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Mike Francesa Reflects on Thirty Years in Sports Radio

Thirty years in any business is a long time. In radio, it’s an eternity. For Mike Francesa, it’s never been about surviving corporate changes, the loss of a radio partner, increased competition or the rise of technology. It’s been about competing and being the very best. Anything less than “numbah 1” wasn’t good enough.

But despite three decades of ratings and revenue success, Mike will find himself in unfamiliar territory on December 16, 2017. That Saturday morning, the king of New York sports talk will wake up for the first time since 1987 as a man without a microphone and radio station.

It’s no secret that Francesa and WFAN are going in separate directions. Chris Carlin, Bart Scott and Maggie Gray have been tabbed by program director Mark Chernoff to lead the station forward in PM drive, a move which is under heavy scrutiny. Fans were hopeful after Craig Carton’s exit in September that WFAN executives and their longtime franchise player would find a way to extend their relationship but unfortunately nothing changed.

Whether you’ve been a Francesa fan or critic, his success and impact on the radio industry can’t be denied. His rise with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to the top of the ratings in New York breathed life into the sports radio business during a very important time in the format’s infancy. Had Mike and the Mad Dog not produced results, who knows where the format would be today.

But it didn’t stop there. Russo left the show in August 2008, and rather than adding a partner, Francesa began performing as a solo act, delivering the same type of impact that he had for the prior 19 years. That success added to his legacy, and cemented his position on the Mount Rushmore of sports radio talk show hosts.

For most personalities, that would be enough, but Mike hasn’t reached the end of his broadcasting journey. In fact, he remains interested in continuing to work. Fans will have to live without hearing him during the upcoming winter months but come April, Francesa says he plans to sink his teeth into something new. What that will be and how often he’ll do it remains to be seen, but whatever he chooses, it’ll be on a different outlet than the one New York sports radio listeners have been accustomed to finding him on for the past three decades.

I had the pleasure of spending time with Mike in his office last week to reflect on his run with WFAN and examine a number of different areas of the radio business. As usual, he was candid and provided plenty to think about, two of the biggest reasons why he’s been one of the most successful sports radio personalities in our format’s history.

JB: How much have you allowed yourself to reflect and appreciate the process leading up to your final show?

MF: I’ve absolutely thought a lot about the show and the different moments that have happened throughout the years. Everywhere we’ve gone this year the crowd’s have been overwhelming. I thank the fans enormously. We’ve had the most loyal and consistent fans the past thirty years that you could ever even hope for and I’m very appreciative of that.

Leading up to the final show, in our business you spend a lot of time planning ahead. Right now I’d normally be looking to the Super Bowl, Spring Training and even April. You’re always trying to work 4-6 in advance but I haven’t done any of that so that’s very different from the normal course of business. There’s a finality to every part of it. As I’ve gone past each month, you check them off and realize there’s never going to be another September or October doing shows so from that standpoint I’ve tried to appreciate it and be a little more reflective.

JB: What are you going to miss most and least about the job?

MF: The least part of the job that I’ll miss is the traffic. It’s impossible getting around the city and it wears you down. It’s a couple of hours a day. Just brutal.

What I’ll miss most is the idea that there’s a big happening and I know the city is waiting for me at one o’clock. That’s been my life for thirty years. To know the city isn’t waiting for me anymore will be a big adjustment.

JB: Who would you put at the top of the list among your favorite guests from over the years?

MF: There were some guests who performed above the call of duty on the show. George Young was one. David Stern was another. They not only brought a great performance level but they brought this curmudgeonly playful attitude that made them great guests.

The one that got away was Joe DiMaggio. Dog and I tried very hard to get him on the show. We even got Ted Williams to ask for us. We just couldn’t get him.

JB: Which memorable moments from the show stand out the most?

MF: The day Dog left was an emotional one. Cherny fought me the whole day. I said I’m putting him on. He said no you’re not. I said he has a right to say goodbye. Mark said no he doesn’t. He’s out.

Back then they used to just take you off the air. They’ve learned their lesson and changed that stance thankfully. Look at me, right now I couldn’t be more of a lame duck. There’s a new company I’m not part of. There’s a new show already named. I feel like the President after election day. You have people just waiting to push you out of the office.

JB: When did you know the show was a success and had influence?

MF: I knew the show was a success when we got the first book. We were third after they had been eleventh. The second book we were first and life changed. They ripped up our contracts, we were the toast of the town, there were headline stories, and we were big stars.

The first time though that I knew it had impact was when the Giants called and asked me to MC a dinner they were doing. That was about six months into the show. I was like “Whoa, the Giants are calling me?”

JB: So with all of these great moments and tremendous success, why leave?

MF: They made me a bunch of offers and asked what it would take for me to stay for a year, but we never really even seriously negotiated. I told them I really wasn’t into it. I didn’t want to stay just for money. I always felt you don’t stay in things just for money.

It was very important to me to leave on top. I didn’t want to be one of these guys who used to be number 1 and now you’re number 28. I couldn’t live that way. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that.

I’ve driven these guys exceedingly hard to finish 1st in the final book. With a few weeks to go we’re first but it looks like it’s going to be a dogfight with one of the music stations. That’s what’s important to me and that’s what we’ve been striving for. I wanted to go out the same way that I came in, on top.

JB: How much of this has to do with Entercom taking over and working for a new company and possibly facing different economic realities?

MF: Some of the reports that have been out there have been so wrong. I had dinner with David Field. He wasn’t able to talk about certain things because the merger was pending but this notion that the company was trying to cut my salary is not true. They offered me the same amount that I’m making right now.

This wasn’t about money. I just thought a few years ago that it was the right time and nothing made me think it wasn’t the right time to go. I still believe it’s the right time to move on.

It had nothing to do with Entercom. Whether I agree with what they’re going to do going forward or not doesn’t matter. I’m not even going to know what they’re like for six months. They were not an issue at all.

JB: How close did you come to reversing your stance following Craig’s exit?

MF: After the Carton thing happened I said “if you really need me to stay then we’ll discuss it.” We had one meeting about it and they said they did not think it was a big deal and didn’t think it would change things at all. I said OK and that was it.

JB: So if that is indeed the case and this is it for you with WFAN, what is next?

MF: I want to produce content and do some new things. I don’t want to not work at all. I will not do Monday thru Friday. I’ve been offered book deals and rejected them because I don’t think I’m an author. I still have a lot to say and there are many ways to do that and I’m looking at some of them.

The way it’s set up I can’t do local radio, network radio, satellite radio or podcasts until April 1st. TV’s not in there but I’m not sure how much of that I want to do, especially the conventional way. I’m much more into digital and the new wave of TV, the Amazon way, the Netflix way and the different ways they distribute video content.

JB: This radio station has endured losing high profile stars like Russo, Imus, Carton, Sid, etc. Your departure will soon be another major test for them. How has WFAN been able to continue thriving after losing such key people?

MF: We built something strong that had legs. It will endure past me. The Fan has been built on a strong enough foundation that it will be here fifty to a hundred years from now. It’s become part of this town and culture. It’s an iconic brand.

They still have to make the right decisions. If they don’t, it can lose its way. We’ve seen that happen in other cities. It’s not The Fan’s birthright to be on top and it is tough to replace a very successful show but it does happen. Imus got replaced.

Mark always has an idea of what he wants to do. This was not done without any thought process. How it’s going to do? We’ll see.

JB: The news of the new afternoon show hasn’t been well received so far, although they haven’t even done a show yet. Your former partner in particular was pretty upset. What’s your reaction to the station going in this direction?

MF: First, Dog can talk about the individuals all he wants. He’s earned that right. But from my position, the less said the better. I don’t have much to go on. None of these people have ever had any real radio presence on this station. I’ve never heard Maggie or Scott do a show and I haven’t even really heard Continent do a show so what they’ll be as a trio, nobody has any idea, and as individual performers, I don’t really know.

JB: Let’s be fair too, whoever goes in after you, is going to be under intense scrutiny the second they step into the studio. How long of a leash do you think a new show deserves?

MF: You have to give the new show at least six months. The first book will not be a great indicator of anything. Plus it’s a Winter ratings book. Take a look at the end of the Spring book and see where you are. That’d be a fair indicator.

JB: I recognize you’re not in the advice business, but having done this successfully for as long as you have, what advice can you pass along to the new show?

MF: They need to be themselves. You can’t manufacture something that’s not there. Chemistry is something they have to develop. They have to figure out their roles and ones that each of them are comfortable with and then play to their individual strengths. That’s their mission. What they have to realize is that it’s never going to be a case where each is responsible for a third of the show. That’s silly. It just has to have a feel.

JB: The competition in afternoons has been stronger too. How do you think that affects the patience with the new program?

MF: For the longest time, we were the only show the other station went head to head with locally. That was done by design because they knew they’d get destroyed if they put in a national show against me. Network shows only have a certain level they can reach.

There’s going to be some back and forth. The other station feels they’re in a different position now. They’ve never won. They’ve always lost. They’ve been beaten up for so many years that they think this is an opening but they felt the same way when Dog left and that door didn’t open for them. We’ll see this time if they are more vulnerable.

JB: Mark Chernoff is responsible for making the move. The two of you guys have had a lengthy working relationship. How would you describe it?

MF: We’ve had the typical talent to program director relationship. There are days he will try to push me to things I don’t want to do. He might be right or wrong. We’ve had our fights and arguments but we’ve also gotten along really well.

Mark’s greatest strength for me is that he’s a genius on understanding the ratings and how they work. There are certain things you can do and I’m sure he’ll teach the new show and they really need to listen and understand.

A lot of talent won’t take the time to learn this part of it. Some pay no attention to ratings. You can like it or not but if you don’t understand it you’re out of your mind and short selling yourself. That’s how you’re going to be paid.

JB: How surprised are you by the lack of interest from some personalities towards learning and understanding the ratings game to help their longevity and earning power?

MF: Our business is subjective. You’re not going to please everybody all the time. Your job though is to produce ratings and revenue. It’s the only thing that will sell the day. To not understand how they work and what tricks you can do in your show to have success is very important. There are some things that you don’t want to do in a half hour that’ll cost you. When you want to break and stuff like that. Some people think “all I have to do is promote ahead and I’m fine.” No No No. There’s a lot more to it than that.

I remember Mel Karmazin had this meeting years ago and turned to one guy and asked “what’s your job.” This executive went into this long ten minute answer full of a bunch of baloney and Mel turned to him and said “let me put it simple – you’re job is ratings and revenue – and don’t forget it on your next job.” He fired him.

JB: Sticking with the subject of ratings, you’ve said before that you feel the sports radio industry is going after the wrong demographic. You believe Men 35-64, not Men 25-54, should be the target. How come?

MF: Trying to get this business to change something, forget it. They are so slow it’s glacier speed. This is such a no-brainer. We are so much healthier and living longer. Our life expectancy is now into the mid 80’s. The people 55 to 70 have incredible earning power and more money than anybody in this country. They have the life to spend it and the time to spend it.

The way the world works with student debt and the economy, kids aren’t even leaving home until they’re 30 years old. They can’t afford anything at 25 years old. If they’re buying their first home it’s usually on a shoestring budget and they’re getting help from their parents. You think that’s your market? They’re not your market. Your market is the baby boomer and people 40-65 who have all the earning and spending power in this country. To turn away a good part of that audience is insane.

JB: How do we fix that?

MF: The entire ad buying community has to grow. Using GQ as an example, I read them and look at their ads for clothes and they’re all geared towards the twenty year old’s. I buy more clothes than they do. They don’t target guys like me and they’re out of their minds. We’re the ones who go out to fancy dinners, buy expensive suits and jewelry and drive a mercedes. The guy 20 or 30 isn’t doing that. He’s two hundred thousand dollars in debt and lucky if he even has a car.

If I was in the advertising business I’d be saying “gear everything towards the guys 40-65 or 70, they have all the money and time.”

JB: One of the biggest challenges for radio has been the emergence of digital. How do you think that’s impacted the industry?

MF: The radio business has got to find itself and decide what it wants to be. The audience has not gone anywhere. What our industry has done, is they think it’s gone somewhere because they’ve been scared off by technology and they’ve chased digital to the detriment of their regular radio audience.

I’ve fought everybody in the business over this. Radio is live and local and the business is still there. The digital money has never been there. No one knows how to monetize it and it’s so new that you’re not even sure what you’re selling as the business changes from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to Snapchat.

What radio does know how to do, this commercial sells that car. This commercial sells that restaurant or store. That has never changed but they’ve gotten away from it and radio has to get back to its roots or they’re going to wish they did.

JB: But social media has become an important way for people to engage, find content and connect to brands. Podcasts are another platform gaining in popularity. Don’t those matter?

MF: I understand the draw of social media. The chasing of content is good. But the radio companies, and to a lesser extent, the television companies, still don’t have a handle on it.

I’ve railed against podcasts because nobody makes any money on them. When did we decide everybody gets a radio show? We didn’t. But everybody now has a podcast.

Radio has chased empty dollars. There’s nobody at the door saying you can’t enter. So everybody enters. Unless you go into a podcast with a radio brand and audience, you’re not going to make money or create a big enough audience to support what you’re doing.

JB: When you look at where the industry is today compared to where it was before, do you think it’s still an attractive profession?

MF: The job of talk show host has become a great job. When I started the talk show host was not a big deal. The columnist was the big guy and he looked down at the radio host. We turned it into a profession. Kids are now going to school to pursue becoming a talk show host. In most cities in this country, the talk show host is now the number one difference maker or tastemaker in that town. To me, that transition is one I’m most proud of. Mike and the Mad Dog gave the job enormous credibility and attention.

JB: You mentioned Mike and the Mad Dog, knowing that this was going to be the final run for you with WFAN, was that why you gave the green light on doing the 30 for 30 episode?

MF: The Mike and the Mad Dog 30 for 30 I did for two reasons. The first was my kids asked me, and the second was because Dog asked me. My first inclination was not to do it because I’ve had a bad relationship with ESPN.

When they did the twenty fifth anniversary piece, I was the only one who wouldn’t do it. Even Imus did it. Bill Simmons said “I can’t do this unless you do it” and I said “I’m not doing it for ESPN.” He still keeps busting my chops about it because I did the 30 for 30 but didn’t do his thing.

Plus the guys who did it I broke into the business with. Danny Forer and I worked together in 1983, and Ted Shaker was one of my first bosses at CBS. He ran the NFL Today. I’ve known those guys for thirty years so that also made it a lot easier.

JB: Watching that film reminded me of how important it is to create something unique. Now, the world is cluttered with content choices and cutting thru is harder than ever. What do you tell a young person who’s starting out today and contemplating a path as a talk show host?

MF: It’s easier to get on the air now than it ever was but it’s also harder to break thru because there’s so much noise and clutter. You have to have an opinion and a presence that cuts thru. It has to be real and yours. That’s the key to success.

JB: In following your career, maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall you ever being suspended for something you’ve said on the air. Some personalities today feel they’ve got to deliver opinions that generate headlines and rattle a few cages to stand out. By doing so though they can risk losing their job. What are your thoughts on the need to push the envelope to cut thru the noise?

MF: I’ve never been suspended or reprimanded and I’ve never had to apologize. I attack people from a sports standpoint. I don’t attack people personally. I never bring their families, girlfriends or wives into it. I don’t do T & A or guy talk. I don’t believe in that.

I’ve always looked at my show as being a sports argument. It can be fierce and take the paint off the walls, but it’s going to be based on something that happened on the field or something that has an impact on the team.

The guys who want to push it and get involved, stay out of a tragedy. A perfect example was the Roy Halladay situation and how it was discussed by the guys in Boston. That’s not your business. You weren’t there. You don’t know anything about it. He has a wife and kids and cities that love him. Maybe he was reckless with his plane, but where do you get off thinking that’s your business? That’s a winless situation. There are times you have to stay out of stuff. You don’t belong in other people’s pain.

JB: Another area of the business which has changed has been the increase of political commentary in sports radio programming. Do you believe we’re going to see more of this going forward?

MF: I think the political explosion in sports talk has more to do with this President. He’s so polarizing because he touches so many parts of culture. He’s a TV star first. Without his show he never becomes President. We knew him in New York but they got to know him in living rooms across the country because of The Apprentice.

People who voted for Trump saw him as success. He brands himself that way. He breaks across certain barriers because some people see him as having the life they wish they had. He has the pretty girl, the jet, the money, the fame.

We are so polarized now that everybody sticks to their own opinion and nobody wants to have a political conversation. That’s made things much more agitated and tougher to get any consensus. There’s no middle anymore. What we’ve seen leak into all of these shows is really the Trump factor more than a political factor.

JB: Let’s talk about your own methods to hosting a successful program. How do you know when you’ve had a good or bad show?

MF: Any good show is fast moving. Anything that drags is bad. There’s a big difference between the two. Show’s can change on a dime. You have to realize ahead of time and during the show when it’s time to reverse the topic. You have to have an instinctive feel for what is and isn’t working as a performer. If that is not inside you, you’re going to have a hard time being special at this.

You know when you’re giving your audience a reason to stray. You won’t hear my show go into seven topics in seven minutes. I focus my shows because I don’t think you can move your audience all over the place.

It’s even more of a challenge when I’m doing a live show. I don’t ever give the audience a chance to chat among themselves. You never want to give the audience dead time during a live performance. That’s deadly. They’ll start talking to each other and then you’ll never get them back. If you put an intermission in there, you’re out of your mind. The show should never stop moving.

JB: I’ve noticed over the years that you haven’t placed a strong emphasis on using production, sound or teasing. How come?

MF: The show is me. Some people need a lot of sound and bells and whistles. I don’t use any of it. I don’t even use music. You have to understand though what you have to do. That means handling all the transitions and segues. It’s harder to do a show this way because it’s a lot more work but it’s something I believe in.

JB: As we look to the future, what would an induction into the radio hall of fame mean to you?

MF: The radio hall of fame would mean a lot. They put us in a voting category and we thought we had a chance but we finished second to Michael Savage. Credit to him. He earned it fair and square. I think Mike and the Mad Dog deserve to be in there and if we go in together that would be just fine with me.

JB: Along those lines, 10-15 years from now when people look back on your run at WFAN, what do you want them to remember?

MF: I hope that they remember that during the time I was here I dominated. That’s what I set out to do and I did that.

JB: What do you have planned for the final show?

MF: The day before the final show I’ll be broadcasting live from the Museum of Broadcasting with a number of guests, family, WFAN people, a small audience of about 200 people. We’re not selling tickets to that. We’ll just be giving some away.

The final show will just be me. I’m not letting anybody in the studio. I’m not doing any media that day. I even told my family to stay home and listen to it. I’m coming in, doing a show, talking to the audience, no guests, and then I’m getting up at 6:30 and leaving.

The last 10-15 minutes will probably just be me. I’m not going to script it. I’ll have thought about it obviously but I’m just going to let it go and then that’ll be it.

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