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 new life turned out to be a comfortable one. He lives with his wife, Shirley, in Wethersfield. Together, they’ve raised four sons, one of whom, Robert, served in Congress, representing the 2nd District and ran unsuccessfully against Ella Grasso in 1974. They have eight grandchildren.

And lest you forget, Bob Steele is not exactly doing his job for free. He is, in fact, one of the highest-paid radio show hosts in the country. He won’t say how much makes a year, but he does say this: “I’ll tell you something, and this is the truth. I started out at WTIC as $35 a week and I thought that was pretty good. Later, when I had the morning show and the sports show, I was making $120 a week, and that was real big money. With the salary I’m making now, though, I’m paying $120 a day in income tax!”

For those who worry that Steele is about to resign or retire, take heart—he is now in the second year of a five-year contract that he signed in 1976. It’s the first contract he’s ever had at the station, and it serves as an excellent indication of how much WTIC needs Steele to anchor the day. He was also recently named a vice president of the Ten Eighty Corporation.

He may look like an aging man who lives in comfort and financial security, but Steele can’t seem to shake his roots. Like a worried young man, he still springs out of bed every morning at 4:30 to greet the darkness and gear up for work. He drives into Hartford, arriving at his office around 5:30, and sits down with a cup of coffee, a piece of pastry and a newspaper. He mulls over an item or two for mention on the program, gathers assorted notes and scraps of paper containing letters, birthdays and jokes, gulps a handful of vitamins and heads into the studio just before six.

The studio is situated in a corner on the 19th floor of One Financial Plaza. Windows on two sides of the room offer panoramic views to the west and north. Steele seats himself behind a microphone at a round table. Seated next to him at another microphone is Lou Palmer, who handles sports news and advertisements, and who serves as a foil for a number of Steele’s jokes. Behind a glass partition sits engineer Bob Downes, the unsung hero who cues up the music and punches up the taped commercials. Precisely at six, the familiar strains of “A Hunt in the Black Forest” fill the studio. Bob Steele is on the air.

Over the course of the next four hours, there is rarely a dull moment. It is a performance. Steels coughs and clears his throat constantly, complaining with considerable alarm from time to time that’s he’d losing his voice. He baits paid political announcements, belittling the candidates in the phony Irish brogue of a political hack. At times, he feigns bewilderment over the meaning of ad copy he is reading. At other times, he assures everyone that he is merely an incompetent who has somehow ben given a radio program to do. He forgets to read an ad just before seven o’clock and goes through bogus paroxysms of guilt and shame. He shouts, ‘Oh, Christ, this is awful!’ during a song he doesn’t like. He sings a shockingly vulgar accompaniment to an Ivan Rebroff tune. He seems to be continually amazed at the number of ads he must do, crying, “They’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” He pretends to make horrible mistakes and then quickly assures his engineer that the audience will never know the difference. He is, in short, very funny.

Unfortunately, or, I guess, fortunately, no one listening out there in Radioland every gets to hear any of this. It all happens off-microphone, or it’s conveyed through facial expressions and gestures. What the listeners get that morning is a typical Steele production: entertainment, information and humor. Somehow, in between all the clowning around and the cries of anguish, the crew puts together a show without missing a stitch. Steele is right. The audience never does know the difference.

This is no small accomplishment. Former WTIC engineer Fred Pearson touches on it briefly as he admires Steele from the control booth: “He’s an institution, but he still has fun. He’ll never quit. The only way they’ll get him out of here is on a stretcher.”

From the Archives: WBOB

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