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Mel Berman still reeling 'em in on the radio

TAMPA — As sure as the tide ebbs and flows, if you tune into 970-AM WFLA on a Saturday morning, you will hear the golden voice of Mel Berman talking about fishing.

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"I've been pretty consistent," said Berman, known to his legion of listeners as "Captain Mel." "And I do have my regulars."

But while his loyal fans know Berman as one of the pioneers of the local fishing scene, he was a journeyman broadcaster long before he picked up a fishing rod. Over the course of his five decades in broadcasting, Captain Mel has been everything from an all-night rock 'n' roll disc jockey to a daytime talk-radio host.

Witness to history

Berman, 81, grew up in Philadelphia, served in the Navy, then began his career as a journalist, ending up as a beat reporter for Metromedia in New York City.

"One of my first assignments was to cover the United Nations," he said. "It was just an amazing time … a lot happening on the world stage."

Berman interviewed John F. Kennedy before he was president; Adlai Stevenson, former ambassador to the United Nations; Jawaharlal Nehru, the longest serving prime minister of India; and Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945.

"I didn't realize at the time, but I was seeing history being made right before my eyes," said Berman, who was part of a reporting team that won a Peabody Award, which recognizes distinguished achievement and meritorious public service by television and radio stations.

From Sinatra to Elvis

Berman also spent some time spinning discs. He was one of the first "Top 40" disc jockeys in the United States at WHB in Kansas City, and later was one of the original "Good Guys" at WMCA in New York City.

"Back then, everybody was playing Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra," he said. "If you played anything else, you were really going out on a limb."

But Berman was not afraid to rock the boat. On his all-night radio show, he liked to play this new thing called rock 'n' roll.

"Elvis, Chuck Berry, I played it all," he said. "It may seem funny now, but back then it was really pretty controversial."

Afterward, Berman branched out, experimenting with everything from documentary broadcasts to a new listener-interactive format called talk radio.

"It was something that I would come back to with the Captain Mel Show," he said. "After all, it is the listeners that have made my show successful."

The grouper digger

In 1969, Berman's career brought him to the bay area, thus fulfilling his lifelong dream of moving to Florida. He had done quite a bit of fishing off the coast of New Jersey, catching his share of bluefish, striped bass and tuna, but he longed to pursue more exotic species.

So he bought a boat — a 25-foot inboard diesel — and started heading out to deep water.

"I loved going after grouper, snapper, amberjack, tuna, whatever was biting," he said. "Back then, the fishing was spectacular."

After a decade of fishing with family and friends, Berman got his U.S. Coast Guard-issued captain's license.

"Back in the '70s getting a license wasn't easy," he said. "I remember for the first part of the test, the rules of the road, we had about 40 people there. But by the second part, there were only three of us left."

The golden voice

Over the years, Berman met hundreds of anglers who enjoyed talking about fishing as much as they did actually catching fish.

So he decided to start what amounts to a weekly "town hall" of fishing.

"I wanted to do something where people could share their stories … talk about what they caught," he said. "The response, right from the beginning, was very strong."

In the decades that followed, Berman became a voice not only for the sport, but also a champion of conservation. He has never been afraid to take on controversial subjects, and he has paid the price.

"It is no secret that I do not like longlines," he said. "I think they are too efficient, and destructive in terms of bycatch, and I have let my feelings be known."

During the early 1990s, Berman also spoke out against about the inshore gill net fishery.

"I remember coming back from one fishing trip and halfway home the axle on my trailer collapsed," he said. "Somebody had sawed through it with hacksaw."

Full speed ahead

Next year, Berman's show, which airs from 6 to 9 a.m. every Saturday, will celebrate its 25th year on the radio.

Berman feels as though he is in good health and looks forward to the future.

"I still go to the gym three days a week," he said. "My body may have slowed down a bit, but my voice hasn't changed."

Berman still tries to fish a couple of days a week. Research, he said, is still the best part of his job.

"We have it made living here in Florida," he said. "I feel lucky to be able to have done this as long as I have. Hopefully, I'll keep doing it for many years to come."

Mel Berman still reeling 'em in on the radio 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 4:30am]
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