Politics: Now That Neil’s Gone, Radio Won’t Be the Same

My Christmas Day was made somber, somewhat, when I picked up the paper and discovered to my sad surprise that Neil Rogers’ voice, the previous day, had been silenced forever.

Yes, we had been informed only weeks before that a planned surgery had been aborted, he’d been moved to a hospice, and hadn’t much time left.  Still, the news of his passing stunned.

For you see, it didn’t seem like the man would ever, could ever, die.  It seems incredible that he’s gone.  Gone. That voice – that inimitable voice as well as the wit, wisdom, and humor behind it – just seemed like it would always be with us.  After all, he’d been on our airwaves for 33 years until June 2009.  Considering all that, could anyone fathom that there’d ever come a time when it wasn’t booming out to us from our radios, a riveting, rip-roaringly ribald, irreverent mishmash of off-the-cuff comedy, blistering insults, listener phone calls, and liberal political commentary?

In an era when local TV personalities are more often media transients and radio hosts are equally ephemeral, and subject to the fickle ratings and frequent chess-piece moves of their station management, no one anymore stays for as long as Neil did.

I was a late-comer to “Uncle” Neil’s audience, discovering him on my AM dial only in late 2004.  But for me, he was more than just a voice on the radio, a daily indulgence at midday.  And I was more than just a listener.

So it is here, and now, that I confess a secret I have maintained as well if not for as long as Mark Felt (Deep Throat) hid his notorious alter-ego identity:  The “Charlie B” who in the last years of the Neil Rogers Show kept its host supplied with many of the audience-interactive daily polls he used on his companion website?

“Charlie B” was  me.

I don’t even answer to the nickname “Charlie”.  Never use it.  But it seemed appropriate for the informality of the show.  And so, from my first poll submission, in October 2005 (If a hurricane wiped South Florida off the map, where in America would you want to be relocated to?) to my last, #508, in June 2009, submitted on the day of his last broadcast (Which TV family do you wish you could have been a member of?), that’s how I signed my polls.  And thus preserved my anonymity while at the same time, over the next four years, becoming known to countless Neil fans all over the region and around the world via online stream, whenever “Neil God” would  utter my moniker.

Which he did – often on a daily basis – as when he would laud me for a good poll, or rip into me for one he hated.  But my true identity always remained cloaked.

Until now.

I was just one of a few “poll guys” who regularly fed the show with poll suggestions.  Each week or every couple of days, the routine went like this:  I’d email a batch at a time to Neil’s producer, Jorge Rodriguez, in Miami and to his webmaster in Orlando, and they’d be forwarded on to Neil’s Toronto apartment, from where he did his show.

Sometimes a poll I had sent out only hours earlier would be posted online prior to that morning’s show and be talked-up throughout the show, as Neil updated listeners with results.

My polls ran the gamut:  “What’s your favorite 70?s sitcom?” “What’s the best / worst thing about South Florida?” “What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?” “What do you think about code enforcement people?” “If I were God…” “My favorite comedian is…” “My favorite Aerosmith (or Simon & Garfunkel, etc.) song is…” “The most embarrassing bodily function is…”.

The polls didn’t merely serve as a barometer of the audience’s opinions.  They also provoked discussion.  One of mine was the genesis of an off-and-on debate between Neil, Jorge, and callers that lasted for the better part of a week, and beyond.  Such was the power of the polls, to be provocative.

One day early on, evidently a virgin at getting zinged by Neil, I got zung.  The subject long forgotten by me now, Neil – in his caustic-comedic way — mentioned me in the course of a diatribe and I got hit with a mocking barb or two.

To say the least, I was pissed off, hurt, dejected.  But time – and repeat injury – toughened and accustomed me to accept the Jekyll/Hyde nature of Neil’s on-air mood swings.  Subsequent slings and arrows from him over the years would meet with more laughs than chagrin.

Like others who have been the butt of his ridicule have testified, it wasn’t so much what he said about you but that you got mentioned at all.  And to be mentioned by Neil regularly, by name, was as if you had been embraced as a member of this one big funny, if wildly dysfunctional, family:  The station management, the show staff, the callers, the audience.

Others have commented in the papers and online in recent days of how it was like a sign of distinction to be bad-mouthed by Neil.  “One consolation of being battered by Neil,” the Sun-Sentinel’s Tom Jicha once observed, “was it served almost as a status symbol.”  He could bite into you like a pit bull on the air, yet in his off-air persona, regard you with puppy dog gentility.

That’s what he was like.  I became an occasional MySpace correspondent of his in 2007 (in fact, he was the reason I joined MySpace; he had just recently joined and talked it up on his show).  I might wish him a happy birthday, mention a news item about a new diabetes drug (he was always on the lookout for new remedies), or congratulate him on his tenth anniversary at his last station, WQAM.  In his replies, he was always gracious and well-spirited.

Neil could rip a poll idea one day and embrace it the next:  Jorge (now on his own with his own on-line daily broadcast), wrote this to me in Aug. 2007:  “I noticed Neil is using one of your polls today that he ripped the other day.  Funny.”

On-air, if it wasn’t, “Wow, here’s a good one from Charlie B…” it might be, “Oh, Charlie B, you idiot!  This one sucks!”  Or, “We haven’t heard from Charlie B lately.”  Just because you’d sent some in that Neil thought were turkeys, didn’t mean he’d kill the hen that laid the eggs.  He appreciated those who took the time to send in polls, and their efforts.

Jorge again, March 13, 2007:  “Like Neil said, coming up with a new poll every day is the hardest thing about this job.”

Once, after ripping one of mine on-air, I returned a salvo:  “Keep it up…denigrating the polls, ol’ fart, and us Poll Guys are going to tie you TO a poll and light a fire underneath.”

From my Sept. 14, 2007, email to the Neil, his producer, and an engineer:  “Heard yesterday’s show… nearly fell off my chair laughing over the 3 of you guessing as to why I’d dropped out of touch.”  I’d been on vacation for a few weeks and hadn’t sent in any new polls.

Ridiculing old condo farts as “wrinkled, miserable cheapskates” who horded packets of Sweet ‘n Low while dining out at early-bird restaurants was a Neil Show highlight.

Former Hallandale Beach mayor Arthur “Sonny” Rosenberg, one who verbally jousted with him in the 80?s, resented that Neil “would say, ‘If you see an old man on the street in Hallandale Beach, hit ‘im’.”

But we loved it.  And we wanted more.

The oft-replayed phone call from the “Bridge Tender”.  The annual phone call with a veteran Kentucky Derby race announcer, handicapping the upcoming stakes.  The clever puns and rhymes.  The insults and put-downs.  The Yiddish terms like “schmuck” and “schmendrick”.  Demanding callers “get a life!”  Chewing out and hanging up on the “chronics,” those losers who’d incessantly call the show with nothing worthwhile to say.

Among my fave Neil stories, from the rare occasions he reached back into his Rochester, N.Y., youth for a tale that sketched out who he came to be, was this:

One day, Neil was taken aside by a wise, old rabbi.  Boy, the elder instructed him, run away from all this; it’s crap.  Religion – Judaism, God, the Bible stories, an afterlife, all of it – is as phony as a $3 bill.  If I had it to do all over again, the old man confided, I’d go into some other line of work.

So run Neil did.  He remained an atheist for the rest of his life and, with his mic as megaphone and his show as pulpit, was one of the most outspoken non-believers of our time, railing against religious myths and conventions, popes, pedophile priests – you name it.

Neil’s last venture into fandom – a rare, in-person, autograph-signing meet-and-greet at Gulfstream Park in May 2009 –  happened a month before the shit hit the fan at WQAM and his show was unplugged.

It was there, in the rear of a noisy, darkened gaming room filled with slot machines and gamblers, after the fans had retreated and he had sat himself down in front of a machine, that I was briefly introduced to him.  He took his gaze off his machine, turned around, and shook my hand.  Then, barely skipping a beat, he fixated again on the one-armed bandit before him.

One would have figured that’s how he’d go out:  while playing one.

Now comes news this week that Sirius XM has been asking some of its top radio talent to take dramatic cuts in pay, as much as – in Bubba the Love Sponge’s case – 80%.

“They paid an exorbitant amount for Hollywood people like Jamie Foxx with no fucking radio talent, so radio people like me have suffered,” Bubba complained to Hollywood Reporter.  “A lot of good radio people aren’t getting an opportunity because of these Hollywood people.”

Neil resisted the many entreaties of fans who implored, wished, and advised him to ditch terrestrial radio for what at the time appeared greener pastures in satellite broadcasting.  You deserve to have a Howard Stern-scale national audience, they said.  You’ll rake in more dough, they cooed.

But Neil would have none of it.  He wasn’t impressed.  No doubt he could have made the crossover and likely would have met with success.  But did he harbor private doubts that he could?  Did he fear a move might spell drastic changes to his style or show, having to adapt to a new, and vaster, audience?  Was it his age?  Or was he simply content with where he was at?

Even into his last year on air, Talkers Magazine listed him No. 89 in its annual list of Top 100 radio personalities in the U.S.

He couldn’t have known that his last day on the air – Friday, June 19, 2009 – would be his final.  The following Monday, it was announced that he had accepted WQAM’s buyout of his contract.  Finally, the voice of the undisputed “King of Talk Radio in South Florida” was stifled, untransmitted.  It would remain so until his death one year, 6 months, and 5 days later.

His last public communique, still posted on his website, came upon his WQAM retirement:  “My best wishes to all…it’s been one helluva ride!”

One helluva high-speed, break-neck spin, a joy ride, a bang-em, smash-em-up careening around corners and drag racing down 95.  You treated us to quite a thrill ride and it was an experience we won’t soon forget.  What do we do now with our radios, toss them out our windows?  Smash them with a mallet?  Yes, there’s still NPR.  And yes, there might some day be another like you.  But not you.  No, there will never be another you.  Your silence is deafening.

Thanks for the ride, friend, you ol’ fart.

About Charles Branham-Bailey

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