Tropic – Miami Herald April 28, 1985 By Marc Fisher
Author/Byline: MARC FISHER Herald Staff Writer
The King of South Florida Talk sits in an ugly orange easy chair under three spotlights, leaning forward, his lips nearly touching the silver WINZ microphone. He is surrounded by scraps of newspaper. He stares at the clock, glances over to the telephone console.
No lights blinking.
His nails are bitten to the quick. His head twitches back and forth between the clock and the phones, the clock and the phones. He is, for the 23rd time this evening, repeating the station phone numbers. He scowls. Finally, a caller. He punches up the call.
“Line 2 in Dade County. Hello?”
Silence. A hang-up.
Neil Rogers, voice of the night, Nasty Neil, Uncle Neil, the funniest, most intelligent, most hated, most loved man on South Florida talk radio, is alone on the air.
Just south of the county line, at the end of a winding road, behind a chain-link fence, the radio station is plopped in the middle of suburban brush, a space-age pod packed with electronic gear and pulsing lights. There have been times when the switchboard flashed and sparkled; when the clamoring voices of callers petitioned for Neil’s ear and a piece of his mind. But not tonight.
Tonight, a warm spring evening, Neil Rogers is in the talk studio, separated from his producer and technician by thick, dark glass, alone with his mike and his phone. His mellifluous sportscaster’s voice fills the room, pumped back to him through speakers in the ceiling.
For all he knows, he is talking only to himself.
There’s a certain breed of radio talk-show hosts who make a career out of making people angry. Neil Rogers made them angrier than most, and that made him more popular than most. No matter that he was a fat balding liberal Jewish atheist homosexual; his rantings drew the highest ratings ever on South Florida radio. Folks despised him and everything he stood for. Folks loved him and sent him cookies and long personal letters and went to the restaurants he advertised, hoping to meet the man who got their blood boiling and filled their evenings with laughs.
He was wild. Irresponsible. Outrageous. And delicious fun to listen to, unless, of course, he was calling you a “Neanderthal” or a “complete idiot” or “the worst thing to happen since the Spanish Inquisition.” Even then, if you spoke to him on the air, you might figure, hey, Neil Rogers is calling me an idiot in front of just thousands and thousands of people. Pretty neat. And if you managed to tick him off just right, he’d say, “You’re gone,” and you’d be holding a dead phone.
He opened his shows with 20-minute tirades on “the slime of the earth” that Castro sent over from Mariel, on the “spineless cowards who run this community,” on “those fanatic idiots screaming like banshees on the Spanish radio stations.” He loved to say things solely to infuriate, such as when the pope came to visit and Rogers wondered why everybody was excited about a “little guy in a white suit” running around the White House lawn.
In the World According to Neil, religion — he calls it Organized Religion, as in Organized Crime — is “archaic horseshit, fantasy claptrap.” The Moral Majority is a “dangerous, warped pack of fanatics.”
His listeners — 300,000 a week, the ratings said — loved how he got when he was angry. They learned how to say just the words that would get him going on the evils of immigration (“We are the nation’s dumping ground, a human garbage heap”), on the death of Miami Beach (“You could shoot a cannonball up Collins Avenue any night and not hit a thing”), on the stupidity of the Miami City Commission (“a sickening, pathetic zoo — unbelievable”).
He may be the first talk-show host in history to be officially condemned by a city council (Sweetwater, which called him anti-Cuban) and by a public watchdog agency (Dade County’s Community Relations Board, which called him a destructive force).
Monsignor Bryan Walsh of the Catholic Archdiocese says Rogers is “an absolute rabble-rouser, spreading misinformation and fear.” Walsh was worrying about more than urban harmony. Priests used to come on Rogers’ show to talk religion. Then Rogers said he never met a priest who was true to his vows. And Rogers spent an evening — several, in fact — arguing that most priests are gay. The Archbishop was not pleased. Walsh “strongly recommended” that no priest ever appear on Rogers’ show again — and none has.
Last December, after the United States agreed to accept more immigrants from Cuba, Rogers warned his audience that half a million Cubans might head for Miami.
“You’re going to have Anglo flight from Dade like we just got bubonic plague,” Rogers kept telling his audience.
Greater Miami United, the coalition of Anglos, Hispanics and blacks dedicated to making Miami a better place, announced that hysteria was “gripping the community.” They were talking about Neil Rogers, ranting anti-Cuban.
After the Mariel boatlift, Rogers’ ratings soared to an unfathomable level. At one point, in a market with 57 radio stations, one of every nine people listening to the radio — to music, news, religion, sports or talk — was tuned to Neil Rogers. Suddenly, Rogers was quoted in The New York Times, on TV and at dinner tables throughout South Florida. The ratings stayed sky-high for four years, even after he switched from WNWS (790 AM) to WINZ (940 AM) in March 1984, just about doubling his salary. Today, Rogers makes about $100,000 a year — $52,000 salary plus $10 for every ad he reads on the air.
Night after night, The Neil Rogers Show was South Florida’s hate supermarket, aisle upon aisle brimming with packaged bigotry, tonight a sale on Cuban Shop Clerks Who Won’t Speak English, tonight a special on Rude Cubans Who Drive Fast.
But then one Saturday morning in January, Rogers cut off the hate — cold turkey. He wouldn’t take any calls on Cubans or immigration. If a hate-spewer sneaked past his producer, who screens his calls, Rogers would cut him off with a curt “Bye.” Some listeners “called me yellow and gutless, but after a while they went away.”
They sure did. Nearly all of them. The phones died.
It happened almost overnight: His ratings dropped by half. South Florida, it seems, at least the talk-show loyalists, found nothing compelling about just another forum to hear over and over about nutrition, disease, psychic phenomena and pit bulls. If the callers couldn’t say something nasty, they’d rather say nothing at all.
The phones. Those lights blinking in Rogers’ face are his lifeline. Without the phones, he is alone, cut off. Late at night, when he gets home to his Pembroke Pines townhouse, he lies on his waterbed for long stretches, listening to other talk shows, watching hours of cable on his giant-screen TV. He lives alone. He goes to the racetrack alone. He sits in his studio alone, his fingers playing nervously over the phone buttons, waiting for them to light up.
On the air:
Feb. 25: “I came the closest I’ve ever come tonight to just walking out the door and calling it quits. Where are you people? No one cares about this community.”
March 11: “I don’t know what to make of it anymore. It’s got to be me, or the radio station, or the town. … Did everyone expire?”
March 12: “People want bang-bang, hate, hysteria. In those days, when all we talked about was the Cubans, the media was calling us for comments. As long as venom was spewing, people loved it. It was like professional wrestling.”
March 21: “People say I’m not nasty enough anymore and I don’t hang up on people. I don’t like to do things in a contrived way. It may be good theater, but I’m not into contrived controversy.”
April 3: “We are watching the demise of talk radio in South Florida.”
A caller, Peg from Hollywood: “Are you the same Neil Rogers whose brain I fell in love with three years ago? Who are you now? What are you trying to do?”
Good question, Peg. How about it Neil? Have you really mellowed, or is it more complicated than that? Are you now or have you ever been anti-Cuban?
“No, but I’m not going to waste my time trying to prove anything to emotional Cubans. That’s asinine. The Cubans are very, very emotional people and you just can’t say anything that’s going to change them. Most of them are paranoid, hypercritical, anti-Communist, right-wing, pseudo-religious fanatics. It’s pointless for me to try to persuade them that I’m not anti-Cuban.”
Apparently, Peg, it’s more complicated.
It goes back to December, after the State Department and Fidel Castro agreed that 300,000 more Cubans (500,000 by Rogers’ personal calculations) might be allowed to emigrate, most of them, in all likelihood, to South Florida. The Hatefest was in full swing. Night after night, the calls poured in. The Cubans this, the Cubans that. “Shoot them before they land,” one caller said.
Rogers had set off this maelstrom of malice by calling on his listeners to demand a halt to mass Cuban immigration. He got the kind of response that had built his reputation as Hatemonger of the Airwaves. The anti-Cuban bile was so thick, so black, even Neil was shocked. His ratings soared.
The hysteria built from just after Christmas to just after New Year’s.
“There are just some things in this town that you cannot discuss rationally, like immigration and Israel,” he says now. “All the crazies come out. Every night I left here thinking I was going to have a stroke.”
Then one Saturday, Neil Rogers got sick and tired and just wouldn’t take it anymore. There was a series of calls. Hate from both sides. The Anglo bigots spewing their venom, and the Cubans claiming all Anglos were bigots.
“You people are so full of hate,” he told the callers, disgusted. He tried warning them. He tried telling them to stick to the issues. But it didn’t work. Somewhere a dam had burst and the hate kept flowing. Sitting in the studio, his studio, Rogers watched his show veer out of control.
He, the host, the man with the finger on the phone button, the man some callers reverently call The Talkmaster, was no longer the one who decided the evening’s subject. It made for great radio, terrific ratings.
It was intolerable, unacceptable. To save his creation, he had to destroy it.
Radio, like any performing art, is the sanctuary of the shy. An empty room with a microphone is safely distant from 300,000 people in their cars and bedrooms. In that empty room, Neil Rogers becomes a celebrity, in private.
And while his voice reaches a city of strangers, somewhere in his own mind is the 10-year-old boy who sat in front of the TV in his house in Rochester, N.Y., holding a tape recorder, announcing baseball play-by-play for his audience of one. The child was named Nelson Roger Behelfer, but when he talked into his recorder he called himself Neil Rogers. His parents ran a sporting goods store and he listened to a lot of radio. He wanted to be a DJ or a sports announcer. He flourished in front of a microphone, even one that wasn’t connected to anything.
He went to high school in Canandaigua, just outside Rochester, and got his first radio job when he was 17, spinning records on WCGR, a tiny daytime station in his hometown. He studied broadcasting at Michigan State University for two years and dropped out to go on the air. He was a sportscaster and rock DJ in those days and he lived the stereotypical broadcaster’s life, flitting around from one small town to another, announcing hockey and racing and baseball and playing rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. He was good. There were folks who said he was destined to be the top baseball announcer in the land.
He took his act to Batavia, N.Y. in 1963. On to Albion, Mich. Then Marshall, Michigan, where he emceed Luncheon at Schuler’s, introducing organ favorites played at Wynn Schuler’s Restaurant. Sturgis, Mich. Then a step up: general manager, program director, music director and morning DJ of a rock station in Kalamazoo. A break from the airwaves to sell radio ads in Detroit, then back to a station in Lansing.
In 1973, Rogers moved to Sarasota, where quite by accident he did his first talk show. The station hired a retiree from Pittsburgh to do a talk program, but on his first day, the fellow couldn’t figure out how to work the phones and his guest didn’t show up. The second day, the retiree’s blood pressure soared and his nose bled. Rogers, who was spinning records at the station, came to the rescue. He stayed a year and a half.
From the start, The Neil Rogers Show was controversial. Watergate dominated the talk. Though the station owners were staunch Nixon supporters, Rogers ripped the crooked president to shreds. The audience loved it. More moves followed, in 1975 to WJNO in West Palm Beach; the next year he was headed to a station in Yuma, Ariz. But he never made it. He stopped on the side of the road at a pay phone somewhere in Arizona to call his mom in Hollywood. She told him WKAT in Miami Beach had phoned. They wanted him. Rogers turned right around and set up shop at the Cat. In 1978, he moved to South Florida’s top talk station, WNWS.
Rogers kept the phones ringing by combining vehement liberalism — a heaping serving of civil liberties, Democratic politics and antiadventurism — with a populist streak and a talent for humor.
He can be very silly. He plays singing chicken records on the air. He plays Johnny Mathis’ versions of Yiddish songs to rile his old Jewish listeners. When his callers phone in to defend the Mafia (“At least they know how to keep the streets safe”), Rogers will play the Theme from The Godfather in the background, very softly. After a while, the caller catches on.
“What is that, Neil? Aren’t you listening to me?”
“Oh, nothing, go ahead.”
Listeners have stuck with Rogers even when they disagree with him. Only once before did they desert him.
“After I came out of the closet, my ratings went into the toilet,” Rogers says. “I got threatening mail from as far away as Oregon. But I’ve never regretted it. If you can’t be true to yourself, how can you be true to anything? It’s part of my personality.”
It is his homosexuality, which he revealed over WKAT on Dec. 17, 1976, when he had two members of the National Gay Task Force as guests.
“While it’s not really anybody’s business, I am making it official today that I am, myself, a member of the gay community,” Rogers said on the show. Rogers, who has known he is gay since he was 10, decided to announce his preference to encourage other prominent people to follow suit. It didn’t happen.
Gradually, listeners either forgot or forgave. Today, “they will use it as a weapon. All of a sudden then, I’m that faggot on the radio or that Jew on the radio. Cubans are very homophobic, so they love to use that as a weapon against me.” On the air, Rogers has made his sexuality something of an asset, another way to outrage and amuse. Off the air, he doesn’t care to say much about it.
“What I do in my own time is my business,” he says.
He needs his audience and especially his callers. He is genuinely crushed when they don’t call. He is a loner.
“He comes alive in the studio,” says Bill Calder, who goes to the track and out to dinner with Rogers several times a week. Calder hired Rogers at WJNO in Palm Beach a decade ago and now does the all-night show on WINZ. “That’s the most exciting part of his life. Beyond that, I don’t know. You can only know him so far. He only opens the door a certain amount. Behind that, there’s either tons or nothing. But I’ll tell you this: I’d trust him with my life.”
Rogers is 5 feet 9 inches and very heavy. He wears huge guayaberas and baggy pants that slip down over his moccasins. He has thin, stringy black hair. He is 42 years old. He listens to rock music. He reads an enormous number of magazines, from Mother Jones to Time, from The New Republic to U.S. News and World Report.
After his show, Rogers often stays on the air with Calder for an hour or five, shmoozing or poring over the next day’s Racing Form. He goes to the track several times a week. He used to bet — and lose — heavily. These hot days at Hialeah, he stands by the rail, oblivious to the gamblers around him, and studies his tip sheets, betting about $15 a race and just about breaking even — over time. Still, he is not there for the atmosphere. The track is his obsession, the place where “I plunge my brains out on the horses.” One glorious afternoon, Calder came over to Rogers at the finish line and said, “Beautiful day, huh?”
Rogers looked around, puzzled, and replied, “It’s only nice if you’re winning big money.”
Once a week, he goes to South Dade to be hypnotized into losing weight. He says it’s working; he’s down 20 pounds in a month, from 242 to 222. He’s aiming for 150. Every night, he listens to his hypnotist’s cassette before going to sleep.
“Instead of going home and eating spaghetti, I listen to the tape,” he says. “It’s the sounds of waterfalls and birds. You lie down and close your eyes and it’s very peaceful.”
The nice guy routine has not worked. The phones are quiet, the ratings, down. But The malaise is not limited to Rogers. All the local talk hosts and stations are suffering. On WGBS, arch- conservative David Gold rails against the “Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua” for 25 minutes — then no calls. On all four major talk stations — WNWS, WINZ, WIOD and the newcomer, WGBS — hosts are resorting to the old standards to coax listeners into calling: psychics, astrologers and psychologists; trivia games, radio auctions and what’s your favorite restaurant shows.
The radio listings in the Sunday paper tell the story. The talk glut is so thick that the same guests appear on several different shows each week. The same topics dominate many programs each day — health, Bernhard Goetz, condominium disputes, the Miami City Commission.
“I hear people with no calls, zero, like the whole town has vanished,” Rogers says.
It soothes Rogers somewhat to think that everyone else is afflicted. But his ratings took an especially large dive. And the timing, right after Rogers cut off the hate, has him especially depressed.
“All right, let’s try. This is a test to see if there’s anybody alive in Broward. . .” Rogers is desperate. He is in his Prune Phase, a kind of mind warp in which Rogers declares old folks to be the focus of evil in South Florida. Even though perhaps half his audience is old (“Some nights we can’t buy a caller under the age of 100,” says producer Sloan), the topic is always good for some irate callers. It ticks off the elderly and entertains the younger set. It gets Rogers’ nasty juices going better than nearly anything else these days.
“They’re waiting to die. It’s pathetic. Almost all of the hate is from them. They’re more interested in their bridge games and their early bird specials and their condo living. The whole concept is wrong — it’s an escape from life.” The network news is ending and he must return to the air. A quick glance at the phones. Dark. He swats a used Styrofoam cup off the table.
“To sit here and try to motivate people who have already escaped from life, it’s ridiculous.” One night this month, Rogers tried something new. “I’m going to try to get these same wonderful people who are so quick to respond to Cubans coming in to help some starving people. I don’t think they’ll care. They’re into themselves. Reagan has told them it’s OK to be selfish, it’s OK to be materialistic.”
The first three callers are old ladies. Each pledges to send Neil a check to be given to the USA for Africa Ethiopian relief effort. Each tells him how terrific he is. Each ignores the fact that moments before, he was calling them prunes. In the next week, he will receive more than $4,000 from more than 100 listeners. He is somewhat encouraged. But the charity move is an aberration. Other serious topics still elicit a collective yawn. “I don’t want to leave South Florida, but it’s an experiment that just isn’t working,” Rogers says at the end of one long, quiet night. “Every group here is tremendously paranoid — old people, Jews, blacks, Cubans. I started out to make changes in people. Then I learned that’s not why they listen. People are listening to be entertained, stirred up. They want World War III.” At the height of his notoriety, Rogers had offers from talk stations in Philadelphia and Boston. Sometimes he regrets not taking them. “I can pack real fast,” he says. “My value in this market has decreased drastically in the past few months.”
Rogers still has 11 months to go in his current contract, so he’s not looking for work. After midnight, he heads home, flicks on the VCR and pops in a movie. One of his favorite movies is Network, the tale of Howard Beale, the staid TV anchorman who turns into a crazed prophet of the airwaves. Beale was bored. He wanted some reaction from his audience. He wanted to get them to believe as he did and act on their beliefs.
So he went on TV and spun out conspiracy theories and stirred up the audience to get up out of their chairs and go to the window and shout to the world that they’re madder than hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. The ratings were terrific.
The comparison is inescapable. “I do that a lot less than I used to,” Rogers says. “I don’t see myself that way anymore. It was like screaming at a sponge.”
After work, Howard Beale would wander the streets of Manhattan, seeking inspiration from the gods, oblivious to the world around him. Eventually, the network moguls decided they had to get rid of him. They had him shot. On the air. Good for the ratings. Rogers’ fate will not likely be so messianic. After work, Neil Rogers goes home to Pembroke Pines, turns on the tube and watches Regis Philbin or Dr. Ruth’s Good Sex! or the auction show on Black Entertainment TV. During the day, he’ll visit a sponsor or two, go to the track, then head over to the studio to sit between the phones and the clock.
“And good evening everybody. It’s 8:07 on WINZ. I’m Neil Rogers. We’re here every night from 8 ’til midnight and on Saturdays from 10 ’til 2.”
He pours himself a Styrofoam cup of herbal tea and rereads a listener’s letter while a caller rambles on about her corns and how she went to her chiropodist in Miami Beach and he wasn’t polite to her and isn’t that terrible. Finally, he looks up. Eyes dart over to the clock, back to the phones. One light blinking.
“Are you done?” he asks the old lady.
She doesn’t hear him and rattles on. Nasty Neil Rogers sips some tea and glances again, the clock and the phones, the clock and the phones.
Caption: color photo: Neil Rogers (cover – t), Neil Rogers (3- t)
Memo: COVER STORY
Index terms: ROGERS AGE BIOGRAPHY PROFILE
Copyright: Copyright (c) 1985 The Miami Herald