with a broad brush and going any different way as Picasso. My drug is just the daily rush of doing what I do. I am obsessed with the process. It’s like the old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. This is me making the donuts, just as happy as that guy was.”

I’ve wanted to have this conversation for a long time. For the past few months, those 15 minutes at the top of Schein’s show have been one of the day’s high points, blasting through minivan speakers after all the kids have been dropped off at their assorted schools. The monologue, along with the criminally underappreciated late-night SportsCenter, are in many ways the most valuable minutes the casual-to-somewhat serious sports fan can use. A short drive brings with it answers to the eternal question: what’s going on?

“We’ve got a lot to do today and this time I really mean it”

The timing couldn’t be better to be invited for a peek behind the curtain. To see how those doughnuts are made and attempt to understand what about them is so delicious. It’s a late-June Tuesday following an outrageously stacked slate of sports around the globe. Soccer. Basketball. Baseball. NFL rumors. The list goes on and on until it’s indistinguishable from Stefon describing the hottest new club. 

Bob Stewart, Schein’s executive producer on radio, sends out the prep email at 1:50 a.m. There are 11 issues to fill the docket, ranked in order of importance like some sort of auditory math equation. Paul George and the Clippers have staved off elimination, for now, against the Phoenix Suns to force a Game 6. Shohei Ohtani put on a show in the Bronx and the Bombers are listless. Trae Young’s health is uncertain. The Tampa Bay Lightning, as Schein so forcefully predicted would crush the fluky Montreal Canadiens, have jumped out to what appears to be an insurmountable 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. Scottie Pippen continues to say wild stuff.

A pre-show meeting convenes at 8 o’clock.“Things should always sound free-flowing, but there’s a process,” Schein advises while sketching out the plan. 

He’s fired up about the latest New York Yankees indignation and calling, yet again, for someone to rid the fanbase from this underachieving and uninspiring manager. The Zoom call is peppered with laughter as he and Stewart tick through the topics, giving one or two broad observations on each. It sounds a lot like the on-air program save for the mechanical stuff: discussing timing, flow, and the proper sequence for soothing the ear. How can the poll question tie two things together? Where can the NFL be worked into the show?  What segments need to be taped during break? There’s a depth of knowledge — discussing strategy in the Euros and the College World Series.

If something flashed across the ticker, odds are it will be addressed. Nine times out of 10 the two will be on the same page. For some stretches it sounds more like 10 out of 10. 

“I usually go to bed thinking that I know what my monologue is going to be, what Topics A, B, C, and D are going to be for radio,” Schein explains. “But I don’t take any notes at night. I learned that a long time ago because things change. It’s fluid and you want to be fresh and you want to be topical at 6 a.m. on the West Coast.”

The uncertainty is reflected in the sole scheduled guest, Brian Scalabrine. It’s not clear when he’ll be joining to react to all things NBA. Stewart says they have the ultimate flexibility. Flexibility helps maintain the freshness.

Weeks of the NBA playoffs have taken their toll and Schein jokes that he is exhausted before adding, “In all seriousness, watching games is imperative.”

A dirty little secret in this industry is how many either view that part of the process as a burden or flat-out skip out entirely. That’s part of the craft, though. It’s the petri dish from which all opinions ferment. The necessary homework. Like Marie Kondo, the time is better spent when it sparks joy. 

Sports talk, as muscular and low-minded as it can be painted, is an artform. The true craftspeople know how to build the basics, yes, but the beauty is often in the details. In an era of podcasts allowing unlimited editing and unlimited opportunities to get things just so, the high-wire act of going live is best left to those who ensure every inch of the wire is tight and secure.

Structure and flow are working when no one is thinking about them at the moment. Shoring up the seams and finding ways to contribute to the larger picture is unsexy work. Yet pouring over coaches’ press conferences and postgame comments often yields content gold. 

Schein and Stewart close the meeting after 20 minutes. They are confident they have a plan. It might all change. That’s what keeps the butterflies alive. Things going sideways, though, is an opportunity in itself. There’s nothing like making chicken salad out of — in Schein’s words — “yanno.”

About an hour later, Schein will be informing his audience that he’s feeling amazing. You believe him. They believe him.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

“You only say what you believe. That’s it.”

The segments tick by. “Cam Newton can’t play!” he claims at one point, his voice crescendoing and picking up speed. “Cam Newton can’t play. Cam Newton is shot.” He barely pauses before continuing in a more measured tone, explaining how poised and phenomenal Mac Jones was as Alabama’s star quarterback before concluding: “I don’t know how this is a multiple choice question.”

Thoughts keep coming, some small nuggets and others fit for a longer thesis.

“These umpires don’t know which way is up, replay is broken in all sports.”

“Boone is doing a Weekend at Bernie’s in the dugout. He has the nerve, the audacity, the chutzpah …” 

Quizzed during a commercial via the call-in line about what happens if the Yankees win 15 of their next 20 games, or do something crazy like win the World Series, he promises to wear it. Such is life for a pundit. 

“I’m a big believer in accountability,” he says. “You always have to go back. My personal favorite of all-time — and I don’t regret it — I gave the Philadelphia Eagles a zero percent chance of winning the Super Bowl when Carson Wentz got hurt. I think I picked against Philadelphia in every playoff game. But you go back and own it and have fun with it.”

He bristles at Imagine Dragons serving as bumper music. Probably because it was done to intentionally rile him up. A few inside jokes like that — and likely some callback references that went undetected on my part — crop up on-air. There’s care to plug a previous conversation or a past podcast. To build a connected world that reaps benefits for those who make the time every day. Feedback and audience participation drives the final 10 or 15 percent of the time, another payoff and savvy incentive. 

The late Larry King used to call in. Regulars have come and gone through the decades. Both the audience and host have grown up a lot.

“You know the kids’ names, what they’ve been through in life,” Schein muses. His three children are familiar names on the show. Today brings a genuine appreciation of seeing Ohtani through the eyes of his six-year-old son.

They clean up the poll questions and dive into the feedback. More importantly, those thoughts are advanced while Schein serves as a sounding board. Perhaps a small thing, but a smart thing.

A savvy sports sommelier can detect notes of Chris “Mad Dog” Russo in Schein’s flavor profile. Intentional or otherwise, it adds a layer and can bring a wry smile to the face of those who notice. It tends to come out when there’s a particularly galling effort or attitude on the diamond. It’s a reminder that other shows could be doing this daily so they don’t have to play catch-up when the sport enters the collective consciousness. 

In the course of a few sentences he recites Blake Snell’s home-road splits. How Nick Castellanos is trending. Which team is struggling with middle relief. All of these different things that are never far from his own consciousness, whether he realizes it or not. 

His greatest ability is not that he goes wide on sports. It’s that he also goes deep. Whereas others bite off x number of storylines, he’ll try to tackle three times that and be just as good per capita. 

“It’s not my show. It’s our show.”

A few years ago, someone on Schein’s commuter train into the city asked what was on tap for the day. After listening to the rundown, the rider pitched a regular season Nationals-Angels game and the corresponding Mike Trout-Bryce Harper matchup. It wound up on the show as evidence of Major League Baseball’s inability to market its marquee players. 

An observant consumer can feel this exact vibe coming through in waves. Schein’s is a show of the people, presented in plain English and as comfortably familiar as someone on the Metro North grumbling about how the Mets can’t hit while stuffing a newspaper in a briefcase. 

Building a national show that retains the special DNA of a local offering, where listeners really feel like they’re in it with the hosts, is a desired outcome with no easy pathways. There are shortcuts to selling one’s investment in a topic yet Schein takes the more authentic and credible route by going in-depth on the issues to a level that impresses the involved fanbase. There’s an earnestness and diligence there. And perhaps more importantly, a willingness to let the story stand on its own without trying to outshine it with personal starpower.

Eric Spitz, now vice president of sports programming at SiriusXM, was at WFAN when Schein interned there around the turn of the century and gave him an artisanal metric aimed at assessing each show, called P.O.K.E. Passion. Opinion, knowledge and entertainment factors are all judged on the scale of 1-10. “The passion is easy,” he observes. “The others take work.”

Any good producer must challenge ideas. Push the levels of comfort. Throw out ideas and see what sticks. “I don’t think I could function without them,” Schein admits. “Seriously. They make me better and they make the show better.” 

Around 3:30 p.m he meets with his team from CBS to gameplan for tonight’s Time to Schein with producers Malcolm Cone-Coleman and Alison Cohen, who he says he calls before making any serious life decision. It was too hot to go for a run but not too hot for steaming coffee so he’s again firing with high octane. 

The group gets right to work on the details. A leading segment will discuss the spate of NBA playoff injuries and they’d like to include Jamal Murray in some way, even though it came before the postseason. This person was good in the postgame but this other one was better. Story A is good yet Story B is better. What if the two were combined into one?

There are savvy editorial choices happening in rapid succession. And with television there’s more to negotiate as graphics and moving pictures must dovetail with Schein’s oration. Tying one section of the show to another sews an even more appealing quilt. 

It’s true what they say that 90 percent of the iceberg is underwater. The finished television product is the execution of a plan. It’s most compelling when no one is thinking about the plan. Free-flowing, yet part of a process. Sounds familiar. 

The No. 1 focus of the program is to amplify Schein’s takes. To literally allow his personality to shine. It’s abundantly clear that everyone involved knows what’s going to work for the talent and what isn’t. What will feel forced and what would have come out of his own brain had he had more time to think.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

The day ends and the two-a-days continue without my muted presence. Characters change but the setting and tone stay the same. Excitement and genuine emotion continue to be valued above all else, existing as a testament to how much fun an audience will have if the host is having fun. 

One gets the sense Schein would be doing a version of himself even if he wasn’t in the media. Perhaps as the ultimate water cooler guy, locked and loaded with stats and info. Willing to engage with anyone on any topic born out of an earnest appreciation and fascination. There’s no secret to his success as he’s always been on this path. Earning a place at Syracuse. Standing out there. Taking the low-level job to stay in New York instead of something that paid more in a smaller market. His arc makes a ton of sense and is easy to read.

But the secret is in the joy, in the elevation of things and their reasonable teardowns. The approach zaps out every fiber of boredom and by definition cannot get stale. It’s wholesome and satisfying and one can’t help but wonder why more voices who haven’t taken up his habits.

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