In 2011, a newcomer strolled on to the Dallas/Ft Worth radio market and said hello as one half of then “New School” on 105.3 FM The Fan.
Shan Shariff had been asked to come down from Kansas City to be one of the newest voices in one of the biggest sports radio markets in the country. Five years later, Shan has gone from the outsider that nobody liked, respected, or wanted to listen to because he knew nothing about sports in the DFW area to one of the most respected voices and media members in the area.
He might come off arrogant sometimes, you might not agree with his opinions, but one thing you can’t say about Shariff is that he’s not prepared. Try getting up at 2:30 and 3am, sometimes with little more than an hour or two of sleep, and still having everything ready to go for a four and a half hour show.
Think you could do it? I would dare you to try.
But on top of just that one or two hours of sleep, try spending the rest of your day in hospital room next to your fiancé, watching her battle for her life after being diagnosed with leukemia.
That’s one thing a lot of people didn’t know while they listed to the show that was on the air from 5:30am to 10am every weekday morning.
Before I get to that part of the story, let me tell you a little about the Shan Shariff that I’ve gotten to know. Say what you want about the guy on the radio, it’s the guy away from the radio that you should really get to know. Not only is he one of the most approachable guys there is in the media but he’s also one of the most personable.
Every time he and I have crossed paths he always asked about my family and always remembered something about them or something that was going on. Who does that? Out of all the people he crosses paths with there’s never been a time where I didn’t feel like I was just one of the boys.
How are you able to prep for a radio show, keep your mind focused for that amount of time you’re on the air while keeping your emotions in check, and then spend the rest of the day at the hospital next to the person you love wondering how long they have left to live?
“It was TOUGH, beyond exhausting,” Shariff says. “My boss knew but I kept it quiet from everyone else for awhile. I wasn’t ready to discuss it or ask for help. All I cared about was getting a plan from the doctors and building a belief for both of us that she was going to live.”
There are times when on air talent want to be open with their audience, to let them know something personal about themselves, to give them a little more perspective about who they are as a person so when you listen you aren’t just listening to a voice but listening to a person.
But, for Shan, he was never ready to let this news out on the air or even to the people he worked with.
“The station wanted me to tell the rest of the morning team and certainly would’ve preferred if I shared more on air,” he says. “But I hadn’t built that trust. I just couldn’t see myself opening up about this to a room of people I barely knew. What were they going to say or do if I started breaking down live on-air? My stubbornness prevented me from wanting help or advice from them so why open up?”
It was amazing to me how Shan even kept his wits about him having to go from the radio station to the hospital and back to the radio station again. Having to switch your mind from one to the other, with one being far more serious than the other, would mentally break some people. Especially with the kind of schedule that Shariff kept. Somehow, he was able to do it.
“In terms of the show, my daily schedule went like this: Get off air, go to the hospital, take a nap, wake-up, do show prep while watching games on the hospital TV then back to sleep on the couch or at home ten minutes away. We were very lucky to live so close to Baylor.”
Having to fight with a loved one battling cancer and fight for something you’re building would take two very different types of mentality and two very different types of personality. While he was there to fight with Jacque in her battle with cancer, he had a totally different uphill battle not only gaining the trust of the listeners but also his co-workers who knew about as much about Shan as the listeners did.
“Bottom line was I made up my mind I wasn’t going to allow our situation to let me fail,” Shariff says. “I wanted to prove to myself I could take care of her and not miss a beat doing a 4 1/2 hour show everyday. I know I came up short many days and weeks, but I’m pretty proud of how I balanced both while never taking a shortcut with work. I probably care too much about succeeding professionally.”
The show has taken off and become one of the top shows in the DFW metroplex but it didn’t come easily and it certainly wasn’t just the work of one man.
Every new duo has it’s problems and disagreements they need to work out and “New School” was no different.
“I was too much of a control freak early on,” Shariff admits. “I tried to own too many of the topics without input and that was a mistake. Maybe the best thing about our relationship is we’re completely different. I’m an obsessive control freak and RJ [Choppy] is laid back and goes with the flow. I need that opposite personality across from me.”
I’ll admit that the name “New School” took me a little by surprising seeing as most shows you hear on radio have one name, or both, of the host as part of the show title. This one didn’t have either.
“I brought it over from my five years in Cambridge, MD and my year in KC,” says Shariff of the ‘New School’ name. “My approach towards radio was to have the most unique, different opinion that you still believed in. I was also two years out of college when I started hosting so I wanted to emphasize a new, fresh approach. We still get listeners asking why we changed to “Shan and RJ” so no, I don’t have any regrets.”
One of the hardest things that a radio host has to do is gain the trust of his on-air co-host, especially when the two of you don’t know each other, have never heard of each other, and have little time to prepare before this new radio show goes on the air. One of the hosts, RJ Choppy, had come over to 105.3 The Fan after years at 103.3 ESPN Radio so of the two of them, Choppy knew about the Dallas/Ft Worth listeners and was well versed in the different teams the metroplex had to offer.
Could he work with someone who was an admitted, and proud, Washington Redskins fan and someone who now had to take over in Dallas Cowboys’ country?
Not without a few bumps in the road.
“Very few know this, but we got suspended for a day over a Masters argument (I was right) and we’ll always have future debates,” Shariff says about his on-air relationship with RJ Choppy. “You’re going to have ups and downs with a new show and big market pressure, especially at 5 in the morning. A very rare thing about Choppy and I is the ability to bury a fight. We can go at it in the commercial break and once the red light comes on, it’s over.”
It takes a long time for a radio listener to like, or even trust, the voice they’re listening to on the radio, especially when that voice is brand new and doesn’t know anything about the teams these fans enjoy. Some have the patience to let this voice figure it out while others want no part of anything, or anyone, new.
Such is the case in this area.
With Shariff being the newcomer and having to get to know these teams from the beginning, it didn’t take long before he would start to hear those impatient voices.
“I wouldn’t call it rough, I’d call it normal,” he says. “We had pretty good ratings that first year cause the Dallas Mavericks won the [NBA] title and the [Texas] Rangers were title contenders. The biggest challenge going from market to market (Baltimore -> Illinois -> Kansas City -> DFW) is not being a born and raised fan of the teams the city loves, ESPECIALLY when you grew up around the [Washington] Redskins. I never regretted it for a second because the challenge is winning over an audience despite those obstacles. It’s not as fun or gratifying if it’s easy.”
Shariff has been through a lot of ups and downs since moving to the area but he wouldn’t change it for anything. While watching his fiancé battling cancer might have been one of the hardest points of his, and her, life, it has changed the person he is. As for the listeners, they may have given him the biggest surprise he could have expected when he was shown that he’s, well, a part of the family.
During a bone marrow ‘swab-a-thon’ with “Love, Hope, Strength,” the radio listeners came out in large numbers to participate and show just how much they care and how much they’re willing to do for those who are battling the exact monster that is cancer that Shan’s fiancé has since beaten.
The journey hasn’t been easy for Shan or Jacque but he says it has made them stronger.
“I remember her calling me complaining about pain in her side and that she was going to the doctor to get it checked out,” he says reflecting on when they got the news of Jacque being diagnosed with cancer. “Next thing I know, she walked in the apartment and told me she had cancer. I remember thinking she was going to die. I remember calling my parents and having them fly out the next day. They wanted us at the hospital to begin treatment immediately so we had one final lunch at Nick & Sam’s grill, then to the hospital.”
It’s never easy to watch someone you love battle this unspeakable disease. But, when they beat it, it’s the most satisfying victory of all.
“She’s up to 13 total surgeries since being diagnosed,” he says. “She’s had 2 hip replacements, a broken leg, shoulder surgery and still has regular appointments. Every time she tells me about the next one, I ask “is this cancer related?” When she says no, I do an internal fist-pimp because I know it’s nothing compared to leukemia.”
He’ll never forget the journey and he admitted that he even forces himself to look at the pictures and videos of when she battled the disease. Why?
“I have made a very concerted effort to remember how bad we had it,” he says of the journey they both walked through. “I still keep pictures from when she gained 100 pounds in a wheelchair. I have many of the videos from when she could barely walk and didn’t have hair. I force myself to look at them because I don’t want us to take where we are today for granted. Many times we all manage to forget.”
No one should ever have to go through that but it has made a stronger relationship for the two of them and a stronger person in Shan for being there through the whole thing. No regrets, more thankful, more to look at in the future knowing there’s a bright future ahead.
From a guy sitting in Arizona with a college friend getting a phone call from Bruce Gilbert, the 105.3 FM program manager at the time, to a journey to the top of the radio ratings, it’s been an incredible ride for the kid from Baltimore, Maryland.
“I used to be obsessed with the idea of a national show but I realized things can’t get much bigger than the home of the Cowboys and Rangers. Plus, I love living in DFW. I’d like to explore television in some capacity with CBS but aside from that, I just want to climb higher in the ratings. At some point, I wouldn’t mind not waking up at 4:15 am everyday!”
Next time you make your way to one of the remote appearances this station makes and you cross paths with Shan Shariff, make sure you shake his hand, introduce yourself, and talk to him like he’s just one of the guys.
Or, as Shan calls it, “I think we’ve really evolved into what every sports radio show is supposed to be: a group of friends sitting around in a bar BS’ing.”
‘New School’ has come a long way and not only has the show itself become respected but so has the duo of Shan Shariff and RJ Choppy. The only way this show can from here is up.