OCEAN COUNTY – This past week, Ocean County suffered a great loss with the passing of Bob Levy, the voice of WOBM-FM since the station started in 1968. Ironically, Levy died on the 50th anniversary of the signal’s launch.
I have a personal connection to Bob as I had the pleasure of working with him for nine years. We shared some good times both on and off air and my thoughts and prayers are with his wife Marianne, his children Karen and Steven and the rest of his family. I would like to share a few memories of this great man who was so much more than a radio host. I was proud to call him a mentor and friend.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with Bob. I was interning at the station in the promotions department. There was an early Sunday morning event that I had to work and I was loading up the station’s van. While in the front office, a man who I’d never seen before began to wildly pound on the glass door. I opened it. He introduced himself, shook my hand and ran back to the studio so he wouldn’t miss the next segment of his program. I later found out that Bob was outside getting in a smoke break and forgot the door code to get back in. During my days driving around handing out bumper stickers and Frisbees, I would see him often in the halls of the Bayville office. What was nice about Bob was it didn’t matter your position at the station. He treated everyone with dignity and respect. Whether you cleaned the floors or were a top executive. In my case, a nameless intern.
After the internship, I was hired to work part time in promotions. One day, Bob came to me and said “how would you like to make a little extra scratch?” I said sure. He offered me the job of call screener for Topic A. Every Sunday, I would get up early and would take his calls – unscreened – and even became friendly with some of the regular callers. It was also amazing to watch Bob at work. He wouldn’t have any show prep in front of him. His only aid was the small strips of paper I would hand him with the names and towns of the callers on the respective lines and a folder filled with the live read radio commercials. Even hearing those was a treat as he could make any business sound even bigger and better than it was.
During this time, I was also interested in a job in the newsroom. After recording a demo and meeting with the station brass, I was offered a part time weekend news anchor spot. Bob heard me recording some samples one day, popped his head in and said “wow, kid. You’ve got some set of pipes.” I’ll never forget that.
The first gig on-air in the news department was the Saturday morning shift. So I would do that and then work Sundays answering his calls. When the Sunday morning anchor resigned, he said he would manage on the phones and he wanted me on-air. He also asked me to “go long” in case he had a longer than normal smoke break or had to use “the facilities.”
My first couple of Sunday’s were rocky – I was new and nervous and made some rookie mistakes – one that Bob caught and that Kevin Williams would never forget. I read the sports scores in reverse order. Hey, I was never a sports guy. I do have to thank Williams for providing me with full instructions following that mishap. Bob also came to the newsroom after one of the shows and said “watch your tempo. No one has a gun to your head. Relax and have fun with it.” I followed Bob’s advice and was able to excel. He also indicated that the best way to overcome radio nerves was to talk to the people like they were your friends. Be more conversational. It was something that worked and as a result, I found success in my time working for Ocean County’s News Station.
One Sunday morning, a local firehouse brought over breakfast for Bob and Paul Seredy, Bob’s producer. On air, Bob was munching on bacon and eggs and was commenting on all of the food and how it was a shame there was limited staff to eat it. He then says “Jason’s kind of an eating machine, isn’t he?” live on the air. That was Bob’s way of offering me breakfast. I love that.
There’s an old adage in radio that everyone will eventually miss an airshift. One such instance happened to me during a Sunday morning. The day before, I anchored the news on that Saturday morning and was called to a special event in the afternoon that lasted all day. The Governor was Jon Corzine at the time and he was planning to try and lease out the Garden State Parkway. He came to Toms River for a special public meeting on the idea which was attended by thousands of people. After being at the event for several hours, I went home and crashed on the bed – never setting my alarm. You can see where this is going.
The next thing I knew, it was 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning – I should have been to the station by 5 – and there were three voicemails on my phone. The first was from Kevin Williams asking if I was ok. The second was my supervisor who was less than nice in his tone. The third was Bob Levy. He said “Jason, I hope you’re not dead. Call the station when you get this.” Thankfully Dave Polaski, a colleague out in the Trenton bureau at the time, was able to fill in remotely and my job was safe, although I had to answer for it. But Bob’s call showed genuine concern for me and I never forgot that.
I was eventually promoted to full time news reporter and then morning drive news anchor. I was now seeing Bob and his wife Marianne Monday through Friday. One morning, Bob complained of having to get to the station so early. I then said “Bob, you do know I’m in by 4 while you don’t show up till 5:15-5:20.” He said “oh my God, 4?! Ok, I won’t complain.”
We shared a couple of funny on-air moments like when Marianne offered me spicy nuts live on the air and Bob proceeded to crack jokes and when Bob couldn’t think of a movie title or TV show, I would run in with the answer. A few times, I would do double duty – serving as a fill-in board operator for their show on the AM station.
One thing I’ll always remember was Bob’s way with words. He would say “load ‘em up” or “hey Paul, punch me up another call.” There were also times when he would be on his Sunday show but would give the phone number for the weekday show by mistake. When I had been nervous starting on the air, he would say “don’t worry, no one is going to remember the stumbles. I’m living proof.”
When the husband and wife duo went away on one of their listener cruises, the station offered me a chance to fill-in for Bob on Topic A. It was a great thrill. I remember right before he left, he said “hey Toff, don’t get too comfortable in that chair. Just keep the seat warm.” It was a great thrill to guest host his show.
When Bob received my wedding invite, he cracked a joke “ya sure you wanna go through with it?” Both Bob and Marianne attended the ceremony and reception.
Fast forward a bit. When Hurricane Irene happened, Bob went on the air at 8 p.m. and brought me on to provide news and weather updates. I had attempted to sit in my usual newsroom but he insisted on bringing me into the studio. Seated in the chair next to his, I watched as he brought in callers just out of the blue – no scheduled show – just opened up the microphone and started talking. No prep. Nothing. The man had a pen and a blank pad of paper. There was nothing on it. I was in awe.
Working with Bob everyday was an absolute pleasure. When Millennium Radio Group sold the station to Townsquare Media and we were all moved to Downtown Toms River, I was still able to interact with him each day. Bob had a rough exterior but he was all heart.
One summer, I joked that it was a hot day and I wanted to be submerged under water. Bob replied “hey, go home and grab your trunks.” I spent an afternoon with Bob and Marianne at their pool club. It was fun hanging out with them out of the office. The best was when Bob called me Allen to which Marianne abruptly corrected him “HIS NAME IS JASON!” Then he used “The Toff” which he did every now and again.
Day after day, year after year. Time passes on. Making the decision to leave WOBM was bittersweet. My family was starting to grow and the hours were no longer fitting in with my lifestyle. Waking up at 3 a.m. and working well into the afternoon depending on the news cycle wasn’t working anymore. My last day at WOBM was in February of 2014. I had put in my notice to take a job at Micromedia. In classic Bob style, he gave me a big hug and said “you know, they’ll never let you back in here again. But you can come by and visit us anytime.”
After leaving the station, I continued to listen to Bob every chance possible. I last heard him about two weeks ago which would be his last Topic A broadcast before he suffered a fall, breaking four ribs and ending up in the hospital.
The morning of March 1st, I had texted Marianne to see if Bob was well enough to give my reporter a few comments about the 50th anniversary of the station. That’s when I learned he had taken a turn for the worst. He passed away later that day. I was stunned. I sat at my desk crying, we prepared an obituary for our website and I drove home in tears. I also cried when talking to my wife about some of the memories I shared with you in this editorial.
This past Sunday, WOBM aired a special Topic A hosted by his successor Jeremy Grunin and Kevin Williams. They took phone calls from loyal listeners and shared their memories of Bob. I was in tears for most of the show, realizing he touched so many lives in different ways. He became a true staple of Sunday mornings and an Ocean County institution.
I can go on and on about Bob but there’s not enough room in the paper or on the website. Bob Levy was a truly great person. Despite a self-deprecating gruff exterior, he was all heart and cared about people whether they were close to him or not. I am truly grateful for the time I spent with Bob.
He would end each edition of Topic A every Sunday with “know this, I’m out of here.” This time, he really is…but he will never be forgotten.
Thanks Bob, for everything!