Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Styble on the late Messrs. Buckley & Steibel

William F. Buckley, Jr. appeared on newstalk radio shows only rarely, and I know of no instance in which he ever took listener calls. And that's one of at least two reasons I was never lucky enough to speak with the National Review founder.

But oh how I longed to hear the iconic author and wit, who died at home in Connecticut this morning, available in a phone-in format. I'd have endeavored mightily to get through, and likely would have succeeded. (Few never-calling listeners realize how readily any articulate and determined caller can make air, even on the more popular issues-oriented national shows.) What a kick it would have been to pose Buckley a political or societal, of course, a literately-crafted plaudit or two for the man who did as much as anyone in the 20th Century to inspire the sophisticated and trenchant employment of English!

Notwithstanding conservatism's domination of the newstalk format, when it came to broadcasting, Buckley apparently favored television to radio. For whatever reasons, he declined the invitations of most newstalk radio hosts. (Except Rush Limbaugh, notably.) Yet the prolific publisher pundit can still be said nonetheless to have had a profound, if indirect, influence on the genre's success.

Without National Review and the ascendant modern American conservative movement the magazine had sparked almost singlehandedly within a decade of its 1955 founding, Ronald Reagan likely would never have become President. That point has been made hundreds if not thousands of times elsewhere, but less noted is how Buckley is thusly owed a debt of gratitude by Limbaugh and his newstalk throne's numerous pretenders, who would not in turn have had an invigorated conservative zeitgeist into which to tap for their core listenerships.

Ironically, just yesterday, a mere single posting ["The Apolitico"] ago, I reiterated my often-made case for a primarily non-ideological listening perspective on newstalk radio. But even those of us who downplay the political while on the air (as I generally did in my KIRO work) must still grant that serious policy advocacy has and surely always will have a major role in the arcane art known as commercial newstalk radio. Ergo, Buckley's quite indirect impact on the genre was nonetheless significant.

One question which came up in every city where I've hosted a call-in show is, "Hey Styble, are you any relation to Bill Buckley's Firing Line producer Warren Steibel?" The inquiring callers clearly were unaware my surname is spelled rather differently. But even as a suburban St. Louis youngster in the mid-60s, for the obvious reason that Steibel name, listed as both producer and director as the Firing Line credits rolled, would jump off the TV screen at me, as well as at my older brother, who had turned me onto the award-winning PBS series.

Many of the ideas I would explicate decades later in my newstalk radio work were outgrowths of analyses I first heard on Firing Line from Buckley and his studio guests, who might be booked from virtually any field of American life. Yet something quite surprising about Firing Line I'd learn only from its producer himself, during his telephonic appearance in 1998 on my midnight Detroit show, The Pontiac Insomniac with Bryan Styble. (I had earlier cold-called Warren Steibel, impishly asking, "Our families obviously aren't related, but if for no better reason than we both pronounce it the same, will Steibel do the Styble show?") Turns out that Firing Line was, content-wise at least, pretty much always just a two-man operation, and Buckley's off-air partner all those years was as liberal as the host was conservative!

Two years later I found myself invited by Steibel into his spacious production office inside the National Review editorial suite in New York on, as it happened, St. Patrick's Day. Firing Line had concluded its remarkable 33-year run only a few months prior, and I then happened to be putting together Open All Night with Bryan Styble, a new overnight newstalk program for a syndication company which wanted to take national the offbeat Styble style.

So after being regaled by Steibel's behind-the-scenes reminiscences of Firing Line (including learning how those two New Yorkers came to base their TV work in South Carolina, of all places), I hoped he'd play talent scout: I needed a recommendation of someone who'd be good as one of several regular contributors on my forthcoming program, adding commentary on the cultural and political matters I'd be yakking up for late-night listeners once the syndicator began making the show available to local stations.

Steibel, who would be dead of cancer only 22 months later but appeared hale that holiday, pondered my recruitment request only for a moment: "Bryan, I think you're in luck, and that luck happens to be right down the hall." Steibel excused himself but quickly returned, accompanied by an elegantly-attired woman named Fran Bronson. Within the hour, Bronson had agreed to join my team, confiding that she'd long been intrigued about sometime trying her hand at talk radio.

Steibel had introduced Bronson to me as the legendary publisher's "longtime right-hand lady", and sure enough, her name had been listed below Buckley's on the National Review masthead almost from the start. (Limbaugh's touching--and opening-hour-consuming--Buckley tribute this morning didn't merely disclose how Buckley had served as the broadcaster's surrogate father, but also included a bouquet for Bronson: "I once said, 'Frances, can you tell me where I might find myself another one of you?' ")

But Steibel the producer didn't anticipate how Styble the broadcaster's luck was changing: Bronson volunteered that it was unfortunate that Buckley was out of the office all day, else she would have taken me in to meet her boss. And Open All Night never, alas, got up on the satellite back in 2000. But at least for one memorable afternoon that year, I was in such close quarters with such extraordinary intellectual accomplishment.


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