The call came to the control
room in the middle of the
show: Would I stop up after I
got off the air? It was a com mand, not a suggestion. In my best T-shirt and jeans, I walked into the office of Gordon Peil, director of operations. He cleared his throat, looked at the floor, then at me.
"There comes a time, Robert," he said. "You saw the ratings."
With that, I was no longer a radio talk-show host.
But oh, what a lovely ride. For 38 weeks, 190 shows, 380 hours, Monday through Friday, I moonlighted as the main afternoon "personality" at WRC-AM, the local NBC-owned news/talk station.
I had never been on the radio before. I decided to try it on a whim. I worked on weekends for a while--talk radio's equivalent of learning to hit a curve ball in the minor leagues. I liked it; they liked me. I was given "afternoon drive"--4 to 6 p.m., the second most listened-to time slot on the station.
My daily routine never varied. I'd read four newspapers every morning and write down ideas. I'd call my producer at 11 a.m. to discuss that day's show. Usually I'd call again at about 1. I'd arrive at the studio at about 3, stoke up on coffee and read press clippings.
Shortly before 4, I'd walk into Studio One, a 12-foot-square room in the basement at 4001 Nebraska Ave. NW. The room has a map of the Middle East on one wall and a sign on another wall that reads: "Remember to Reintroduce Guest and Subject." Four mikes are mounted around the edge of a circular wooden console. There's a control panel with several dozen buttons on it, half of whose functions I never understood. There's a coffee pot that never works.
What isn't there is windows. To find out whether it was raining or snowing, either I or the producer would call the guard at the front desk, and ask him to look outside. Sometimes he'd be away from his desk. Many were the times I said, "It's raining lightly outside our studios in Northwest Washington" without knowing for certain.
At 4:01, I would pour myself a glass of water and plug in my headphones. I would put the sports copy in one pile, the "brights" from the wire services in another, the background material on my scheduled guests in still another. I would joke with the producer, tease the newscaster and ask the engineer how his grandson was. I would think about the mountains of New Hampshire, the plains of East Africa--anything to clear my brain so I could sound spontaneous when it was for real.
At exactly 4:05:30 by the digital clock on the wall, "real" would arrive. The network news would end, the engineer would start the canned jingle, the pink "On Air" lights would flash, and a thousand volts of show business would surge through me (it never failed). And I'd say:
"Good afternoon, Washington, and welcome to Bob Levey's Washington! It's 4:05, and here's what's on tap for you today . . ."
For the next 114 minutes, I would interview authors. And psychologists. And TV stars. And coeds who earn extra money walking sandwich boards up and down K Street. And guys floating across the country in hot air balloons. And how-to-succeed-in- business promoters. And people with herpes. The famous and the infamous.
I talked to Bob Hope. He was monosyllabic, unfunny, unforthcoming. He was my worst guest.
I talked to the stars of "Hill Street Blues." I asked Michael Warren what brought him to Washington. "A United Airlines 737," he replied. He thought that was funny. I didn't.
I talked to Treasury Secretary Donald Regan the day he was named Father of the Year. I think he was relieved not to have to talk about bucks for a change. He was excellent.
I talked to the mile-a-minute guy who stars in the Federal Express TV commercials. After an interesting interview, I thanked him for being on the show. "ItwasmypleasureBob Idbegladtodoitagainanytime," he said.
I talked to Joe Theismann and Ken Singleton and Warren Spahn and Gene Shue. I talked to Michael Barnes and Frank Wolf and Jack Herrity and David Clarke. I talked to 11 senators, 27 congressmen, two judges and four police chiefs. To tell you the truth, it gets a little hard to remember who else I talked to.
But some moments will live in memory forever. A sampler:
* The best snippet of dialogue came the day I interviewed the detective whose job it is to watch all the X-rated movies on 14th Street to determine if theater owners should be charged with obscenity.
"Tough job?" I asked him.
"Are you kidding?" he said.
* Alf Landon struck the most telling blow for honesty. He was on the show on his 90th birthday. I asked if he'd run for president in 1984.
He pronounced that a stupid question.
I replied, "You know--it is."
He said, "You know, I think we'll get along just fine." And we did.
Zsa Zsa Gabor called me "Dahling." Duke Zeibert called me "Pal." Millicent Fenwick called me "Sir." And Charlton Heston called me "Tom." So much for fame.
* The wackiest episode I had was when a friend from North Carolina came to the studio to watch. He was sitting beside me as I read a promotional spot about a station contest. Midway through it, he leaned back too far in his chair and began to tumble to the floor.
I say "began" because he never finished the fall. He sensed that he was past the point of no return, so, not wanting to disrupt a live radio show with a loud crash, he reached out and caught hold of a table. There he held himself, just above the floor, in suspension.
Somehow, I didn't laugh. I ended the promo and smoothly introduced newscaster Andrew Baroch. But Baroch wasn't about to pretend things were normal.
"This may not be very professional," said Baroch, on the air, "but I'm not going to do the news until our guest gets off the floor." Whereupon he did. And all three of us cracked up.
* The Screamer was the unknown ghost in my job. To judge from his voice, I'd peg him in his early 20s. Extremely good diction. Mid-range baritone. And as any producer at the station can tell you, a bottomless bag of false voices.
The Screamer's greatest pleasure in life, apparently, is to get on radio and shout obscenities. He has done this several dozen times in the last couple of years. But after the first few times, producers (who screen callers) got wise to the sound of his voice. So The Screamer would switch to any of a dozen phony voices, many of them falsettos.
None of The Screamer's pearls has ever gotten onto the air, because there's a switch in the lower center of the control panel labeled DUMP. If an obscenity is uttered, the host, the producer or the engineer can edit out the word before it ever reaches homes and cars. How, if this is live radio, can that happen? Because the entire station is on a seven-second delay to provide exactly that kind of insurance. If you hit the dump button, you send into oblivion the previous seven seconds of talk.
I had often wondered whether I'd be quick enough to dump The Screamer if he struck during my show. I also wondered if it would unsettle me. I got my answers one day when the subject was funny habits.
"Hi," I said, as I punched phone button four. "What's your funny habit?"
"Chocolate chip cookies," said a smooth woman's voice.
"Why chocolate chip cookies, ma'am?"
"Because I use them to 3/4*$&% my 3/4*$&3/4%," said The Screamer. Then a fit of giggles.
I "dumped" him and moved right along to the call on line five. But I was shaken--as if I had narrowly avoided a serious auto accident.
"Welcome to the club," said the producer through the headphones.
ired. So tired. Worked an
eight-hour shift at The Post,
followed by the radio show.
By the end of some weeks, I
"I'm going to make a 'tired mistake' on the air some Friday," I told newscaster Rita Foley during an ad. "Nonsense," she said.
That was on a Thursday. The next day, as Foley sat about two feet from my right shoulder, giving her newscast a last once-over, I leaned into the goosenecked mike and introduced her as follows:
". . . time is 4:07, and that's time for a look at all the local news. Here's WRC's Andrew Baroch."
Foley looked at me as if I had just shot 27 people. Stumbling, I corrected myself. At the end of the newscast came an ad.
"I told you, Ace," I said.
"Get some sleep, Ace," she said.
here is nothing worse than
being a talk-show host if your
throat is scratchy. The day I
interviewed former TV
weatherman Frank Forrester, my throat was past scratchy, all the way to sandpaper. I sounded like Wolfman Jack after three packs of Camels.
After our interview was over, Forrester offered to go buy me some Robitussin to see me through the rest of the show. "Never touch the stuff," I told Frank, which was the truth--I never had.
"Fix you right up," said Forrester. I agreed.
When you're running a control panel, and watching a producer, and watching an engineer, and trying to juggle the next six things you're going to say, you don't have time to read directions on a label.
I swigged the cough syrup: must have downed four ounces in 10 minutes. Suddenly, I realized that whatever the "active ingedients" in it were, they had my head swimming. It was the only time I ever went on the air under the influence.
never believed in premonitions or
psychic powers, but I was fasci nated by one talk show host's
When I first started, the producers would hand me and the other hosts a sheet of paper at the beginning of each hour. At the top, the temperature was written in.
But host Sallee Rigler, a psychic, had left standing orders: Don't fill in the temperature blank. She could close her eyes and "intuit" what the temperature was.
And she could.
Then one morning, Like Rigler, I intuited a bit myself: I foresaw my own demise.
Producer Leslie Webb called to ask if I'd like to talk that afternoon to some guy from the world of show business.
I had never heard of him.
"Never heard of him?" said Webb. "His picture's in People magazine this week."
I snorted. People magazine?
"That's right," said Webb. "You really should be reading People magazine every week, Bob."
A cold wind blew through my bones at that moment. Two weeks later, I was history.