Exclusive: Former New York Governor Paterson ‘Drawn To’ Work in Radio

Since leaving office on January 1, New York Governor David Paterson has been keeping busy. But not as you might think. The former governor has quietly been forging a new career, which incorporates his previous one.

He has become a radio go-to guy, and surprisingly, not as a guest to discuss politics, but as host of his own show. He brings a knowledge and passion to the subject. Paterson can focus on politics and current events while filling in for John Gambling mornings on WOR. At WABC, there is the Religion on the Line show, which to date he’s done once.  

Arguably, Paterson’s most relaxed at WFAN. Just prior to leaving Albany, Paterson spent the entire afternoon with Mike Francesa. If that was an audition for future on-air work at the sports station—he passed. Recently, Paterson hosted his own ‘FAN show. It was there that FishbowlNY was granted exclusive access to the governor to talk about his new love—radio. Paterson says it may seem new to listeners, but he and radio actually have a long history together.

“When I was a child, I used the radio in place of the fact that I couldn’t read the newspapers,” Paterson says. “That’s how I heard the news.”

As a nine-year-old, hearing the news of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 grabbed his interest in broadcasting (and politics). He would listen “minute to minute” for the latest details of the tragedy.

An early radio follower for Paterson was the legendary Barry Gray, who had a show on WMCA for 39 years. The governor also remembers Larry King fondly from his Mutual Radio overnight show.

As a youngster, Paterson began his lifelong connection with sports, especially baseball.

“In those days, they didn’t televise all the games. They would televise probably all but five or six of the home games of the Mets and the Yankees, and maybe half of the road games,” Paterson recalls. “You got used to listening to sports on the radio.”

Perhaps, as someone visually impaired, it’s an easy transition for Paterson to have a strong interest in radio to this day.

“It probably does help me because in many respects when you can’t see, you have a theater of the mind,” Paterson tells FishbowlNY.

Inevitability, the governor will get asked at an appearance about his ability to enjoy sports even though he’s unable to see the action.

“You can imagine what’s going on, and the drama of, maybe, a team down 10 points in a basketball game, then it’s 8, then it’s 6, then it’s back to 8, then a three-pointer—it’s 5, then it’s 3,”  Paterson says. “You can get that.”

Another factor to visualizing sports, Paterson, who has limited sight, would play basketball when he was younger.

Helped by the radio play-by-play, Paterson says many sports fans are blind.

“One of them who used to call WNBC when I was a kid and talk to Bill Mazer, and who I think wanted to be a sportscaster—Aaron Talbert,” Paterson remembers. “I wound up going to Columbia [University] with him … When he talked about a game he heard, you’d believe he saw it.”

Mazer is one of Paterson’s sports radio disciples that he looked to emulate. 

“Then I grew up and got interviewed on some of these shows, [which] were done by heroes of mine,” Paterson says. “That was pretty exciting for me.” 

Exploring some of his broadcasting “contemporaries,” Paterson calls WABC host John Batchelor the “most prepared talk show host I have ever heard. I am stunned by the effort he puts into his shows.”

Gambling, who Paterson is the occasional back-up for at WOR, brings an “overall fairness about him.” 

When looking at today’s sports radio scene, it’s not a hard choice for Paterson—Joe Benigno.  

“He was a fan, like me, who wound up doing a show, so you know I root for him,” Paterson says. “I rooted for him from the first day he came on [WFAN].”

Steve Somers has been a regular at the ‘FAN since the beginning in 1987.

“His humor, I think, is amazing. He’s almost a satirist, almost like an Art Buchwald of sports radio,” Paterson also considers Francesa to be a “great thinker.”    

To join those on air, Paterson does have to contend with his disability, but doesn’t consider it a chalenge. The main tool, aside from the mic and headphones, is a monitor showing the next caller. When he appears at WFAN, the screen is located right next to the host.  To help Paterson, the station has enlarged the names.

“I said, ‘You’ll never be able to enlarge them so I can see them.’ I don’t know, but somehow they did it here at the ‘FAN,” Paterson recalls.

At most stations, though, the screen is too far away to make a difference—even enlarged. In those cases, Paterson has to rely on being fed details in his ear.

“I once did a show in a studio where they had a big clock, so I could look at the time,” Paterson says. “[Otherwise], I use my cell phone to gauge the time, so I don’t know what the seconds are.”

Mike Sivilli is the producer of 77 WABC’s Religion on the Line, which Paterson hosted last month. He says it’s not a hindrance for someone visually impaired.

“If he were to do his own program, he would have enough assistants (producers, etc.) that would help him with anything like that.”

Then there is prepping for the guests, where he draws from his days as governor.

“Tonight, I’m going to interview Chris Young, the pitcher from the Mets,” Paterson says. “Now I know a lot about [him], but just so I’m sure, a friend of mine is going to google him and call me back … And I’ll get one take. When you memorize 63 minutes of a State of the State address, I guess you can remember Chris Young’s bio.”

Mark Chernoff, WFAN operations manager, commends the broadcasting neophyte.

“I thought the governor did a very nice job on the air—particularly since it was his first solo show,” Chernoff says. “His monologue was topical [and he] did a nice job interviewing Chris Young and Len Elmore, and did fine with callers.”

So it was a successful night for Paterson who has mastered the art of memory recall. But that didn’t always go as planned.

“The only problem is, and I’ve had this problem when speaking as governor, when you memorize in your speaking that amount of material, you work so hard at trying to get it right that it loses its syntax,” Paterson admits. “What I have tried to do toward the end of my term is to know the material and just say it in my own way, and I think that seems to work better for me.”

As mentioned, in the short time that he went from public official to private citizen, Paterson has become a versatile radio personality. However, the former governor can’t nail down a hosting reference.

“At first, I really liked doing sports because I’ve been so much a part of the political scene and epicenter of the news that I did not want to be commenting,” Paterson says. “I did not want to be in any way influencing or getting in the way of the new governor’s attempt to balance the budget.”

He says after three years of tough service to the state it was time to “decompress.”

But thanks to radio, Paterson has found his political “voice” anew.

“I’ve been able to talk about the issues and fortunately when I’m on the other end of the microphone, it doesn’t have to be about me and what we did when I was there,” Paterson says. “It can just be a place where I can be the analyst or the interviewer, and I very much enjoy that.”

With all that enjoyment, Paterson would be open to steady radio work should the opportunity become available.

“I think at first, I just enjoyed doing it,” Paterson recalls. “Then they wrote an article in The New York Times [in] June of last year saying, in a sense, that this was a place where I flourished … I don’t even think I paid any attention to it then.

“But I’m finding more and more that I go places and such different types of people come up to me …audiences that like to listen to the morning news shows, audiences that listen to the women’s show [Paterson was the first male to fill-in for WOR veteran Joan Hamburg], audiences from the sports, or when I’m on some of the programs on the Hispanic or African-American stations.”

The former leader of New York State government is starting to find a new home behind the mic thanks to support from those many listeners.

“All these different groups tell me, ‘Oh, you should keep doing this. You’re a natural,’” Paterson says.

“He’s very passionate about sports,” Chernoff says. “If the opportunity presents itself and the governor is interested, I would definitely like to give him more on-air hosting slots.”

Paterson admits that he never gave it any thought about working in radio professionally, that was until he started to hear so much encouragement. 

“At this point, I’ve done it so much, I guess I would actually … have to seriously think about it,” Paterson admits. “I’m obviously drawn to it.”

The former governor would have to juggle radio around with his other commitments—that include teaching at New York University and representing the National Federation of the Blind.   

“[He’s] a natural. He’s excellent. He’s well-spoken,” Sivilli says. “Natural is the greatest [compliment], because he needs not to take time, as I am doing right now, to space out his words. He knows what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.”

A humble Paterson explores an additional reason for his growth in radio – the changing landscape.

“Radio may be moving into a different era right now,” Paterson recognizes. “You’re seeing a lot of people who are substantive, who have prepared programs where they really work to understand the issues … It used to be it was just yelling and screaming or antagonistic people on the radio who were divisive. And I think the times are so difficult that people are really looking for informed dialogue and spirited disagreement, rather than insulting disagreement.”

Paterson, who took over as governor following the Eliot Spitzer scandal in 2008, had his own serious disagreements with Albany legislators during his tenure. Ultimately, though, he decided against his first run to be elected as governor.  Several factors brought Paterson close to resigning like his predecessor.

Regardless of the past, Paterson is not looking to fix his image with his new found radio popularity.

“I think that the governmental decisions that we made will be rehabilitated by history. I think people will see that we did the right thing,” Paterson says. “A lot of people from my political party got mad at me, now they’re saying the same things I said three years ago. I think I was just ahead of my time, and when you’re ahead of your time, when you ride vanguard, you’re the first one to get shot at.”