A few days after the country’s professional sports leagues suspended their seasons, I turned the dial on my radio to New York’s classic sports station, WFAN, “the FAN.” I’d been wondering how the hosts of my favorite sports-talk shows would manage to fill the endless hours of airtime, but I knew they wouldn’t have much trouble meeting the challenge. If there’s one thing that distinguishes sports-talk-radio hosts from the rest of us, it’s their talent for talking at great length and with great emotion about virtually nothing.
Even in normal times, a master of the form could stretch a pedestrian gripe about the New York Mets into a mesmerizing ballad of fury and woe. Now, deprived of wins and losses to celebrate and agonize over, the guys were rattling off facts about Eric Davis, the brilliant center fielder for the Cincinnati Reds who never quite fulfilled his potential after injuring himself in the 1990 World Series. Over the weeks that followed, they would often talk about the crisis engulfing all of our lives, but never to the extent that they stopped debating the merits of teams and athletes of the past. Where did Michael Jordan rank among college-basketball greats? If the 1998 Yankees faced off against the 1986 Mets, who would have won? None of it mattered. None of it had ever mattered, and now, with so many people suffering, it mattered less than ever. But it also didn’t matter that it didn’t matter. According to data provided by Entercom, a corporation that owns more than 235 radio stations around the country, including the FAN, the number of hours that people have spent listening to the company’s sports content has actually gone up since the sports themselves have gone away.
The truth is that sports-talk radio has always owed as much of its appeal to the voices of the talkers as to the substance of the talk. And no voice, at least to my ears, has been more soothing in this dreadful moment than the nasal drawl of Steve Somers, a.k.a. the Schmoozer. After 32 years at WFAN, Somers is a New York radio icon, although when listeners point that out to him, he’ll usually reply with a line like, “You must be drinking again.” His self-deprecating attitude is one of his defining traits, as is his knack for seeing the humor in bleak situations, a useful skill if you’re a fan of the Knicks, Mets, and Jets, which he is. But aside from all that, what makes his voice so reassuring is his unusually gentle way with callers. Unlike the FAN’s most famous talker, Mike Francesa, who is known for exploding with outrage at people he doesn’t agree with, Somers is generous and empathetic, arguably to the point of schmaltziness. “Better to miss these games,” he recently told his listeners, “than to miss you.”
Last month, as the virus began bearing down on New York, calls poured into his show from sports fans across the tristate area who needed someone like that to talk to. A Manhattan doorman expressed ambivalence about having to go to work. A cop said he missed chatting with people on the beat, and a grandfather choked up as he talked about how worried he was for his daughter and granddaughter, who were both working in the ICU at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers. “Take your time,” Somers told him. “I know you’re speaking from the heart.” One after the other, they let him know how grateful they were for his warm and steady presence. “I’m driving a truck headed to your fine city,” said one caller, “and I want to thank you for the calming effect and for manning the airwaves like the big dog that you are.”
Along with lending a sympathetic ear, Somers was using his platform to disseminate basic health and safety information and to urge his listeners to take the virus seriously. These lectures inevitably strayed into political territory, which wasn’t actually all that unusual for the Fan. Francesa, for example, was an early booster of Trump’s presidential campaign, though he has lately turned on the president, panning his handling of the crisis. Somers leans to the left of some of his more outspoken colleagues, but he has largely avoided alienating the Trump supporters who listen to his show, expressing far more contempt, even in recent weeks, for the Knicks’ reviled owner James Dolan. Still, when one caller, invoking a right-wing meme, absurdly declared at the start of the crisis that the coronavirus would incur a “minute” death toll compared to the 2009 swine flu, Somers reacted with uncharacteristic disdain. “Minute?” he repeated. “What kind of talk is that? Obviously we just heard from someone who doesn’t have as a No. 1 priority a human being or humanity.”
Somers typically works out of the WFAN studios in Hudson Square, but about a month ago the station installed some basic broadcasting equipment in the kitchen of the Upper East Side duplex that he shares with his wife, Robin. The morning before his inaugural home broadcast, he spoke to me by phone from his “mustard-and-coffee-stained kitchen counter,” where he said he’d been tweaking the spiel he delivers at the start of each program. “Instead of ‘Live from WFAN, blah, blah, blah,’ it’s going to be ‘Live from my kitchen,’” he said, sounding amused. Somers likes to compare the FAN to a gathering place in a close-knit New York neighborhood. “We’re the stoop,” he told me. “We’re the lamppost on the corner. We’re the stool next to you at your favorite bar.” I’d heard him make those analogies for years, but now that we can’t go to bars, or even really sit on the stoop, they struck a deeper chord. Most of his callers sound like people I grew up with in Brooklyn, back when the Knicks were actually good and the Nets played in New Jersey, and hearing their voices has always made me feel a little more connected to the city I live in, never more than in these days of social isolation.
Somers usually comes on at night, after the station’s biggest stars have signed off and the city’s early risers have gone to bed. If you’re listening to him, there’s a good chance that you’re up alone, unable to sleep, worrying about your job or your rent or the health of someone you love. In early April, as the city’s nightly death count soared, the calls began to come in from the bereaved. “Steven,” one recent caller began, “I want to thank you very much. You’ve provided a lot of solace for me. I lost my best friend, my father, 82 years old, to the coronavirus.”
“Two weeks ago,” the caller said, “he was fine.” And then he wasn’t. “He goes to the hospital. I speak to him on Tuesday night, tell him how much I love him. His oxygen levels are going down, and he passes away in his sleep Wednesday morning.”
“And the hard part about this whole thing,” he added, “I can’t even hug my sister. I can’t hug a rabbi.” His voice began to crack. “The only person I can hold onto is my wife.”
Collecting himself, the caller went on to talk about his father’s love of the New York Rangers. After the Rangers won the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, he recalled, he bought his father a T-shirt that said, “Now I can die in peace.” Somers let him speak at length, and then he offered some words of wisdom. “Listen to me closely,” he said. He waited a beat, making sure that he had the caller’s full attention. “When I hear you speak,” he continued, “I hear him. He is in your blood. And you, for the rest of your life, thank God, will be able to celebrate his life by moving forward. Anything less than that he wouldn’t be happy. The bottom line is you are going to be celebrating his life for the rest of your life with the most unbelievable memories you can have.”
“Oh, Steve,” said the caller. “What you just said — and I’m not patronizing you; trust me, I’m not patronizing you — is absolutely beautiful, and it gives me a lot of comfort.”
“I lost my mother in ’94,” Somers told him. “I didn’t think I would ever smile again. I didn’t think I would laugh again.” But six months later, on June 14, 1994, something miraculous happened. “It was the New York Rangers,” he said. That was the day they won it all. “Listen to me closely here,” said Somers. On that day, he said, “I realized I could be happy.”
As Somers relayed this anecdote, it seemed to me that he wasn’t only talking about the past, but about the future, too — about a time when the stadiums would fill again, our teams would triumph against all odds, and the city’s broken hearts would finally start to heal. “God, I love you,” the caller said. “My wife is laying here next to me listening to you and she’s holding me tight and she’s just smiling and shaking her head at just the comfort that you’re giving me.”
“My wife doesn’t want to hug me at all,” Somers joked. “‘Take a shower’ is all she says to me!” The caller was laughing now, but there were others waiting for their chance to tell Somers what was on their minds. “Listen,” said Somers, “call me again soon and let me know how things are going.” In his self-deprecating way, he pointed out that he needs these conversations as much as his listeners do. “I could use the help,” he said. He might have been speaking for all of us.