By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host
NEW YORK – Mike Francesa is the number one sports talk host in the country.
Although there are nationally syndicated names that may claim to have a wider cume than Mike Francesa, Mike is the king of sports talk in the number one market in the nation. He is appointment listening. Love him or hate him, New Yorkers need to hear his take on major stories. He cannot be ignored.
What does Francesa bring to the table? His years as a researcher at CBS television were merely a prelude of what was to come. His relentless curiosity and work ethic along with his relationship with some of the biggest names in television broadcasting gave him unique insight. He learned to dig deep into the numbers, but he also understood that the games have a heartbeat. They are populated by human beings – replete with all their flaws and all their glory. Mike dreamed of someday being able to share his knowledge behind the mic instead of behind the scenes. His opportunity came after ceaselessly lobbying the management at WFAN to give him a chance for his voice to be heard.
But at its inception 25 years ago, WFAN was something very different than it is now. The focus was on information, with score updates every 15 minutes. The scope was national, hosts were brought in from around the country to impose their varied sensibilities on the New York market.
It failed miserably.
Through some hard won experience and just plain luck, the brass came to the realization that repeating scores every few minutes 24/7 was not the answer. Stories of national import that had little to do with the local teams were not going to grow an audience. As we’ve espoused for years in TALKERS, the sports fanaticism that drives an audience is primarily local. If your team isn’t in it, your interest is likely to be marginal. Marginal interest doesn’t cut it in a competitive marketplace.
Mike realized this from the outset. He developed his cred – co-hosting with veteran broadcasters like Dan Lovett – until management’s confidence in him grew enough to allow him to fly solo. He soon established himself as having encyclopedic knowledge of the New York sports scene, but perhaps more importantly, he had an editor’s instinct to know what truly mattered to his audience. After doing part-time, fill-in and midday shift work at The FAN for two years, he was finally given the chance to host his own afternoon drive program. But program director Mark Mason threw a sweeping curveball at him – he would have to share the stage with a wacky upstart named Chris Russo.
At first, the mixture of the earnest Francesa and the ebullient Russo didn’t work. Mike didn’t respect the depth of Russo’s sports acumen and Chris thought Mike could be too pedantic. Like many relationships, they teetered on the edge of a breakup several times in the first few months. But gradually, the two men developed trust in each other’s particular set of skills, and the duo evolved into the legendary “Mike and the Mad Dog.” They ruled New York’s afternoon airwaves (especially men 25-54) for almost 19 years.
But nothing lasts forever. When SiriusXM came knocking at Russo’s door in 2008, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. In truth, by then, both men were eager to see if they could succeed solo as mightily as they had as a team. Some doubted that Mike could carry the burden alone, speculating that he needed Russo’s zaniness to leaven his approach. Management was proceeding cautiously – an immediate new co-host could not be what Russo was for fear of masquerading as a pale imitation. To introduce a whole new dynamic – a woman, an intellectual, a true comedian or maybe a retired sports figure – could be equally perilous.
But while trying to figure things out, a pleasant phenomenon occurred. Mike thrived on his own. His radio persona grew into its full spectrum; rather than play Russo’s intelligent straight man, his own sense of humor blossomed. He was able to hold forth on pop culture – music, movies, television and politics – using the audience as his foil. The ratings thrived.
But he never forgot his original charter – talking sports. Whereas some hosts resort to the cheapest, leering locker room banter to fill time when there is no prevailing sports topic, Mike has always kept it classy. He never accepts gutter humor at the expense of others’ dignity. A St. John’s grad, he has devoted himself to charitable work, giving back his time and resources to the community that has nourished him. He never forgot where he came from. His name became synonymous with New York sports. And in fact, ex-pats of the Big Apple scattered throughout the country can see him, via his YES Network simulcasts, or hear him on WFAN.com. He talks local sports nationally.
He’s never afraid to take a strong stance. He’s right a lot more than he’s wrong. He has taken on a tough town of die-hard fans and become an icon – something few broadcasters have achieved throughout the history of the media.
Richard Neer is a sports talk host at WFAN, New York and an anchor on A Touch of Grey. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.