The talk shows on sports radio station WFAN are typically testosterone-addled affairs, pitting insecure hosts and ravenous callers against each other in a never-ending cycle of aggression and debate. At stake, the crown jewel for any red-blooded man–sports-knowledge supremacy.
With so much on the line, WFAN’s hosts can get downright nasty. For instance, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, known together as “Mike and the Mad Dog,” argue with each other for hours without letting their listeners have a say–and when they do let a caller on, it’s usually to insult him or her. Even gentle Joe Benigno, the former caller turned late-night host, can’t refrain from labeling his callers “silly” and their opinions “stupid.”
But then there’s Ann Liguori, host of the Friday night-Saturday morning (1 to 6 a.m.) late shift. Just one drop of her honey-sweet voice over the radio and you know Ms. Liguori is different. She builds her callers up; she doesn’t tear them down. She’s accepting of different opinions and she’s thoughtful about her own. In other words, she’s a … woman.
At 2 a.m. one recent Saturday morning at WFAN’s studios in Astoria, Queens, the blond, thin Ms. Liguori was doing her Liguori thing, taking calls, letting her audience talk. In sports news, the lowly New Jersey Nets had beaten the New York Knicks the night before. “Good for the Nets,” Ms. Liguori said with feeling. “They really needed that. It’s good for their ego.”
Then Ms. Liguori cut to a sports flash from WFAN update-man Don LaGrecco. During the break, Ms. Liguori tried to explain her show’s allure.
“I let callers give their opinions,” she said. “I don’t have an ego like that. I’m myself; I don’t have a shtick. I’m the same person on the air and off the air. It’s a very intimate medium. They hear your voice and they fantasize about what you look like. I think that there was a mystique about it, and you draw them in.”
Ms. Liguori only works one night a week at WFAN; during the rest of the week, she hosts a TV show on Fox Sports Net. Even so, over the past 12 years Ms. Liguori has accrued a stable of regulars and several proposals of marriage.
A man who calls himself Lonesome George likes to recite love poems on Ms. Liguori’s show. There’s Rich from Maine, who calls every Friday night from his truck on I-95. And there’s Short Al, who was waiting on hold when Ms. Liguori got back on the air.
After saying hello (callers are unusually civil with Ms. Liguori), Short Al, apropos of nothing, started singing “Molly Malone.” When he finished, he talked about his favorite singers. “Perry Como was good,” he said. “Real good. No one could sing sweeter than Perry Como. But he couldn’t touch Sinatra.” At this point, Ms. Liguori introduced The Observer to Short Al over the air. Short Al said to The Observer , “You have to know one thing: WFAN has done for me the best thing in the world.”
Ms. Liguori grew up in Ohio and moved to Manhattan after college in Florida. After several freelance jobs at ABC Sports and USA Today , she got her shot as the host of her own radio show at the then-fledgling WFAN.
“I felt a lot pressure starting this job,” Ms. Liguori said. “I took it very seriously. I thought if I failed, not only would it hurt my career but it would hurt the careers of other women, because they weren’t doing it then. They’re still not.”
The late shift has its perils. At 3:45 a.m., Jack from Bethel, Penn., was on the line, but he didn’t want to talk sports; he wanted to talk only about Rush Limbaugh. A few calls later, Tony from Staten Island turned out to be Eli from Brooklyn, a long-time WFAN caller (now banned from the airwaves) notorious for turning every sports discussion into an angry debate about race. “Tony” got only a few words in before Ms. Liguori realized the deceit and jettisoned him without so much as a flutter.
“I appreciate what they bring to the table in the middle of the night,” Ms. Liguori said of her callers. “Whether you agree with them or not, you can still appreciate the passion.”
Even so, Ms. Liguori has never had the passion for sports that some of her callers seem to have.
“I don’t get too emotional when I watch a game,” she said. “I’ve never been a crazed fan.”
It was 6 a.m., and Richard Neer was in the studio to start the Saturday-morning shift. Ms. Liguori drove her silver Ford Explorer into Manhattan to pick up her husband Steve, and then drove on to Westhampton for the weekend.
It was 36 degrees on Tuesday, March 6, when Mike Beban, a customer-service representative for a New Zealand taxi company, stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 48th Street wearing only spandex shorts, a ripped T-shirt and a white construction helmet. He was slathered in oil and held a sign that read: WONDERFUL NEW YORK CITIZENS PLEASE HELP FOR A SMALL DONATION TO KEEP ME ALIVE. I’M FREEZING MY BUTT OFF!
Mr. Beban wasn’t really at death’s doorstep. He had gotten half-naked in midtown in an effort to win a contest called “To Live or Die in New York,” a Survivor -style competition sponsored by ZM, a popular Top 40 radio station in his home country. Showing the type of shameless pluck that New Yorkers have long admired, Mr. Beban and four other New Zealanders had hopped on a plane and traveled halfway around the world to embarrass themselves and play inane games for a shot at 10,000 New Zealand dollars ($4,500 U.S.).
“There’s a heat wave in New Zealand. It’s 99 degrees there,” ZM’s contest-operations manager Dave Smart said as he watched the barrel-chested Mr. Beban’s skin turn red and goosebumped. “And here are these five stupid, crazy, nutbar Kiwis who are willing to be in this.”
So far, the “Live or Die in New York” group’s stunts had included building celebrity snowmen in Central Park and trying to convince people in Times Square to give up their half-eaten hot dogs. À la Survivor , a contestant was to be booted every few days or so until a winner was picked on March 16. Updates of their progress were broadcast live back to the 422,000 people listening to ZM’s morning program.
The March 6 contestant challenge was to try to raise money. The nutbar Kiwis decided to go the busking route. As Mr. Beban froze on a street corner, his fellow contestant, Aaron Bloomfield, strummed “Feeling Groovy” on a guitar while another contestant, Kathryn Wilkinson, sang “Waltzing Matilda.” Occasionally the ZM host, Nick Tansley, would call his employers via digital phone to broadcast the proceedings back home.
But New Yorkers that day were not terribly impressed. Some smiled as they walked past Mr. Beban and his colleagues, but few actually offered money. “I’m hating this,” said contestant Eleanor Chong. “My mother would kill me if she knew I was begging on the street.”
“This is a real Survivor program,” said Mr. Tansley, a radio veteran with thick blond hair and blue eyes. “Under the strain of something like this, they are showing their true colors. New Yorkers are stumping them off, annihilating them. What would work in New Zealand stands no chance in here.”
Like a million new arrivals to this city, Mr. Beban sounded like he was already beaten. Before the trip, he had “Live or Die in New York” tattooed inside his right wrist. If he lost the contest, Mr. Beban said, “I’ll just change my tattoo to ‘Lived and Died in New York.'”
The following individuals and groups have yet to receive an invitation to a private screening of Miramax’s Oscar-nominated film, Chocolat :
The Council on Foreign Relations
The J. Sisters
The Knights Templar
The late-shift crew at Gray’s Papaya
Sarah Jessica Parker’s stylist