On July 1, 1987, WFAN, the country’s first 24-hour all sports radio was born.
Few gave it a chance at succeeding. Twenty-three years later and WFAN isn't just going strong, it gave birth to hundreds of offspring around the country.
WFAN originally wanted big talent to host its primary shows. At first they rejected Mike Francesa’s application. WFAN’s first show was hosted by Jim Lampley. They had Greg Gumbel in the morning and Pete Franklin in the afternoons. Gumbel would be replaced by Don Imus after about a year on the air.
When WFAN was able to capture Don Imus, the Imus in the Morning show gave WFAN a solid foundation. Despite the fact that Imus would rarely talk about sports, it gave radio listeners a reason to keep their radios on 660 throughout the workday.
Ironically, for a guy who did not talk much about sports, it would be a sports team that would be the reason for his removal from WFAN. His derogatory comments about the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball Team would lead to CBS Radio (the parent company of WFAN) canceling the Imus in the Morning in April 2007.
I think the best way to talk about WFAN is to go show-by-show throughout the day.
MORNINGS: Boomer and Carton
After the Imus fallout and about four months of fill-in hosts, WFAN found a permanent replacement for Don Imus with Craig Carton and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason.
Boomer Esiason is the only former professional athlete to be the host of a show on WFAN. Esiason is a Long Island native, and a co-host of The NFL Today on CBS. As many know, Esiason can come off as outspoken and arrogant; but he is no match for his partner Craig Carton.
I am not a big fan of Esiason’s, but what he has done since his son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis is nothing short of remarkable. The Boomer Esiason Foundation For Cystic Fibrosis has raised a significant amount of money to heighten awareness and help provide medical and financial help to patients and families dealing with CF.
Esiason is a good example of how you should promote yourself, a characteristic that is not shown enough among professional athletes.
As for Craig Carton, he is a guy you either like or hate; there is no in-between with him. Craig Carton has become a very poor man’s replacement for Howard Stern. Carton is nowhere near as funny, intelligent, or anywhere close to as a good of an interviewer as Stern.
It shows that since Howard Stern left for Sirius, there has not been anyone close to a successor for the King of All Media. On the FM side, New York does not have a signature morning radio show, which is pretty hard to imagine for the largest city in the United States.
The first things that you see when you click on the Boomer & Carton homepage are pictures of scantily clad women. Carton’s biggest interest in life seems to be babes.
He has a whiny voice and tends to come off as someone annoying who is just trying to get attention.
You can say what you want about Boomer & Carton , but their success is undeniable. They are number one in the all-important male 25-54 demographic. Lack of competition is certainly a factor, but the fact that there is finally a show in the morning that talks New York sports also plays a part.
MID-DAY: Benigno and Roberts
Joe Benigno's life is probably the greatest story of anyone on WFAN. Benigno started his journey to WFAN as a caller, “Joe From Saddle River.” Joe lives in Saddle River, New Jersey. In 1994, Benigno won a contest to a guest-host a show on WFAN.
Benigno became the overnight host on WFAN in 1995.
Some of his overnight rants after a Jets loss became the stuff of legend. Benigno would be the overnight host from 1995 until 2004, when he moved to the mid-day show. The mid-day show was originally Benigno and former Imus associate Sid Rosenberg. Rosenberg resigned in September 2005, and Benigno would host the mid-day show by himself for the next 15 months.
In 2007, Benigno would be paired with Evan Roberts. Roberts is only 26 years old. Many cannot get past that. Roberts is very knowledgeable about baseball and the NBA, but tends to hide behind Benigno on the topics that he is not as informative or opinionated about.
I think there are some who believe that Roberts fell into this job because of his mother’s connections and that he has not paid his dues to become a legitimate New York sports radio host. That hurts Roberts’s credibility. Roberts is just not as entertaining as Benigno or some other hosts. I think people care more about the entertainment aspect than his age.
One thing that Evan Roberts is very good at is his twitter usage. His @JoeandEvan twitter account has the most followers of any WFAN personality and frequently posts daily.
With the difference in age between the two, you might almost get the impression of a father and son feel to it, but instead it appears that Benigno is trying to relive part of his youth with Roberts. Benigno uses the word “bro” at least ten times per show, and some of the listeners have coined the nickname, the “Joe and Bro” show.
AFTERNOONS: Mike Francesa
The Mike'd Up: Francesa on the FAN program runs from 1:00 until 6:30 and is simulcast on the YES Network. The spot was originally held by Pete Franklin. Pete Franklin’s show was WFAN’s original afternoon drive time show, but Franklin was far too gruff for the New York audience’s ears. This classic “Fire Me” clip will tell you everything you need to know about Fabulous Franklin.
Mark Mason, the program director for the station, came up with an idea to pair the little-known Francesa with a little-known guy by the name of Christopher Russo, who is better known by his nickname, “Mad Dog”.
Francesa was a perfect fit for New York Sports Radio. He was known in the 80’s as a tremendous researcher for CBS Sports.
The combination of two people doing a sports talk radio show was unheard of. The fact that neither one was a former athlete was a new concept as well.
You had Francesa’s New York accent mixed in with Russo’s raspy voice and excitable demeanor, and that made for radio bliss for sports fans.
The Mike and the Mad Dog show built its way up from the ground to become a staple of New York radio for nearly twenty years. The Mike and the Mad Dog show would last from 1989 to 2008.
The show eventually changed from its glory years in the 1990s. I think Francesa changed not because of any particular event, but because of a TV show, The Sopranos. I believe he saw Tony Soprano and said to himself, “That’s who I am going to be on the radio, the boss.” He went from the guy you once respected for his knowledge, to the guy who was pompous for thinking he is the boss of New York sports.
This altered the dynamic of the Mike and the Mad Dog show for good, and you knew it would not be long until they would split. Chris Russo had built a name for himself and made you feel that he was getting tired of being second. Russo was given an unheard of deal that would not only get him a solo talk show, but his own station on Sirius XM Radio. Because satellite radio is not quantified in terms of Arbitron radio ratings, he may be on at the same time as Mike Francesa, but is technically not in a mano-a-mano duel with him.
Russo has his own station on satellite radio called, Mad Dog Radio.
Unfortunately for Russo, the two best programs on Mad Dog Radio do not include the one that he hosts called Mad Dog Unleashed. In my opinion, The Dino Costa Show and The First Word with Gary Williams are much better because both Costa and Williams can play to a national audience better than Russo.
Russo came from an environment where all he did was talk New York sports for twenty years, and the move to a national level is not an easy transition.
He does not seem to be too fond of going from a call about the Pittsburgh Steelers to a call about the Colorado Avalanche. The passion of the fans across the country will never rival the unyielding passion of diehard local fans. Russo sometimes has to tone down his normal, excitable act, and that makes him vulnerable.
Francesa’s current show is more of an Unintentional Comedy Fest than an informative and entertaining sports talk show. There are many clips online where you can find Francesa making mistakes and trying to win arguments just by yelling the loudest and chasing away the callers.
His guests are usually the same circle of friends that do not give too much information. He has created a list of enemies in 20 years as well. One thing he cannot control is that anyone who works for ESPN will not appear on WFAN, which is ESPN’s policy. Francesa has gloated about his ratings and has berated the competition by saying, “in order to challenge him, they better bring more than peashooters”.
Francesa has severed ties with some of his former guests, none bigger than his recent fallout with former NFL head coach Bill Parcells. Parcells and Francesa were very close. They even used to have a show on TV together in New York in the early 1990s.
The callers are usually the same cast of characters, some who think that Mike is the greatest radio host ever and others that want to tie him up, but he usually gets rid of these before they get rid of him.
As Tony Soprano once said, “Remember when, is the lowest form of conversation.” The Mike Francesa show, aka Mike’d Up, is now at "remember when" stage. Twenty years and about 40,000 hours of being on the air talking sports wears on you like any other job, and with Francesa I have a feeling that when his run ends it will not end pretty.
EVENINGS: Steve Somers
He is an absolute radio treasure. He is a WFAN original voice, and what a dulcet tone.
Somers nickname is Schmoozy, and he used to be WFAN’s Captain Midnight from 1987 to 1995, where he would host the weekday overnight shows.
He is the comedic relief that comes after a game that can either make a fan laugh or make a fan angry at his poetic insults.
Somers may not be the most popular radio host in New York, but he just may be the most beloved. I always believed that his show should be simulcast on one of the many local cable sports networks in New York. I guess the local TV media must think he is a face made for radio.
My only complaint about Somers is that he does not get enough hours on WFAN. His show will usually begin around 10:00 PM, due to a sporting event being broadcast from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM.
OVERNIGHTS: Tony Paige, Marc Malusis, et al
None of these have come close to replacing Benigno’s enthusiasm or Somers’ humor.
I like Tony Paige because he is the only one on the station that talks about boxing (Paige was once the President of the Boxing Writers Association). But, besides boxing, Paige does not inspire the audience very much the way his predecessors did.
Marc “Moose” Malusis was hired as one of the overnight hosts in 2007. Malusis was formerly the board operator and producer for Mike and the Mad Dog. Malusis is working his way up and is now a co-host for SNY TV.
He can come off as a little pompous, but not nearly as pompous as some of the other radio personalities in New York.
Adam “The Bull” Gerstenhaber has been doing a good portion of the weekend duties at WFAN over the last year. “The Bull” is finding his own niche and his reviews are fairly positive. He sounds very similar to Adam Schein, who used to work for WFAN from 2001 to 2006. Schein is a host on Sirius NFL Radio and co-hosts Loud Mouths on SNY TV with former WFAN personality, Chris Carlin.
As you are reading this you may be thinking, "the writer does not seem to be head over heels in love with WFAN, why is the station so successful?"
The main reason is the lack of competition. There is currently only one other competitor in New York. The competitor is 1050 AM, ESPN Radio. ESPN Radio came to New York in 2001.
In the afternoons, ESPN Radio becomes a New York radio station and has Brandon Tierney and long-time New York and Philadelphia radio host Jody MacDonald. Tierney has proven to be the best radio host that has come out of ESPN Radio in New York.
The Michael Kay Show is hosted by former New York Daily News beat writer and current New York Yankee play-by-play announcer Michael Kay. Kay’s show airs from 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM during the week.
The reason why The Michael Kay Show does not fare better against Mike Francesa’s show is basically because of Kay. Most New York Mets fans do not like Kay because of his adoration of the Yankees, so he loses there. Even worse is that there are a good number of Yankee fans who do not like Kay because of his adoration of the Yankees. Kay tends to overemphasize moments as a broadcaster and as a radio host.
Earlier this week, Michael Kay went on a rant about Alex Rodriguez shaking Joe Torre’s hand as the Yankees faced their former manager for the first time. Kay was enraged by this gesture. Kay’s voice was so exasperated about the handshake you would have thought someone robbed his house. This is not how you win over listeners in New York.
The New York Jets, New York Rangers, and New York Knicks are featured on ESPN 1050.
WFAN is the flagship station for the New York Mets, New York Giants, New Jersey Devils, and New Jersey Nets. While ESPN Radio in New York covers three of the six most popular teams in New York, its ratings do not really show that too well.
WFAN ranks 10th in the latest version of New York’s Arbitron radio ratings guide . ESPN Radio (WEPN-AM) ranks 24th , trailing behind some stations that few know are in existence.
I think sports radio is becoming a stale place where people just gripe about their sports teams. The truth is the radio is really not that entertaining anymore.
My suggestions for a better sports radio station:
1 – Get rid of the updates every 20 minutes; make them once every 30 minutes.
The updates are more of an annoyance. Chances are that the host is already talking about a game or a news topic and it is just being repetitive to have it said again. With the Internet being everywhere you go, you most likely already know the score and/or details of your favorite team(s). The updates only serve to block the continuity of the show and make it less entertaining. On WFAN or ESPN Radio at least 20 minutes of an hour long show is nothing but updates and commercials.
2 – Encourage Blogging
One thing that everyone can agree on is that sports radio gives very little credibility to the blogosphere. You hardly hear the mentioning of blogs on the radio, and when you do it is usually done to belittle the writer and the concept of blogging in general.
I do not know of anyone who started as a blogger and is now a sports radio host. It may have happened in other parts of the country, but it has yet to find its way to New York.
One day, the two universes of the blogosphere and the sportsradiosphere will converge and the sports media world will be a better place, but that day is not today. The angst that some sports radio hosts have over bloggers is palpable and it is way over-the-top. A sports radio host will make fun of a blogger for living in his mother’s basement, when some of the host’s own callers may be calling from their mother’s basement.
3 – Encourage Fantasy Sports.
On WFAN, Fantasy Sports are practically treated as taboo. The fact is that millions play fantasy sports and I would venture to say that at least 50% of all New York sports radio listeners have at least one fantasy team. Don’t be afraid to bring on an expert on fantasy sports or take calls on the topic.
4 – Embrace Technology: Take Listener Emails and Instant Messages
They are the easiest form of communication to screen and people do not have the time or patience to wait on hold for an hour to get their point through. You may not have that instant debate, but you may have a good idea that can become a debatable topic.
It seems to me that unless you are a big-time talent, many of the other people who work at either of these radio stations want to be somewhere else and a lot of that has to do with the politics that take place at these stations. That is very sad and it should not have to be that way. Over the last quarter-century, sports has become overly corporate and, unfortunately, sports media has followed right behind.
I cannot predict what the next 23 years of sports radio in New York will bring, but I certainly doubt it will be as groundbreaking as it was back on July 1, 1987.