Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Steve Somers marks 25 years at WFAN-NY Times

11/29/12, "Twenty-Five Years of Schmoozing," NY Times, Charles McGrath

"“Good evening to you, and how you be? Steve Somers here and you there.” That’s how Steve Somers begins his nightly call-in show — his schmooze, he calls it — on WFAN, New York’s sports radio station. He’s been saying this for 25 years, and it’s a ritual greeting as reassuring to his listeners as the call of a muezzin.

Then Somers gives the exact time, down to the second, and the station’s phone number: 1-877-337-6666. Not that anyone is apt to forget it. On a typical evening the calls have already begun to queue up, like circling planes seeking a landing spot, on the computer screen in front of Chris McMonigle, the show’s engineer. Paul from Hamden, Joe from Staten Island, Josh from Brooklyn, Sam from Bayonne, Bruce from Flushing, all with a point to make, a bone to pick, a tirade to deliver, or maybe just a need to hear their own voice on the radio.

Most of the callers are regulars, and McMonigle’s screen indicates how many times they have phoned in the past and how often they have made it onto the radio. Not long ago, Franco from Danbury was batting over .500. When he went on the air to announce that he was done once and for all as a Yankees fan and was “turning in my pinstripes,” it was his 583rd time talking to Steve in just over 1,100 tries. Somers listened patiently and then said he doubted Franco really meant it.

Somers likes to say that he and his listeners are a family, and even in the passionate, eccentric and highly opinionated world of sports radio, his family is an unusual and capacious one. Its members include, or included, such beloved regulars as Doris from Rego Park, stuttering and coughing but phoning in faithfully, and Jerome from Manhattan, whose sputtering, apoplectic anti-Yankee rants caused Somers to play the “Twilight Zone” theme while a voice said: “His is a dimension of sight, of sound, but of no mind. There’s a rubber room up ahead. You’re entering the Jerome Zone.” But Somers’s fans also include the critic Gene Shalit, the actors Charles Grodin and Tony Roberts, the comedian Steven Wright and, most famously, Jerry Seinfeld, who calls in as Jerry from Queens, though in fact he comes from Massapequa.

They admire Somers’s wit and intelligence, the little set pieces he delivers at the beginning of each show, full of wordplay and alliteration. Somers writes them out beforehand on yellow legal pads, capitalizing most of the nouns, adjectives and verbs as a scribe might if copying a royal proclamation. He writes for the ear, not the eye, Somers says. A meditation on the theme of Alex Rodriguez’s collapse last fall looked like this: “The Lightning Rod only Wants to Be happy, and knows it’s very Simple to Be happy, But it’s very Difficult for Him to Be Simple. The Yankees Haven’t Been Doing Much, and Doing Nothing is Very Hard to Do, Because You Never Know when You’re Finished.”

Somers-speak is formal at times and also full of Homeric-like epithets. A-Rod is always the Lightning Rod, just as Barry Bonds was Barroid and Jason Giambi was the Sultan of Shot. The Oakland A’s are the Anabolics, and the Mets are always the Metropolitans, the Knicks always the Knickerbockers.

Somers is funny, even irreverent, about sports, and for many listeners that, too, is part of the appeal. He’s a relief from the dogmatism of Mike Francesa, WFAN’s biggest star, who presides over the drive-time hours with humorless ardor, seldom willing to concede a point to his listeners, who tend to be more argumentative than Somers’s. But possibly a bigger reason people tune in to Somers is that they’re in thrall to the sound of his voice, which is one of the oddest on the air.

It’s thin and high-pitched, with elongated vowels and extra-sibilant s’s — the voice of a crooner more than a sportscaster. Listeners have speculated that air pockets or periodontal disease or even Bell’s palsy account for his way of speaking. Somers has no idea — he has always talked this way. 

“I don’t think I have a great voice,” he said not long ago in an office he shares with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts, who use it during the day, at the WFAN studio in the West Village. “I don’t know what it’s good for except yapping. I talk and talk and say nothing, and yet I make a living.”  

WFAN 660 AM (101.9 on FM) is built on voices. The station, which started broadcasting on July 1, 1987, faltered at the beginning because the original announcers, people like Jim Lampley and Greg Gumbel, had bland, accentless TV voices — they didn’t sound like New York. The station caught on only when it went local. Francesa, who has a thick, Long Island accent, always sounds like he’s getting over a cold. He used to be paired with Chris Russo, a k a the Mad Dog, also a Long Islander, who was raspy and shrill and talked so fast he sounded like a tape being rewound. Benigno, who joined the station in 1995, after years of being a caller, sounds like who he is — a Jersey guy.

Somers is actually from San Francisco, but you’d never know it. He grew up speaking like someone from Brooklyn. “When I was a kid, people thought I was from back East,” he said, and he added that he probably picked up a lot of characteristically Jewish inflections from his parents, who ran a mom-and-pop grocery. “When you hear me, you’re hearing them,” he said.

“Steve, from Day 1 he sounded like a New Yorker,” Eric Spitz, WFAN’s program director, said. “The Mets were the big story then, and he just embraced them.” He added: “But his greatest strength is he’s an old-school entertainer. Walk into any bar and you’ll find passionate fans, knowledgeable fans, but can you be entertaining? So many people think they can do this, but they can’t.”

Somers went to Lowell High School, an elite magnet school in San Francisco (Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer is an alumnus), and was valedictorian of his class, but his ambition even then was to be a New York sportscaster. “I wanted to play Broadway,” he said. “And I am — I’m a long-running play.”

His goal was not radio, however, but television. He imagined himself the next Warner Wolf, and after starting out in radio, he did TV sports for 17 years in San Francisco, Sacramento, Atlanta and Los Angeles. In 1984, he lost his job and was out of work for two and a half years. When WFAN called in 1987, he hadn’t done radio in decades. 

Somers still thinks he could have had a great career on TV. He doesn’t really have TV looks, though. His face is long, thin and toothy; his mustache and hair, which he wears long and swept back, are going gray on him....

Somers worries about his bits and set pieces, he worries about the quality of the calls, he worries about everything. Though he sounds relaxed on the air, he is in fact a nervous wreck. During breaks he sometimes springs from his chair and takes the elevator 10 floors down to Hudson Street, where he snatches two or three quick puffs from a cigarette before pinching it out and heading back upstairs. He can make a single butt last for hours....

It’s no accident, though, that the station keeps him where he is. Somers’s voice and personality seem ideally suited to the nighttime, where his is a soothing, comforting presence. “There’s a different feel at night, a different kind of audience,” Spitz said. “There’s more breaking news during the day, but the sports world slows down during these hours. Steve gives the callers more of a chance to speak — they’re more a part of the show.”

“I don’t think a radio station could be more personal or more intimate with the listeners and callers than this one, and it’s probably more so late at night,” Somers said. “At night you get the people who depend on radio a little more.”"...via NY Radio Message Board

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