America’s first, all-sports radio station – WFAN – had its first, full-blown workout on July 1, 1987 at the stroke of 3 p.m., and at 1050 on the AM dial. Not so incidental is the fact that Suzyn Waldman was the first talent to grace its airwaves.
“I was sitting in my place in the studio, and you could see into the control room, which was all glass,” Waldman recalls. “And the people from WHN were standing there… holding hands, and people were crying. I was very aware that when my voice hit the airwaves, WHN would cease to exist.”
She provided updates that inaugural afternoon for Jim Lampley’s show.
For the next 14 years, she was heard constantly at the ballpark or in-studio, as host (two years in midday with Jody McDonald) or reporter. But beneath the surface, right from the beginning, it was not the greatest time of her career. The primary reason was sexism.
“The first thing I remember, after my update, was hearing the owner of the station, Jeff Smulyan yelling outside the door, ‘Get that smart ass woman with the Boston accent off my airwaves in prime time!'” Waldman contends. She recalls Lampley telling her to “just keep going.”
She says Smulyan, who has become friends with Waldman, now denies making the remarks, “but he did.” Thus, started a difficult time for a female in what was then still regarded by many as a man’s profession. “They were terrible to me,” Waldman admits.
Waldman stepped into radio after 15 years in theater, another dog-eat-dog business. She was no stranger to missing out on parts for any subjective reason. “I’ve never had people hate me because I was a woman,” Waldman says. “It was a real shock to me.”
A guaranteed contract precluded management from firing her. But quitting was a different matter. After only a few weeks, Waldman was moved to overnights, providing updates for Steve Somers.
She fought through the adversity, finding her niche for the next decade. Recognizing that the station employed newspaper reporters to cover games, she went to program director John Pruder with an idea. Waldman was willing to drive to every arena and stadium in the New York metro area, while still working with Somers. “Nobody wanted to go and hold a microphone to people,” Waldman says.
That foresight led to her being a radio pioneer, of sorts. Waldman says she’s the first electronic beat reporter, male or female, covering sports, in this country. “That didn’t make the newspaper people happy, at all,” Waldman recalls.
Despite being on location from a remote “office,” a handful of staffers still kept her miserable. “I got tape. Then the guys in the control room would take my tape, cut it up, and make me look like an idiot,” Waldman remembers. It didn’t stop there for Waldman’s uphill climb at WFAN.
“People would get up and walk out of the room when I was on the air,” Waldman says. As she looks back a quarter-century later, the analysis is albeit unfortunate as she was considered the wrong gender.
“It was very different back then. I can’t even go back in that timeframe because it was so confrontational, Waldman admits. “I’d get used condoms in the mail and death threats. Horrible things happened in those first few years.”
Those difficult times only hardened Waldman’s resolve. “I don’t like people telling me I can’t do something when I know I can,” Waldman says.
That’s why covering games not only got her out of the station, it made her indispensable. Due to her coverage, Waldman quickly became associated with the Yankees and Knicks. But not until she had a battle with station brass.
“General manager Scott Meier tried to fire me in 1988 before the World Series… and because he was a very stupid, arrogant male, he fired all the women off the station,” Waldman recalls. “Once that happened and I won, I got in my contract that I had to have the Yankees and Knicks.”
Eventually, she parlayed that into a high-visibility gig on the YES Network, as Yankee pre- and post-game reporter. As was the case with WFAN, she was a charter member of the cable channel for its 2002 launch. Three years later, she joined John Sterling in the Yankees radio booth, heard on WCBS 880. Thus, it was another trailblazing moment as the first woman hired full time as a Major League broadcaster.
Just days after the debut, Waldman recalls meeting her future on-air Yankee partner, who hosted a week of shows, as the station filled afternoons following Pete Franklin’s heart attack. Despite weathering the personal storm in the early days, Waldman says it never got easier.
“I was never really comfortable at the ‘FAN, not that I didn’t have some good times,” Waldman admits. “…I always felt like an outsider. Always. I always got the feeling that every 18-year-old intern thought they knew more than me.”
Instead, Waldman, who forged a close bond with George Steinbrenner, could be at ease at Yankee Stadium. “My home and my support system, except for a couple of people at ‘FAN, was in the Bronx.”
One of those select friendships at WFAN was with the stalwart afternoon host. “You can’t get me ever to say a bad word about Mike Francesa,” Waldman says. And she showers praise on her former overnight colleague as well.
“Steve Somers taught me so much, because remember I had never done radio or sports broadcasting,” Waldman remembers. “…He would let me sit in there and talk sports with him, and that was first time that ever happened.”
Padding her resume, Waldman says several memories stood out from her time at WFAN. She first recalls the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, highlighted by the powerful earthquake that halted the Fall Classic for 10 days. “I’d loved being in the upper deck,” Waldman says. “That made my career.”
She also remembers hosting several times on Christmas Day morning, when Steinbrenner would typically be a guest. It was also during the Christmas break that Steinbrenner would invite Yankee beat reporters to lunch. Waldman, miffed, was never included “mostly because I was a woman, but I think a lot of it had to do with radio, and nobody took radio seriously.”
In 1988, Waldman, always pushing for what she wanted, was anxious to join Steinbrenner and reporters at the 21 Club. Told by the Yankee PR director that it’s “just for the guys,” Waldman used another tack. She contacted WFAN producer Bob Gelb asking how many listeners her 5 p.m. Yankee spot gets and how much revenue it generates. Waldman FedEx’d the information to Steinbrenner.
“More people listen to Suzyn Waldman’s Yankee report than read every paper in the tri-state area,” Waldman wrote Steinbrenner. “So I think you should rethink it.” She also requested, and got, a private interview with Steinbrenner a week later in Tampa.
“He’s as important a human being in my life as anybody, except my family,” Waldman says.
She used her strong ties with Steinbrenner in 1999 to create her signature moment. Waldman was scheduled to do a live show unveiling Yogi Berra’s Baseball Museum in Montclair, New Jersey. Berra had refused to speak to Steinbrenner since the Boss sent his GM to fire Berra as manager in 1985, rather than axing Berra himself. Berra vowed not to visit Yankee Stadium or take part in any team functions, including Old Timers’ Day, as long as Steinbrenner was running the club. She credits station operation manager Mark Chernoff for planting the reunion idea.
Having only met Yogi once at Mel Allen’s funeral, Waldman’s conduit to glasnost was his son and former Major Leaguer, Dale Berra. “That was amazing because I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody,” Waldman jokes, “If it hadn’t worked, I would have been sitting and talking to the ’72 Mets for four hours.”
A philosophic Waldman says struggles aside at WFAN, she wouldn’t have a career “do over.”
“I would never change anything about anything. Because everything that you go through leads you to where you are now.”