By Barbara Bensoussan, Mishpacha
Ardent sports fans are often disappointed when they first meet “Davenin’ Dov” Kramer, a longtime producer at WFAN Sports Radio and the executive producer of the WFAN Mets Radio Network. “I like sports,” Dov Kramer admits, “but I’m not into them as much as our listeners are. People think that sports must be my whole life, but – baruch Hashem – there are many areas of my life that have a greater priority.”
How did an unassuming yeshivah guy end up rubbing shoulders with famous sports stars and radio show hosts? Dov’s path has been a bit circuitous, but it was his interest in disseminating Torah, with radio as his medium of choice, that led to his current job. Once hired as a producer, he could have ended up producing anything from country music to talking heads; it was hashgachah that decreed that sports became his area. In the meantime, Dov continues to retain the hope that eventually he’ll be able to share his talents with the frum Jewish community as well.
Welcome to WFAN CBS’s radio stations are housed on the 10th and 11th floors of a massive building on Hudson Street, in lower Manhattan’s West Village. Glass doors open into a stark, functional-looking lobby comprised of track lighting, exposed heating ducts, a checkerboard floor, and black leather couches. A large desk with an even larger wall behind it displays the many New York-based CBS stations: 660 AM (WFAN), 880 AM (WCBS), 1010 AM (WINS), 92.3 FM (WXRK), 101.1 FM (WCBS-FM), and 102.7 FM (WWFS).
A young woman leads me into the little corridor off the lobby, and suddenly I’m navigating a long warren of rooms and hallways, one following maze-like after the other, until we enter a room where two men are sitting. The young man screening phone calls from listeners turns out to be Ernie Acosta, the producer of the midday show. Dov Kramer, seated behind a huge console and wearing headphones, is easily identified by his trim, graying beard and pleasant countenance; his white shirt and black pants stand out in this world of jeans and sweatshirts.
On the other side of the large glass wall facing Dov is a conference-type room occupied by two men sitting in front of microphones: the famous team of Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts. The two of them are already deeply engaged in lively discussion.Benigno’s resonant baritone, with its unmistakable New Jersey accent – he was hired after years of regular calling in to the station under the moniker “Joe from Saddle River” – is offset by Roberts’s more modulated, regular-American-guy kind of voice. The discussion I’m watching, I realize, is being simultaneously broadcast to close to a million listeners across the greater part of the East Coast.
Dov can talk to me while Benigno and Roberts are holding forth behind the glass wall; he just has to keep one eye on the time and the other on his printed log of commercials, so he knows when to stop their discussion and play the prerecorded ads, which he controls via the board in front of him. While his actions seem effortless and smooth, one senses a quiet focus underneath; these apparently effortless transitions from talk to commercials and back are clearly the result of long experience.
“I could put in the commercials automatically, from the computer,” Dov says, “but that creates too much dead air time, and it would be too much work for the production department to debug the dead-air issue. Some networks leave space on purpose, to create a certain tension, but I don’t want the listener to be distracted by a pause and start thinking, ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ On the other hand, you don’t want too much overlap between different segments either.”
Managing the commercial log is a tricky business; playing the wrong commercial, or playing it at the wrong time, means the station can’t invoice it. There are times a client requests that a particular announcer read his commercial, but then the announcer leaves on vacation. When it comes to broadcasts of live games, which are often on Shabbos, Dov has to make sure those running the game in his absence know what to do: Which commercials should be played if the game goes into extra innings? How should they play the commercials scheduled for a pitching change when the computer doesn’t know exactly when the manager will change pitchers, or how many times?
Meanwhile, Joe and Evan are still talking; they seem to have an endless supply of grist for the sports mill. “Yeah, these guys know everything about sports,” Dov grins. “It’s really their whole lives. They love what they do. If they weren’t on the air every day, they’d really miss it.”
Listeners also call into the show to talk, and I wonder aloud if the station get enough callers to keep the conversation going. “We definitely get enough,” Dov says. “Sometimes, though, Joe and Evan just want to talk to each other. We never have enough time to take all the callers.” Dov also has to make time for guest radio appearances, usually phoned in, by well-known sports figures. Today he’s scheduled a Jets player at 11:00, a Dallas player at 11:20, and a Giants player at noon.
From Yeshivah Time to Radio Time Dov didn’t always spend his hours in the company of professional sports figures and radio commentators. He grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in Kew Gardens Hills, where he attended the Chofetz Chaim mesivta, followed by two years in Telshe Stone in Eretz Yisrael. On returning to Queens, he began learning in Yeshiva Sha’ar HaTorah, where he was a talmid of Rav Zelig Epstein. Dov eventually received smichah from Rav Heinemann in Baltimore.
Once he began working, Dov continued his learning after hours in a kollel chaburah in Queens and dabbled in kiruv work with Aish HaTorah, Partners in Torah, and JEP of Long Island.
After marrying, Dov and his wife, Goldie, set up housekeeping in Passaic, which they chose because it seemed to be an attractive yeshivah community. Dov continues to write weekly divrei Torah, which are geared toward people with some background, and are published in a parshah newsletter that is distributed in many shuls. (He was gratified that Rabbi Yitzchok Frankel included one of his divrei Torah, verbatim, in his sefer Machat Shel Yad [Shemos].) He also delivers a weekly Chumash shiur and writes a blog (RabbiDMK.posterous.com), which allows him to propagate his ideas and reach out to non-frum audiences.
Dov also cofounded, with two other parents, the Clifton Cheder, where he still serves as a trustee and where his children are enrolled. He describes it as an elementary school that “uses minimal frontal teaching in order to keep each student engaged in the learning process. The students learn skills, not just information they can repeat on tests. Even at the first-grade level some can teitch a pasuk they’ve never seen before, in both the boys’ and the girls’ programs.” The idea, he says, is to keep students from getting lost or bored.
With American-born parents (a father from Bayonne and a mother from Kew Gardens Hills), Dov grew up with an all-American love of sports passed down from his father, a high school basketball star who went on to play for the Yeshiva University team. Dov’s own sons, ages ten, eight, and six, play baseball with their neighbors and in the local “Yiddle League,” as well as street hockey and a little soccer in yeshivah. (The Kramers also have three daughters.)
Dov admits to being a Yankees fan, albeit one of the few who isn’t “anti-Mets.”
“My father is anti-Mets, so of course when I approached adolescence I rebelled and rooted for the Mets,” he says with a grin. “But I’d still feel pained when the Yankees lost. A few years ago my dad managed to convince my kids that the Kramers are Yankees fans.”
Like many young American bochurim, Dov’s sons are up on baseball statistics. Thanks to their father’s job, they’ve had occasion to sit with him in the broadcast booth at Mets games and ask the announcers their questions. One was thrilled to catch a ball during that day’s batting practice, which he was later able to get autographed by former Mets player and current announcer Keith Hernandez. (Dov himself has met his share of sports celebrities over the years, the first one being Giants quarterback Phil Sims right after his team won the Super Bowl in 1986.)
Obviously, all of this begs the question: Is it appropriate for Jewish men and boys to be interested in the professional sports world?
“I actually have a shiur on this, where I relate it to the parah adumah,” Dov remarks. “The upshot is that for people who would otherwise focus on more detrimental things, it’s better for them to follow sports. But if you can use your time more productively, then follow that route. It all depends on who you are.
“The Netziv has a fascinating take on this, which he explains as an underlying conversation between Hashem and Kayin,” he continues. “Kayin was only focused on the necessities of life, while Hevel was conscious of the nicer things in this world that Hashem gave us to enjoy, and took advantage of them. Hashem accepted Hevel’s offering, with the message to Kayin being, ‘If you use the time you would otherwise spend chasing pleasures in a good way, you would be better off; but if you don’t use that time in a constructive way, it will lead you to the doorstep of sin.'” In other words, he concludes, “You’re probably better off following sports than watching television, or sitting around speaking lashon hara, or worse.”
But what about the unsavory examples that some sports figures set for young people? Dov sighs. “In the olden days, the media protected sports heroes, and tried to build them up. Nowadays, they’re more interested in tearing them down, in looking for the dirt, to sell more papers. Censorship standards have changed tremendously as well. Ever since cable television came out, with no FCC limits, once-taboo subjects have become mainstream.”
And while sports talk radio may seem a frivolous enterprise to some, the station hasn’t lost sight of higher goals: every spring, WFAN runs a radiothon that raises millions of dollars for charity. Past causes have included research to combat children’s cancers, SIDS, cystic fibrosis (Boomer Esiason’s son is afflicted with this disease), and funding heart disease treatment for those unable to pay.
Radio Guy Dov avers that he always loved radio, and was fascinated by the medium from an early age. “Radio is the only medium that doesn’t demand that you stop everything and pay attention only to it,” he adds. “Most people listen to radio while they’re driving, getting dressed, doing homework. It’s a medium that keeps people company.” The fact that radio is capable of discreetly remaining in the background helps him combine business with learning; when he needs to monitor Mets games from home, he can leave on the radio at low volume while immersing in a sefer. (There’s no television in the Kramer home.)
It’s also a medium that doesn’t bombard the listener with a deluge of information. Unlike a web page or newspaper, in which a patchwork of headlines, ads, and articles pops out simultaneously to compete for the reader’s eyeballs, Dov points out that any content on radio necessarily displaces any other content; in real time, all you can present is one stream of talk or music.
Dov originally got into radio hoping to take his love of the medium and channel it into expanding quality programming in the Jewish world. He’d thought about going into chinuch during his years in beis medrash, but was plagued by nagging doubts: “What could I add? Would I really be better than all these other people who also want chinuch jobs?”
“Reb Zelig [Epstein] gave me a hard time about that one,” Dov smiles. “He told me, ‘Based on that kind of reasoning, no one would vote.'” Dov was also bothered by the level of simplification necessary to teach elementary and even mesivta students: “I saw that Torah is complex, but as an educator you have to present things at the level of your talmidim, which means telling the truth but not always the whole truth. For example, take the age of Rivkah when she married Yitzchak. All the kids learn from Rashi that she was three. But there are other opinions; some commentators say she was 14. But you can’t tell little kids these shades of gray. At their age black and white is better.”
Instead, he decided he could inform and entertain the Jewish world outside of the classroom, and elected to learn to do it through radio. After leaving Yeshiva Sha’ar Torah, and having already landed a part-time job in FM radio, he enrolled in college – St. John’s University – to learn the radio trade. “I thought it would be years before I’d be able to find full-time work. Most people don’t break into big markets right away. They work themselves up, starting in small markets, like out-of-town stations. I also thought I’d be limited by my religion. So I figured I might as well get a degree in the meantime.” St. John’s was a highly practical choice; it was close to home, and generous in allowing him to count many of his mesivta classes and first years of learning in Eretz Yisrael as college credits, thereby shrinking the time he’d need to complete the degree to two and a half years. But before the second semester at St. John’s had even started, Dov was offered full-time work for the station’s overnight shift. “I needed less sleep then,” he says. “I’d work all night, come home and daven, then go to class.”
The FM station Dov worked for was part of a company that later merged with what is now known as CBS Radio, and eventually his position was expanded to include working Sunday mornings for WHN, an AM country radio station. When WHN changed its format to all sports and went on the air as WFAN, an opening came up and he applied for his current position as a full-time sports radio producer. His non-Jewish interviewer told him, “You qualify for this job, and I can manage to give you a shift that doesn’t include the Sabbath. But other people can do this job, and they have no conflict with Sabbath observance.’
Dov responded, “I hope I’ll do a better job than they will, to compensate.” Hashgachah was with him: his interviewer’s boss just happened to be passing by at that moment, overheard the conversation and told the interviewer, “I’ve seen his work. Hire him.”
“Maybe it was that,” says Dov, with a shrug. “Maybe they didn’t want to get into legal issues about not hiring because of Shabbos.” But whatever the reason, he’s been at WFAN ever since, with his 25th anniversary coming up this July.
Off the Air Influence In addition to the morning talk show on weekdays, Dov produces two shows on Sunday: a public affairs show between 6 and 8 a.m., and an hour-long show about youth athletics. He’s also the executive producer for Mets games. When they occur on Friday nights or Saturdays, he simply makes sure everything is in place before leaving for Shabbos. He occasionally attends the games, when they don’t fall on Shabbos. During the week he tends to monitor them with half an ear while sitting with a sefer.
Producing a radio show, he explains, can be compared to being a television director, who has to make sure all the pieces are in place and the broadcast runs smoothly. Do the anchors have live copy? Do they know when the next commercial break is? If the interview is going well, should the break be delayed, and for how long? Is there breaking news that must be announced right away, or can it wait for the update? At what point after the third out do you play the Mets theme?
Dov is also involved in the regular planning for the shows, which includes researching and booking guests. He may screen calls for a show, edit material for updates, communicate with engineers about technical issues, and train new hires and interns. If that doesn’t seem like enough, his responsibilities also include creating production pieces such as the highlight packages used to open the show after a big game, or to open Sunday morning football or baseball shows and the Mets Game Opens.
“You have to be good, but you have to recognize there are obstacles in this field,” Dov says. “Most of the starting jobs are on weekends, and starting salaries are low. They make these holiday parties every year, which baruch Hashem are usually on Friday nights, so I can never attend. Once they made one at a hotel in Long Island, and my boss even offered to pay for hotel rooms for me and my family if we’d go. I told him I’d go if he could guarantee me a minyan of ten Jews who worked for the station to daven Kabbalas Shabbos before the party. I knew it wouldn’t work, but it was an attempt to get others to do something meaningful.
“Radio isn’t an easy career for a Jew. I wouldn’t tell a frum person not to go into radio, but he would have to realize what he’s getting into and be aware that there’s a low probability of succeeding.” That said, he notes that he does have a frum colleague at WCBS-AM, a woman who works on the afternoon news program.
Over the years, Dov has occasionally been able to use his radio presence to transmit a little mussar. For example, he’s known to tell young callers who are obviously frum, “It’s seder time now. Go back to seder, and call back when it’s over.”
As for his Jewish but not-yet-frum colleagues, his influence is largely by example. They see a producer who scrupulously observes Shabbos and holidays, watches his language and middos, and spends his spare time with his family and learning Torah. In the meantime, has Dov managed to get any closer to his original goal of producing high-quality Jewish radio?
“You need a lot of funding to make it happen, somebody with a vision and deep pockets,” he says. “I did meet twice with some people about the possibility of doing an Internet-based Jewish radio station – the first time was right before the dot-com bubble burst. The second time was with a frum organization that didn’t get approval from their board of directors, or so I was told. The bottom line is that there isn’t enough of a salary for producers to make the product really professional.”
He adds that in smaller radio programming, as in smaller media everywhere, the struggle to remain viable means there will always be a tension between the desire to produce the best shows and the need to sell ads. “You don’t want a show to be an excuse to sell ads,” he says. “But it can be hard to leave the money on the table and say no to advertisers when necessary.”
In the meantime, New York area listeners have Nachum Segal and Zev Brenner on 620 AM, or Hidabroot at 97.5. “There’s a Jewish organization that has an online station, but it’s more of a jukebox, just to promote the organization,” Dov adds. “There’s also a station now in Lakewood that people seem to like.”
With recent technology, he notes that it’s possible now to create HD (Hybrid Digital) radio that can stream several different programs from one central programming hub, allowing both programming and advertising to be tailored to small, specifically targeted audiences. But it would require a wealthy investor, and a cadre of salespeople to target Jewish businesses and homes – or perhaps a Jewish organization that wants to get information out to the public.
So perhaps one day, with the right combination of backing, focus, and consumer interest, Dov will be able to apply his talents to the frum community. In the meantime, he says his job as a sports producer “almost” pays his mortgage, and allows him free late afternoons and evenings in which to learn, write his divrei Torah and blog, and remain closely involved with his children’s yeshivah. Is that such a bad bargain?
Seeing Dov in the studio, modest yet apparently well satisfied with his multifaceted life, I would venture to say not.
We thank Mishpacha Magazine for granting permission to reprint this article.