From the Archives: WBOB
A street in downtown Hartford will be named after the late Bob Steele this week. For those wondering why, here's a story from the Connecticut Magazine archives - March 1978.
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The kid worked out okay. Today, more than four decades after he decided not to go to the movies, Bob Steele is considered something of an institution in Hartford and throughout Southern New England. His radio show, running from six to ten every morning except Sunday, is generally held to be one of the five most popular programs in the country. Surveys for advertising purposes have turned up the phenomenal fact that more than half the radios turned on each morning within a 50-miles radius of Hartford are tuned in to Steele. It is not surprising, then, to learn that the revenue from Steele’s program has kept the entire operation afloat in lean times, or that WTIC executives freely call him the “anchor” of the station. But for many of his listeners, Bob Steel is more than an anchor. For them, he is as much a part of the day as eating and sleeping.
It is easier to describe Steele’s success than to explain it. When he first came to WTIC, the bosses gave him six months to drop his Midwestern accent and become a pro. They liked the way he was willing to work. He began by doing station breaks, commercials and introductions for the wide range of programs found on the radio in those early days (WTIC had its own orchestra and drama group, as well as its own comedy, variety and quiz shows). In 1938, Steele began his “Strictly Sports” show after getting fed up with other announcers’ mispronunciations of athletes’ names.
The big break came in March 1943, when Ben Hawthorne, popular host of “The G. Fox Morning Watch” went off to World War II. The advertiser tried Hawthorne’s wife in the morning slot, but soon decided she wasn’t up to the task. So Steele filled in. When Hawthorne returned from the war, he was supposed to resume his post, but left the station in a huff after finding out how his wife had been treated. The program became all Steele. Under his careful nurturing, it has grown over the years from its original hour length to an hour-and-a-half, two hours, three, and, finally, its present four-hour format. This month marks the show’s 35th anniversary.
Importantly, neither Steele nor his program’s content has changed much over the years. His is the classic morning show, a throwback to the early decades of radio. It doesn’t assault the senses or jangle the nerves. Steele doesn’t speak in mindless patter. Instead, the show doles out an ample diet of news, weather and sports, an eclectic sampling of music that runs from Spike Jones to Linda Ronstadt, and, of course, the unhurried, folksy wit of Steele himself.
“There aren’t many shows like mine left,” he says, relaxing in the station’s conference room following a broadcast. “It’s practically the last of the Mohicans. The shows you hear now are entirely different than the easy-going morning shows they used to have in the old days and I still have today. My program is comparatively soothing, and I suppose that’s why a lot of people like me. I’m like an old coffee cup that’s been around the kitchen for years. People have grown up with me. I’ve got thousands of people who listened to me as children who now have kids who listen to me. They know me. If I were a stranger pulling off some of the stuff I do, they’d tell me to drop dead.”
Of course, Steele is no stranger. Over a span of 40 years, a lot of people become familiar with your voice, especially if it’s riding in on 50,000 watts. Such is the character of Steele’s show—it appeals to no special group of listeners; instead, it appeals to just about everyone. His listeners over the years have included James Thurber and Archibald MacLeish (both of whom have written enthusiastic fan letters), as well as governors, senators and congressmen.
A more anxious audience has been a succession of state college football coaches, all hoping he would not pick their teams to win on a given Saturday. Steele’s notoriously poor predictions (though he stoutly defends them) have become something of a running joke in Connecticut. Former Yale coach Jordan Olivar once startled Steele by calling him up and seriously asking him not to pick Yale the following weekend.
Some of the show’s other features might strike the uninitiated as rather odd—birthdays, nationwide temperatures (Caribou, Me., anyone?) vocabulary and pronunciation lessons, even Steele’s weekly weight. But slicker, more formatted shows can’t touch Steele. He represents an isle of calm in an uncertain world. He was there the morning the oven caught fire, the day of the hurricane, the week everyone had the flu—and somehow he comforted, even though he couldn’t possibly have known. They’ll never get rid of the man because over the years his voice has woven itself into the fabric of the daily lives of, let’s say, a million people.