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Replacing Iconic Shows Is a Very Tall Order

It happens in sports all the time. Legendary players treat us to decades of success and heartwarming moments before reaching the end of the line and paving the way for the next crop of superstars. Sometimes teams move on without missing a beat. Other times they go into a funk for a sustained period of time. It’s what separates good and bad organizations.

To prepare for those situations, teams dedicate time and resources to identifying future stars. No matter how much preparation is done though, until the moment arrives and a new talent is on the field, court or rink, you won’t know how mentally tough they are or how effective they’ll be until they face the music.

As a lifelong Yankees fan I was recently reminded of how important planning for the present and the future can be. When Derek Jeter retired, Didi Gregorious stepped in. As Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira moved on, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez became the new faces of the franchise. Coincidentally, the Yankees surpassed expectations and were one game away this season from playing for the World Series. That was a testament to exceptional scouting, talent development, managing and a roster coming together and developing great chemistry.

In radio, the same challenges occur but when they do, it can be difficult for programmers and corporate executives to roll the dice on the unknown. Too often we gravitate towards established commodities because of the instant pressure of sustaining ratings and revenue. Rather than bet on the better long-term play, we’ll flock to someone who can ease the immediate pain. It doesn’t matter if the wound gets reopened next year, if we can put a band aid on the cut, that spares us from having to go to the doctor and deal with potential surgery.

Think about it for a minute as it relates to sports. Two years ago, some Yankees fans would’ve dealt Aaron Judge to land a pitcher who could’ve helped the team contend faster. Can you imagine how badly the franchise would’ve been setback if Judge had been traded for someone like Johnny Cueto? At the time it would’ve sounded good considering that Cueto was an ace and Judge was in Triple A and nowhere near the home run machine we now know him to be. The organization might have won a few more games that season, but had they taken that approach, they would have spent the next 10 years paying dearly for it.

We’re at a point in time where some of the best in the sports media industry are starting to fade away. Over the past few years, play by play legends like Vin Scully, Brent Musburger and Verne Lundquist have moved on. Familiar faces on sports television like Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, John Saunders, Ron Jaworski, Ed Werder, John Clayton, Stuart Scott and Craig Sager have left our screens. In sports radio, local stars such as Terry Boers, John Dennis and Terry Foster have all exited stage left.

Before you know it, Al Michaels, Bob Ley, Dick Vitale, Lee Corso and Bob Costas will vanish. So too will be Angelo Cataldi, Joe Beningo, Norm Hitzges and Gary Radnich. All of these broadcasters have been extremely successful. Some may even stick around longer than expected, but father time remains undefeated and eventually even the best step aside at some point. When they do, that’s when you learn a lot about a brand and its programming team.

In thinking about some of these situations over the past few years, I’ve seen a number of them turn out positively. When CBS moved on from Phil Simms, Tony Romo took the ball and ran with it. After John Madden left Sunday Night Football, Chris Collinsworth moved in and delivered an immediate impact. In fact, NBC has already prepared itself well for Al Michaels’ exit with the addition of Mike Tirico. ESPN also did a fantastic job years ago elevating Buster Olney and Adam Schefter to their top MLB and NFL insider roles continuing the great work done previously by Peter Gammons and Chris Mortensen.

A few others I’d add to the list were FOX Sports’ choice to install John Smoltz opposite Joe Buck on MLB playoffs/World Series broadcasts after previously using Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci, and David Ortiz taking over for Pete Rose on FS1’s postseason baseball pre and postgame coverage. Although Skip Bayless created more buzz and made more headlines with Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take, you can also add Max Kellerman to this list since he’s played his role well on the show and helped continue the program’s success.

On the radio side, despite losing established stars like Terry Boers in Chicago and John Dennis in Boston, 670 The Score and WEEI in Boston continued to excel. Each station developed future solutions in advance, so when Boers and Dennis left, Jason Goff and Kirk Minihane were ready to take on bigger roles. Both men were familiar to the local audience, and adequately tested before being trusted in bigger positions.

The flipside of this situation has been the reception to the changed strategy of the 6pm SportsCenter on ESPN and Sam Ponder’s ascension to host of Sunday NFL Countdown. Maybe in time fans will come around to both shows but so far the immediate reaction hasn’t been strong. We’ve also seen the Reynolds and Verducci combo fail to deliver for FOX Sports the way Tim McCarver did previously, and CBS Sports’ NCAA Tournament coverage hasn’t created the same level of noise and intrigue as it did when Billy Packer was involved.

I’ve gone down this road because in the next thirty days, both ESPN and WFAN will go thru the biggest adjustments to their brands in quite some time. Both Mike Francesa and Mike and Mike will end their shows, leaving both companies under the microscope. Francesa vacates The Fan after thirty years, twenty eight of which have included hosting afternoon drive. The Mikes sign off after waking up listeners all across the nation on America’s largest sports radio network for the past seventeen years.

In ESPN’s case, Golic will stick around and be joined by longtime football host Trey Wingo. The two men have chemistry from working together on NFL Live and although some may deem the choice as safe or predictable, ESPN isn’t under the same ratings pressure with their radio show the way local stations are. Network officials say Wingo and Golic will be given a chance to ease into the show, find their groove and provide stability. They also take pride in the fact that despite breaking up a highly visible and popular morning show, they’ve only lost one top 20 market affiliate, and it was on a station which was already planning to go local in morning drive.

For WFAN this is a much different conversation. Replacing Francesa is a tall order. He’s arguably the most successful sports radio host to ever work in New York City. For each media member who gripes about his show being outdated, the New York sports radio host’s ratings and revenue have remained strong for nearly three decades. That’s a feat that few can lay claim to.

Making the story even more interesting, is that WFAN will go in an entirely new direction with Francesa’s replacement. According to the New York Daily News, Chris Carlin, Bart Scott and Maggie Gray have been selected as the station’s new afternoon show, instantly making them the most scrutinized local program in the entire nation.

The new show will be a complete departure from Francesa’s style. Scott and Gray add an African American (plus former player’s point of view) and female perspective, and the station will feature three hosts in afternoons opposite Michael Kay’s program on 98.7 ESPN NY which also features a three member cast. Adding to the curiosity are the list of names who were reportedly contacted by WFAN and offered the job yet turned it down. Adam Schein, Max Kellerman, Chris Simms and Kim Jones all declined, and Chris Christie, Mike Valenti, and Evan Roberts were given drive time auditions. Prior to re-signing with SiriusXM, Chris Russo had expressed interest in being considered, and former WFAN personality Sid Rosenberg was interested but his contract with WABC prevented that from becoming a possibility.

In Carlin’s case, he returns to the big apple after a solid but short stint in Philadelphia at WIP. When I asked Chris just two months ago if he envisioned pursuing this opportunity and giving up a great gig in Philadelphia, he said he wanted WIP to become his permanent home. To be fair, I’m sure at that time he didn’t expect this job to be offered. Besides, we’re all entitled to change our minds, especially when prime real estate at one’s former station is offered.

After this story broke, I was bombarded with texts, emails and social media messages, most of which felt The Fan had made a grave mistake. From the outside looking in it does feel different, and the odds of it working aren’t as high as the chances of the show being a miss. We’d likely say that though about any show that goes in after Francesa. When you replace a legend, it’s more likely you turn out like David Lee Roth after Howard Stern than Colin Cowherd after Tony Kornheiser.

Having faced these challenges before, Mark Chernoff (WFAN’s programming czar) has shown that when his back is against the wall he usually does his best work. He hit a homerun by rolling the dice on Boomer and Carton after Imus, and when Chris Russo left afternoons, he could’ve installed a new partner with Francesa, especially with the show being over five hours long, but he trusted his workhorse to succeed solo, and that’s exactly what he did.

If Chernoff feels this show can succeed, then he’s earned the benefit of the doubt to try it. If he’s wrong, some will question if Mark still has the magic touch. But considering how many reportedly rejected the opportunity, it does leave a few questions. Is this the move Chernoff really wanted to make? Does he have complete confidence in the show being WFAN’s next big hit? Or is WFAN putting forward its 5th best option and the one they had the best chance at getting a deal done with?

It’s easy to throw darts from the sidelines and blast a radio station for its decision, but unless you’ve walked in those shoes and put your name on a call, supported your choice and dealt with the arrows flying in your direction, you won’t understand how hard it is. These type of moves determine if a station will continue winning or losing and it’s the ultimate test in conviction and measurement of a programmer’s vision and decision making.

Having developed professional relationships over the years with Chris and Mark, and having grown up as a listener to The Fan, I’m rooting for them to succeed. I don’t know if the new afternoon show will excite an audience to tune in daily but it’s their challenge to find a way to do so. We’re in a different world than we were 10-20 years ago and content options are greater than ever before. I applaud The Fan for going outside the box and attempting to freshen up the look and sound of its product. Whether it’s the right call or not can only be determined by the audience. Hopefully additional surgery isn’t necessary in the future.

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