Each morning, one of the best-known compulsive chain smokers in America rolls out of bed in his Benedict Canyon home, switches on a network TV news program and climbs up on his $3,000 exercise bike.
He works up a mild sweat, watching "Good Morning America" or "Today." He checks out how his cardiovascular system is working on the instrument panel while he thinks about lighting up his first Marlboro of the day.
And all the while, Tom Snyder watches the tube and remembers.
"In the back in my head, I'm thinking, 'Why not send up a trial balloon?' " he said, sounding like Dan Aykroyd imitating Richard Nixon imitating Tom Snyder. "So here it is: We simulcast the radio show for TV! We could videotape it late Friday and run it back at midnight. Just see what happens for four weeks or 13 weeks or whatever. It's not like it's going to bankrupt anybody. We just start it out here on the local station and see how it goes."
The 51-year-old fast-lane news anchor whose intense, oftentimes contradictory behavior has taken him to the top of the networks and back again . . . is back again. But back on radio, not on television.
One full year after he was replaced by Oprah Winfrey on KABC-TV Channel 7, Snyder begins a nightly three-hour program today over the ABC Radio network. The former news anchor and TV talk-show host becomes a radio talk show host five nights a week. He'll spend the first two hours of the show talking with celebrity guests and the last hour fielding listener calls.
In Los Angeles, where the program originates, Snyder will hold forth on KABC-AM (790), replacing cookbook maven Jackie Olden, who delivered her final recipe in her old 7-9 p.m. time slot on Saturday. Because the final hour of the show would preempt the Ira Fistell show on KABC (airing Monday through Friday from 9 p.m. to midnight), listeners will only get a two-hour dose of Snyder's brash questions and trademark ho-ho-ho belly laugh.
But for those who want more of Snyder, said station spokeswoman Shelley Wagner, the final hour will be saved, edited and presented as a three-hour program each week from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
"People used to say that the 'Tomorrow' show was a radio show with pictures, so think of it (the new program) as a TV show without pictures," Snyder said, backing up his description with a ho-ho-ho.
Is that a hint that what he really wants to do is get back on the telly?
"If the real thing comes along," he answered, exhaling a nicotine cloud and reducing the belly laugh to a ho-ho.
The weekday program, which kicks off Monday with Valerie Harper and Frank Zappa as in-studio guests, will not emanate from the KABC studios in Culver City as do most of the ABC network talk shows. "The Tom Snyder Show" will air from newly constructed studios on the KABC-TV Channel 7 lot in Hollywood. Unlike the soundproof rooms where Fistell, Michael Jackson and Ray Briem hold forth, Snyder's studio will have a TV monitor in it so that he can keep up on breaking TV news the entire time that he is on the radio.
"Actually, I don't know what it's going to be," Snyder said. "When we started the late night show with NBC ('Tomorrow,' 1973--77), it started as one thing but it evolved into something completely different two years later.
"I'd like to say, 'Yeah we're gonna be great! Rah, rah, rah!' But it could be something completely different from that."
The guest lineup won't always be from Hollywood, but it will always be different from other talk shows for one reason, he said.
"Me. That's the only thing that will make it different from other talk shows," he said. "What makes Johnny Carson different? Or Ted Koppel? Or all the different anchor people? It's the same thing here. It's the host. Some like to demonstrate their intelligence, some ask questions with the viewer in mind, some base their programs on what they read.
"I always do my shtick based upon what I think I'd want to know if I were listening or watching. What would I want to know? I try to answer that and then do that on camera."
That Snyder consistently slips back into TV allusions and video jargon does not mean that he is a stranger to radio. He began to think about getting involved in this current stint when he did some guest hosting for the nation's premier talk show host, Mutual Broadcasting's Larry King, earlier this year.
But his radio days began even further back than that. Snyder knew radio long before the "Prime Time" network newsmagazine on NBC in 1979, the late night teaming with Rona Barrett on the "Tomorrow" show and the gentle slide down during the 1980s, from New York anchor positions into his ill-fated afternoon KABC talk show that was canceled last September.
"We all started out in radio. At least those of us who are maturing, let's say. Those in the second half," he said, followed by the obligatory belly laugh.