RAGING BULL (July 20, 1986)

Sun-Sentinel July 20, 1986
Author: JOHN DEGROOT, Staff Writer

REPENT. FOR IT IS 8:40 ON a Friday evening and the King of South Florida
Talk Radio is at hand, his voice rolling across the airwaves like an electronic
Jeremiah crying out in the darkness.

“Is anyone alive out there?” Neil Rogers groans into the microphone
suspended in front of him. “Does anyone care? Or is it going to be another one
of those nights when all of South Florida has gone comatose and brain- dead?”

Biting the ears that hear him is one of Rogers` trademarks as the most
controversial and listened-to talk show host on the Gold Coast. The man has
developed a litany of savage epithets to describe the loyal listeners who have
enabled him to garner an undisputed lion`s share of the nightly ratings in South
Florida`s brutally competitive radio market.

Prunes, Rogers calls his generally middle-aged and retired listeners. Or
Neanderthals. Or the Living Dead. Or the Condo Comatose. And so on. You get the

But his listeners — estimated at 300,000 — love the abuse, and return
each night, begging for more, all undoubtedly convinced that Neil Rogers is
talking about all the other pea-brained people out there in Radioland.

“Honestly,” Rogers sighs. “The mindless apathy of you people makes me
want to throw up.”

The problem?

Rogers spent most of a recent Monday trying to get a doctor to examine a
close friend in the emergency room of a Broward hospital. Now it`s Friday night,
and Rogers is into his third show of the week dedicated to savaging health care
in America.

“Un-bee-lee-vuh-bull!” Rogers gasps, unloading his favorite put-down —
one usually reserved for born-again Christians foolish enough to think they can
win the stridently atheistic Rogers over to Christ.

“Doesn`t anyone want to think about the nightmare that passes for health
care in this country?”

Silence. Rogers deliberately ignores the flashing lights on his phone
bank; he is a master of the pregnant pause, skillfully allowing a seeming
eternity`s worth of seconds to tick by, gleefully knowing who`s out there
twisting in the silence: a whole generation of Global Village children raised on
a diet of white noise, elevator music, humming Walkmans and television
babysitters… every mother`s child a full-blown sound junkie incapable of
enduring more than one mind-wrenching moment of dead air without rattling the
old boom box in a desperate effort to restore their connection.

As the seven phone lines leading into the darkened studio of Miami`s
WINZ Radio remain ablaze with callers, Rogers seques into a commerical message.
Time now to talk about the really fine early bird specials at such-and-such
delicatessen — “with the most lean and tender roast beef you`ve tasted in
years,” he coos, his entire persona shifted from radio-host Hyde to
advertiser-sponsored Jekyll.

THE MAN DOESN`T look at all like his voice sounds.

His voice is an instrument: Announcer Baroque, soaring, stentorian, able
to shift in tone and timbre at the turn of a phrase, howling and outraged one
moment, warm and compassionate the next. Easily worth the $100,000 a year it
generates for Neil Rogers.

And then there`s the man. A hands-down finalist in any casting call for
Walter Mitty. Owlish brown eyes peering out from behind hip accountant
spectacles perched in the middle of an Tweedle-Dee face. Forty-three years old.
Balding. Pale-skinned.

The truth is that Neil Rogers` body is his albatross.

“My son`s always had a problem with eating,” his mother says. “It
started right after he left home and got into radio. Before that he was skinny
as a rail. We had to force him to eat.”

Eating is how Rogers says he copes with the outrageous stress of his
profession — climbing atop a teetering Arbitron tightrope six times a week,
with only his wits and mouth to keep him from toppling into broadcasting`s
bottomless pit of listener indifference, low ratings and no sponsors . . .


“You think it`s easy, laying yourself on the line for four solid hours
every night?” Rogers sighs.

So he eats. Voluminously. And usually with a large side dish of pasta.
Topped off with a big bowl of syrup-laden ice cream.

The clothing hanging in Rogers` Plantation home ranges from Small (a
dream) to Extra Large (reality).

Like most compulsive overeaters, Rogers measures his life with his

The high point?

“The time I lost a hundred pounds back in 1975 while I was doing a talk
show for WJNO in Palm Peach,” Rogers says, in the proud manner of a test pilot
recalling his first conquest of the sound barrier.

He admits to having tried everything from near-starvation diets to

“Hypnotism works,” he says. “I lose 30 pounds every time I do it. But
then I put it right back on when I stop.”

Fat is Rogers` greatest source of frustration — greater even than
born-again Christians, or homophobics.

Last June he promised to kill himself on the air if his latest diet

“It`s disgusting,” Rogers said then of his body. “If I don`t lose 50
pounds by Nov. 5 — my birthday — I will blow my brains out on this program.”

SUICIDE IS ROGERS` ultimate black-humor solution to any imponderable
issue — from his own obesity to South Florida`s constipated expressways. But
maybe that`s to be expected from a man whose patron saint is Howard Beale, the
fictional anchorman in the film Network who achieved instant fame by urging his
fellow drones of America to run to the windows, lean out and scream, “I`m madder
than hell and I`m not going to take it anymore!”

“That`s what I`m trying to get the people of South Florida to do,”
Rogers explains. “Apathy is what`s destroying this community.” His round face
flushes with emotion as he launches into a Doomsday litany:

“Nobody seems to care that a militant bunch of fanatical, right-wing
Cuban demagogues want to destroy free speech in Miami in the name of

“Nobody is worried about the religious radical right taking over our

“Tourism has gone down the toilet on Miami Beach and casinos are the
only solution, but who has the courage to bring them here?”

Rogers admits that his ultimate fantasy would be hosting a show that
would send people roaring into the night, demanding solutions to all the
problems Neil Rogers has warned them about.

“Just like Howard Beale did in Network,” Rogers says, flashing a
suprisingly boyish smile.

Trouble is, Howard Beale was blown away on camera by his own producers
— his death a final act of prime time-desperation after his ratings began to

And now here is Neil Rogers using suicide like George Burns` cigar. Just
another schtick, hah-hah.

Some of his suicide threats are fairly creative.

`Honestly,” Rogers warned his listeners several nights ago. “If you
people don`t start responding with some intelligence out there, I`m going to
dash out of this studio, jump into the transmitter and fry myself to death,

“A LOT OF people don`t understand my sense of humor,” Neil Rogers says.

Take the time he came very close to getting arrested (and fired) when he
urged his listeners to mail in marijuana seeds to his WNWS studio, where he was
working as program director and radio show host.

Gov. Bob Graham had just announced his statewide plan to spray paraquat
on any illegal field of grass. So Rogers decided to have some dark humor radio
fun with the whole thing.

“Governor Graham is going to turn us all into pot farmers,” Rogers told
his listeners. “So the only thing to do is for everyone to share their seeds.”

A few seed-laden envelopes arrived at the station the next day, and
Rogers gleefully shook them in front of his microphone. The envelopes contained
perfectly legal bird seed, Rogers says today.

But the cops were not amused. They promised to bust Rogers if any of the
envelopes were filled with the real thing, and the station management demoted
Rogers from program director to what?

No matter. Rogers` pot seed crusade made headlines. And his ratings
continued to soar.

A GREAT MANY South Floridians fail to see the humor in Rogers` outraged
monologues. Angered by his constant attacks on organized religion (“Is anyone
out there really stupid enough to believe this crap?”), the Catholic Archdiocese
of Miami has urged its priests to shun guest shots on Rogers` show.

Leaders of Miami`s Cuban-American community have labeled Rogers
everything from a rabid Communist to a hate-monger for his ongoing rampage
against the Latinization of South Florida (“Most of these right-wing Cuban
demagogues want to turn South Florida into the kind of fascist state Cuba was
before Castro.”)

Dade County`s Community Relations Board has branded Rogers “a
destructive force,” citing, for example, his on-the-air S.O.S (Save Our South
Florida) campaign to prevent Castro from shipping any more convicts and mental
patients to Miami.

“I don`t give a damn what people think of me,” Rogers snorts. “All I`ve
ever tried to do is make people think — and for that, I`ve been called
everything from a rotten Communist to a dirty faggot kike.”

HIS REAL NAME is Nelson Roger Behelfer and he was born in Rochester, New
York. He grew up in the sleepy fingerlake farm community of Canandaigua.

His father ran an Army surplus store.

“I was a very shy kid,” Rogers recalls. “Kept to myself most of the
time.” He still does. Rogers away from the microphone is a man who has learned
to keep his distance.

“Neil never talks,” his mother, Mildred Behelfer, says. “Unless he`s got
a microphone in front of him.”

Rogers has lunch at his mother`s Hollywood condominium every Saturday
afternoon — after his 10 to 2 show.

“Nelson loves his mother`s cooking,” Mildred says. “But I wish he would
talk to me once in a while while he`s eating. `I tell my son I`m going to put a
microphone in front of him while he`s having his lunch. That way he`ll talk.”

Nelson Roger Behelfer learned to talk through a microphone when he was
only 10 years old.

That was the same year year he discovered he was homosexual.

Rogers doesn`t say how he knew. Or what happened. “I just knew I was
gay,” he says.

It confirmed a feeling he`d always had — that of being totally alone
and different from all the other people in the world.

It was a secret he kept deep within himself. “I didn`t even begin to
deal with my homosexuality until I was 30,” he says.

Before that, it was merely an explanation for his profound loneliness.

“Little Nelson had this tape recorder when he was 10 years old, and I
remember him sitting alone, announcings things into it for hours,” his mother
says. “Mostly what he would do is turn down the sound on the television set and
then do a play-by-play description of a baseball game into his microphone.”

Another memory from Mrs. Behelfer: “All the other neighborhood kids
would be playing baseball in the street. And there would be my son standing on
the sidelines, doing a play-by-play of the game, screaming out everything all
the other kids were doing until the neighbors complained.”

So much Nelson Roger Behelfer`s early efforts to communicate.

NEIL ROGERS CAN`T remember a time when he didn`t want to work in radio.

He spent more than 20 years as a radio gypsy, shunting from one weak-
signaled station to the next, spinning records, reading grain futures, or
selling air time in low-rent markets like Batavia, N.Y., or Marshal, Mich.,
always traveling on, never getting too close to anyone for very long.

Rogers was playing records at a station in Sarasota and stumbled into
the talk show business when the regular host bailed out after suffering an on
the air anxiety attack.

The talk show format was a natural for Rogers` unique blend of quixotic
left- wing idealism and his cold steel, bear-trap mind.

It also seems to be the perfect arena for a brilliant man with a deep
need to be part of things — but always from a distance. Rogers has spent the
last 13 years raving about everything from Watergate to Reaganomics, moving from
Sarasota to WJNO in Palm Beach to WKAT and WNWS and finally WINZ in Miami, each
station, audience and paycheck larger than the last.

“Neil`s success is that he believes what he`s saying,” says his
producer, Chris Slone. “He doesn`t fake his feelings. He`s really angry when he
gets on the air every night — and people sense that and respond to it.”


Impotent rage is the stem that winds the spring of most radio talk

Spend a few hours dial-twisting your way through the hostile world of
South Florida talk radio. You`ll get the idea:

–The vitriolic Al Rantel on WNWS: “Callers like that last one should do
us all a favor and drop dead.”

–WNWS` searingly cynical Steve Kane: “Get off my phone, you creep!”

–And Neil Rogers: “The Pope is nothing more than a Neanderthal in a
silly white shmattah (a Yiddish word for an inferior dress).”

ALL TALK SHOW hosts dwell in a world where it`s the Good Guys versus the
Bad. Each issue is a crisis. Every problem could be solved “if only you people
out there would get off you your butts and do something!”

And then there are the callers, people with a desperate need to reach
out and make some kind of connection.

“These are not ordinary people,” Rogers says of a typical talk show
junkie. “How many people do you know who will wait on hold for a half hour, just
for the chance to say something on the air for a few seconds?”

More than 300,000 South Floridians listen to Neil Rogers every week,
according to who? Most of them are old, and seem to live in a world they don`t
really understand.

You can hear their voices heavy with fear and anger as they share a few
moments of mutual impotence and on-the-air angst with the man they call Nasty

“If only …”

“Why doesn`t doesn`t somebody do something …?”

“What`s wrong with people today …?”

And on and on.

“NO QUESTION ABOUT it, most people listen out of a need to focus their
anger at something,” Rogers says. But More and more, he wonders how much longer
he can sustain his rage six nights, week in and week out.

Increasingly, he finds himself attacking the same issues over and over
again. “But nothing happens. I keep getting mad, but the problem doesn`t go

“I`m not sure how much longer I can keep it up. This sort of thing could
lead to a nervous breakdown.”

“I wish he would relax and let somebody else worry for a while,” his
mother Mildred says.”My son feels he has to save the world.”

Rogers` mother still believes her son erred when he announced his sexual
preference on the air back in 1976. Rogers exploded from the closet during the
height of Anita Bryant`s anti-gay crusade in South Florida.

“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 announced on WKAT.

The announcement unleashed a firestorm of hate mail and outraged phone
calls. “I had to take a stand,” Rogers says today. “I just couldn`t keep it a
secret anymore.”

Mildred Behelfer says she`s accepted her son`s sexual identity. “But I
hate it when people call my son a faggot on the air,” she says.

EVEN HIS CLOSEST friends say Rogers keeps them at a distance. His life
seems to be a study in structured solitude.

He lives alone in a furnished rented house in Plantation and drives a
non- descript sedan. Besides food, gambling is his other major love.

He finishes each show at midnight, drives homes, eats until the tension
leaves his body and then loses himself in a movie on his VCR.

He sleeps until mid-morning, rises in time to drive to whatever race
track is open, eats breakfast and handicaps the horses he likes for the day.

He is a sucker for a longshot — and, in character, steadfastly shuns
the favorites. He usually remains at the track until the way to the end of the
last race.

He wins bets like he loses weight. Infrequently, but with fond memories.

“I`m way behind,” he shrugs. “But gambling and food are about the only
way I can relax.”

At Calder Race Course in Miami, Rogers gambles high atop the third floor
roof track? — far from the frantic crowd of horse junkies milling trackside
down below.

“I like it up there,” he says. “It`s away from everybody. And nobody
bothers you. It`s about the only place where I can relax in South Florida.”

He spends his vacations at the tables in Atlantic City, or Las Vegas.
Alone. Struggling to beat odds that he knows are against him — just as he does
on the air.

“I was born about 20 years too late,” Rogers grins. “I really should
have hit my prime in the Sixties, instead of now.”

ONE OF HIS earliest childhood memories involves a cat. Rogers doesn`t
remember how old he was. But he was holding this cat in his arms, hugging its
furry warmth to his body.

“All of a sudden this cat just went to the bathroom in my arms,” Neil
Rogers says today. “The damn thing just covered me with crap.”

Horrified, little Nelson Roger Behelfer hurled the creature from his
arms and ran screaming into his house — covered with cat filth and filled with
childish rage over the unexpected horror that came from wanting to be close to
another living thing.

(Illustration by Bob Tillery/Hungry Dog Studio)Edition: NEWS/SUN-SENTINEL Section: FEATURES SUNSHINE Page: 6 Index Terms: PROFILE Record Number: 8602120658Copyright 1986 News & Sun-Sentinel Company