This December, an era in sports is going to end. After 30 years of broadcasting his opinions, describing last night’s plays minute-by-minute and hanging up on callers from all five New York City boroughs, talk radio institution Mike Francesa will say goodbye to the big chair at WFAN, and someone else will have to take his place. Francesa does not envy that person.
“Everybody’s got the same information,” Francesa tells Rolling Stone. “I might have an insider edge to a general manager and I can get an inside story, but the bottom line is, the regular information, whether it’s salary cap information or how much a player makes, is at everybody’s fingertips. That’s over.” His tone shifts to gratitude. “What my gift has been, luckily, is for 30 years, this town has wanted my take on what’s been going on. And they’ve showed up for my take.”
That part’s not over yet, but Francesa already has had some time to reflect. When ESPN airs its 30 for 30 episode about Mike and the Mad Dog, fans will get a closer look at the radio show that started the careers of Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, the duo who now has a successful show on Sirius XM, not to mention the whole concept of two guys arguing about sports on the radio. Before Mike and Mad Dog, there usually was only one person –” a lunatic,” in Francesa’s words – giving his take, usually after 6 p.m. Now, on both TV and the radio, every sports talk show has its own imitations of Mike and Dog, one gruff guy, one guy a little unhinged, getting worked up and disagreeing with each other. But no show has been quite the same – in timing or impact – especially not in New York.
The ESPN film has a homegrown, friends-talking-to-friends quality. “Danny’s a talented guy, a very talented guy. He’s good, he’s very good,” Francesa immediately says about the director, Daniel Forer. In just an hour, Forer and his crew tell the story of a relationship that played out for five hours a day, 45 weeks out of the year, for 20 years, between two people who never really wanted to work together in the first place. Interviews, archival recordings and personal photographs speak for an enormous narrative, which for the most part went unfilmed until the show began simulcasting on the YES network. Francesa and Russo ended up creating a whole format out of their intense knowledge of sports and their livewire relationship. Francesa gives the bottom line, as he does:
“We were two individuals who, in our core, always thought we could be enormously successful without the other one,” he says. It’s surprising it lasted as long as it did. But their impact is still felt throughout the city, throughout people’s lives. Francesa said they didn’t know they were making such a connection with their audience until years after their debut.
“People feel very personal about the radio people they listen to. You become a part of their life,” Francesa explains, obviously moved by the privilege to be there. “I’ve had guys come up to me on the street and say, ‘I didn’t have a dad, you raised me.'”
Russo echoes these sentiments separately. On a lot of matters, they’re still in concert, despite not having worked together in nine years. “You can’t fake chemistry,” he warns, wistfully. “You can’t force it.”
In a way, it all started with Don Imus. Russo insists on this origin story. “Imus was very, very, very, very important to the development of FAN,” he said. “He solved a lot of problems for the company.” From the late Eighties to the late 2000s, until CBS fired him for making racist remarks, Imus was the other piece of the puzzle that took WFAN out of potential ruin and into the spotlight as one of the most powerful radio platforms nationwide. He was the morning, leading into Mike and Mad Dog in the afternoon.
As a tested commodity and one of the definitive shock jocks, Imus brought the station a following and revenue, especially after the departure of Pete Franklin, or “The Mistake from the Lake,” as New York papers called the Cleveland broadcaster. He was a master at promotion, talking up Mike and the Mad Dog heavily, bringing them through the studio and trying to start fights between them. “Without Imus, there’s no Mike and the Mad Dog, there’s no FAN, and I’m telling you, there’s no format,” Francesa said reverently. “Dog and I came through the toughest school there is: the Imus school of radio.”
Before Imus, Mike and Mad Dog were two relative unknowns from Long Island, with the voices to prove it. One thing the documentary hits home on is the fact that the show’s music, the brash opening jingle notwithstanding, was always in the way they talked, over and at each other. Rants were never planned; for example, Russo gloriously beating himself up over his favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, losing in 2003 to the Florida Marlins, all happened spontaneously. Francesa just sat back, probably opened a Diet Coke and let his co-host eloquently lose his mind.
Francesa and Russo are both insanely good communicators. It’s fun to hear them talk the way it’s fun watching a great hitter at bat. Maybe that’s obvious – that’s what they’re paid for – but it’s still impressive. It’s such a small thing, but they both use your name for emphasis when they’re talking to you. It was never admonishing, but sometimes it can be, with callers trying and failing to outperform them.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Mike and Mad Dog got into trouble with their audience, misrepresenting facts about President Bush and criticizing a listener who said they would defend Israel before they’d defend the United States. In the documentary, misunderstandings about the controversy (perpetuated by the New York Post) are corrected, putting the whole episode to bed. By the way Russo and Francesa talk about it, you can tell they learned a lot. For 11 days, they had nothing to talk about on the air except a national tragedy, and it was definitely not their beat. That’s 55 hours on the air with no sports games to report on, nothing to discuss except what they and their audience had on their minds.
“It’s not like they took us off and put on some specialty programming. We couldn’t go to reporters at various locations. We’re a sports station,” Russo says, recognizing the absurdity. “You’re bound to make some mistakes. But they expect a higher-than-average performance level from you than from the average person.”
Francesa agrees and seems to relish it more. “That’s when you’re really working. That’s when we open up our veins and come up with something to make it entertaining, even if it’s stuff we make up. There are some times where you’re like, ‘Boy, did we make a show out nothing today.’ That’s really when you separate the men from the boys.”
When Francesa explains this, it sounds like bragging, but he has the right to feel proud. Not many people can do this, and arguably there aren’t audiences as large as his that will let you try. When asked about radio as a craft, Francesa gets emotional and urgent, even more than he does about anything else in our conversation. It’s unbelievable that he’ll be able to quit entirely.
“Radio will never wane,” Francesa says, triumphantly. “It’s on the same level as the cockroach and the shark, I really believe that. The device you hear it on may change, but radio, in its essence, live and local, will never change. All you hear is how radio’s dying. Well, it’s dying because the guys running it are forgetting that radio, at its core, is live and local. And they better get back to that, or they’ll kill it.”
If they don’t get back to it, clearly Francesa will have something else to say, even if it’s not in the big chair at WFAN.
Russo, of course, understands: “Any good talk show host wants to be heard.” The profession comes down to desire, the kind that could only need hours with a microphone to feed it. “And Mike’s going to want that still.”