Whether adorned as a Viking, the Grim Reaper or “businessman Santa,” Snipes, PhD, is quick to don a silly outfit and face paint as he guides viewers through weighty issues like gross domestic product, tariff impacts, federal tax cuts and how the government calculates unemployment.
It’s all part of an effort by the academician to educate the public about economics. The costumes help to highlight the segments and draw viewers. But where he takes the program is anyone’s guess. Sometimes, even he’s not completely sure.
“This whole thing has been playing it by ear,” he says.
Over the past year, Snipes has dressed like a leprechaun, sported green and red face paint to mimic a salamander and appeared as a hot dog. The day after Halloween, he arrived on set as an unemployed witch.
Snipes says he enjoys exercising his creative and comical sides as much as discussing economics. Hopefully, he said, viewers learn something as he strives to both educate and entertain.
“It’s something I had in mind for a long time, that I wanted to reach out to the public to help them to understand economics in the same way Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson explains scientific concepts to the general population,” he said.
But with costumes.
Snipes’ segments run about three-and-a-half minutes and appear Thursdays at about 7:40 p.m. They started airing in March 2018. He added the costumes a few months later when former anchor Alan Cohn suggested he liven up his talks.
“He said to me, ‘You need a shtick. You need to add something to stand out,’” Snipes said. “I said, ‘What do you mean,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know, but you need something.’”
Little by little, Snipes embellished his weekly segments: sunglasses, a loud shirt, a quirky hat. Then he hit on the idea of characters like the used car salesman who grumbles about lemon laws or the leprechaun that converses authoritatively about the Irish economy. For a Christmas-themed segment, he dressed as “businessman Santa” for a talk about toy production and the unionization of elves.
He discusses his ideas with a producer beforehand, but otherwise is given wide latitude to craft the segments as he sees fit. His costumes are derived from items found in his closet and at party supply stores.
“The trunk of my car is packed with this stuff,” he says.
Snipes doesn’t see anything wrong with taking a light-hearted approach to economic and financial matters. He uses a white board and dry-erase pen to break down issues into simple, generic terms and focus viewers on his analysis, and why it should matter to them. There’s plenty of old-fashioned teaching in his talks, he says.
Still, despite his admittedly off-the-wall appearance, Snipes won’t go just anywhere. He won’t tackle controversial social issues, and while he might challenge statements by politicians when they don’t square with economic principles, he won’t take sides.
It’s been that way since a year ago when he met with Cohn and a producer about his ideas for the weekly show. Snipes had appeared as a guest at roundtable interviews several times before, so he was known to station executives.
“I remember Michael telling us he was going to present economics in fun way, so then I thought to myself ‘How? Economics talk can be really dry,’” ABC7 producer Greg LaFountain said. “But Michael has gone above and beyond to the point where I’m excited for Thursday’s shows to see what different outfit he’s going to walk into the station in and how it’ll connect to the topic he’s going to talk about.
“The original segment with Michael was going to be three minutes, but these discussions have been so interesting and so well-received, that we keep giving him more and more time,” he said.
Reaction to the shows has been positive, says Snipes. His students ask about them, and occasionally he hears from viewers. He’s been stopped on the street a couple of times. Meanwhile, his wife, Tamara, and daughter, Reagan, relish teasing him about particular outfit choices.
“They both kind of roll their eyes,” he said.
Snipes gets topic ideas from news sites and seasonal events, and said there’s no shortage of material as he scans headlines and tries to connect the day’s events to viewers’ lives.
“I put a lot of thought into it,” he said. “They give me 100-percent artistic license to do whatever I want. I just give them the topics.
“I never try to cause controversy and I don’t try to offend people,” he added. “The point isn’t to rock the boat or be controversial but to help people understand economics.”
Snipes joined USFSM’s faculty in 2014 after teaching at Eastern New Mexico University for five years. He said he would have created a TV segment back then, but the area was too remote for a news station. The idea to go on television came to him as a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Since appearing on TV, he said, he’s become mindful of certain production aspects, such as camera angles and framing and the interplay between him and the host. He said he was nervous for his first few shows, but has settled down since then. Adding the costumes helped.
“I thought, if you’re going to do this kind of thing, you’ve got to go big,” he said. “So I started to add different elements, and I remember that at the end of one of the shows Alan looked at me and said something like, ‘That was great,’ and I thought, ‘OK, that’s what they’re looking for.’”
Cohn retired from the station a few months ago, so now Snipes works with anchor and ABC7 at 7 Host Bill Logan, who takes a different approach to the segments.
“Alan would just sit back and let me do what I did. He was kind of the straight man and I would be up there being ridiculous,” Snipes said. “With Alan, he never pointed out the joke. If it confused people that’s OK. Bill is different. He talks about the costumes and asks questions. He’s more interactive.”
“When I started here, everyone was ready for Michael’s appearance,” Logan said. “I was not. But I quickly figured out that this was more than a costume and shtick. Michael knows his stuff – and how to make it memorable. It’s a blast working with him!”
So what has Snipes learned from the past year on television?
“I’m done with fake mustaches,” he said. “They don’t stay on. I’ve tried it a number of times and they just don’t stay on. Everything else, though, is fair game.”