Tue. Sep 18th, 2018

WFAN-Mike Francesa Reunion Raises Many Questions

There are times when sports radio news stories break and put me in a very awkward position. I believe strongly in transparency and honesty. No matter how much money is on the table, when all is said and done, the one thing that I’ll always own are my personal thoughts and opinions. I’ll sell those insights to help brands achieve success but what I won’t do is sell my soul to any person or group looking for a favorable spin, especially when the news doesn’t warrant it.

That can be a slippery slope when you operate as a consultant, strategist and trainer.

Fortunately, I have established a lot of relationships in this format, and I value those connections. I think those who know me or read this website understand that my intent is to raise the format’s profile, make people better, and offer a fair and objective opinion or analysis when its warranted, even if the news from time to time hits close to home.

On the other hand, I’m also a business man. I have partnerships with multiple companies. I respect and value those who work with me regularly and am proud of the fact that most of my clients have been loyal for multiple years. My partners know that I love this business and invest myself in their success and work hard to help them grow all areas of their business. When they find themselves in the news for a less than flattering reason though, they know I have to report it because after all, that’s a key focus for this website.

Despite working with many stations, I’m not unwilling to give credit where it’s due to competitors and I avoid taking personal slants against those who I don’t work with. I believe in being fair and keeping relationships strong with everyone because you never know when your paths may intersect down the line.

But just like each of you reading this column, I too have opinions, and when sports radio stories break, many expect me to offer my thoughts. Given the recent developments in New York at WFAN surrounding Mike Francesa’s expected return, it’s a news story which warrants a reaction, even if it might not please a few folks close to the situation.

When I first heard about the possibility of WFAN reversing its direction and bringing Mike back, I thought there was a lot of smoke but no fire. After all, the station went thru a two-year search to find his replacement(s) and the new show hosted by Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott had only received one full ratings quarter.

But in the radio business, as we’ve seen many times, patience can be thin, and changes happen quickly, especially in places where the stakes are incredibly high.

When The Michael Kay Show beat WFAN head to head in the winter book, I thought CMB would be on a short leash. Is that fair? No. But this is WFAN and the expectations are enormous. You’re looked upon to smother the competition so the radio station can continue generating high revenues while further elevating its profile as one of the best sports radio brands in America. You’re also expected to maintain the same standard of success that came before you regardless of the circumstances.

Expectations aside, don’t forget that The Fan was forced to change two dayparts this fall due to Francesa’s highly publicized exit and Craig Carton’s arrest. You can hire a bunch of talented people but usually when you ask an audience to form a connection with four new hosts at once, something doesn’t go according to plan. That’s why you don’t see brands overhaul their lineups on a regular basis. Radio success is largely dependent on consistency.

Also during the fall, Entercom purchased CBS Radio. It takes time for a new owner to wrap their arms around their new investment, and install new policies. What’s sure to gain their attention when they’re publicly traded and under the eyes of the entire industry is when one of their flagship brands hits a speed bump.

In the case of WFAN, the station has been a ratings and revenue winner for a long time. If the station is perceived as not being as formidable as it once was, sphincters get tight and adjustments get made in order to regain client and listener confidence before profitability takes a hit.

But what makes the issue complicated is when you consider the amount of time WFAN allowed for dealing with substantial changes, and Francesa’s difficulty of moving on from The Fan.

No matter how you slice it, the public narrative is that Mike Francesa overestimated his worth on the open market. He spoke about his understanding of the digital space and how he had a plan to excel at it, but since leaving the terrestrial space he hasn’t made a dent. He talked about having a number of irons in the fire, but so far those conversations have only led to guest appearances on multiple shows.

On the flip side, WFAN management shares blame due to their inability to deliver a strong post-Francesa plan.

It took less than six months for station executives to lose faith in CMB in afternoons and drink again from the cup of Francesa. According to reports, CMB were given two-year deals. That suggests that folks involved in assembling the show went into it by dipping their toe in the water instead of diving in. If you think I’m wrong about that, try signing Chris Russo, Max Kellerman or Adam Schein to a two-year deal and let me know how it turns out.

When you make a move of this magnitude, you’ve got to be firmly committed to it. You’re going to take some hits early on, especially in market #1 when you replace a legend like Francesa. It’s like a heavyweight title fight, you have to withstand the early attacks and take advantage in the later rounds.

In this particular case, Chris Carlin was well known by CBS/Entercom folks. He was working in Philadelphia at WIP and doing well with Ike Reese in afternoon drive before making his return to the big apple. Maggie Gray and Bart Scott on the other hand were newbies to full-time sports radio hosting. All three had to gamble and bet on themselves because after all, this is afternoon drive in New York City on WFAN. If they knocked it out of the park, they’d have the advantage in the next round of negotiations. If they didn’t, they’d be remembered as the show that couldn’t replace Francesa, and that puts them in the same company as many shows/hosts who’d fail in that spot.

But what can’t be denied is that Mark Chernoff and his inner circle had time to prepare for this situation. They had two years to scour the globe in search of talent. Guys like Mike Valenti, Chris Simms and Chris Christie earned auditions. Max Kellerman, Chris Russo, Adam Schein and Sid Rosenberg were mentioned as candidates. The company had access to all of CBS Radio and CBS Sports Radio’s personnel. Given the market location and resources, this was a sought after position, and anything less than a successful transition would raise questions about management’s ability to move WFAN forward after Francesa.

What’s perplexing about typing that last sentence is that over the years, few in this format have done a better job when their backs are against the wall than Mark Chernoff. When Imus was fired, he added Boomer and Carton. When Sid left, Evan Roberts was added alongside Joe Beningo. When Chris Russo left, he trusted Mike to win solo and it worked. I don’t forget those successes. But past success doesn’t promise future success and this problem is far from over for Mark and his team.

Making the issue even messier was the New York Post’s report that circulated Tuesday evening. Francesa apparently struck a deal directly with Entercom CEO David Field. The decision was made without Chernoff being on board. If that’s indeed the case, expect speculation to increase about the WFAN programming boss’ future, especially if Field gets further involved with future programming moves.

One also has to wonder which side Entercom VP of programming Chris Oliviero is on. Did he support Field’s decision to rehire Franecsa? Or did he side with his longtime colleague and trusted supporter Chernoff? If it’s the latter, that could create tension between Field and two of the company’s most important programming minds, Chernoff and Oliviero. If he backed Field though, how does that affect his longtime relationship with Chernoff?

Nobody is going to argue with Francesa’s talent or ability to make an impact on the radio, but don’t forget folks that Mike is 64. At some point in the future, they’re going to have to replace him again. Whether it’s next year, two-years from now or three-years later, the situation is unavoidable because Mike isn’t going to work forever.

There’s also no guarantee that Mike’s ratings will be what they’ve been in the past. During the fall book, The Michael Kay Show was tied for 3rd while Francesa was 2nd. This was a period of time where many folks were expected to listen even more to Mike since it was thought to be his farewell tour on The Fan. Francesa did win the head to head battle against Kay and exit without ever suffering defeat to his local rival and his track record in the ratings should inspire confidence that all will be right in the world once he reclaims his place behind a WFAN microphone. That said, even the best in the business eventually slow down. To expect Mike to stay on top for another 5-6 years is asking a lot.

So when that day does come and Francesa exits again, then what happens? If you’re David Field and you’re operating Entercom, would you feel optimistic that your group can identify the next superstar to carry The Fan forward for the next decade when the last time out they didn’t deliver and you needed to get involved? What if you’re a talent or an agent pursuing that opportunity? Are you going to sign a two-year deal with a station to replace Francesa when the last group to try had the rug pulled out from under them after one full book?

What I don’t understand is why this problem couldn’t be solved during the fall before the radio station set up three new personalities to fail. It was well documented that Carton’s arrest wasn’t a good look for The Fan. Entercom was taking over CBS and retaining their most high-profile star would’ve been a good PR move. It also would’ve provided a good PR rub for Mike because he’d be seen as the guy being loyal to his longtime radio home during a time of turmoil rather than needing to use the media to try and create a market for his services as a free agent.

Although it might have made sense for both parties to figure it out this past fall, it didn’t happen, and here we are five months later cleaning up a number of spills.

One thing I did find surprising when The Fan announced the hiring of CMB was that they’d turn afternoons into a three-person show. That wasn’t a dynamic the station had utilized in year’s past. If you look at WFAN’s history, most of their shows have been hosted solo or by a two-man team. Having managed three-person shows before, I know it takes time to find the right flow and chemistry, and sometimes it flat out doesn’t work.

I don’t want to excuse CMB in this process either. The show has had times on the air when it’s been solid and many other times where it’s shown that it’s going thru growing pains. If the program packed a powerful punch, won the first ratings book and generated a ton of buzz, maybe things would’ve been different. But looking back, the odds were stacked against them from the second they were hired and while that may not be the best situation to walk into, they can’t say they didn’t know what they signed up for.

So that brings us back to Francesa.

If being away from the spotlight for less than six months left him this anxious to regain his former platform, what is he going to do when it goes away for good? Can Mike function without WFAN? How will he handle not being a part of the daily New York sports conversation?

As stressful and complex as this situation has been, if Mike does indeed return to WFAN in afternoons, it could have a lasting impact on the brand in a positive way. For the short term, you’d expect the ratings to improve, but perhaps even more important is getting Mike to become more of a leader and use his platform to help the station avoid a similar mess when he leaves in the future.

It’s no secret that Mike hasn’t been a warm and fuzzy teammate. He’s feuded with other station personalities, focused on his brand, and offered little public support for Carlin, a host who spent nine years producing his show. Maybe Mike didn’t believe Chris was worthy of the afternoon show real estate, and if he didn’t, that’s certainly his prerogative. But what should be addressed is how to avoid being in this same exact position in the next few years.

In that sense, Mike could do a lot of good if he wanted to. Rather than being Brett Favre and rejecting the idea of helping Aaron Rodgers, imagine what type of impact he could have and how he could be remembered if he used the next few years to bring others along. It’s probably unlikely, but what if he teamed up with Maggie or Carlin? Think about the lift that would provide their career, not to mention how their addition could provide an infusion to Mike’s show.

It ultimately boils down to this. If listeners and clients are happy and the ratings wins return everyone at WFAN will be happy. But ratings, business, and image issues aside, it’d benefit the group to think about today with their eye on tomorrow. The short-term stability will be fine, but if they don’t use their remaining time together to make sure the future is in good hands, the next time around could be a lot more catastrophic.

2 thoughts on “WFAN-Mike Francesa Reunion Raises Many Questions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.