Before there were podcasts and satellite radio and a dozen other entertainment options the long morning commute, folks named Brad Davis, Bill Hickock, Robert Lurtsema, Ron Rohmer and Bob Steele were as familiar to some Connecticut residents as their own family members. In this October 1981 profile, we meet the real people behind the on-air personas that woke us up, provided us with company and kept us entertained during the early morning hours.
This article is being posted to the web in June 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
THOSE DRIVE TIME MORNING MEN
Who are these people who pry open your eyes and snag your foggy attention over the air waves during the initial moments of the day?
By John Birchard
They start your day. They jerk you back from the land of nod and prime you with the knowledge you’ll need to survive. The time? The temperature? Has World War III really been put off till Thursday? What fresh outrage has been perpetrated by the legislature? What was that? It’s bumper-to-bumper on I-91 from Long Island Sound to Springfield? Switch on the radio and get your fix on the day.
In the broadcast business, they’re called “morning men.” They do their work during the single most important time segment of the broadcast day. The hours from sunup till the start of the business day are “morning drive,” when the greatest number of people listen to the radio. For many of us, the clock radio is the first sound of the day. Many people shave, put on makeup or eat breakfast to the radio. Then, of course, there’s the huge commuter audience on the road, captives, practically, for the Morning Men.
Who are these people who pry open your eyes and snag at least a portion of your foggy attention during the initial moments of your day? Every radio station has someone on the air in the morning, but there are a few who stand out in Connecticut—talented folks who have attracted large, loyal followings in the population centers of the state.
Why? Tom Barsanti, program director at WTIC in Hartford, the state's most powerful AM station, thinks a number of factors contribute to a morning man’s success. "Consistency of services," he says. "A morning man has to be informative. He has to be ‘up,' a little bright. That doesn't necessarily mean pacing, but mood. Positive. I think humor is a very consistent element in most successful morning people. That doesn’t mean a comedian, but certainly a wit, a charm or some humor is important. 'Relatability' is crucial, that one-to-one relationship that forms between a listener and an air personality, the really key morning people have that. Dependability is real important. People tend to be very habitual in the mornings and having a morning person who matches those habits, who is able to reflect those things and who is there all the time, doing not necessarily the same things, but the same kinds of things, is important.”
Barsanti should know. He has the quintessential morning man working for him in Bob Steele. Steele is a legend, an institution in New England radio. In an era when broadcasters are concerned about the 'fragmentation' of their audience, Steele rolls along with approximately a 40 percent share of the total listeners in his area, a phenomenal figure in the ratings-conscious radio business.
The enormous audience (nearly 495,000 persons each week) Steele has attracted often befuddles newcomers to Connecticut, particularly younger members of the broadcast profession who can't figure out his appeal. “But he doesn't do anything!" they wail—and they're right. Steele is not a brilliant humorist or a zany character. He's 'just folks,’ comfortable as the well-known old shoe, a steady, easy-to-take guy, and a consummate professional who makes his work appear casual and effortless.
His pulling power earns him a lot of money. He won't say how much. "I haven't ever divulged that," he says. “I don't think I ought to say." It is generally conceded within the industry that Steele earns more— far more—than any of his confreres in radio or television in the state. Morning personalities generally are the highest-paid air personnel in radio, because of the importance placed on the AM time slot by station management. They go with their best people in the drive-time positions and pay them accordingly. The best guess on Steele: six figures. A source at the station says. "We don’t even have a clue as to how much he makes, but he's certainly on a different plateau from the rest of us. There's no question about that."
Asked the secret of his success. Steele, who looks younger than his seventy years, says, “I can’t answer that and he modest at the same time, so I'll just say that I think it's the steady, consistent presence, being at the same spot for forty years or more. People can depend on you. They know they're not going to hear a different person or a different kind of program. They know exactly what they're tuning in. They get in the habit and it’s never broken. And, as more and more people get in the habit, naturally, you're going to pick up a few as you go along. You accumulate many listeners that way and they stay with you. because you're the same guy day after day, year after year on the same station. You can't beat it."
MORE RADIO PERSONALITIES FROM THE CONNECTICUT MAGAZINE ARCHIVES:
- Bob Steele a Connecticut radio legend, in 'WBOB' (March 1978)
- Ready or not, it's Don Imus: 'The I-Man Cometh' (Nov. 1991)
- Meet Sebastian, 'Radio's New Bad Boy' (Aug. 1986)
- Faith Middleton is profiled in 'Keeping Faith' (Oct. 2005)
Steele has been doing the morning show on WTIC since March 1943, and admits to getting lazy from time to time. “You begin to coast a little," he says, “when you've gone on a long time. But it runs in cycles or bunches, you might say. You get inspiration. you get stimulated from time to time and you go along like a house afire for a while. And then, you do coast for a while. But you come back. You're not done when you start coasting...you're not dead. It comes back to you, so you try to be natural and do whatever comes to you. That's what I do. I really don't 'try’ very hard to do anything. I just let it flow."
In the first moments of the day, when most of us are having difficulty finding the floor with our feet, the morning man has to be functioning in high gear—crisp, witty and with-it. But there are mornings when even a pro like Steele has to beae the blahs by going on automatic pilot. As he puts it, “I'm like a machine. It's agony sometimes, but I figure if I can get in there and get my coffee and start working, I'll be okay. As soon as I get on the air, I concentrate on my job, and pretty soon the problem is gone. If you can get your mind off your illness, it'll go away."
Steele lives in Wethersfield, exactly five and a half miles from WTIC’s downtown Hartford studios. Normally he drives to work in one of the family's two Buicks. But once in a while in summer when the weather is right, he pedals his bicycle through the pre-dawn streets, just another septuagenarian disc jockey on his way to work.
Steele's jokes are infamous. Some are genuinely funny and some are of the “groaner" variety, but his timing is good enough to make them all at least tolerable. As to their sources, he says, “I steal some, although I’d prefer to think of it as borrowing. I also buy some from a professional joke service, but I don’t find too many of their things very good, oddly enough. I change some of them around myself...redesign them. And I do make up some of my own."
His wife, unawed by his legendary status. listens to the morning program and occasionally offers criticism. She isn't afraid of offending me." he says. "Once in a while, she'll tell me something I should know. She can be very frank."
From time to time, rumors surface that Steele is about to retire. On that score, he states, "I might retire at the end of this year. On the other hand, I could go on another couple of years. I don't think I'll go much beyond two more years, alter this year is over. I don't think I’ll he able to keep going with my usual 'vigor' after I'm seventy- two. I think I'll begin to wear out. When I start to slow down, I don't want to keep going and do half a job for another year or so. So, I would say, if not at the end of this year, then a year or two after."
Steele’s retirement will be mourned by his listeners and noted with great interest by his colleagues in the broadcast business, probably none of them more than Brad Davis.
Davis has been doing the morning show at WDRC in Hartford for more than four years and his show has roughly one-third as many listeners (approximately 192,000 per week) as Steele, according to most ratings surveys. If you're unfamiliar with Davis from radio, perhaps you’ll remember his curly locks and toothy grin from his days on TV, when he was host of the long-running teenage dance party show on Channel 3.
The qualities Davis brings to the mornings at WDRC are an enormous energy and a sort of overweening sincerity. He works very hard to make the show a success, and part of his popularity results from his hardline toward advertisers. “I will not take any sponsor on the program that I do not approve of. There's no way I will talk about a product unless I've tried it or I've visited (the sponsor) and know it's not a rip-off. If the listener has a complaint, I put 'em right on the air with the complaint. People will call up and have something to say about a sponsor and if it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, that’s tough, the sponsor should correct it and that's the way we operate. Why should I tell someone to go lo a car dealer sponsor, that the service is gonna be great every time, when it’s not true? They make mistakes. Some people have called up and said. ‘I've had to take this car back (to be serviced) seven times!' So I’ll call up the dealer and he takes care of it. This is very important to me, as far as credibility ... if I didn't have that, I wouldn't have anything. Some people think I'm great and others just can't stand me. But—at least—they know if I speak about a product that I'm telling the truth.”
Davis agrees that listeners are looking for information early in the day. The humor on his show, though, comes from the listeners. Says Davis, "I’m not funny with jokes. I gel a lot of letters. I read jokes people send me ... stories. But the people make it funny. One woman called me one morning and said, ‘Did you know the human head weighs about twelve pounds?' She said. 'It's made up of a certain number of bones that make it weigh that much. Yours must weigh about twenty-five.' Bang. Then you go into a commercial. I have dogs that call me up in the morning. There's a fellow over in Lillington whose dog likes me...a femule...she barks at me over the phone. There's a woman in the South End of Hartford who calls and says, 'This is how my dog feels about you.’ and then it snarls at me. This is the kind of humor that comes out of our show, strictly from the listeners. and I think it's very funny."
Davis wakes up at the ungodly hour of 2:45 A.M. He lives in Bloomfield, just five minutes from the WDRC studios. He will read the Hartford Courant from front to back before leaving his house to sit down to breakfast at an all-night diner near the studio. He makes the quick trip in his jeep, which carries his name painted in flowing script on the side.
How does he deal with getting up on the wrong side of the bed? "There are mornings like that," he declares, “but I keep them to myself. I don't dwell on my aches and pains. That’s not my purpose. They (the audience) have got enough to worry about, without hearing about my problems."
Income is, apparently, not one of Davis’ problems. He describes it as “five figures ... healthy." He augments his salary from WDRC by doing segments of the television program “PM Magazine" on Hartford's Channel 3 and by doing voice-over commercials for both TV and radio.
Davis likes the idea of competing with Steele. For him, the zest is in the challenge. "There was never anybody else in the morning but Bob Steele,” he says. "Can you name who else was on in the morning (in Hartford)? The answer's got to be no. My wife didn’t want me to do it. She said to stay on television. I didn't know whether I would go down the tube ... a lot of people thought I would. Well, I started and I just kept on working and working. I try to get out as much as I can on different community projects. And it just started to come. Now, if you ask around about who’s on in the morning in Hartford, they'll name two names. It's competition. I never felt Steele had competition before. Not that he's not the greatest ... he’s a legend. But that doesn’t mean you can't compete and can't keep at him. And that’s my makeup ... I just love competition.”
Probably the most complex and interesting member of this select group of radio folks resides in New Haven— WELI’s morning man, Ron Rohmer. Rohmer may be the best pure talent of them all. Quick-witted and naturally funny. Rohmer does a bewildering array of character voices and dialects, sometimes in such rapid-fire succession that he reminds the listener of comic Jonathan Winters in his early, more frenetic days. But Rohmer also has moments when he’s not funny—when he corrects fellow workers' pronunciation on the air or complains about some aspect of station operation that’s of no interest to or concern of the public. He can be hilarious one moment and hostile the next. Listening to him is seldom dull.
He's been doing mornings at WELI for fifteen years and he acknowledges that it can be a grind. "You do three and one-half, four hours every morning and you are expected to be fresh, bright, entertaining, innovative—and there are days when you are not. There are things that happen. It's no fun coming to work in the morning knowing you’re going to be in divorce court at 10:30! I’ve been there. Your show may drag a bit that day. But I look at it and I say, ' I could be home in Canada, getting up and pumping gas for a living, checking tires and things,’ so I’m very fortunate."
Rohmer is fortunate in more ways than one. His popularity brings him a handsome annual income—which he will not divulge—which includes earnings from radio commercials, TV “voice-overs," personal appearances and occasional cartoon voices for programs like “Sesame Street.” Each week, more than 109,000 New Haveners tune in "Ron Rohmer’s Morning" on WELI.
When asked about his means of awakening at 4:30 A.M., Rohmer replies, "I'd love to say a kiss on the shoulder, but, unfortunately, it’s my body clock. I’m a very light sleeper. I have an alarm clock, but most of the time, I wake up ahead of the alarm. Even on Sundays, unfortunately."
As with the others who make their livings by chattering in the early morning on radio, Rohmer has to face those days when he’s not feeling so hot and the show must go on, as he puts it, “from memory. Period. You’ll come in sometimes after a party night and start speaking and say. ‘Well, this mrng fbx tgbl grmf!’ and your mind tells you, ‘Play a record! Play a record!’ So, on Mondays, friends can always tell when I’ve been out on Sunday night. It’s usually kind of quiet here for the first hour until I get my tongue in gear.”
To make sure he gets to work, Rohmer keeps two cars—an old Mustang convertible and a Datsun Z sports car. “In case one won’t start, the other one usually will,” he says. “You just don’t like to knock on your neighbor’s door at 5 A.M. for jumper cables when you're up to your bippy in snow."
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, he “grew up to be a professional hockey player.” He originally came to New Haven in 1952, after he had injured a knee in training camp with the Detroit Red Wings. He played for the old New Haven Blades, then left to go "back up.’’ His first job in radio came about when two Winnipeg sportswriters overheard him do an impromptu ‘stand-up’ comedy routine aboard a train en route to a hockey game. They wrote their columns about him and a Winnipeg radio station called him in for an audition. He did an afternoon show for a while, but he went back to hockey.
Wherever he went, though, he would listen to radio—Rege Cordic in Pittsburgh, Klavan and Finch in New York—picking up pointers on how to do it. “I guess I was preparing then for 'Life Alter Death' ... that is, the end of my playing career,” he says.
Tune in on a given morning and you never know what facet of the Rohmer personality will be on display. He may be The Jock, talking about the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl or he may be The Culture Maven, discussing the New Haven Symphony. But one thing is clear: he likes his work. As he says, “The morning guy is like the quarterback in football. You start every day off, like the quarterback starts every play. You've got to know the major part of the people watch the quarterback. Most have their eyes on you, so it’s up to you to play a good game every time out. And it’s fun. I feel sorry for people who have to work at a job they don't really want. In radio, every day is a little bit different. You're allowed to create a little and have fun with it."
Master of Morning Drive in the Bridgeport ratings race is WICC’s Bill Hickok. Hickok’s show is the closest to what people think of as a Top Forty disc jockey-type show of the morning programs, the one that features the most music. Says Hickok, “I would say music is important, yes. We ‘soften’ it a little in the morning, then later in the day we bear down. I try to get in at least seven records an hour, plus (meteorologist) Walt Devanas, (traffic reporter) Morgan Kaolian and fifteen minutes of news and numerous commercials. With this kind of a format, you have to—in your mind—pretty much edit what you’re going to say. You can't ramble, although once in awhile I do. But I try to keep it as concise as possible. If I have a point. I try to keep it short. It’s a rather staccato type of approach, as against ‘middle-of-the-road,’ where you can be more laid-back and relaxed.”
Hickok has only been in the state about four years. Typical of Top Forty jocks, he is much-traveled, having worked in Boston, Atlanta, Albany, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York. Following his New York job with WNEW, he tried freelancing for a year, then signed on with WICC.
Commenting on the transient way of life for many in radio, Hickok says, rather wistfully, "When you’re young, it’s vital to you to keep moving to a bigger market, to be constantly moving up ... possibly even more than in some other businesses In order to have a better opinion of yourself to, in your own eyes, to really be accomplishing something, it’s important to get to the bigger markets. That’s the way it is, but it’s fallacious. I think a lot of guys, in this struggle to get to a top market, realize later on that they lost something along the way. You want to make bucks. Bucks are important. But I feel very happy here. I don’t worry about getting to a big market anymore. I’ve been in some good markets, but I have a nice life here.”
Hickok is currently basking in the highest ratings ever for WICC in the morning, bringing him an estimated 145,000 listeners each week, and an income of $38,000 to $40,000 per year, including the money he earns for recording radio and TV commercials, doing narrations and remote broadcasts.
His day begins at 4:30, with him often waking up ahead of the alarm. Then he's off to work in a new Mercury LN-7 sporty compact.
He tries to ensure that his morning mood is vivacious by ‘just not going out at night. I try never to have hangovers. That eliminates a lot of problems right there. Ninety percent of the time I feel good, thank God. But, when things go wrong, I just figure I'II worry about them afterwards. Just try to keep it as cheerful and ‘up’ as possible, even when f don’t feel that way. You’ve got to be consistent.”
While Hickok’s wife seldom gets up when he does, she does listen to his program, but, as he says, “not with blind loyalty. She is a very tough critic. If she decides she doesn’t like something, boy, do I hear about it! She’ll get mad and listen to Don Imus (of WNBC in New York).”
Bridgeport sits on the unofficial (but very real) dividing line between Connecticut and New York. In the radio business, both for the listeners and the broadcasters, it’s the place where The Foreign Invaders begin to take their toll in the ratings—foreign invaders like WNBC and WCBS in New York in particular.
Don Imus, WNBC's outrageous morning presence, holds a 7 percent share of the audience in New Haven. In Bridgeport, that share rises to 16 percent, not counting Bill Hickok's spouse. The further south one goes in Fairfield County, the higher the New York stations climb in the ratings, until they eclipse the local stations and Imus and the WCBS news team of Lou Adler and Jim Donnelly become the most influential morning people.
Phil Cutting is the program director at WNLK in Norwalk, one of the local stations which must do battle with the Foreign Invaders every day. For Cutting and his peers, it's a tough row to hoe. As he says, “It is to our everlasting frustration to come again and again on a group and have upscale women in that group say, ‘Well, just where AH you?' They listen to WNCN and WQXR (New York classical music stations) and only them, communicate directly with God and order only by telephone.They just don’t go anywhere or listen to anything, no matter how exciting the promotion or whatever we’ve been doing to try and get that awareness and recognition."
“So,” Cutting continues, “you have the cosmopolite, the commuter, the person who identifies with Ed Koch and Governor Carey lor the impact on his business, his corporation, life-style, car rental, boat tax or whatever, because he’s doing every thing under the shadow of a New York corporation. He only checks in (with us) to see if his sewer assessment has gone up or if there’s school for the kids. When the present owner bought the station, at first people told him they only listened to the station for snow closings.'"
One way the Fairfield County stations deal with the New York orientation is not to beat them, but to join them. Cutting says, "We've added services that, in a way, replicate the services available to the New York radio listener, not necessarily to ‘steal’ someone who would rather listen to New York radio, but to avoid the tune- away, the person who says, 'I'm sorry , but I really have to tune in WCBS for the helicopter reports to find out if I’m going to have problems.’ So, we use Shadow Traffic (a syndicated traffic reporting service), at some expense to us. If the West Side Highway is falling down or Conrail is screwed up. that’s our concern, to relate to out listeners. The closer you get to New York, the higher the percentage of commuters and, therefore, the relationship to New York."
Fairfield County radio, Cutting concludes, somewhat sadly, is "like the local paper ... the kind you take, but you really read the Times."
Clearly the most unusual morning show aired in Connecticut is “Morning Pro Musica," with host Robert Lurtsema, on WPBH FM, Connecticut Public Radio. The show opens each day at 7 A.M. with bird calls, features classical music and rambles along at a comfortable pace until noon.
Lurtsema was once described, in a New York Times article, as having a voice that 'has the texture of warm fudge"—that he sounds like "someone swaying at the edge of a coma."
Lurtsema's program originates in the studios of WGBH in Boston and is aired on stations throughout the country through the facilities of National Public Radio. The station manager of WPBH, Midge Ramsey, doesn't believe Lurtsema's is primarily a morning show, in the strictest sense. She says, "I believe Lurtsema could be on at any hour of the day with the same success. I believe it's the departure from standard formats that's the saving grace. Public radio listeners are, by nature, an eclectic group to a great extent. Not elitist, I don't mean that. But they are people with tastes that you don't find everywhere else. If they're listening to public radio, they're expecting something different."
They (approximately 45,000 of them each week) get something different with Lurtsema. His super-low-key, idiosyncratic approach to delivering the news, at unpredictable times and with unpredictable content, seems to please his fans just fine. Ramsey says. "He breaks some of the small ‘rules,’ but he does it with a finesse that sort of binds people to him. I've heard him come on the air for a news break and say, I've read the (Associated Press) wire this morning and there's no news. Let's just listen to music.’"
While commercial radio, with its tight formats and constant eye on the clock, wouldn't allow such latitude for its personalities, the individuality displayed by Lurtsema is present, in varying degrees, in all of the morning personalities. Morning men tend to be strong individuals, square pegs in a round-hole society. In fact, success in morning radio may require that. On the other hand, getting up every day at 4 A.M. could make anyone a little strange.
MAIN MEN IN THE MORNING (in alphabetical order)
Brad Davis, WDRC, Hartlord—1360 A.M. 103 FM, 5–10 A.M., Monday through Saturday; Bill Hickok, WICC, Bridgeport—600 AM, 5:30–10 A.M. Monday through Friday, Saturday, 6:10 A.M.; Robert J. Lurtsema, WPBH, Hartford—90.5 FM, 7 A.M.–noon—seven days a week; Ron Rohmer, WELI, New Haven, 960 AM, 5:30-9 A.M., Monday through Friday, Saturday 5:30–10 A.M.; Bob Steele, WHIC, Hartford—1080 AM, 5:30–10 A.M., Monday through Saturday