The Chernoff Chronicles: Celebrating 25 Years of WFAN

The nation’s first all-sports radio station is about to celebrate 25 years, and FishbowlNY is joining in the accolades. Beginning today, we start a special, week-long series commemorating WFAN’s silver milestone July 1.

There are interviews with two charter members of the station, the first person on the air and the signature voice a quarter-century later. But we begin with a look back through the eyes of operations manager Mark Chernoff, who joined WFAN in 1993.

WHN owned the frequency at 1050 when Emmis suits, led by Jeff Smulyan, decided country music had run its course. Smulyan, sales manager Joel Hollander, and others flipped the battle-tested country format in 1987 to sports. It was a mixed blessing, as WFAN was an untouched canvas on the radio easel.

“Its earliest incarnation was very different from what the ‘FAN eventually became,” Chernoff says. Specifically, the programs were national in flavor, with many short-form features interspered within the shows. Original programming also consisted of 4 sports updates per hour, as opposed to today’s “20-20” version. The Mets and WFAN have been perfect together since the station’s inception.

Many weekend personalities, not based in New York, were flown in on Emmis’ dime. “They made a lot of money. It cost a lot of money,” Chernoff says. “And that was kind of the direction.”

Aside from the Mets games, the station’s main attraction was supposed to be cantankerous talk show host, Pete Franklin. But he suffered a heart attack before day one, leaving the afternoon slot in the hands of subs throughout the summer.

WFAN’s first morning show was hosted by longtime TV sportscaster Greg Gumbel. But it was 15 months later when WFAN really arrived on the scene, assuming the historic frequency of 660, home to WNBC for decades.

“They moved in October of 1988 during the Mets/Dodgers playoff series,” Chernoff recalls. “Pete Franklin and Imus did a [remote] on the air together from the Shea Stadium parking lot.”

It was a much publicized countdown to 660 and thus putting one of New York’s, if not America’s, most famous radio call letters out to pasture. Equally important to gaining the clear channel, 50,000 watts, was what came with the 660 package.

“Emmis bought the dial position and they also cut a deal with Imus,” Chernoff says. “Instead of going to Rockefeller Center, he came to Queens. People listening to Imus didn’t have to change dial positions.”

Afternoons at ‘the ‘FAN with Franklin were uncertain, but the station had cemented mornings with Imus. The upstart sports station now had a market icon, even though his show didn’t concentrate on sports.

‘”[Imus] brought so many more people to the radio station,” Chernoff says. “All of a sudden, the visibility and the better signal at 660, the two things combined made a huge difference.”

While Don Imus featured sports with Don Criqui (from WNBC), Mike Breen and even separately Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, it was not the show’s main focus. “He had kind of reinvented himself and brought himself much more into the political world,” Chernoff remembers. “It gave the station a lot of credibility.”

Less than a year after the 660 takeover with Imus, there was another defining moment. The ill-fated Franklin was terminated, and Mark Mason, then-program director, had the vision of teaming new station talent Francesa with Russo. Despite fighting it, the stars were born!

“It was magical radio for almost 19 years,” Chernoff says. That was until Mike and the Mad Dog’s well-documented breakup in 2008. Russo was headed for Sirius/XM, while Francesa took afternoons for himself. Chernoff was concerned how listeners would react.

“I did worry and it wasn’t because I thought Mike wouldn’t do well,” Chernoff says. “The team had been so intact for so long.” But he says Francesa handled any pressure with aplomb. “It was absolutely amazing how he held on,” Chernoff says. “I give him a ton of credit.”