WFAN host Richard Neer talks sports, Springsteen and the future of radio
For anyone from New Jersey who has listened to the radio for rock music or sports for any part of the past 45 years, the name Richard Neer is likely a familiar one. He was a longtime fixture at the pioneering progressive rock station WNEW-FM the early 1970s and into the 1980s before joining WFAN as a sports show talk host in 1988, where he continues on weekend mornings. He wrote the definitive book on the golden age of progressive rock radio, “FM,” in 2001, recently published his fourth mystery novel, “The Last Resort,” and is working on a fifth. Many of the locales in the books are at the Jersey Shore, where he lived for more than a decade. Neer responded to a series of our questions about his long, varied career.
Your radio style is decidedly different than many of your sports radio colleagues. You don’t shout. You don’t insult your callers or cut them off abruptly. And your analysis is refreshingly sensible. How have you managed to endure in a radio world where those who register the highest decibel level readings seem to rise to the top?
If I screamed and yelled at callers, it would be an act and I’d be outed very quickly. Your radio persona is a refinement of who you really are, and I favor reasoned dialogue over gratuitous attacks and name calling. I also like to get things right and our predictions and “expert opinions”are just shots in the dark. None of us know the outcome of sporting events in advance, or we wouldn’t watch them. I think the upsets and comebacks over the last year prove that.
You lived at the Shore for more than a decade, in Toms River, Bayville and elsewhere and have drawn on those locales heavily in your detective series. What are some of your fondest recollections of your time at the Shore?
I loved going out to eat at seaside bars and restaurants. Canoeing on Barnegat Bay before the afternoon winds made the water too choppy. Just hanging out on the deck on a sunny, breezy day with a good book.
In your book “FM,” published in 1991, you described a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Bottom Line in the mid-1970s as the best you had ever seen. Has anything topped it since? If not, what has come the closest?
Nothing close to that. It was transcendent. Maybe Jethro Tull at the Garden, the Who at the Capitol Theatre or The Eagles at Giant Stadium — all tied for second.
You were an early champion of Springsteen and eventually became friends with him. In “FM” you described long conversations with him about music, women and sports. What did you see in him and in his music that some early detractors did not?
I loved his ability to combine the best of what rock and roll offered to that point, a distillation of all the different styles and influences, rolled into one great big joyous ball of talent. And in concert, he always seemed to be having the best time of his life, like he was doing what he was put on earth for and loving every second of it. His lyrics were clever, poignant and heartfelt. I loved playing “New York City Serenade” late at night; it captured the city perfectly.
Richard Neer, right, in the WNEW-FM studio circa 1986-87 with Glenn Frey of The Eagles, and Lisa Glasberg, who was the newsperson at the station at the time. Courtesy of Richard Neer
Do you still stay in touch with him or attend any of his concerts?
Sadly, no. He’s got a lot of people guarding his access these days. I did appreciate him giving me credit for saving his life in “Born to Run,” his memoir, although I don’t think our chats quite rose to that level.
What music is on your personal play lists today? Does it include any contemporary music?
Actually, I’m loving Keith Urban and Eric Church, two country guys. And of course classic rock — The Eagles, The Who, the Beatles, Bruce. Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin.
What differentiated the progressive rock radio epitomized by WNEW-FM in the 1970s from anything that had come before it or has since come after it on commercial radio? How special was that period for you and will we ever see anything like it in commercial radio again?
I doubt we’ll ever see its like again, although in “The Last Resort” I paint a scenario in which it could happen again. It’s fiction of course, but if it comes to fruition, you can bet I’ll take credit. It was a heady time, because you were the show. The music fit whatever mood you were in, an extension of who you were. Honest, sometimes painfully so when things weren’t going so well.
Richard Neer (Photo: SONY DSC)
At WNEW, you worked with a stable of unique, larger-than-life personalities — Scott Muni, Jonathan Schwartz, Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, Zacherle, Vin Scelsa, to name a few. Similarly, at WFAN, you’ve worked with a number of colorful, high-octane hosts, such as Mike Francesa, Craig Carton, Steve Somers and Joe Benigno. Which one or ones do you/did you most admire?
Scott Muni was my mentor. He was a larger-than-life character, John Wayne and Johnny Cash rolled into one. He had a weekend place in Point Pleasant for many years. And who could resist the charms of Alison Steele, who I saw every night for almost seven years. I can’t single out anyone at the FAN because they’re all still around and it wouldn’t be fair, but they all belong in the Hall of Fame.
Given all the different ways people can access and listen to music they most enjoy today, what do you see as the future of commercial music radio?
I don’t really see much future for commercial music radio, as I write in “The Last Resort.” With Spotify, Pandora and Sirius/XM, it’s hard to justify listening to the same 250 songs with all the commercials.
Richard Neer, from his WNEW-FM days. (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Neer)
The first of your four detective novels was published in 2014. When did you first think seriously about writing novels, and what or whom inspired you to do so?
Robert B. Parker was my greatest influence. I’ve been writing for over 15 years. These four were the first ready for public consumption. They say you improve your writing skills by just doing it, over and over. I have the next one, “The Punch List,” completed and the followup to that about three quarters of the way finished. I love to write because you have the space to hone your thoughts perfectly. On radio, whatever comes out of your mouth at a given moment is it. You can’t go back and re-work something you’ve said to clarify or express it more concisely or gracefully.
Is another non-fiction book in the offing? Perhaps something similar to “FM” based on your experiences at WFAN?
It would be hard to do that while I’m still working at WFAN. The arc isn’t complete yet and won’t be for many, many years. FM was written almost as a eulogy, after WNEW-FM went under as a rock station. The tabloids cover day-to-day station gossip for those interested. Maybe when the current group has retired, I’ll interview them and make a book of it, but that’s a ways off.
The cover of Richard Neer’s fourth, and latest, mystery novel, “The Last Resort.” (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Neer)
What’s the next step in your career path?
I hope to keep writing novels and growing my readership. I’ll stay at WFAN as long as they’ll have me. Of all the genres of commercial radio, I think sports talk has the most staying power because there are new dramas to talk about almost daily. The FAN will be around for a long time and likely outlive us all.
Soon after graduating from Adelphi University, Richard Neer joined progressive rock station WNEW-FM, serving as morning show host and program director. He joined WFAN in 1988, working Saturday mornings from 6-10 a.m., Sunday mornings during baseball season and occasional late nights.
He is an associate editor for Talkers magazine. His first novel, “Something of the Night,” was published as an eBook in August 2014. He is now working on a sixth novel. His wife Vicky is a television producer.