TALK CAN LIGHT UP THE NIGHT (August 28, 1983)

TALK CAN LIGHT UP THE NIGHT
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Miami Herald, The (FL) August 28, 1983
Author: BILL COSFORD Herald Movie Critic

RADIO TALK-SHOW HOST: “Hello, caller, are you still there? You’re still
there, I can’t believe it.”

CALLER: “Who is? Me?”

*

Radio talk shows, particularly the ones with the “open phones,” are just
about the weirdest phenomenon of contemporary American life, once you get past
“rock video” and professional soccer. Most cities have radio talk shows, and in
most cities those shows are so boring — “Have you ever eaten at the Happy
Lobster?” “No, is it good?” “Yeah, it’s great, but that’s not why I called. How
do you think the Cubs will do next year… ?” — that one frets for the health
of the Republic.

Not our city. Not our tri-county area. We have a good measure of the
open-phone soporific, yes, but we also have some of the most contentious,
tendentious and flat-out interesting radio talk of all the big markets. This is
particularly important now, deep into the dog days, when there are nights on
which the only thing there is to do is to listen to the radio and see if it
makes you mad.

These are the times when we need WNWS the most.

Now, it’s true that there are colorful personalities at some of the
other stations, and it’s true that not everyone who talks on WNWS (AM 790) is
always worth listening to. No other station, however, has quite the
concentration of curmudgeons, gadflies, screamers and philosophers. No other
station quarrels with itself quite so ardently — once, when a concealed-weapon
law was beging debated in Tallahassee, a day’s worth of air time was devoted to
rallying listeners to call the capital with their opinions, and the point of
view swung 180 degrees as the schedule wore on and the talk-hosts changed
shifts. No other station seems to have made quite so many of us mad. And no
other English-language AM station has as many listeners, which is perhaps the
way it should be.

WNWS broadcasts from studios so nondescript that a couple of years ago
when two thugs robbed the program director at gunpoint, the crooks did not know
they were in a radio station until they heard the prime-time man, Neil Rogers,
call for help over the air. You could fit the whole building into one of the
studios at WIOD. And despite the call letters — W-N-W-S, get it? — the
station is “all news” only in the morning. The talk, and the fireworks, start at
9.

The WNWS day truly begins then, starts to swing through wide arcs of
opinion, counter-attack and, occasionally, public flagellation. Sometimes there
are guests, and sometimes the guests are the predictables, authors off the
talk-show circuit or astrologers or biorhythm guys. More often, there are simply
those open phones and a couple of questions thrown out- what about casino
gambling, what about women’s rights, what about AIDS, what about tourism, what
about a pay raise for the teachers, what about the fabric of our community?

Al Rantel starts things off at 9 with a liberal pitch, delivered gently
(though he will toss in the White House “comment line” number when the
Administration seems to have stepped out of line, and once caused a furor by
conducting a magazine sex poll). Shirley Peters does the midday turn, and is
adept at baiting anti-feminist crabs, though she is not above having her star
charts read over the air, either. Steve Kane, who is generally liberal, and then
Barbara Studley, who talks about nuclear throw-weight and calls G. Gordon Liddy
“a great American,” fill the afternoons.

Then comes Rogers, on the 8-to-midnight trick, and the night outshines
the day.

Rogers is a gay Jewish atheist, and he is overweight — all of which he
has conceded over the air. He is also the most popular radio personality in
South Florida.

It is on Rogers’ show that the anti-bilingual movement was born, though
Rogers himself is death on bigots. It is on

Rogers’ show that the priest and the rabbi debate, that proposals for
immigration reform, casino gambling and crime prevention were converted to mass
postcard campaigns. It’s on

Rogers’ Wednesday night “Mating and Dating Show” that singles have been
swapping telephone numbers, apparently with some nuptial success rate, for
nearly a year now. And it is on

Rogers’ show that if you don’t become involved, you get a good
tongue-lashing.

Sometimes Neil will throw out one of his pet themes — Friday night is
often “religion night,” and Rogers keeps an underlined Bible handy, the better
to throw quotes back at believers who, for some reason, can’t stop listening.
Sometimes he gets tough on the local media, too, blasting this newspaper
hardest. A frequent guest is Miami News Editor Howard Kleinberg, but Rogers goes
ahead and calls it the “Miami Snooz” anyway.

The most interesting thing about Rogers, however, is his demand for
involvement. Most talk-show hosts go public, sooner or later, with their
nervousness when the phones don’t ring. There’s always the suspicion, however,
that their phones aren’t ringing because no one is listening. Rogers, on the
other hand, has the rating books right there in the desk, and with 300,000 or so
listeners a week, when Neil wants a call, Neil can expect a call.

If he doesn’t get one, particularly on some issue of local concern
–bureaucrats’ pay raises, utility rate increases, the quality of education,
political rascality — Rogers will try anything. He’ll call it a bush town,
he’ll threaten to quit, he’ll threaten (and this is worse) to bring on the radio
psychics. Calls always follow a Rogers tirade, but they’d better be quality
calls: “No fawning, please — I’d rather have you disagree…” Click.

As a final resort, Rogers will reprise his theory of the “prune
mentality,” which has evolved as a model for the person who doesn’t care about
the community. Sometimes, Rogers will summon the prunes to the phones; mostly,
he urges them to move out.

Rogers and WNWS have not been without controversy over the years, and
back when the station was warning that bad things might come from the Mariel
boatlift, there were death threats and bomb calls. But Rogers, pleading for
commitment to the town and lashing his listeners into an exchange of ideas, is
nonetheless one of the most refreshing voices on the air, if only for his
apparent earnestness. He’s been at it for years, and still he keeps saying that
this can be a good place to live, if only we work it right.

There are those who find WNWS, and Rogers in particular,
over-stimulating, even disruptive. City officials have yelped publicly, and
enough of his audience has told him he’s mean that

Rogers now refers to himself as “Nasty Neil.”

These detractors may in fact be prunes. For this is the kind of city —
culturally conservative and hard to move — that has always needed some folks
out there thumping the tub. And in the dead of August, when the air is still and
the city seems to work in slow motion, the thumping of the tub starts to sound
like a voice in the wilderness.
Edition: FINALSection: AMUSEMENTSPage: 1L
Record Number: 8303090194Copyright (c) 1983 The Miami Herald