"What if I told you one of the most powerful teams in sports never played a game?"
Such is the tagline for Thursday's ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary, Mike and the Mad Dog. And while proclaiming a radio duo one of the most powerful teams in sports may sound overly dramatic, for those who've enjoyed sports radio in the past 28 years, their impact is undeniable.
New York's WFAN debuted in 1987 as the world's first-ever 24-hour sports talk station. Two years later, the struggling outlet was still searching for traction when it placed Mike Francesa, an insider with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sports world, with Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, a volatile everyman, for the afternoon drive-time show. Mike and the Mad Dog was born.
The results forever altered the sports media landscape. Almost three decades later, they remain the foremost duo in sports radio history, their influence visible in the debate shows that dominate today's programming schedules. Even though they split as partners in 2008, their passionate fans still long for the two to reunite. Both continue to thrive as solo hosts—Russo on SiriusXM and Francesa on WFAN—although the latter has become both a hero and a punch line in the social media era. With the documentary premiering Thursday and with Francesa's departure from WFAN looming in December, B/R spoke with Francesa, 63, and Russo, 57, separately to get their insights on the film and their status as pioneers in their field.
B/R: What was the moment that really made the show for you guys?
Mike Francesa: I think the results did. I don't think any one thing did. Had the results not come so quickly, it would have been harder to keep together, because personally, we weren't trying to keep the show together. We were trying to pull it apart in the first couple of months. Neither of us was happy with it. Neither of us wanted to be there. There were a lot of outside forces pulling us apart. There were internal forces pulling us apart. There were a lot of people who won't admit it now who inside the company thought this was a total disaster, wanted to end it immediately. They won't admit to that now because of the success of it, but that was very true.
And we got a tremendous amount of headlines. When that happened, that was it. Mike and the Mad Dog had arrived.
Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo: I think there's a couple. I think that "Dog Date Afternoon" the first year where—I wasn't married yet, no girlfriends—a girl who wanted to date had to write 25 words or less and send a postcard to our producer. We'd pick the winner and the winner would go to a Broadway play—Cats. Mike was very good with that. He set the whole thing up. I was a good sport about it. We got a lot of reaction.
And then I think there's a couple after that. The Giants' run in '90, when they won the Super Bowl, beating the Niners and Buffalo back-to-back; I thought that was very significant. And I think the third thing was Pat Riley. He was hip, he was coming from the Lakers, he had won all those championships. And his availability to me and Mike, and the fact that the Knicks got good right away, I think that was very significant, too.
B/R: How did the professional success lay the path for a personal relationship?
Francesa: We had to realize that we were a shotgun marriage—we were put together over a weekend, we had never even spent five minutes together, we never did a rehearsal show together, we never even had a production meeting before we went on the air together. They just put us in a studio together and said go to work. And it didn't work well. We were both trying to run the other one out of the show. That's what we were trying to do the first couple of months. And instead, once we saw what happened, we realized we had to work together.
B/R: Would the show have been such a success without that tension?
Russo: I think the tension really helped the popularity of the show because it was real and it was authentic and people could relate to it. You know, spousal issues, and everybody's got a boss they don't like. And I think it's added a component which has increased our popularity, the fact that there are so many dynamics with the two of us over the years that are talking points. ... The water-cooler talk—are they fighting, not getting along—it drew you in.
B/R: What made the show work?
Francesa: We just have a gift that we're two people who have just brilliant timing together. ... And that's the part that people missed about the show and made it very successful: We were always two individual performers who came together to do a show. We were not a show. We did not vacation together. Our show never shut down. When one of us went away, the other one worked.
Russo: We didn't copy Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis. There were no debate shows those days on TV. I had never worked with a partner before I had started to work with Mike. ... So it was an adjustment to work with a partner.
Me and Mike, when we argued, we both really believed what we were arguing for.
B/R: Do you have a fondest moment from the show?
Francesa: We did some crazy stuff. '94 was amazing. We both worked so much; it was unbelievable. The Knicks and Rangers. I think they played 49 playoff games and we were at 39 of them both home and away. We traveled for weeks on end—we went from Vancouver to Houston to New York back to Vancouver, to Houston. ... The way the city saw it was that it was not a big sporting event unless Mike and the Mad Dog were at the event.
B/R: How did you stay sane taking calls for so long?
Russo: I always did a lot of calls. I was in Jacksonville and Orlando, where I didn't have the guests and didn't have the local teams. So I needed the phone calls. Mike's a little different in that department. He worked at CBS. He's a little bit more of an inside guy, a little bit more of an inside interpreter, so he didn't need the calls and didn't grow up with the calls as much as I did.
Francesa: You have to do it honestly. If anything, I've heard more through the years about how hard I am on the callers, but I react to the calls the way I think that people in their car would react as they're listening. If somebody says something outrageous or dumb or crazy, I'm going to say that. I'm not going to go 'thanks for the call' and go on to the next call. So I've always treated the caller completely different than the listener. The audience, I cherish. My callers, I challenge.
B/R: How did the introduction of the internet and then social media change the nature of your show, and how have fans changed over time?
Francesa: I don't know that they are different. What they do have is that we live in an incredibly different information age. There was a time where we had information that the audience didn't have. That's changed completely. The audience has every bit of information. ... So the bottom line is, knowing that, you have to bring an overriding opinion and an overriding personality. You have to have a personality that's captivating and you have to have an opinion that people want to hear.
Russo: I do think that if you did the show today, you'd have to do it a little differently because you wouldn't be able to break all those stories that you could have broken in the old days. We were on the air when Magic Johnson—that's another big story, '91 HIV—4 o'clock on a Monday afternoon he announces his retirement. Nobody knew what that was about. We were on the air at 3:59—let's go to Magic's press conference. And he retires. We wouldn't have that today.
Francesa: But what I have that the fan doesn't have is a viewpoint. That's what is mine and mine alone, and that's what I have to bring, and that's why I've lasted and been successful. It became about not just having information; it's about understanding how things work. ... That's the indispensable stuff that the audience doesn't have.
B/R: What is it like now, where every mistake you make ends up on YouTube or Twitter and you're the constant butt of Al Alburquerque jokes?
Francesa: You can't worry about it. When you get to a certain level of celebrity, there's not much you can do about it. If you don't want it, then walk away from it, because there's good to it and there's bad to it. If I make a mistake, hey, they are gonna ram it down my throat. That's just the way it is, and if you can't handle that, then understand that that's just the way it is. Now, has it reached an absurd point? Yes. There's a guy out there who just waits for me to make a mistake and then blasts it to everybody. The bottom line is it's just something I have to live with.
Russo: I think Mike right now, a lot of those little mistakes that he makes, I think it has a lot to do with Mike at times being a little bored. I think if Mike had a guy like me in there or somebody that was going to challenge him—five-and-a-half hours is a long time doing the show every day—I think a little bit has to do with he's done it all, he's seen it all, he might be a little bored.
B/R: To what degree did you guys give rise to all the debate shows that dominate radio and TV today? Can we blame the two of you for Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless?
Francesa: Yes. There's no question. I think it went from us to Mike and Mike, which was a very, very gentle show. It was very much a promotion show, not a real hard-hitting show. But then to Pardon the Interruption, which was clearly off Mike and the Mad Dog. Tony Kornheiser, who I've known forever, even admitted to me that was based on Mike and the Mad Dog. And I think a lot of them came off the success of Pardon the Interruption. I think that really was the one that set the template for the TV shows. So I think it all does emanate from the success of Mike and the Mad Dog.
Russo: I only recently thought about that. I think you can make an argument that we had some influence. I think the one thing that we did from a radio perspective that they didn't really address in the film is that Mike and I were really the first duet of sports talk. Before me and Mike in '89, most of your big sports talk show hosts were solo. And then me and Mike showed everybody that you could do two-way sports talk and that way you could do more hours together.
B/R: If you guys were together right now, how would you cover LaVar Ball?
Francesa: I think we would give him very little air time. I don't think he has any credibility. I think he's a fool.
Russo: I'd have no interest in him. I would pay no attention. The kid's a nice kid [Lonzo Ball]. The father's a pain in the ass. I'd never put him on.
B/R: What's it going to take to get you guys back together, even on a weekly podcast?
Francesa: I've been asked a lot over the past couple of days about Mike and the Mad Dog. I've said I don't know if that's even feasible. Dog's under contract. I don't see me working Monday to Friday ever again, five days a week. I wanted to leave on my own volition, where they wanted me to come back, where the revenues and the ratings are still at the top. It's not like they're running me out because I'm no longer good and I'm batting .210. I get to leave on my own and leave on a very high level, and that's what I really want to do.
Russo: The first thing is that you've got to remember that Mike still has four or five months to go. And I'm at Sirius. I'm going to be at Sirius. So Mike's going to have to come to me. And so from that perspective, Mike's going to have to weigh offers that he gets when he leaves FAN in December and see which one he likes the best.
Would I like to see me and Mike together again under the right circumstances where we can do it properly? The fans want it. Again, I don't think Mike's going to want to do Monday through Friday, so you'd have to find the right circumstances. But I think under the right circumstances...yes, I think Mike and I could easily do it, and I certainly wouldn't rule it out. I think it's a possibility. I really do.