For three decades, Len Berman was an accomplished sports anchor in New York. He left WNBC in 2009 after a 27-year run at 30 Rock.
That was only the end of his TV career, though. Since 2015, Berman has proven to be a more than capable radio host as one-half of the WOR Morning Show with Michael Riedel. His transition to a different medium would be made easier from dabbling in news at WNBC.
Tom Cuddy, WOR’s program director, thought Berman could “broaden his horizons” after seeing him years ago doing sports on WBZ in Boston and from appearances on WNBC.
While covering the Olympics in 1992 Berman made strides into news, co-anchoring with Sue Simmons and again in 1996 when they both were in Atlanta.
“Len was a superb sports anchor, but I think he would’ve embraced anchoring the news, and he would’ve been good at it too!” Simmons said.
Berman would also rotate as co-anchor with Simmons on Live at Five in 2005 when Jim Rosenfeld left for WCBS.
“We had an easy on-air rapport, Simmons said. “He’s such a professional.”
Some may also remember Berman’s brief radio run in 1993 at WFAN. It’s not a highlight for the award-winning sportscaster, who was supposed to do a four-hour show with veteran sportswriter Mike Lupica.
“The minute I signed the contract I tried to get out of it,” Berman admitted. “Then I got killed by [Bob] Raissman [with the New York Daily News] and by [Don] Imus. That was all me. I got cold feet.”
The burden of Berman’s nighttime TV gig led Joel Hollander, WFAN general manager at the time, to split the shift with Lupica. Within a few months, Berman was let out of his contract, but he was not soured on radio.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t think I wanted to do sports radio,” Berman said. “I didn’t know who the second line was on the New York Rangers, let alone the first line. I could tell stories, but I wasn’t what you’d call a sports fanatic.”
So, Berman had the journalistic chops to step out of his comfort zone, but he wasn’t prepared for the politics, even before the Trump era.
“I never thought of myself as anything until I had to label myself,” Berman said. “I guess some of the policies are more liberal than not when it comes to guns or abortion. But I always judged each issue on its own basis.”
From the world of sports, Berman knows all about fan frenzy, but “that’s chicken feed compared to this.”
Opinion comes with the territory and that was unique for Berman, who prided himself on delivering sports commentaries from all perspectives. That “MO” is out the window in talk radio.
The emails come in and if they aren’t over the top politically, he’ll respond. He cited a recent listener who complained about Berman’s views on Israel. Berman, who is Jewish, responded that he’s a strong supporter of Israel, but “that’s doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything that the Israeli government does, much like I consider myself a pretty good American. I don’t agree with everything our government does.”
“I appreciate people who respect your opinion and [who] treat [you] honestly and fairly,” Berman said.
His more progressive views are a contrast to powerhouse syndicated host Sean Hannity and the late Rush Limbaugh, heard on WOR for years.
“From 5 a.m. until 9 at night I’m the only voice that leans left on the radio station,” Berman said.
That meant once Donald Trump was elected, Berman was the lone host in opposition.
Incidentally, Berman voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but opted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
“It was easy on the Trump side to come up with opinions,” Berman said. “Either fortunately, or unfortunately, I came down on the side opposed to Trump. Maybe it made for good radio that we had two sides.”
Aside from the unexpected political cauldron that Berman would walk into, his on-air TV life didn’t automatically translate to radio.
“When I first started, I think the boss wasn’t real comfortable that I could handle a show from beginning to end,” Berman admitted.
He was fine with speaking to guests or callers, but the basic radio elements were foreign to him, such as navigating segments or doing a live commercial read. While it seems simple on the surface, Berman was used to putting together a 3:15 sportscast nightly at WNBC. Now, he was responsible for four hours of content daily.
“That’s very different,” Berman said. “It’s a whole different skill set.”
Tough Times with Todd
Berman initially was teamed with Todd Schnitt, but that was an ill-fated partnering.
“It was no secret that we did not get along,” Berman admitted. “It probably showed on the air.”
Schnitt, a native New Yorker, was the conservative voice who had been hosting his own show, The MJ Morning Show. He’s been fronting a political-centric afternoon drive program, The Schnitt Show, since 2001. However, failing in New York City would be a blemish to his career and, for the 34 months together, a blemish for Berman.
“Can you imagine coming to work and you don’t talk to your co-host except when you’re on the air?” Berman said. “It was uncomfortable. It wasn’t a lot of fun.”
As awkward as it was, though, Berman had no intention of walking away from WOR because, “it was just something to do,” after his forced retirement from WNBC.
But iHeart, according to Berman, was grooming Schnitt to become a star at WOR. Therefore, with the chemistry failing, Berman thought he would take the fall. At one point, Berman joked on the air that he was like Alan Colmes, who had a Fox News show with Sean Hannity. One day Colmes was gone, and the cable news wars were altered forever.
“I was just shocked that it didn’t happen,” Berman said.
So, when Cuddy contacted Berman in October 2017 about Schnitt’s exit, he was stunned. It was a sudden departure and Berman was forced to fly solo in the studio the next day.
Officially, iHeart said they couldn’t come to a contract agreement with Schnitt, “[but] I’m being very honest with you. I always thought something happened, I never knew what,” Berman admitted. “Maybe he wanted a lot more. WOR does not overpay. Trust me.”
Since 2018, Berman and former theater critic Michael Riedel have a much better ying and yang.
“You figure that one out. Here’s a political radio station, you’ve got a Broadway guy and a sports guy and we’ve got a successful radio show,” Berman said.
Berman auditioned with fill-in guests on air and with the mics off. When it was finally Riedel’s turn, Berman was not familiar with his print or broadcasting background. Perhaps, it was that discovery that led to immediately clicking.
Their producer thought the off-the-cuff chatting was perfect and laid the groundwork for their on-air relationship.
“We both had broad experiences, so that’s why it’s worked,” Berman said. “We really do mix it up,” he said. “We’re very big on having fun.”
Battle for Morning Ratings
He is proud of a long stretch, topping news/talk rival Red Apple Media’s WABC for more than a year, but Berman doesn’t get too caught up in the ratings. Another competitor is Salem’s 970 WNYM/The Answer. But the weaker signal makes them less formidable.
Another feather in his cap is occasionally ranking number one on Long Island among all morning shows.
WABC’s Sid Rosenberg recently told Barrett News Media that his morning show with Bernard McGuirk has “beaten the shit out of WOR lately.”
Berman countered, “If they’re ahead of us by a tenth or two-tenths, trust me, they’re not beating the shit out of us.”
The WOR host is so laid back about the competition that he’s never heard WNYM morning host Joe Piscopo or Bernie and Sid, although Riedel has listened to their WABC show podcast.
“I haven’t. I always had that approach in radio and television that I’m going to do the best job I can possibly do and I’m going to let the chips fall where they may,” Berman said.
But Berman does have a history with Rosenberg, as a guest several times on his South Florida show. He also texted Rosenberg a couple of years ago about a matter unrelated to broadcasting.
“[He’s] a character,” Berman said. “If he wants to knock us, go for it. I’m not going to fire back.”
Life Since COVID
Since the pandemic took hold in New York in the spring of 2020, Berman and Riedel are working remotely. You can add news anchor Joe Bartlett to the list, who was planned to retire in 2020, but moved back home to South Carolina and has kept working each morning.
“There are people who don’t know, I don’t know how that’s possible, none of us [is] in the studio,” Berman said.
Berman is based on Long Island, while Riedel is at home in the West Village.
As mask restrictions are loosening and vaccinations are increasing, it remains to be seen when the duo will return to their Tribeca studios.
“They have not made any decisions yet,” Berman said.
The fully vaccinated Berman said if iHeart brass require him to go back to radio station for hosting duties, “it’s something I would consider.”
However, Berman said, “I have the luxury of having already been retired. So, if I decide I really don’t want to get up another hour early and commute all that much, at least I have the luxury of knowing that I have that option.”
He is under contract, but in the fluid world of radio, coupled with the post-COVID cutbacks, there remains a lot of unknown.
“It really is day-to-day or month-to-month, as far as what my thinking is,” Berman said.
Len and Jill celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 2020, but with his wife’s real estate business thriving, he’s in no rush to retire and head to Florida.
“At some point we’ll go back, at least for the winter,” Berman said.
The Cost of “Thoughts”
Jack Del Rio made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter.
The first recorded use of the expression, “A penny for your thoughts,” was made by Sir Thomas Moore precisely 500 years ago (1522). But, no doubt, a penny went much further in the 16th century.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows that inflation continues to increase above expectations. The current annual rate of 8.6% is the highest since 1981. The cost of thoughts, or at least saying them aloud, well, saying certain things in a public forum, has gone up far more than the CPI.
Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the “Washington Football Team,” and before that, the Washington Redskins), made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter. Specifically, his Tweets compared (what he called) “the summer of riots” to January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. As the late, great Alex Trebek would say, Del Rio’s comments were “in the form of a question.”
Faced with media scrutiny about his Tweets, rather than back down, Del Rio referred to January 6th as a “dust-up at the Capitol.”
Can I tell you a trade secret of press flacks? They all have a small can of lighter fluid and a pack of matches within reach behind a piece of glass with the words “break only in the case of emergency” scrawled on it. Certain phrases or words will cause a press person, at great personal danger and sacrifice, to break the glass, douse themselves with the accelerant, and strike a match before flinging their immolating body in front of the podium. Okay, not literally, but I guarantee the Commanders’ public relations director would think this alternative less painful than hearing those words come out of Del Rio’s mouth in front of the press gaggle.
The controversy that followed was swift and certain: as was the reaction from Commanders Head Coach Ron Rivera. He promptly assessed a $100,000 fine on Del Rio for his comments.
Two points here: First, this is not a sports story. Talk Radio observers should be far more concerned with the consequences of this story than NFL or sports fans. Second, it doesn’t matter what you think happened on January 6th. You should still find the fine issued by Rivera chilling, whether you call it an insurrection or a dust-up.
I used to believe that comedian Bill Maher and I were about as far apart on the political spectrum as any two Americans could be. Maher and I, however, hold similar views on freedom of expression.
On his HBO show, “Real Time,” Maher defended Del Rio by saying: “In America, you have the right to be wrong. They fined him; the team fined him $100,000 for this opinion. Fining people for an opinion. I am not down with that.”
Because this is where we meet, I’d like to buy Bill Maher a drink and have a laugh over all the times he’s been wrong, or we can share that drink and a smile for understanding that freedom of expression IS the foundation of democracy – no matter who’s right or wrong. Freedom of expression is an issue where liberals and conservatives must find common ground.
The football team currently known as the Washington Commanders may need another name change. Perhaps the “Comrades” would reflect the team’s philosophy better? Levying such a hefty punishment for stating a political (and non-football) point of view because it is out of step with what is apparently official policy seems more reminiscent of the Politburo’s posture than a free society.
Del Rio’s words are understandably offensive to many. At the very least, they were ham-handed for someone who has been in the public spotlight for so long. But a $100,000 fine? Stifling political opinion is far more dangerous than anything Del Rio said.
Taking the Del Rio incident into context with the “Cancel Culture” of the past few years, Talk Radio hosts should look over their shoulders. Del Rio is also an excellent reminder to think twice before posting a politically unpopular opinion on social media.
Inflation has eaten away at the value of a penny and increased the cost of making politically incorrect statements, including on the air in recent years. What inhibits individuals from expressing their thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and emotions is a threat to Talk Radio and democracy.
Joe Pags’ Dream to Work In Media Started Early
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
If you’ve ever been required to interview someone for a segment or article, you know pretty quickly when it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Joe Pags was answering my initial questions as freely as Ebeneezer Scrooge hands out Krugerrands. Teeth have been pulled from the human head with greater ease. It just wasn’t happening.
After a few minutes, I think I grew on him.
I discovered we actually had a few things in common; both of us lived in Lake Worth, Florida, we knew a lot of the same places and faces, and we both understood that summer heat in Florida is like purgatory.
However, Pags and I will both have a fond devotion to The Noid. We will always share the memories of being a manager at Domino’s Pizza.
“I worked at Domino’s when pizzas were delivered to your door within 30-minutes, or it was free,” Pags said. “After a while they went to 30 minutes or three dollars off the price. Too many people were getting into accidents trying to beat the clock.”
What Pags did not mention was that even when you legitimately made it in less than 30 minutes, you had people questioning your delivery time. I guess that’s human nature.
Soon, pizzas were just for eating, not working; Pags started his radio career in 1989 in Palm Beach County, Florida.
After that, it was a stint as a television anchor from 1994-2005 in Saginaw, Michigan, and then Albany, New York. From there he was called back to radio and landed at the Clear Channel Talk Flagship, WOAI, in 2005. The Joe Pags Show has been a fan favorite since its debut in 2005.
For Pags, the media dream started early on.
“I grew up listening to talk radio at a very young age and was determined to make my living doing it one day,” Pags says. “I actually have a tape somewhere on which I erased the DJ’s voice and recorded mine over the songs.”
Pags is probably thrilled that the tape will never be released.
Years later, he found he could pay the bills doing something he loved. “I’m lucky enough to work with great people on both local, and national radio and television,” Pags explained.
“I also remember Steve Cain, Rick, and Suds on that station,” Pags said. “It was a lot of talk radio, but it was fun. It was entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was doing the politics stuff back then.”
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
“When my voice changed at 13, I developed more of a bass tone; I knew I was on my way. I had a New York accent and had to shake that.”
Before he embarked on a career in radio, his music career was going well. Pags played French horn and saxophone; apparently, he was pretty good.
He played gigs at the prestigious Breakers Hotel, among many others. “I used to play at the Backstage lounge adjacent to the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter,” Pags said.
No word on whether Reynolds ever caught Pags live or not.
As a kid, he played baseball. Pags said he was pretty good. What took center stage for Pags was music. It was the French horn and saxophone that captured his heart.
“I played professionally on the Empress Dinner Cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Pags said. “I also did gigs at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We made some good money.”
Before Domino’s and radio and music, it all started with a strong desire to succeed. That often comes from your family’s belief in you. Sometimes it’s not there.
“I knew that if I worked hard enough, if I showed the love for the work I was doing, then I’d succeed,” Pags said.
His family lived in Lake Worth, Florida, from 1973-74, and Pags returned every so often. “I got back to Florida recently when I went to Mara Lago and watched 2,000 Mules.”
San Antonio has been home for the past 17 years for Pags and his family. “I’ve been here at WOAI. I’ve got my own studio in a great area.” His daughter Sam is his executive producer. I asked Pags if there was any nepotism when it came to hiring Sam.
“Darn right, there is nepotism,” he said. “This is Joe Pags media. I get to hire whoever I want,” he quipped. “Sam has always had a love of broadcasting. When I became syndicated in this business, I told her I trusted her more than anyone else I knew and asked her to produce my show.”
The other day I spoke with Will Cain for a piece. He told me if I visited Austin, I should also see Texas. So I asked Pags what Cain was trying to say. “He means Austin is a city like Portland; only it’s in Texas. There’s a lot of homelessness in Austin. A lot of crime. The University of Texas in Austin goes far to the Left.”
Where does Pags’ tough demeanor come from?
“My father was 100 percent Italian. We had some good pasta dishes around our house with my grandparents around,” Pags explained. “We didn’t have a good bakery in Lake Worth, so I remember my mother and aunts bringing great bread recipes over from the homeland.”
Pags has always been interested in what takes place on the periphery, not just the core of matters. He’s done a lot of things throughout his life. That experience has helped shape his radio show. Pags said his show tends to be white-collar, but he grew up blue-collar all the way.
“I liked the Superman movies. I enjoyed Rocky,” Pags explained. “As a car-buff, I loved the Burt Reynolds films with Smokey and the Bandit. Stuff like that.”
Lake Worth, like a lot of other Floridia areas, has been known to be a little rough and tumble. Just watch Cops for a week if you don’t believe me.
Pags said other than a little shoving match at the bus stop, he didn’t encounter much rough stuff. “I was a musician, I wasn’t in that mix. Perhaps a scuffle in little league.”
When he was a teenager, he thought music would be it. “I’d played with some big-hitters at the time, like The Coasters,” Pags said.
“Music career opportunities really didn’t come along as I’d hoped. In some ways, people in the industry were full of it. I still did some freelance work on the saxophone.”
Pags said he was always willing to work for what he got. “I poured coffee and ran errands for $4 an hour,” Pags said. “I had my car repossessed, and got evicted from my apartment. I still kept at it. I never was deterred from what I wanted. I knew what I wanted, but never really expected things to happen the way they did.”
Pags said if some youngster asked how to be what Pags is today, his answer was succinct. “Pour coffee, run errands, whatever you have to do.”
I asked Pags what he does in his downtime? Let’s just say he’s not running to tee-off at 7:00 am with the guys at the club on his day off.
“I’m a domestic sports car guy,” he says with pride. “I’ve got three Corvettes, a Camaro Super Sport. My Camaro was a 1967, red with white stripes. I sold that car so we could afford to adopt our daughter. I got the better end of that deal.”
He doesn’t do any weekend racing on local tracks like other aging Indy wannabes. “I like to look at those cars in the garage,” Pags said. “My dad was a big car guy. My dad is probably why I’ve succeeded in my life and career. Not for the reasons you’d think.”
Pags’ relationship with his father had the typical ups and downs. Same as it is for most men.
“My father didn’t think I’d amount to anything and had no problem relating that to me,” Pags said. “Conversely, my Mom was always extremely supportive of my interests and goals. I knew if you were good at what you did, people would take notice.”
Pags said his father excelled at being a naysayer. A glass is a half-empty kind of guy.
“He was so negative. He thought I’d never succeed at anything,” Pags explained. “I was out of the house at 17, and I was determined to become something. To prove him wrong.”
Before his father passed away, Pags believes his father became aware of a lot of things.
“A light went on in his head, and he was just so surprised I could make a living doing what I did,” Pags explains. “When I became a big enough success, he recognized my drive and determination. I’m still not sure if he was hard on me because he thought it would help me in the end. Whatever his reasoning was, it gave me the drive and determination to see things through.”
Pags’ father became so proud of his son that he’d tell friends Joe was going to be on Fox News and how they should tune in.
“It was my mother, with her ultimate support, that really made me want to succeed. For her,” Pags explained.
“I learned that if someone disparages you or makes you feel small, you have choices. You can go into a shell and take it. Believe what people say. Or you can go out and knock down some doors. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. Soon I will be syndicated on 200 stations. All that came from believing in myself. I’ll prove it to iHeart. To other broadcasters.”
Pags said at some point; you’ve got to find some kind of edge.
“I knew I wasn’t going to agree with things my father believed and said, just to shut him up. I had to stand up for my own beliefs.”
I can relate to a guy like Pags. He’s got a tough exterior, not easy to crack. But like me, I know in the center is a soft, creamy nougat.
The Rise of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
According to BNM’s Pete Mundo, Ron DeSantis sounds an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.
For at least the last six years, the long-standing belief is that talk radio has been the home for Donald Trump sycophants. While I’ve always viewed this as an overly-simplistic analysis of tens of millions of weekly talk radio listeners in this country, it’s fair to say that certainly, from 2015 through 2020; the news talk audience was supportive of the 45th President.
And now, as time goes on, there are signs that the dam is breaking. There’s anecdotal data I can share and then more scientific data to touch on.
This past Monday, I spent one segment of my show saying I would burn through as many calls as I could over 8-9 minutes on Trump or Ron DeSantis to be the 2024 Republican Presidential nominee. I brought this up in the wake of DeSantis’ criticism of Joe Biden’s energy policy from late last week. He sounded an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.
Over those 8-9 minutes, I fit in 14 phone calls. Going into it, I told my producers privately that my guess was that the calls would split fairly evenly but probably lean towards Trump.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, we ended up with nine of the 14 callers in favor of DeSantis, with five going for Trump.
Then there was some interesting polling this week. One poll of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire found DeSantis edging out Trump 39 percent to 37 percent. The most telling fact about the New Hampshire poll is that while DeSantis leads Trump by just two points overall, he leads among Fox News watchers by 14 points and among conservative radio listeners by 16 points.
As is always the case, one poll should not be viewed as an absolute, but there are clear signs that Donald Trump’s stranglehold over Republican voters is waning. And from my perspective, it’s waning faster than I expected.
Politics move fast. One day you’re hot; the next day, not so much. And to see DeSantis rise this quickly when all the focus is on Joe Biden and the 2022 midterms, not the Republican primary in 2024, makes this poll even more surprising.
And while I have no interest in getting ahead of myself, talk radio is likely to be the battleground for this issue if and when it does ultimately come to fruition. Talk radio is obviously far more interactive than cable news. Callers, texters, and Facebook/Twitter users can all be participants and have their perspectives shared with thousands of listeners at any given time.
And if those most in tune with the news cycle of the moment find themselves shifting to someone like Ron DeSantis, then the run-of-the-mill Republican voter is likely to follow suit when the time comes.
But, if we do end up getting a Trump vs. DeSantis primary, then 2024 could end up making 2016 look like child’s play. But I’ll stop here because, once again, I’m not looking to get ahead of myself.