Whether you call him arrogant, curt, opinionated, argumentative, abrupt, or intolerant, Mike Francesa agrees.
However, as we conclude our celebration of WFAN’s 25th anniversary, the longtime afternoon host was nothing but open and candid during our wide-ranging, sit-down interview.
Francesa, the station’s signature talent, an afternoon mainstay for 23 years, is starting to think about retirement.
“My contract will expire in two years from right now. For the first time ever, we’re not going to negotiate until a year from now,” Francesa admits to FishbowlNY. “… When we’re a year out, we will have a conversation, Dan [Mason, CBS Radio, president and CEO], Mark [Chernoff, WFAN operations manager]. Les Moonves [CBS, president and CEO], if he gets involves. He did last time.
“…Two years could be enough. It would be 25 years. I don’t know. It depends on a lot of things… Right now, I’d say it’s ’50-50,’ it could go either way.”
Francesa, 58, realizes that any decision about his future would be made for him once he stopped being a revenue generator.
“I am an economic realist. I’ve understood from the beginning this is a business,” Francesa says. “And that’s why I feel blessed that I’ve been able to be here in this position for 25 years.”
Of course, the bulk of those years Francesa shared, sometimes contentiously, with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. Their 19-year partnership ended suddenly in 2008 when Russo (“Mad Dog”) bolted for Sirius XM.
“I didn’t begrudge him leaving for one second. I never had an issue with that,” Francesa says. “It just wasn’t handled properly, which I think he now understands it and would readily admit.”
Francesa says he and Chernoff got word through back channels of Russo’s plan three months before it was made public. But Russo kept quiet until the end. Russo declined to be interviewed for this piece.
The success of Mike and the Mad Dog is unparalleled; the duo even ushered in a new standard nationwide, the two-host sports show.
But Mike and Dog had to be teamed up dragging and clawing. Each strong-willed persona wanted only to be a solo host. Russo joined WFAN in late 1988 as a fill-in host, while Francesa was in the building shortly after the station’s inception in 1987.
Francesa, a big horse racing, baseball, and football fan (his hosting of The NFL Now on WFAN predates Mike and the Mad Dog), had worked full time for CBS Sports, first as a researcher and then as a studio analyst.
The station in its earliest stage was a national sports format. Francesa applied and interviewed. Francesa persisted, which led to a “try out” weekend show three weeks after WFAN debuted.
Francesa became a valuable utility player, working various dayparts, but primarily middays. Due to his health issues, afternoon host Pete Franklin was unable to join the station at the start, and a variety of talent filled the slot. The majority of shifts went to up-and-coming host Francesa.
Although he didn’t bring much radio experience to the table, Francesa was confident from the get-go about his talents and aspirations.
“I knew right away that I could do it as soon as I sat in,” Francesa says.
However, his first solo stint was filling in for Franklin on the traditionally quiet, Thanksgiving Day, 1987.
“It is not the day to break in,” Francesa recalls. “You wind up being petrified.”
Less than two years later, the highly acerbic Franklin was out. Francesa was offered the gig. It was a completion of a dream for Francesa since day one at the station—to host a show in afternoon drive, permanently. However, fulfilling dreams came at a price.
“It was a shotgun marriage. They call me in on a Friday and said ‘You’re going to get your wish,’” Francesa remembers being told. “‘But it’s not a one-man show.’ I fought it like crazy.”
Management gave Mike the weekend to make the career-altering decision.
One of the reasons management linked Mike with Chris was the way they held their own in separate appearances with Don Imus. Ironically, the I-Man was another who stood in opposition to their radio union.
“He was dead set against it,” Francesa says.
While Mike and the Mad Dog may not have bought into the idea initially, fans did.
“It wasn’t very friendly. It wasn’t very comfortable. Neither of us liked it,” Francesa says. “We were both getting advice from our own camps. It was really an adversarial relationship.”
Obviously, we know what a hesitant choice he made. But looking back, if he were savvy about ratings, Francesa says, it may have been a different outcome.
“I didn’t realize the ratings had gone up that summer when I was in there by myself,” Francesa admits. “Had I known that, I would have been in a much better position.”
With contrasting styles in place–Francesa, the more serious, and Russo, six years Francesa’s junior, the more entertaining figure–Mike and the Mad Dog was born in August 1989. The success was immediate with fans. So, Francesa moved into “grin and bear it” mode.
“All of a sudden we just realized, ‘Hey, we’re just going to have to sit here and learn to love it.’” Francesa says.
WFAN brass, including program director Mark Mason, the man credited with teaming them, rewarded their efforts.
“They gave me a three-year contract, ‘Here, take it or leave it.’” Francesa recalls. “They ripped it up within nine months and gave me a five-year deal. It was fast.
“They knew they had something right away. They knew probably before we knew, because the public just grabbed onto the show like crazy,” Francesa says. “We became celebrities overnight.”
Today, even four years removed from their last regular show, it’s hard to imagine Francesa professionally without Russo.
“I think there would have been success for Mike Francesa and there would have been success for Chris Russo,” Francesa admits. “I just don’t think it would have been the same kind of meteoric success that we had together.”
Despite their instant popularity, struggles continued throughout their entire relationship under the surface and off the air.
“I always felt he was more pliable than I was. Maybe because I was older, maybe because it’s just my personality,” Francesa admits. “He gave more than I did, probably. We had different things that we were each in charge of. I was really in charge of the business of the program. That was my job… The decisions were usually made by me. And he usually was OK with that, for the most part.”
Over the years, unbeknownst to listeners (and later viewers watching the simulcast on the YES Network), arguments ensued between the strong egos that led to Russo and Francesa not talking, for up to six months at the height of their clashes. Francesa, speaking like Jerry Lewis discussing his famed breakup with Dean Martin, says the fond memories override the bad times.
“I spent 19 years with him. I didn’t spend a week with him…Show me another show that lasted 19 years,” Francesa says. “We had incredible success together. We had one of the most successful shows in history together. So it wasn’t like it didn’t work. It worked great.”
Through it all, Francesa recognizes for nearly two decades they were simply incomparable radio.
“We had an exquisite chemistry, which made it a great show,” Francesa says. “Mike and the Mad Dog had as good a two-man chemistry as any show that’s ever been put together.”
Even though they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, their show was one for the ages, which can make Francesa, at times, miss his former partner.
“Some parts about it [were] a lot of fun,” Francesa says. “Some things I don’t miss. I like being able to do what I want, when I want.”
He singles out the late Giants GM George Young as one of his favorite interviews. But, Francesa always wanted to interview the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.
“I don’t think we would have gotten anything out of him anyway” Francesa says. “That was the one that got away.”
Francesa says there was an economic aspect to the show’s demise that most people don’t realize.
“Right now, with what he’s making and what I’m making, you could not find a radio station in the world that would pay us both together,” Francesa says. “Not in this market, not in this climate. Not a chance in the world.”
But Francesa has moved on; despite several on-air auditions to replace Russo, no one was the right fit. Unlike when he first got the afternoon opportunity, Francesa had a cache and clout over any decision.
“That was the one thing I did wrong,” Francesa confides. “I should never have made any statements openly about it. In the beginning, I thought about whether I would or not. I don’t know if my heart was ever in it. I don’t know that I ever took any of it seriously.”
Beyond that, Francesa says his show suffered because of a lack of focus.
“I actually thought that it cost me in the ratings because I fooled around too much with that stuff, and it cost me a month of shows,” Francesa says. “I didn’t do great shows that month… I just went back to doing what I did. And everything has been very, very strong since then.”
Filling the void with double the Francesa on air, he turned it into a challenge.
“I knew that it was put up or shut up,” Francesa says. “I knew if the ratings tanked, I’m dead. I was more worried about whether I would just be able to keep the ratings, the revenue, [and] the simulcast as successful as it was.”
One part of the show that has never been toned down is how he handles callers.
“I owe everything I have to the audience. [But] the caller enters the arena, enters the theatrical portion of the program,” Francesa says. “He is fair game. It’s not the audience. He is one-percent, at best, of the audience.”
When Russo exited, Francesa’s show was renamed Mike’d Up to match his Sunday night program on WNBC. But when Francesa left the show after seven years, Channel 4, curiously, kept the title.
“It’s not fair to Bruce Beck,” Francesa says. “It makes no sense.”
Furthermore, Francesa was not permitted to use the title on WFAN without paying a pretty penny. Instead, Mike’s On was created.
Going forward, aside from the contractual obligations and uncertain future, Francesa says we’re at the precipice of huge changes on the radio landscape, led by ESPN’s recent move to 98.7 FM.
“It’s going to be the most changes that I’ve seen in a very long time,” Francesa contends. “The shift to FM [ESPN] is enormous. It changes everything.”
Since ESPN moved to FM, message boards went into overdrive about WFAN’s possible switch to FM at one of the CBS Radio New York stations (likely candidates are NOW FM/WXRK or Fresh 102.7/WWFS).
“We’re in a cataclysmic shift right now,” Francesa says. “I just don’t know what shape it’s going to take… It needs time to settle.”
But how that will affect WFAN, if at all, Francesa can’t be sure.
“Usually I’m very good at predicting it,” Francesa says. “I think this is going to be very tricky.”
If there’s any FM jump coming for the ‘FAN, Mark Chernoff wasn’t tipping his hand.
“We’re a cluster of six radio stations, and all are successful,” Chernoff says. “The company does well with our stations here in New York, our formats do well. We’re where we are … I certainly hope, at some point, HD has more of an impact, because if you listen to us in HD, we sound as clear and as solid as any FM radio station.”
Any discussion involving the future of broadcasting has to include the world of social media. Last month, Francesa made some powerful comments on air criticizing the use of Twitter for news media and athletes, saying it should be against the law for them.
Maintaining his stance, he doesn’t mince words, outlining to FishbowlNY why Twitter is a huge deterrent.
“It is going to hurt our business dramatically, and I think a lot of the people in our business haven’t seen the problems with it,” Francesa says. “It creates no need for the middle man.
“Plus, I don’t want to hear all the nonsense… who’s going to say something more clever than this one. It’s almost like a bunch of kids sitting in the back of the classroom trying to show everyone who’s the coolest kid. To me that’s inane.”
Francesa is also among the believers that less is more.
“If I’m going to tell you everything I think 24 hours a day on a Twitter account, why are you going to show up at 1 o’clock to listen to me?” Francesa ponders. “You’re cutting off your own business. You’re giving it away for free. Why? I’m not doing that.”
But as WFAN approaches its quarter-century, Francesa is right behind. He says radio historians tell him that last year he surpassed Dan Ingram for longest time in the same slot at any New York station.
“I feel blessed that I’ve been able to be in this position for 25 years,” Francesa says. “I know that it does not happen very often… I’ve never taken it for granted. I do understand that’s it’s a very, very special position that I’ve held and that it’s a very special job, especially at this station.
“…All you want to do is stir people up. All you want to do is make people emote,” Francesa says. “That’s what I’ve been able to do. People react strongly to what I say.”