At least once a week for the past six years, "Joe from Saddle River" called in to talk with the hosts on New York's sports radio station, WFAN-AM. Not anymore. "Joe from Saddle River" has become Joe Benigno, the host of WFAN's 1 a.m.-5:30 a.m. show.
How an average Joe with a job in food sales landed a five-day-a-week talk show in the country's top media market is not your typical overnight success story. The 42-year-old Joe from Saddle River was well known to WFAN listeners for his anguished soliloquies—liberally sprinkled with urns and uhs—on the travails of the New York Jets, who have had only one winning season since the station went on the air in 1987. Although he may have dreamed of being a host while waiting on hold to speak his mind, Benigno was satisfied with his calls. That is, until last December when he was chosen to host an hour-long show as part of WFAN's Listener Appreciation Day. The station's sports director, Bob Gelb, liked what he heard and suggested Benigno change careers.
Benigno took Gelb's advice. He enrolled in a four-month broadcasting course in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., then bought a weekly hour of time on a small New Jersey radio station (he covered part of the $400-an-hour expense by selling ad time to his cousin Pete Benigno for his tire store). Impressed by Joe's commitment, WFAN program director Mark Chernoff took him on as an occasional substitute host on the overnight show. This spring, when WFAN's overnight host, Steve Somers, moved to a daytime slot, the station conducted a nationwide search but could find no one better suited to the gig than Benigno.
Under dim light in WFAN's basement studio, surrounded by press guides, wire-service copy and the other detritus of a busy Sunday at a sports radio station, Benigno made the final preparations for his first show as regular host. It was very early on Labor Day morning. Dressed head-to-toe in Jet regalia, the slim, 5'7" rookie studied a black spiral notebook filled with notes and statistics. Appropriately, his debut came only hours after the Jets had been demolished by the Miami Dolphins 52-14 in their season opener. Once upon a time Joe from Saddle River would have had to sit by the phone pressing the redial button to get through to the station, and then he would have waited on hold for more than an hour to get the chance to make a quick comment. Now Benigno faced the challenge of filling 4� hours of air time. On this night it would be easy.
"Where else can we start but with the Jets?" he asked listeners in his raspy New Jersey accent, his voice tinged with disappointment, resignation and amusement. "It was an absolute debacle, an absolute embarrassment." Eleven minutes later, finally pausing for a breath and a commercial, the fledgling host was jokingly cautioned by his 24-year-old producer, Ryan Williams, "Don't hold back, Joe."
Throughout the broadcast Benigno punctuated his opinions with one hand and punched in callers with the other, holding forth as part Psychic Friend, part Howard ("I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore") Beale for the thousands of listeners who tuned in.
"He cares so much, you can hear it on the air," says Gelb. "He entertains through his passion for sports. Joe treats [Jet quarterback] Boomer Esiason and [Jet defensive end] Marvin Washington as if they were his kids."
The eldest of Benigno's five children and stepchildren, 16-year-old Samantha, is also a Jet fan. "How could you be anything else in the Benigno family?" she asks. Samantha admits that she sometimes thought her father was "a little crazy" for making all those calls to WFAN over the years, but she's impressed now that he's on the other end of the line.
As the first show progressed, Benigno said he intended to hold himself to the standard he has set for Boomer and Marvin. "I'm a regular guy who has gotten a great opportunity and has a lot to learn," he declared with intensity during a commercial break. "I'm going to work as hard as I can to learn it. This is not a lark or a sideshow. I am very serious about making this my career."
Benigno has received positive reviews from some of the sports world's toughest critics: WFAN callers. "His show is like having a conversation on the street corner with a buddy, and that's what talk radio is all about," says "Bruce from Bayside," a.k.a. Bruce Lindner, a New York City high school teacher and longtime WFAN listener who is now a regular caller to Benigno's program. "Of course, for most of us, no matter how successful Joe Benigno becomes, he'll always be Joe from Saddle River."