Steele's radio formula would seem odd today

Imagine a radio station hiring a morning host who played only the music he liked, even though his selections were usually 30 years out of date at best, offered features that catered to listeners over 80, even though advertisers avoided such people.

This radio personality regaled his listeners with reports on his weight every Friday and never, ever talked politics or expressed his opinion on anything that had two sides except the proper pronunciation of words. This happened every morning in the "word for the day" feature, always at the same time for he was very methodical.

He announced the winner of the upcoming World Series every spring and never let his listeners forget that he correctly picked the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals to appear in the 1944 World Series and the Cardinals to win it.

Every month or two, our host would entertain his listeners with a recorded recitation of a comic poem about a lion eating a British couple's child while they were on holiday at a seaside resort. Sometimes, for a change, he'd recite the poem himself and he was as good as the recorded version by the British actor Stanley Holloway. (It sounds awful but it's really very funny; Google "The Lion and Albert.")

And now they've named a street after him.

Grove Street in downtown Hartford by the Travelers building where he worked for the first 25 of his 66 years at WTIC is now Bob Steele Street, even though the station is now relocated in Farmington.

Sixty-six is not a typo. Bob Steele was heard on WTIC AM in Connecticut and nearby states for 66 years, 48 of them as the powerful, 50,000-watt station's morning man. He was making a precarious living as a 25-year-old, itinerant public address announcer for motorcycle races in 1936 when, in Hartford for a race, he did an audition at the radio station and was hired. Seven years later, he was given the all important morning show and kept at it six days a week until 1989, when he cut back to five.

Steele retired on the 55th anniversary of the day he was hired in 1991 but continued to broadcast on Saturdays into the new century. He died in 2002 at 91.

His longevity was due to his unsurpassed popularity, which provided WTIC the largest audience share of any morning show in the nation's 50 largest markets. At his peak, that share was an incredible 58.9 percent of all the stations' listeners and he reached more than 400,000 of them.

Playing the music he liked and pleasing older listeners weren't Steele's only quirks. He never said anything offensive and never offended a listener by indulging in controversy of any kind and that included politics. You could have listened to Steele for all of those 48 years and never gotten a hint of his politics.

Despite his apolitical radio style, Steele had a local political connection. His son was Second District Congressman Robert H. Steele, who served the eastern Connecticut district for two terms before launching an unsuccessful campaign for governor against Ella Grasso in 1974.

Another reason - in addition to good taste - that these early broadcasters stayed away from politics was something called the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949 that required radio and television stations to provide both sides of controversial issues on their programs. This means that back then WTIC couldn't broadcast the musings of the far-right wall to wall every weekday, as it (and many other stations) does now between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. unless it offered the thoughts of the extreme left in a similar time frame.

The Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1989 when it finally occurred to government that requiring radio and TV to be fair was as unconstitutional as requiring a newspaper or magazine to be fair.

Fair minded liberals and conservatives - we had both species then - agreed with this radical concept and also agreed that if a radio station wanted to broadcast right- or left-wing nuts all day, it had every right to do so under the First Amendment and listeners had every right to tune in or out.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.


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