Remembering A Connecticut Broadcasting Legend With 'Bob Steele On The Radio'

Jan 31, 2020

The longtime radio broadcaster Bob Steele was born and raised in Kansas City, got his start in Southern California, but made his name in Connecticut. 

At age 25, Steele arrived in Hartford, and started a radio career that would eventually earn him many awards and listeners during his more-than-50-year career.

Steele died in 2002, but there’s a new book on his life by Paul Hensler, "Bob Steele on the Radio: The Life of Connecticut's Beloved Broadcaster." He told NEPR the story of Steele's arrival — at the time, out of work — in Hartford.

Paul Hensler, author: And just by accident, he wanders into the Travelers building, goes up to the radio studio — just kind of shrugs his shoulders and says, "Do you have any announcing jobs?" And he learns that, "Well, we've auditioned 12 guys already. Want an audition? Come on in!"

And he was on the air the next day as a staff announcer.

So to win over the confidence of his future employer, and to stay in that particular job for so long, is just an incredible story.

Luck certainly played a large degree in his success, initially. But once he began to establish himself as a radio announcer, this ingrained himself even more with his audience. That omnipresent humor that just kept shining through, and his ability to connect with people just made everything flow much more easily for him.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: You're writing about a man with this tremendous business sense — a guy with a fondness for automobiles, for Indian Motorcycles, but who really could connect with many radio listeners with humor and charm. But there was more to him than all that. How did you approach writing this biography?

The fascinating aspect about him is that we know so much about Bob Steele because of the diaries that he left behind.

Referenced early on in the book is the massive 10-volume set, "Bob Steele's Century," which was curated by his son, Phil. The diaries give so many clues about what the man — how he functioned, which is, in a way, almost hard to believe, because he's just in perpetual motion throughout his entire life.

Growing up in a hardscrabble existence — and of course, in young adulthood, falling right into the throes of the Great Depression — he lives a difficult life, but he learns how to economize, he learns how to be frugal.

As I mention in the book, the little section of his personality traits that call him "the figure filbert" — it's exactly that. When you look through the diary entries, it just paints such a wonderful background picture of him: "Mom and I went out for dinner, and we went to the Hearthstone, and we spent $34.85." You know, he's putting things down to the exact penny, in many instances. So he's very keen with his business sense.

Opening a car wash — I'm sure there's very few people that realize that he started the first car wash with his partner, Jack Murphy, in Hartford in the mid 1950s. And you wonder, where does the man find the time to take on all this?

Between his radio work, then in the later 1950s, with television work, the car wash, public speaking appearances — which he was wildly popular for — you wonder how many hours were in a Bob Steele day. It seemed like there had to have been 48 or 60 hours in one of his days to accomplish all that he did.

And he was a dad.

He was very much a father. Four sons. The youngest passed away at the age of 63. The three oldest are still with us and very, very sharp. And they were very helpful to providing background information, also, that I was able to incorporate in the text.

He had a son who was very involved in politics — yet Bob Steele, the broadcaster, the public face of him, really did not share his political opinions that he did actually share in his diary. Did you get the sense that that was a respected way of dealing with his son's political campaign by his son? Was he OK with that?

I think so. There was a newspaper, I believe, that said, "We're going to be paying attention to anything that he says." And then their conclusion was that as you were listening to Bob Steele's radio program you would have no idea that his son was running for office. Integrity was foremost in Bob Steele's mind and in his personal actions.

What is the legacy of Bob Steele today?

Unfortunately, I think his legacy is kind of fading. You have to be a person of a certain age to have remembered listening to him on the radio.

And that demarcation is probably about the age of 30, because even 30 years ago, he started to segue away from full-time radio. He was on the air in 1991. He actually announced his own 80th birthday. People that were alive that remember him, vivid memories — it's an elderly audience, certainly.

Permission to use archival audio for this story courtesy former WTIC engineer Bob Scherago. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bob Steele was born and raised in California. As author Paul Hensler noted in the biography, Steele lived in California before moving to Hartford, but was born and raised in Kansas City.