The following is an excerpt from "The Sound and the Fury: The fall and rise of the first all-sports talk station, WFAN," which can be found in full on Grantland.
Your insomnia's buzzing. It's June 30, 1987. 3 a.m. No shot at sleep, no shot at sex. You're up, awake, obsessing over the sudden dip in Wally Backman's batting average or what the Yankees are going to do about their third starter. Normal, nightly stuff for a New York sports fan. Then you get pensive. About why the Knicks suck; and why the Rangers suck; and why the Jets and the Giants suck even if it's the wrong season to think about their suckitude. You want to talk it all out. No, you need to talk it all out. But there's no one there to listen. You can fix this. HoJo's stroke, Rasmussen's slider -- well, OK, maybe not the Knicks. You're alone in the world with all this knowledge until, suddenly, you are not.
On July 1, 1987, WFAN, a 24-hour sports talk radio station, broadcasting out of a sub-basement in Queens, hit the air. It didn't come out of nowhere, exactly. The format had been evolving. Marty Glickman, long-ago voice of the Knicks and Giants, first took questions on air in the 1940s at New York's WHN. He listened to calls and relayed them to his audience since the technology didn't yet exist to patch in a caller. Howard Cosell advanced the genre in the '50s by openly chastising coaches during broadcasts. In the '60s, Bill Mazer pioneered the current sports talk template, bantering with callers, letting their voices be heard, and then, in the '70s, John Sterling crystallized it by lambasting them. Enterprise Radio attempted all-sports programming in 1981. They went out of business after nine months.
Half a decade later, an Indianapolis-based media mogul in the making named Jeff Smulyan purchased WHN for 10 million bucks, turning a failing country music station -- 1050 on your AM dial, the same place where Glickman first answered caller questions on air -- into a mess of a 24-hour sports station. At first WFAN bombed. The hosts, for the most part, were the wrong hosts; the business couldn't sustain itself. The callers, though -- they were there from the beginning. In a couple years' time, WFAN changed its management, its programming (one word: Imus), and eventually its owner. Smulyan sold WFAN to Mel Karmazin's Infinity Broadcasting in 1992 for $70 million. And it's all legacy from there.
On July 1, 1987, there was one all-sports station in this country. Today, there are nearly 700. CBS, which already owns WFAN, just announced it will launch CBS Sports Radio in January. They'll be tapping into a market where 27.5 million people tune in every week. Talking and talking and talking about last night's game, next Tuesday's lineup, Kobe's postseason surgery schedule for 2015, the potential host city for the Super Bowl in 2056, a possible stigmata sighting on Mariano Rivera's pitching hand, and, sometimes, hockey. Point blank: This is our most enduring national debate. And it's voiceless without the FAN.
VIII. "Overnight, Under the Covers, Schmoozing S-P-O-R-T-S"
Bruce Lindner (Caller, "Bruce from Bayside): Steve Somers, the overnight. When he first started out I used to call him. I don't sleep that great at night, so I'd wake up at three in the morning. It's also easier to get through then.
Mark Boyle (Updates, Weekend Host): The station during the overnight shift -- the midnight-to-7 -- was like being in a parallel world. There weren't that many people there. It was Steve Somers and myself, and we had a producer and an overnight executive. The energy was different, the feel was different.
Ian Eagle (Producer, 7-11 shift, Board Operator Mike and the Mad Dog, Host): Somers has been the same guy from day one. As the world has changed, as sports has changed, as the broadcasting business has changed, he amazingly has stayed the same. I think that's why his popularity has never waned. When you turn on the radio to Steve Somers, you know what you're getting. There's comfort in that.
Bruce Murray (Overnight Desk Assistant): Steve came to work in the same outfit every single day. It was a brown Members Only jacket buttoned or zipped maybe a third of the way up, brown corduroys, and a beret. But I mean it never changed.
Mark Mason (Program Director): Somers is a wordsmith, a great storyteller. He's a very unique personality. You never in a million years will hear another Steve Somers.
Randy Bongarten (President, NBC Radio; Senior Regional VP, WFAN): If you were a night owl or had trouble sleeping at night, Steve was a great place to go.
George Vecsey (Sports Columnist, New York Times): Tuning in to the Steve Somers show is like being invited to a bar mitzvah every day.
Murray: He was the first guy that I'd ever heard that really injected humor into doing something that's supposed to be news-oriented. He realized that to maintain sanity there was no way you were gonna get through this for six hours every single day just doing straight sports.
Steve Somers (Host, Captain Midnight 12A.M.-6A.M.): Imus once told me it was the best overnight show he ever heard.
Murray: Every day he came in, you almost wanted to throw some change his way. He looked like he was walking in off the street.
Somers: I had been out of work for two and a half years. I was doing part-time work -- a little bit of TV and a little bit of radio. I wasn't unhappy. I mean, if you had told me that I was going to be out of work for two and a half years, then I might have gotten a little bit depressed, but you are always thinking a job is around the corner. My mother was telling me maybe real estate, and I said, "Real estate can't pay my rent." My father was telling me, "Maybe you want to be a shoe salesman." And I would tell him, "I don't have a foot fetish."
Eric Spitz (Desk Assistant): Steve was the best host we had on the radio station.
Eddie Scozzare (Produce for Captain Midnight): The show is his life. He's always been that way.
Somers: My agent called me in '85 or '86 telling me that he heard about the idea for an all-sports radio station, the first of its kind, in New York, and would I be interested? And, of course, "Yes! By all means!" Plus, I needed to work. So I was their last hire.
Boyle: I'd go in there about 10:30. There was no management around, no suits, just a bunch of young guys like myself.
Murray: The routine never changed. Somers would walk in, he would wave, he would say hello, he'd go upstairs, and he would start writing.
Scozzare: You'd go upstairs to the little cafeteria area we had and he'd be sitting there with a yellow legal pad and just writing out longhand. On the nights when he wasn't feeling it, there would be crumpled papers all around. He would write out this whole script. Sometimes the evening host would say, hey, won't you come in for a second and we'll sort of do a little cross-promotion. And he goes, "Well, no, I have to go write my ad libs," which makes no sense. But that's what he was doing; he was writing his ad libs.
Somers (responding via e-mail to a request to read some of his old notes): I do have handwritten notes and monologues, with coffee and mustard stains, written on legal size, 8½-by-11 canary-colored paper all over the place -- a page 1 from this monologue and a page 3 from that monologue, and somewhere, page 2, if you catch my drift here ... my apartment is decorated in legal-lined paper ... most of them have "cross-outs" and stuff written in the margins, but I can look for some you might be able to read ... because the writing is more for the ear than the eye ... with me, more than half of it is in the delivery of what's scribbled on the page ...
Scozzare: He was supposed to be on right at 12:05, but it became almost standard that he was late in coming down. And at 12:05, we would play the two-minute-long WFAN contest rules to give him time. And then he would come down, and we'd do the "Captain Midnight" open.
Murray: He doesn't have your traditional broadcaster's voice. A little high-pitched and a little singsong-y. It was a little bizarre, and yet there was something very attractive about it, something very soothing.
Somers: In the very beginning I wanted to call the show "Midnight Madness," and they didn't like that. And there was a producer at WFAN at the time who had given me an old Captain Midnight radio album. And he said, "Why don't you try this as the open to that show, make it the open to yours since you're going to be fooling around anyway." That's what we did.
Scozzare: It would start off, "Captain Midnight!" And then there was this sort of sound effect of a plane, and Somers goes, "Now boarding Flight 66, overnight journey till Imus in the morning at 5:30." And then the rest of the "Captain Midnight" intro would come on and we'd seg in our regular show open and he would do this whole routine of, you know, "Overnight, under the covers, schmoozing S-P-O-R-T-S with me here, you there." And also incorporating whoever he was working with, he would say, "The Eddie Scozzare on the other side of the glass."
Somers: I remember the very first night, July 1, 1987; I had Darryl Strawberry and Warner Wolf on that night, and Ken O'Brien, who was the quarterback of the Jets. We did the guests and we did the calls and all of these other bits. It was taking sports not so seriously, not as a matter of life and death. We didn't know if it was going to work or not. You just hoped that once the audience figured what you're doing, they'd like it and come along for the ride.
Jim Burns (Caller, "Jim from Long Island): Steve's monologues were really, really funny. A friend of mine almost drove off the road once because Steve had a monologue about Marge Schott having dinner with Himmler. It was "My Dinner With Himmler" or something like that.
Mason: If you've ever been driving along, you can't turn that thing off. Who wants to turn the car off in the middle of a Somers monologue?
Scozzare: If it was a night when there wasn't a topic that would sort of write its own story or if he was struggling with his ad libs or if he wasn't in the right mind-set, then it could be a long night. He was on like 85 percent of the time.
Murray: One of our first update guys was a guy named Mark Boyle, he's the longtime voice of the Indiana Pacers. Boyle had this uncanny ability to come in and do an update without a script. We were separated by the glass and we always thought it was like The Exorcist because he'd give this evil stare or grin as he's doing the update, going through detail after detail without a script. We would just sit there and crack up about it. It was so bizarre that at 1:45 in the morning, we were (a) doing live updates, and (b) he would do it without a script. It was incredible.
Somers: Yes, there were beer cans. I mean, we're not talking like a frat party, but you would occasionally see some beer cans there overnight.
Boyle: There were nights where [Somers] would get a little bit edgy. His behavior was a little bit erratic on occasion. He had it in a cup. I think there might have been coffee in there. It wasn't like he was sitting back there throwing shots.
Scozzare: It was bourbon.
Spitz: It was a much more innocent age, where you could call a hotel and ask for a player and they were going to answer the phone, so we played a lot of what we called hotel room bingo. Brown would pitch a no-hitter for the Phillies in Atlanta and then you would wait a couple of hours and try to get that guy on in his hotel room. Or the Mets would be on the West Coast, let's say, and the game would end at eleven o'clock. We would wait a couple hours until one in the morning and you would try to get Darryl Strawberry.
Murray: I would go on-air, toward the wee hours of the morning, and we would make fun of a fishing segment we had called "Ken Kephart's Focus on Fishing." I'd pretend to be Kephart and mock how the surf was and what's biting. Sometimes he would set me up as a guest. I'd be Suzyn Waldman. Sometimes I'd be Wayne Gretzky. But I never changed my voice, I was just always me. And I would answer questions in that person's light. Just little ways to get us through the night. He would crack up and some of the callers would crack up.
Scozzare: Steve's relationship with the callers was paramount. He really loved that whole family atmosphere and just wanted to be loved by them. He was loved by them.
Burns: There is a famous caller named King George from the Bronx, who is a corrections officer. And Somers and him have been doing the same phone call now for 15 years. Somers says, "George, I'll never forget when I took you out to dinner and you inhaled a chicken." George answers, "I did not, Steve, I did not" -- Oh this is a very sad talent I have. I can imitate some of the callers -- "I did not, don't say it again, Steve, do not say it." Then Steve says, "You inhaled a chicken and then you were flirting with the 80-year-old cashier." To which George finally replies, "You swore you wouldn't say that again, Steve."
Murray: There was a uniquely loyal audience. They called at the same time every night. We'd think, Boy, it must be a bizarre audience out there, but they were our bizarre audience.
Somers: I always wanted to be a sports broadcaster. As a kid, I used to turn the sound down on the TV broadcast games and narrate into a light bulb. Sometimes if a light bulb wasn't handy, I would use a ruler, maybe a fork or a knife. It was something that I felt. You know, you aren't thinking about money. You're not thinking about the politics of the business. You are just thinking about doing it because you feel it.
Murray: The show was over at 5:30 a.m., when Don Imus would come in and always make fun of the fact that there was a fungus on the microphone.
Somers: I would introduce Charles McCord and the "Imus in the Morning" show. Imus hated the fact that I was always late. I never got off on time. I'd always say, "I'm not through talking."
Read the full article on Grantland.
Howie Kahn and Alex French are Grantland contributing writers.
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