Q/A with Jeremy Schaap: On missing Olympics; goal for radio show; and long-form journalism at ESPN

Note: I’m going to be out for a couple of weeks. However, I’m leaving behind some gifts for the holidays: The best of my Q/As. I’ll feature a new one each day through Jan. 2. Please check in. Happy Holidays to all.


Posted on Aug. 7

Jeremy Schaap has one clause specifically written into his contract with ESPN: The network has to send him to the Olympics.

So why isn’t he in London? And why wasn’t he in Vancouver in 2010?

As fate would have it, his wife, Joclyn, gave birth to couple’s first child during the last Winter Olympics, and they welcomed a boy Monday morning.

As a result, Schaap had to stay home again and watch on tape delay on NBC like everyone else.

“I had to call and say, ‘Hey guys, you know that whole Olympic thing? Sorry about that,” Schaap said.

Schaap, though, has plenty to keep him busy. He is hosting his own radio show, The Sporting Life and is a correspondent for E:60, among his other endeavors.

The radio show finally is available on podcast. It’s terrific. It features excellent long-form stories and interviews that go way beyond the Tebow-Sanchez debate. The show is a nice refuge from the shrieking that dominates sports talk radio.

As was the case with his father, Dick, I’ve been a long-time admirer of Jeremy. His bio on ESPN’s site lists his many honors, which includes six Emmy awards. It makes journalists like me feel inadequate. Stop being so perfect, Jeremy.

When I started my sports media site, he was high on my wish list of interview subjects. I recently had lunch with him in New York.

Here is my Q/A:

Is it hard not to be at the Olympics?

Na. I relish it, but I’m pretty jaded about the Olympics in general. There’s still something about the Olympics. I grew up in a house where the Olympics were a big deal. My father did books on the Olympics.

In this day and age, they don’t have quite the same meaning that they had. During the Cold War, let’s face it, it was us against them. There was a drama that’s lacking today.

Some of the stuff the IOC does. The fact that they won’t honor the Israeli athletes. The thing that’s objectionable to me is that I suspect if it were any other country, they would do it. But because it’s Israel, they won’t do it.

The IOC ignores the Olympic charter. Not just the Arab world, but in most of the Muslim world, women aren’t allowed to compete. How can Saudi Arabia be in good standing with the IOC?

What is your objective with the radio show?

We’re trying to tell stories. Four segments and it ends with an essay from me. I do a lot of interviews with authors. The books that are being written are great stories. So much works goes into putting them together. I like the publishing industry. I’d like to help these guys sell a few books.

It’s also the only place where I have the opportunity to do those cultural interviews. People I’ve known for a long time who I want to have on. For instance, the Olympics. I’ve known Bob Beamon my whole life. So I have him on with (fellow Olympic great) Ralph Boston.

There are things that they make fun of me up in Bristol. There are things that are of interest to me that are of less interest to other people in the building. I always say you have to include (discus thrower) Al Oerter when you talk about clutch performers. They start laughing. I say, ‘Al Oerter won four consecutive golds and each time with the longest throw of his life. You can’t be more clutch than that.’

The radio show is Al Oerter for me. I get to talk about the stuff I want to talk about.

Is there a place for storytelling on radio?

There has to be a place for it. Look at the success of NPR. If we could come close to approximating what they do on those show, in terms of storytelling on radio, that’s great. The show gives us another platform to get some storytelling out there.

I think we’ve done good work. I’ve gotten a chance to do longer versions of the TV pieces I do. One I liked the best: I did a piece on the 20th anniversary of Douglas-Tyson. It was a long TV piece: 10-11 minutes. But we had so much good stuff we did a 20-minute version for radio.

What kind of feedback have you received?

The show has gotten a lot of awards. That’s a big deal in our business.

It’s niche programming for ESPN Radio. It’s certainly not a rating grabber. I know that. If they wanted ratings, they wouldn’t be putting this show on the air. Some of the affiliates probably air it between 3-5 in the morning.

Nobody does what we do on (sports talk radio). We’re different.

How do you feel about the podcast?

This is exactly the show that should be podcasted. It’s evergreen. You could listen to what we’ve done six months from now.

With all the work that goes into the pieces and all the storytelling we do, it’s nice to have an opportunity to push it into another platform.

Talk about your work on E:60. What do you have planned for the upcoming season?

We’re putting a lot of pieces together right now. There are a few I shouldn’t talk about because of the competition. I’m doing something on Rob Gronkowski. I’m doing something about a soccer team in Israel.

I like human rights related stories. That’s what I’m always looking for. Sports is the starting point, and it gives us this platform to do these kinds of stories.  We’re working on athletes and insurance. I think of health care as a human right. To me, that’s a human rights story.

The Arab spring is something that’s not often talked about on ESPN.  It gave us an opportunity to educate our audience about what’s going on in the Middle East through the story of a few soccer players in Bahrain who have been tortured by their government.

Does ESPN take full advantage of their resources to do the long-form stories? Should the network do more?

To me, that’s what I do. I understand, it’s not what drives the ratings, although we (E:60) hold our own. Our commitment to journalism is there. In the conversation about what’s on ESPN, the focus is going to be on the less edifying stuff. But I don’t think we’re there as a counterweight. I think there’s a sincere interest in doing this kind of journalism.

How do you feel about where you’re at during this stage of your career?

You do the work because you think it’s important and you hope that it resonates with people who watch. It’s a great platform. I don’t tell them this during negotiations, but I think I have the best job in the country.

Over the years, there have been opportunities to work full time in Bristol or to do the debate stuff. It’s not what interests me, and ultimately that’s not what they want me doing.

One baby arrived during Vancouver. The next during London. Should we put you down for baby No. 3 for Sochi in 2014?

No, that would be too fast. Perhaps, Rio for 2016.

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