Michael Riedel’s Segue from Rabid Columnist to Congenial Early Morning Radio Co-host and Author
By: Ellis Nassour
Monday, November 30, 2020 –Once rabid theater critic/arts reporter Michael Riedel has segued to radio, joining Len Berman, WNBC-TV’s former longtime sports anchor, as sidekick on Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning. Rise and shine at 6 A.M. weekdays to 710 WOR-AM Radio for their freewheeling four-hour conversationathon about anything and everything. Be prepared for quite a bit of mutual razzing.
Riedel is author of the 2015 New York Times best-seller Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, a no-holds-barred account of larger-than-life theater impresarios who transformed the Great White Way from the seedy, often unsafe 70s crossroads into a Disneyesque neon-lit billion-dollar tourist magnet.
For the few who are not familiar with it, you, like Berman, will tire of hearing about it. “New York Times best-selling author Michael Riedel,” says the modest Riedel, “are the words Len hates to hear. So, of course, I’ve made it into a sort of running gag. I drive him crazy mentioning it every single morning. Truth be told, it’s all in fun. We are partners in crime.”
The duo hail from quite different backgrounds: Berman, a walking/talking sports encyclopedia; and Riedel, the often brazenly caustic New York Posttheater columnist. Yet they have great chemistry even, due to the covid pandemic, hosting remotely from home.
Now, after 22 years, with his Post column, as he put it, “furloughed,” he’s made quite a comfortable leap. At WOR, for the first ever, he has an office. “I have to share it with Len, but it’s quite spacious. There’s even room for a couch in case we want to nap after we’re off the air. Due to the pandemic, I’ve only been to it once since March 14th. Len, established quite well on Long Island’s North Shore, doesn’t seem to have any intention of coming back.”
Growing up in Geneseo, Riedel says that around seventh or eighth grade, “I discovered Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. Looking back, what I think drew me is that the prose is spare, but it drives the narrative. You can’t wait to see what happens next. That heavily influenced me.”
In his teens, he was far from being a theater geek. Instead, he was drawn to watching fire and brimstone political commentator John McLaughlin.
At Columbia, as a history major, he also had no interest in journalism. I was going to go to law school and become a politician. But, he always tried to make his papers fun and lively. “When a professor returned one essay, I received a B- for content, probably because I had no original thoughts whatsoever, and an A for style. He told me: ‘You write as if you’re a reporter for People magazine. I enjoyed this.’” The germ was planted.
Riedel graduated with a BA in history. “I wasn’t enamored of Broadway or dreaming of being in the presence of Patti LuPone, Glen Close, or Andrew Lloyd Webber.” However, he kept being drawn to media. He went from leg man collecting tidbits and breaking news from over the city to become managing editor of the now-defunct Theater Week.
It was there he honed his pit bull persona. When in 1993 he became theater columnist at the Daily News, he tells how he was influenced by veteran colleagues. “I was surrounded by these crusty guys who’d covered wars, strikes, and politics. They’d been around the block a few times and didn’t give a hoot offending anyone. They just wanted the facts.”
That stint segued in 1998 to “the New York Post which lured me away to become theater columnist.” He was quick to provide news others couldn’t; but his often critical drubbing of shows in trouble and scathing criticism of select actors got him tagged “the enfant terrible of the New York press,” a badge he wore proudly.
His column quickly proved New Yorkers in general were interested in Broadway; or at least the Broadway Riedel uncovered. He not only entertained, but also created drama. He did it with tough questions, his continued his leg work, and with a bevy of secret sources. In the process, he burned bridges – especially when he uncovered facts producers and directors wanted kept quiet – such as some shows claiming to be hits when he’d see their theatres half full or box office grosses stated otherwise. When a producer denied him access, Riedel stepped up to the box office, purchased a ticket, and got the lowdown.
Riedel’s radio career began gradually in 2011, when he was invited on Imus in the Morning to talk about Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark. “Don liked my sense of humor,” he explains, “which led to weekly segments about Broadway for seven years with broadcaster/author Imogen Lloyd Webber [yes, the composer’s daughter]. There were also weekly stints with shock jock Howard Stern on Sirius XM Satellite Radio show. He also was co-host with Susan Haskins (Doloff) on CUNY public TV’s Theater Talk.
Four years ago, WOR broadcaster Mark Simone was set for a week’s vacation. Station chief Tom Cuddy picked Riedel to sub on his two-hour program. “I didn’t know I was auditioning like Cassie in A Chorus Line. On Mark’s return, Tom asked if I’d be interested in co-hosting with Len Berman.
“I’d never met Len,” states Riedel, “but knew him from TV. We certainly came from two different worlds, and I wasn’t so sure about co-hosting a four-hour early morning show. It was a big moment in my life. I’m a writer, not a broadcaster. I’d written newspaper columns.”
Riedel rarely has said no to an opportunity, “and this was big-time radio with a handsome salary to boot. My buddy [playwright/actor] Harvey Firestein gave me the best advice: ‘Always say yes and see what happens. A no closes a door, a yes opens a door.’ So, I said yes. The next week, I was with Len for a trial run.”
Berman knew little about theater, except for an occasional outing to a show. Riedel knew nothing about sports, even though his father was a catcher on the Pittsburgh Pirates farm team in the 50s, and athletic director at SUNY (State University of New York) Geneseo.
The duo got on like gangbusters, seeming to know each other like old fishing buddies. “We disagree on politics and much more,” says Riedel. “We have knock-down, drawn-out arguments, but at the end of the show, we’re still pals.”
Riedel wasn’t sure he had another book in him, but he’d been wanting to go beyond just quick juicy gossip. “I don’t claim to be a great intellectual or stylist. I just want to entertain.”
The result is Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway (Simon and Schuster; 334 pages; two, eight page, B&W photo inserts; Index).
“I’d been a columnist, and only able to give the tip of the iceburg,” he explains. “I didn’t want it to be a collection of columns or my memoir. The 90s was a big time on Broadway: Rent, Chicago, Angels in America, The Lion King, and The Producers. Big shows, as big as any blockbuster movie or hit TV series.
“I started interviewing everyone involved 20/25 years ago about what it was like from the beginning of the journey to opening night,” he continues. In some chapters, Riedel goes way beyond that. “There was so much I didn’t know, especially what was going through the minds of the creatives.”
Stars, producers, directors, ad agency owners, casting directors – some, once Riedel’s enemies, opened up on what it was like being in the hot seat with millions on the line – the triumphs and disasters. There are tales of intense rivalries among top-drawer stars and massive egos that led to corruption, bankruptcies, and worse. Not to be missed is a photo of producer Barry Weissler with shirt unbuttoned to the navel that will take years to live down.
Tune in to Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning at 710 WOR-AM as Riedel drives Berman crazy mentioning Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway ad nauseam. Not to worry, Berman has girded himself to bounce back with ego-busting stingers.