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.
This particular legend first took root in a field of carrots in Southern California in April 1936. It is an odd place for a story to begin, I know, but it was there that Bob Steele stood toiling one bright morning when the telegram came. Steele was not expecting the telegram. He was 24 years old, and he had no reason to believe that anyone would spend that kind of money on him. His life to that point had not been a story of success; it had been remarkably full, but it had not been filled with good things. Indeed, it had been a succession of lumps and small comforts, of minor, hustling triumphs played out against the bolder disappointments of the Depression. Six years earlier, he had come with the flood of others to California to share in its promise of sudden good fortune, only to lose his footing in a string of misplayed opportunities and slip down into, well, finally into, this carrot field.
His job in the field was simple. He was a timekeeper. He stood in the sunshine and kept an eye on the other workers to make sure they put in their hours. It was a federal Works Progress Administration job, as were the jobs of everyone else in the carrot field, and it paid $96 a month. The WPA work kept you fed, but it didn’t make you feel very proud. Bob Steele was not the only worker in that field who wanted to get out, but he was the one who got the telegram.
It was from a friend, a sort of Horace Greeley in reverse. “Come east,” the wire read, “to Hartford, Connecticut.” It spoke of a job at Bulkeley Stadium. Steele was to announce motorcycle races over the PA system and do a little publicity work on the side. He’d then follow the biker circuit around the Northeast. The job would last through the summer. The pay was $30 a week. Hurry.
Steele made his decision in less time that it took to put the telegram back into the envelope. He would go. He arranged a ride and checked his bankroll. Twenty-five dollars.
“I had a habit of gambling in those days,” Steele remembers now. “I used to love to shoot craps and play cards, and I was always broke, as any gambler is. I knew that $25 was what I needed for the trip east, but I decided I ought to double it. On the night before I was supposed to leave, I got into a craps game. I lost it all. I felt like committing suicide. I’d been all set to go and I didn’t know what to do. I needed this chance in Hartford like I needed air to breathe.”
What Steele did was borrow the money from a friend. He made the trip east, and he ably handled the motorcycle action. He did his job well because he was an experienced motorcyclist himself, and he had announced some races in California. But eventually the summer drew to a close, the circuit went into winter retreat and Steele found himself back in Hartford with a suitcase in his hand.
“I was in Hartford and I had one day before I was supposed to head back to California,” Steele recalls. “I had nothing to do that day, and I started to go to a movie across the green from the Travelers building, which was where the WTIC studios were. I remember that the movie was a mystery, but for the life of me I can’t remember the name. I asked the girl in the ticket booth how much time I had before the show began again. I didn’t want to walk in during the middle and ruin the mystery, you see. She said about 50 minutes. So I looked around and saw WTIC and decided I’d go in. I’d always aspired to be a radio announcer, a regular staff announcer, you know. I thought that would be the greatest thing in the world. So I went in and asked them if they needed anyone, knowing that in those days, no one ever needed anyone. Jobs were hard to get in any line, especially radio. But Fred Wade, who was the chief announcer, said they did. They were looking for someone.”
Steele had prepared himself for such a chance. Not only had he announced the motorcycle events, he’d even done a few live broadcasts for California radio stations. He had a rich, resonant voice and considerable native wit. He also had some experience as a closet announcer; that is, it had been his practice to shut himself up in a clothes closet with a flashlight and a copy of the Saturday Evening Post and submit the magazine’s advertisements to his own readings. Such was his schooling. The main thing he brought before the microphone was his desperate need of the job. He’d been around to several stations out west, but he’d been turned down without so much as an audition. Now he finally had a shot.
“Wade handed me some stuff to read, and it was a tough test,” Steele says. “There were a lot of big words that you’d hardly ever have to use, and a list of classical composers and the names of their works. I had no idea how to pronounce any of this, so I started kidding around a little, saying things like, ‘Haven’t you got anything in English I can read?’ Unbeknownst to me, the big boss, Paul Morency, was listening in and he was amused at the sort of stuff I was doing.
“Next, they told me to describe something like a parade or a ball game. I chose a fight at the Polo Grounds. I had a few gags in my description that I’d done before. I was broadcasting a fight in which I also managed one of the fighters, so naturally I was biased. It turned out that my fighter got knocked out. I said we’d been robbed, that it was the 14th time we’d been robbed that year. The whole routine was a bunch of set gags, but the people at WTIC thought it was all extemporaneous. They gave me the job. It started the next day, Oct. 1, 1936.
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.
These days it seems that Steele works harder than he has to. After all, at age 66, his position at WTIC is hardly insecure. Nonetheless, he continues to make personal appearances around the region. He is gracious when listeners approach him in public. “When my wife and I go out to a restaurant around here, I’m almost always recognized,” he says. “Often, people will come up and sit down with us. It’s not necessarily a comfortable situation, but we never object to it. How can you? These are the people who put me where I am.”
In a sense, it’s as if Steele has never gotten over his stroke of good fortune back in 1936. He acts as if everything could be taken away in a similar stroke if he doesn’t keep hustling. How else does one explain the astounding fact that in 41 years, he has been late to work exactly once? Or that for 24 years, he did both the morning show and an evening sports show, one that, for 10 years, was aired on both radio and television? As is often the case, the clues to Steele’s zeal and dedication lie in his childhood. He’s been hustling ever since he was in knee pants.
Robert Lee Steele was born July 13, 1911, in Kansas City, Mo., the son of Hampton and Susan Steele. When he was 5, his parents were divorced, his father left, and things got rough. “My mother and I had to battle along together,” Steele remembers. “We never had any money or anything, and it was a tough go. We went through hard times.”
Susan Steele ran a boardinghouse and young Bob got his first job at age 8, working five hours a night, seven nights a week, as a delivery boy for a local pharmacy. He was paid $5 a week, and six years later he’d saved enough to buy a motorcycle. Posing as a 16 year old, he got another delivery route, this one paying $20 a week. By the time he actually was 16, he’d found two new diversions: motorcycle racing and boxing. The racing came easily enough, being not much more than an extension of his job. The boxing, however, was a different story.
“I took a notion to be a prize fighter when I was 16,” Steele remembers fondly. “At the time, I was going out with a girl who had another boyfriend who was 18. He was a tough guy, but I thought the girls liked me a little better. I figured I’d have to box or fight this other guy someday. I knew we’d clash, so I thought I’d be prepared.”
He took three lessons that cost him $5, and became an amateur welterweight. He fought 52 amateur fights and won 30—12 of them by knockout. Then he decided to turn pro. This was not a wise thing to do. He fought 18 bouts, winning but two, losing 15 and drawing one. He looked to something else.
In 1929, Steele bought a 12-seat restaurant for $900. He and his mother lived upstairs. He ran the place and she baked pies for the desserts. But after a year and a half, he sold the place for $750 and left Kansas City, drawn by the lure of California. He went to Los Angeles, and again got a motorcycle delivery route, this time for a group of banks. But misfortune soon struck.
“I wanted to make big money,” Steele confesses. “The L.A. papers were full of ads in those days because so many suckers were out there. You had farmers from Iowa and everyone else. It was like a magnet. And there was always someone to prey on these people.”
The ad that caught Steele’s innocent eye asked him to buy a truck for $950 and then make $150 a week as a hauler of produce from farms east of the city. But the guy was a crook, the truck was hot, and Steele lost both it and the money.
“After that, it was just about a catastrophe for me,” he says. “I had to worry about money all the time again. When you don’t have money, it’s an awful worry. You’d get money for one day and then have to worry about the next. It was an awful struggle, a bad, bad time. When I got that telegram, it was the beginning of life,” he says with a smile.
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.”