The Last Schmooze

Steve Somers was a one-of-a-kind New York sports talk host on WFAN for 34 years until his recent departure. Radio needs hosts like him—and needs his audience.

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The first and last time I tried calling in to New York sports talk radio station WFAN, I was about nine years old. I had a question about baseball player Jeff Kent’s contract status—but when I dialed the station, I was informed I’d reached a taxi company, and promptly hung up. 

I’ll never know if the person on the other end was a befuddled livery dispatcher or a prankster radio host. But I decided if I ever called again, I’d dial late at night and try to reach the great Steve “The Schmoozer” Somers. Unlike his loudmouth daytime peers, he was always kind to his callers, poking fun only at himself. “Steve Somers here and you there,” he’d say, assuring his audience he’d keep everything “between me, you and the lamppost.”

Now it seems I won’t get my chance: Somers, a wispy 74-year-old with a bushy mustache, retired earlier this month. While his 34 years at the station mark an impressive run, he reportedly wasn’t quite ready to leave (or switch from late nights back to the graveyard shift).

WFAN and its ilk appear to be phasing out older hosts in an effort to draw younger listeners, part of radio’s fight to maintain and grow audience amid competition from podcasts, streaming and the rest of the new media landscape. Somers is a perfect example of how radio executives still miss key aspects of the superfan economy (which happens to be the topic of the latest chapter in my new Substack-serialized book, We Are All Musicians Now). 

Unlike most WFAN hosts, Somers doesn’t spend much time dispensing advice related to gambling or fantasy sports. He’s a storyteller and a humorist, one who’d rather joke about the New York “Icelanders” than predict who’ll cover the spread in tonight’s game. In an era when everyone seems fixated on “consuming content” that provides “actionable advice,” the Schmoozer’s mission is to delight and entertain first, and to transmit information second.

Yet his approach has earned him scores of superfans. With a solid 30,000-plus followers on Twitter, Somers has more than many other hosts on the station, aside from the drive-time shock jocks. And slapping a number on his fan base doesn’t do justice to its eclectic and influential depth. Browse his followers and you’ll find names ranging from rapper Pharoahe Monch to comedian Jerry Seinfeld. And there’s a high level of engagement here: the latter sometimes calls in as “Jerry from Queens.”

Ironically, by moving away from Somers, WFAN is undoing some of the magic that built the station, back when people said nobody would listen to sports talk 24 hours a day. At WFAN’s 1987 inception, polished pros like Greg Gumbel ruled the airwaves. But it was the quirky regionalism of shows like “Mike and the Mad Dog” that caused the station to take off.

The Schmoozer, with his mellifluous voice—so soothing that, as a kid, my parents would let me leave WFAN on at bedtime—was the epitome of what made the station unique. A San Francisco native, he somehow ended up with an inflection that suggested he was born in a Brooklyn bagel shop. Most importantly, he treated his callers with patience and dignity, whether it was the wheezy Doris from Rego Park or the aforementioned Jerry from Queens.

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Though I don’t have a deep demographic analysis of Somers’ audience in hand, I’ve got a bevy of anecdotal evidence through my own late night listening so extensive it borders on scientific. And I can confirm his fan base isn’t just fellow senior citizens. Multitudes of Millennials grew up on the Schmoozer and called him into the wee hours. He served as a therapist as much as a host, especially through the dark days of the early pandemic.

While I’d be thrilled to hear Somers back on WFAN, even in a weekly spot, I think a good chunk of his audience has the tech smarts—not to mention the motivation—to follow him to another platform. As musician Amanda Palmer pointed out in last week’s installment of my book, a key to building a strong fan base is peer-to-peer relationships. Somers’ callers dial in not to argue with him, but as a form of mutual engagement. And, like Palmer, what he lacks in broad name recognition he makes up with his deep well of superfans.

Wherever Somers ends up, I’ll be among the first in line to call, lest I miss my chance once again. We could even schmooze about whether or not Jeff Kent has a case for Hall of Fame induction. Regardless, I know Somers would never prank me by insisting I’d misdialed a cab company.

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