A quarter-century ago radio execs took a chance on a new format–all-sports. Even more of an unknown was how Steve Somers would handle it?
The original WFAN sound took on more of a national flavor than heard on 660 today. The majority of the update anchors and hosts did not have any, or limited, New York experience, and many ultimately fell by the wayside.
And then there’s Somers. He neither grew up nor worked in New York, and yet from his first shift on WFAN he was a quinnesstial New Yorker.
“That is the most flattering thing everybody can say to me,” Somers says. “When I was growing up out there [in San Francisco], people thought I was still from New York.”
There’s no mistaking that style. Somers sounds like your older Jewish uncle. He sounded old 25 years ago, and played up his Jewishness, making him a perfect fit for the Big Apple’s melting pot.
“New Yorkers more than anywhere, and more than anybody, can tolerate and accept diversity like no other people anywhere,” Somers says. “It’s the makeup of New York.”
Somers, unlike other hosts, will discuss any sport with callers or guests.
“I do shtick and I have fun,” Somers tells FishbowlNY. “I think I’m obviously the more creative one, or the more inventive one at the station. Everybody else is pretty much courting to talk show formula.”
He says that counter-balance has been one reason for his remarkable longevity.
Somers recalls Howie Rose telling him on the air years ago that he was by far, “the most beloved” person on WFAN.
“If you think any of us has got all of this figured out–[we] don’t,” Somers says. “You just hope that what you do, and how you do it is going to be accepted… I took a deep breath, and 25 years later I’m still talking.”
Somers says it was one part talent, one part timing and a one part luck that were necessary ingredients for his success.
“I got off to a good start and I think that has a lot to do with longevity,” Somers says. “Because you can make a connection… [and] doing what you’re doing can carry you for a while.”
Somers, though, never expected it would carry him to becoming a New York institution.
“Of course not. Who would ever think that?” Somers says. “…My dream as a teenager was to be a sportscaster and play Broadway. And through the grace of God, and very good luck, I managed the 25 years.”
Humor, an important element of his show, isn’t lost when talking about his age.
“I’m just shy of 100,” Somers jokes. “And I feel like it half the time.”
One-liners aside, Somers turned 65 in April.
When he hit the big 4-0, Somers had been without steady work for 2 1/2 years, when the final piece to the WFAN puzzle fell in his lap.
“They didn’t know what they were going to do with overnight, whether they were going to have syndicated programming, whether they were going to repeat daytime programming, or have somebody in their live,” Somers remembers. “… My agent used a videotape, not an audio tape, and I got hired off of that.”
Somers was hired by John Pruder, the station’s first program director. Pruder, a Cleveland transplant, died late in 1987.
Before landing the ‘FAN job, Somers spent a career in TV, including 17 years as the weekend sports anchor at KNBC in Los Angeles. Somers was also popular with Angelenos, doing a sports talk show at KMPC, known as the Station of the Stars. He joined the likes of Gary Owens, Jim Lange (The Dating Game), and Robert W. Morgan.
So Somers was on board, but didn’t anticipate what would become of WFAN.
“I like to joke that I’m the only guy at WFAN ever who’s been on a contract renewable every 24 hours,” Somers says.
Arguably, Somers’ most famous fan is Jerry Seinfeld, who has built a friendship with the radio host. One weekend overnight in the early 1990s, the two met just as Seinfeld was catching fire on NBC. Somers was taking a stroll to the neighborhood bodega when he spotted Seinfeld with another comedian, George Wallace.
Somers, wanting to show the funnyman that he wasn’t a late night stalker, pulled out his ID card.
“He took the card never making eye contact, and then looked up at me directly in the eye,” Somers recalls. “And said, ‘You are Steve Somers?'”
Seinfeld heard Somers often, and they became fast friends, with Jerry becoming a frequent guest.
“I couldn’t believe that he knew who I was, and was a listener,” Somers says.
One of the happiest guys you’ll meet, Somers does have one complaint: the ability for fans to find his show during baseball season.
“Sometimes I come on after a Mets game at 9:57 or at 9:49, or if it’s a long game, I might come on at 10:51,” Somers cracks. “It’s been amazing that people have been able to find me, when they can, in the evening.”
Regular listeners know that Somers was overnight “appointment radio” for several years, where his moniker, or alter ego, “the Schmoozer” was created. The title was later used for a midday show with WNYW/WWOR’s Russ Salzberg, “The Sweater and the Schmoozer.” His trademark opening monologue was not part of the pairing.
“So a lot of what I can do, was some what compromised working 10 [a.m.] to 1 [p.m.],” Somers says.
But not enough to hurt the ratings. Somers is proud of the fact that once he joined Salzberg, the station, to that point, enjoyed its best ever midday numbers.
“[WFAN] decided a ‘good cop, bad cop,'” Somers jokes. “Working with Russ was like working with a member of the family–the Manson family, or the Addams family.”
Regardless of the daypart, the relationship with his callers has been undeniable.
“I’ll tell you about New York fans from my two cents worth,” Somers says. “They care a lot more about the games then many of the people who play them, who care only collecting another paycheck at the office.”
His shtick hasn’t worn thin with listeners, and where ever management places him on the schedule he remains a popular, vital part of the WFAN family.
“I’ll take it a day at a time. But I think it’s working,” Somers admits. “I’m having fun. I’ve never had this much fun working in radio or TV before.”
As for calling it a career, Somers puts it succinctly, at his witty best.
“How do you retire from talking? I don’t know how to do that.”