Steve Somers, who puts in his final shift as a full-time WFAN host on Friday night, is an original in every sense of the word. He was part of the network’s very first lineup on July 1, 1987, along with Jim Lampley, Greg Gumbel, Howie Rose, and others. But he’s also a one-of-a-kind sports-talk personality. Unlike the hot-take shouters common elsewhere on radio and TV, Somers is a humble, soothing presence, speaking in a deliberate manner and peppering his late-night monologues with a vocabulary of his own making. (“Steve Somers here and you there,” he’ll say at the top of the show, which might once have included talk of an “Icelanders” game at the “Nassau Mausoleum.”) He labels his broadcasts “schmoozes,” and he is the “Schmoozer.”
His distinctive shtick has helped earn him a cult following among New York fans and has kept him on the airwaves as sports-talk radio has gone from risky concept for a 24/7 format to ubiquitous part of the media landscape.
As he signs off from WFAN, Somers spoke to Intelligencer about consoling grieving callers, chatting with Jerry Seinfeld, and talking New York sports when the teams aren’t very good.
In Tim Sullivan’s book about the history of WFAN, you talk about how you knew when you were a kid growing up in San Francisco that you wanted to be a sportscaster in New York. Now that you’ve done it, was it everything you hoped it would be?
Even better, to be honest with you. It’s been a blessing. It has been an honor. It has been a godsend. Any of the above, or actually, all of the above. When I was 11 years old in 1958, at Seals Stadium in San Francisco, where I was born and raised, went to school, the whole thing, I met Russ Hodges, who was the voice of the Giants and called Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.” My father had taken me a couple of hours before the Giants were to play that day. It was their first year in San Francisco. I had been listening on the radio for only a month or two that the Giants were out there, and his voice was so lyrical and so magical to me. So I got up to the press area — there was no security at that time — and knocked on the door of where the Giants broadcasters were. And he gave me the time. He just stream-of-consciousness talked about Manhattan and the Polo Grounds and Willie Mays. The way he so glorified New York, how could you not want to come here?
I know a lot of people were skeptical in 1987 that a 24-hour sports-talk station could succeed. What were your expectations on day one?
In the beginning, everyone thought it wasn’t going to last very long. I didn’t think that at all. I mean, I was getting good feedback right from the very beginning, but I may have been the only one. There was no Imus yet, there was no Mike and the Mad Dog yet, and it hadn’t found its audience, and it was losing money. The rest of the station wasn’t getting a good response. It didn’t sound like New York, and how could it? It was staffed with on-air hosts and off-the-air producers and people who were not mainly from New York. Hosts like Greg Gumbel and Jim Lampley were talking about national sports. They were looking at WFAN like a pit stop for the next network-TV gig. Me, I was right up to date with everything that was going on in New York with the Rangers, with the Mets, with the Yankees, with the Knicks. You know, back in 2012, the New York Times had a really nice story about me, and when it came out, Robert Klein, the comedian, read it and said he was shocked to read that I was from San Francisco. He thought I was from Brooklyn. What a compliment from a native New Yorker!
Do you have a single favorite show from your career?
I guess the first time Seinfeld called in. That was a revelation. That was a lot of fun, Jerry from Queens. Another was one of the first interviews I did, with John Ziegler Jr., who was the commissioner of the NHL at the time. And he was supposed to call in around ten at night and talk to Howie Rose. But he called around 1:30 in the morning, and he was a couple of sheets to the wind. And it was an interview that lasted for an hour and a half, but most of the interview was him wanting to hang up on me because he thought I was asking inappropriate questions, and I wasn’t. I think it eventually was a factor in him losing his job.
Have you heard from Jerry Seinfeld since announcing you were leaving the FAN?
Oh yeah, sure. I talked with him [Wednesday] morning. He’s supposed to come on with me at one o’clock on Monday. My final shows are this week, but the station wants to do, I dunno, it’s probably going to embarrass me and make me self-conscious and it may even make me emotional, but they want me at the station for one hour, between one and two in the afternoon on Monday. So he agreed to come on Monday at one.
Is there a caller you’ll miss the most?
That’s a tough one. I remember the beginning, the people that were so complimentary and offering of support and encouragement. Martin from Flushing. Dominic from the Hunts Point Market. Short Al from Brooklyn, who had been a vendor at Ebbets Field. These were some of the people that were regular callers in the beginning that gave me the confidence, the encouragement, and the support to continue doing what I was doing.
This hasn’t been a very good era for New York’s sports teams. Is the job less fun when the teams aren’t that good?
Sports-talk radio in general, and certainly with WFAN, gives fans a chance to complain, to vent, to rant and rave. And if they’re unhappy about the Yankees or the Mets or any team, they can get it off their chest. People tell you, “Well, if everyone’s happy, they’re not going to call in.” But that’s not entirely accurate, either. When the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, callers were so happy, so filled with joy, that they were crying on the air, talking about the Rangers winning finally, after 54 years, winning the Stanley Cup that their fathers didn’t see, that their uncles and grandparents didn’t see.
You’ve often been on very late at night. How do those callers differ from other times of day?
If you’re calling somebody at one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning, you are about as die-hard a sports fan as can be. But in my case, I’ve gotten a lot of humanity, as well. There are people that may talk about losing a loved one and are having trouble moving forward. I have found that to be consistent, through the overnight years that I worked in the beginning, and even late at night now. I would always respond with nothing more than common sense. My father told me when I lost my mother, you’ll move forward with a heavy heart. Mourning and grieving is all normal, but you will move forward.
That’s such a strong connection to have with listeners.
This is not false humility at all, but the last two weeks have been overwhelming to me. I can’t talk sports. It’s been all about what I have meant to people, and it’s very personal. One thing about radio, the way it has been and the way it still is, whether it’s sports talk or news talk, it’s very personal and very intimate. I mean, it can be, “Who are the Mets going to hire as a manager or general manager? They don’t have a front office at the moment!” But it’s been about how I touched people, and that touches me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.