Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 17, 2017

Francesa Turns Off The Microphone

Somewhere across the breadth of this vast land there must be a place where a turn through the radio dial proves fruitless. Perhaps out in the High Plains, where the distance to the horizon seems endless and human settlement is widely scattered. But given the ubiquity of the format and the ability of powerful AM stations to broadcast great distances, especially at night, maybe even a solitary fan traveling down an empty Wyoming highway can still tune in to sports talk radio.

If so, he or she will be listening to one of broadcasting’s great contradictions – a programming genre that is enormously widespread yet targeted at a very narrow audience. That audience is generally young, overwhelmingly male, and possessing sufficient disposable income to gladden the hearts of advertisers. The format is simple. An opinionated host, or often two to play off each other, offers up analysis on sports issues and teams, then invites callers to phone in and join a debate that is almost always boisterous but only occasionally enlightening.

The genre has its own dialect. A caller who begins with “first-time, long-time,” is telling the host that while he has never before participated in the on-air discussion by calling in, he has been a loyal listener to the program for years. Frequent callers are as integral to the program as the host, and earn nicknames that lean toward the geographic, like “Jerome from Manhattan,” “Eli from Westchester,” and “Doris from Rego Park.” Whether first-time or frequent, the one common trait all callers possess is certitude that their knowledge of the team or sport under discussion is superior to every other listener’s, thus making their opinion the only one that should matter.

A skilled host knows when to parry with a caller, when to concede a point, and most important of all when to cut off a call that has become repetitive or, worse yet, vituperative. But to rise above the sports talk babble a host must combine those audience management skills with a breadth of knowledge about our games and the ability to express his opinions with a confidence that outlasts any of his listeners.

Mike Francesa didn’t invent sports talk radio. The consensus pioneer was Bill Mazer, with a program that began airing in 1964 on New York’s WNBC. But listeners to WFAN would surely argue that if he didn’t create the genre, for the past three decades Francesa has surely owned it.

He began his career at CBS Sports in 1982, first in a behind-the-scenes editorial position and later as a studio analyst for college sports. In 1987 Francesa moved to the fledgling WFAN, working a weekend shift, when there are normally far fewer radio listeners. With solid reviews and positive listener feedback, he was soon on the air weekdays, and in 1989 was teamed with Chris Russo. Francesa was enormously knowledgeable though sometimes pedantic, while Russo, five years his junior, was more spontaneous and irreverent. They were a perfect mix for millions of listeners, who tuned in and called in to the “Mike and the Mad Dog” show in ever-growing numbers. The two were joint winners of the 2000 Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year, the first sports talk hosts to be so honored.

A lucrative offer from Sirius XM lured Russo to satellite radio in 2008, but Francesa continued on the station known to listeners as The FAN with the renamed “Mike’s On” show. For five and one-half hours every weekday afternoon Francesa blended discussion of national sports topics with analysis of local teams. Retaining that focus on the local franchises is critical to the success of any sports talk program, for whatever the season it is the fate of the local team that most ignites the passion of the fans who are listening and calling in.

In Gotham there are multiple rooting interests in every major sport, and Francesa was both a broadcaster and a fan. In the latter role he was never shy about revealing his preferences. When the Mets and Yankees both advanced to the 2000 World Series, Francesa offered this to his listeners who were loyal to the team from Queens: “Congratulations Mets fans. Now you get to play the varsity.” He could also use the broadcast booth as bully pulpit. The most recent example of this was a tirade he launched against the New York Giants in the wake of now former head coach Ben McAdoo’s benching of quarterback Eli Manning.

Even as the industry has changed, with many sports broadcasters moving to streaming outlets and podcasts, Francesa continued to bring in more than one million different listeners per week, eager to debate the opinions he offered up in his unforgettable Long Island accent. They tuned in to talk about the Yankees or the Knicks, and stayed tuned in when Francesa would veer into a lengthy discussion of horse racing. His broad authority on so many sports topics gave him his nickname – the Sports Pope. Despite those ratings, almost a year ago, during contract negotiations with WFAN, Francesa announced that the would leave the station at the end of the year.

Friday, he took his place behind the microphone for the final time. Over the last week numerous celebrities had called in to congratulate him, but for his final show Francesa wanted to talk only to the everyday sports fans who have made his career. Through the final hours he went to commercial with the same three words he has used for decades, “back after this.” Until at 6:30, after a last call from his wife Roe and a final heartfelt thank you to his listeners, he wasn’t.

On Monday WFAN will debut a new program in Francesca’s time slot. Veteran broadcaster Chris Carlin, former New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, and Sports Illustrated contributor Maggie Gray will host. Faced with replacing the Sports Pope, management at The FAN decided they needed a trinity.

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