Behind the scenes with WFAN’s Evan Roberts, sports talk radio’s next great host
Evan Roberts was so enamored with Jody McDonald’s wrestling hour on WFAN that at age seven, he had his father send him cassette tapes while he was away at summer camp so he wouldn’t miss a show.
Only three years later, at age 10, Roberts made his first appearance on the station’s airwaves giving updates on radio legend Don Imus’s morning show.
Roberts was born for the job.
Now 29, the New York native co-hosts WFAN’s midday show Joe & Evan (10 a.m. – 1 p.m.) with 58-year-old former caller Joe Beningo, who launched a radio career in his forties after winning a fan appreciation contest to guest host a show. “Even though I’m a lot younger, we joke that Joe acts at the maturity level of a 22-year-old, so we’re at the same level in that regard,” Roberts told Guyism. “But we both have a passion for the history of sports and obviously I respect his knowledge – he’s like a book with the individual games from 1968. It’s crazy.”
A generation apart, they have an obvious chemistry and much in common, not the least of which is their rabid, shared fandom of the New York Jets and New York Mets.
On the air Monday at 3:30 p.m., Joe shares a story about how a miscommunication caused him show up at the station before 5 a.m. believing he was hosting Boomer & Carton’s morning show.
Roberts: It would be worse if it were the opposite – if you missed the show, if you’re just waking up. I think you were just so excited to get back to work.
Beningo: You know how much I like the morning show. I thought I’d get to work on the tan afterwards.
Roberts: Boomer and Carton should have let you make it a three-man show this morning.
Beningo: I drove back home. We’re here now. I’m alive.
Roberts: We’re alive.
Roberts enjoyed an early, auspicious start to his career, hosting a couple kids’ shows including What’s Up? With Evan Roberts at age 12. Then in 1997, at 14, he landed a role in Howard Stern’s biopic Private Parts.
But Roberts still had to pay his dues. He left New York after high school for stations in Washington, D.C., where he spent four years. Roberts later became Stern’s colleague at Sirius in 2005 when he hosted a show for Maxim Radio.
Recalling a 1997 encounter with Stern, whom he called “one of the greatest personalities of all time,” Roberts said, “I met him in the bathroom. I was urinating and he was standing next to me. I was like, ‘Howard, good to meet you.’” Roberts continued, “I met him again when I was at Sirius. It was in the bathroom again and I said ‘Hey, great to meet you.’ He was very nice but I’ve only met him when I’ve been urinating.”
Roberts and Beningo have now hosted the midday show together since 2007. Like a long-wedded couple, Roberts now knows his partner so well that he can predict how Joe will respond to events. “When he was away during the Jeremy Lin fiasco, I knew what his opinion was and how he would have reacted. And when he got back I asked him, and I was like 95-percent accurate.” He continued, “It probably took six months together to get to that point but I think as the years go on, the more you work with somebody, the more you really know them and figure them out.”
Which isn’t to say they don’t have on-air disagreements. One of their most memorable verbal sparring matches occurred in 2008 when Roberts defended Carlos Beltran over Beningo’s insistence that he was an overpaid bum. “Carlos, he hated him.”
“The funny thing is, after we went to commercial, it wasn’t a big deal to us,” Roberts said. “It’s not like we stopped talking, we kind of laughed about it, and I think that was good because when we disagree usually it’s cordial. Sometimes we get very passionate and we were really heated about that Beltran debate.”
As far as talk fodder, Roberts has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal with nine teams in the region across the four major sports leagues. “I don’t think there’s ever a time in New York where you can run out of something to say,” Roberts said. “Even on a slower day a caller will always say something that’s unrelated that you don’t see coming, and all of a sudden it becomes the topic of the day. It usually involves the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Steve from Bayside is on the horn.
Steve: Maybe they could put Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame and put some of his betting slips in there too.
Beningo: You and I both know Pete Rose belongs in Hall of Fame. I find it very hard to believe that he’s not a Hall of Famer.
Roberts: How about this compromise on Rose: Put him in the Hall of Fame but keep him banned from baseball – put it all on his plaque – that he bet on baseball. But he doesn’t really get any other benefit.
Some callers aren’t so cordial, but that’s cool. Roberts said he likes when listeners disagree with him rather than reaffirm his own views. And other folks like to harass his co-host. “One of my favorite callers, Nick in Babylon, attacks Joe every single time. And I think at first Joe hated him,” Roberts said. “He was kind of like, ‘What a douche,’ and I think now it’s starting to be funny. I’ll see him on the screen and point at Joe and start laughing and he’ll say ‘Let’s talk to our buddy Nick in Babylon. Bro, what are you going to say now, bro?’ And I think he’s kind of warmed up to it.”
Callers are vital to the show but athletes, coaches and reporters serve an important function too by directly connecting the hosts to the sports they cover. Roberts is not shy with his opinions but to an extent, he’s obligated to interview guests impartially and without letting personal sentiment swallow a main purpose of the call – to inform the listeners. The task proved challenging when in 2009, after Michael Vick took over as the starter for the Eagles, Roberts had the quarterback on the show.
“I can’t stand Michael Vick. What he did was so wrong – he should have been banned for life,” Roberts said. “That’s my opinion and it was difficult because I have a very strong opinion of the guy and now I have him on the radio. So I was trying to figure out a way so that I could respectfully interview the man and also tell him what I think he did was reprehensible, and he should have been banned from the league. It was tough but I was able to do it, and he handled it well.”
An unabashed Jets fan who wears his colors on-air, Roberts once took a dose of criticism from the sometimes brash “Sports Pope” – the host of the station’s mainstay program Mike’s On, Mike Francesa. In January 2010, Roberts joined Francesa during his daily one-man marathon program that spans from 1 p.m. to 6:30, when the elder statesman chided Roberts for using ‘We’ in reference to the Jets. “What’s with the ‘We’ pom-poms?” Francesa said. “You don’t work for the team. You’re not ‘We,’ you’re a sportscaster! You can’t say ‘We!’”
In our conversation, Roberts dismissed the “pom-pom” notion, saying that he’s not a cheerleader; he said he’s actually harder on the Jets than, for example, the Giants. “The more you’re a fan of a team the more passionate you’re going to be about that team,” he said. “It does feel like you’re a “We,” you know? The difference is, and where I disagreed is that we use the word ‘We’ sometimes but what happens is, you’re tougher on the teams your root for, so its not waving pom-poms. It’s usually taking the pom-poms and shoving it.”
Beningo: Did you watch the football games on Friday night, if you can call it that a game between the Jets and Bengals?
Roberts: Yeah I watched more of the Jets game. It’s the preseason, but those first two drives it looked like 2011 again. It was terrible. Their offensive line stinks. Their offensive line is terrible. They’re going nowhere if the line plays like this. Nowhere!
Joe and Evan were not actually broadcasting during their usual hours when they lamented the Jets preseason performance. They were filling in for Francesa, who was on vacation. Francesa’s current contract runs until March 2014 and it’s unclear whether he’s going to sign back on after 23 years at the station, or retire. The logical ascension would have Joe & Evan move into Mike’s prime-time slot. But Roberts isn’t sure that day will come, nor does he appear to be pining for it.
“I’ve always had the impression that Mike’s going to work forever,” Roberts said. “I can’t get in Mike’s head but I fully expect him to be going for a very long time. I love working at the radio station and maybe sometime I’ll have the opportunity to do that shift. That would be great.”
Roberts said he saw Francesa that day with a little pep to his step because the NFL season is drawing near. “He’s back and he can talk about the Jets and make fun of them, which I know he loves to do.”
“I don’t see someone who would walk away,” Roberts said. “Why would you? It’s the fricken’ greatest job in the world.”