Thursday, June 25, 2009

Neil Rogers redux

UPDATE: I have compiled a DVD of approximately 115 Neil Rogers shows that span from Sept. 2007 to Apr. 2008. I can send you one for a donation of $45.00. Email me for details.

Miami Herald photo

Uncle Neil has hung it up. Or, at least that's what he says.

I've listened to Neil for over 20 years.

And I've photographed him twice.

The last time was almost 20 years ago, for a story that the legendary Rick Bragg wrote for the St. Petersburg Times.

There's a pretty good chance you didn't see the story when it was first published in September of 1990.

So I'm posting it below.


Tapping into the anger of Miami

St. Petersburg Times Staff writer

Sept. 16, 1990

MIAMI-This is a town of people who call someplace else home, who left memories and neighborhoods behind to live in a place where it's warm.

This is a town where vandals last week broke into a church and decapitated a statue of the Virgin Mary; where smash-and-grab robbers hurled a concrete block through the windshield of a tourist's car and hurt a little girl.

This is a town where the worship of money is practiced in obscene excesses, where bejeweled women in rhinestone-studded cowboy boots and snakeskin bikinis sip $6 glasses of water at sidewalk cafes and drive away in Porsches.

This is a town where people of one accent don't trust people of another accent, where hate and paranoia thrive, where some days it seems like the whole thing will implode on its hollow center and shrivel like a shrunken head.

This is Neil Rogers' town.

It speaks through him, the icon of South Florida talk radio, leaching its bitterness into the airwaves one angry, frustrated caller at a time. Then it falls like rain on the Victim of the Day: the elderly, immigrants, police, or anyone who doesn't fit into a caller's world.

That has prompted some to call Rogers - this harmless-looking man who eats lunch with his Jewish mother every Tuesday - a hatemonger. While Rogers didn't create this monster, he has tapped into its power.

For 15 years, his top-rated call-in show has been a sort of mirror for Miami and South Florida, a reflection of its mind-set.

Often times, that mirror image has been frightening. When Rogers was in his heyday in the mid-1980s - railing against unbridled Cuban immigration, warning of a wholesale Anglo exodus - one of every nine people who listen to radio in South Florida tuned in to him. He was the prophet for their phobias, the keeper of their fears. It led to hate on both sides, and even Rogers was disgusted by it all.

Now, as he has mellowed, the ugly side of South Florida - the phobias, fear, prejudice and hopelessness - comes through less frequently. But it comes. It comes in the callers who want to bad-mouth newcomers who haven't learned to speak the language or old people who get in the way.

But, as Rogers says, it's just radio. In a world where boredom brings bad ratings and bad ratings bring sudden death, Rogers never bores. He angers, entices, stimulates and insults, but never bores.

It is why he is the king of the ratings today and has been for more than 10 years, despite that he is a pudgy, balding, homosexual, liberal Jewish atheist.

His listeners forgive him everything, as long as he validates their feelings, or makes them laugh.

"When you live here," Rogers said, "anything that makes you think you're still alive is a public service."

It's a Tuesday morning in the studios of WIOD Talk Radio, an AM station on the shores of northern Biscayne Bay.

Most of the phone lines are lit. The Phone Gods are smiling on Uncle Neil today, like most days. He seems to have some kind of charm, some talisman of the airwaves that draws people to him, station to station, night or day.

It is called talent. It is why his radio station pays him somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 a year to be mean with flair.

A caller, a young man with a New York accent, is complaining about old people who don't look before crossing the street.

Rogers, his voice calm and clear, friendly and almost soothing, lets the man know it's okay to feel that way, because Uncle Neil does, too.

Rogers calls it the "Kamikaze Shuffle."

"They want you to put them out of their misery," he tells the caller.

"I'll go get my truck," the young man answers.

To listen to Rogers, a large part of Miami's older residents are bitter, nasty, angry people who steal the Sweet 'N Low from the restaurant dispenser and wait to die.

There are other targets.

Rogers on immigrants: "This country has no immigration policy. They come here on a rubber raft ... somebody hands them a Green Card and a beat-up Chevy ... and we turn them loose."

Rogers on police: "Pigs."

Rogers on gay rights: "I came out of the closet 14 years ago. I've got a good job, I make a lot of money, nobody messes with me. How can you vote for someone's rights?"

Rogers on his own audience: "They're a bunch of butt kissers ... who have nothing to say."

Rogers, who is an atheist, is of Jewish extraction, on organized religion: "It's terrible."

"He's a mean son of a b----," said one elderly Miami Beach resident, who refused to give his name because he was afraid Rogers would attack him on the airwaves. In fact, finding anyone to openly criticize Rogers is almost impossible. He is a powerful man, with thousands of loyal followers called "Neilies." And, every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., he owns the airwaves.

"That's just the way people in this town are. They thrive on hate, on stirring the pot," Rogers said.

His current market share is 5.5 percent, a remarkable number when you figure that Miami's radio market is flooded with Spanish-speaking stations.

That 5.5 translates to 150,000 people a week.

For the most part, his callers seem to be young, male and white, without - as Rogers concedes - much to say. Their most intelligent comment is usually, "How you doin', Neil," and declines from there.

For instance: The caller who wants to complain because he pulled into a gas station and the "fat, disgusting" man who was pumping gas didn't speak English.

Or: "Neil, how you doin' ... I'm a Mets fan ..."

Rogers' intellect has to carry them - and his intellect, even his critics say, is considerable. Rogers snatches up their mundane comments and runs with them, cracking jokes, hurling insults, the words tumbling forth without an iota of dead air time.

The Miami Herald always has excluded Rogers from its list of most influential people in Dade County. It shouldn't, said Tom Jicha, longtime radio writer for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. When Rogers makes a public appearance, thousands of people show up.

"He has always been a conduit for their anger, their feelings," Jicha said. He has the power, a tremendous power, to sway public opinion.

People who dismiss him as mean and shallow are selling him short, Jicha said. Rogers has adopted the Camillus House, a shelter for the homeless, as his pet charity. Over the years he has helped raise thousands of dollars for it, donating his own money as well as organizing fund-raisers.

Others find no good in him. He is the only talk show host banned by a city. Sweetwater did it in the mid 1980s, because he was seen as anti-Cuban.

Neil "Banned in Sweetwater" Rogers only thrives on such things. They are good for ratings, and the higher the ratings, the greater the power.

But if it really is lonely at the top, it can be even lonelier if you are Neil Rogers, the celebrity who performs in an empty room. Rochester, N.Y.

Neil Rogers is 47 years old and looks like your uncle. He used to be fat, really fat, but a recent stroke forced him to change his eating habits and, perhaps, to tone down his shows.

"I can't do that screaming stuff anymore," he said.

He looks so benign, behind his conservative glasses, under his conservative haircut, it's hard to believe this man and his legend are one.

"You were expecting a madman," Rogers said and smiled.

It started with a tape recorder and a dream in Rochester, N.Y. Ten-year-old Nelson Roger Behelfer sat in front of the television and practiced play-by-play during baseball games. But in his mind he wasn't little Nelson Behelfer, he was Neil Rogers, Radio Announcer. Ta-Daaaaa.

He got his first radio job when he was 17 and worked his way through a variety of jobs in a variety of northern stations before landing in Sarasota in 1973. There, he became a talk show host by accident. The elderly man who was supposed to do the show had high blood pressure and developed a nose bleed before air time. Rogers, who was spinning records at the time, took over.

He came to South Florida in 1975 and hopped eventually to WKAT in Miami Beach. His popularity kept opening doors. "We're all whores in this business. We go where the money is," he said.

It was there that he took a major risk with his popularity and his whole career. He came out of the closet on the air, and his ratings dropped like hanged men.

Rogers had known since he was 10 that he was a homosexual, but - like a lot of radio personalities afraid of backlash - kept it hidden until Dec. 17, 1976. He gambled that his popularity would overcome it, and eventually it did. People still call him up on the air now and then to call him names, but he just cuts them off.

The bottom dropped out of his ratings once more, but it was a hellish fall.

The climb to the ratings mountaintop came in 1984, when Fidel Castro agreed that 300,000 more Cubans would be allowed to emigrate. Most of them would wind up in South Florida.

Calls started pouring in at Talk Radio WNWZ, where Rogers was the star. The Miamians were scared. One caller said to shoot them before they land, and the anti-Cuban sentiment - egged on by Rogers, who called on his listeners to end mass Cuban immigration - became thicker and meaner every day.

As many as 300,000 people a week called, and pretty soon people forgot the issues - like what in the world South Florida was going to do with them all - and just started calling names. It became insane, so out of control, that one day Rogers just couldn't stand it.

In some ways, maybe, he had created it. But like Frankenstein, his creation was somehow deformed by forces beyond his control. He decided he wouldn't give it any more air time.

The phones lines stopped lighting up.

If Neil wasn't nasty, no one wanted him.

Over time - over many lonely nights of staring at mute phones - the people came back to him. He was still mean and nasty, maybe not as much as before, but still meaner and nastier than anyone else.

He has yet to achieve the overwhelming popularity of the hate and fear years, but has regained his place at the top and sits on it to this day.

That doesn't mean the loneliness has all been brushed away.

He is a celebrity who is worshipped from afar. To most listeners, he is only The Voice. After hours, he usually just goes home to his satellite dish - he is a rabid Cubs fan - or to the track to bet the nags.

He has friends, but even those friends are kept at a distance.

When he suffered a mild stroke in his sleep five months ago, he didn't even know it until he came to work, leaned into the microphone, and tried to talk.

The words came out, but instead of the smooth, well-modulated delivery, it was creeping, crawling abomination - slurring, distorted words. After a few days it went away, but for at least a while Rogers, The Voice, stared into the possibility that his career was over.

That doesn't mean it turned his life around and made him a saint. He still hangs up on people on the air, still plays a cassette of pig noises to show disgust, still refers to city leaders in Miami as "all standing out on the beach waiting for a rubber raft to wash up, or ... trying to learn a second language," still refers to old people as "trying to get across the street without spilling their prune juice."

Still nasty, after all these years.

But it's just radio, right?

"When I leave every day at 2 o'clock, I erase it," he said. "It's all just a show."


  1. THAT "your" photo?


  2. No, not my photo. Note it says Miami Herald photo!

  3. Thanks so much for posting this -- great article.


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