2017-12-15 10:09:03
Mike Francesa Won’t Be ‘Back After This’

10:09, December 15 170 0

As the prevailing sounding board for the angst of a zillion sports fans for 30 years, Mike Francesa has always approached his New York talk show with an atypical sobriety — for sports radio, that is.

Five and a half hours of no-frills bloviating on the air in his trademark “New Yawkese,” followed by another five hours of focused game-watching into the small hours of the night. The rest of his days have largely involved planning for future shows and future trips — to the Super Bowl, then spring training — on an endless loop.

Not this year. Not after Friday, when Francesa, whose show has been dominating New York’s airwaves practically since its inception in the late 1980s, signs off WFAN for what he insists will be the last time.

“Time to try something new,” he said wistfully during an interview Wednesday, just before airtime.

A football Monday without Francesa ranting and ruminating seems almost unfathomable to many listeners. His departure marks the end of an era for a medium that has endured a radical disruption in recent years. The proliferation of sports podcasts, satellite radio and multiple 24-hour sports networks has congested the soundscape with a stream of shows featuring men yelling at each other about sports.

For many years, however, there were seemingly just two: Francesa and Christopher Russo, better known as the Mad Dog, who formed the most influential sports radio duo in the country, until they separated in 2008, with Russo moving to the satellite radio company Sirius XM.

Francesa, who is 63 and announced his departure from WFAN last year, still has his followers. His show remains at the top of the ratings among men aged from 25 to 54 in the market, attracting over 1.1 million different listeners per week, according to figures from Nielsen. The numbers have skewed older lately. Millions of other, often younger, sports fans are downloading podcasts from the likes of Bill Simmons or Tony Kornheiser.

Mike Dee, the president of sports at Entercom Communications, which owns WFAN and more than 200 other stations in 48 markets, said Francesa’s departure was a pivot point. Francesa has famously resisted social media (though several parody Twitter accounts might make you think otherwise), and he can still devote hours discussing horse racing. Entercom plans to renovate its digital platform, expand deeply with video and emphasize social media.

Chris Oliviero, Entercom’s executive vice president for programming, said the company was increasing its focus on attracting a younger audience, perhaps by broadening the traditional definition of “sports talk” to include mixed martial arts and e-sports.

“What you want to make sure when you make these programming changes is that you acknowledge the date on the calendar,” Oliviero said. “You acknowledge that the world is different in 2018 in terms of appetites.”

Even Francesa has hinted at the possibility of following in the footsteps of Kornheiser and Simmons by starting a podcast. They still command an audience without the limitations of radio. Some have also speculated about an on-air reunion with his former cohort, Russo, on satellite radio. Francesa, who has a noncompete clause in his contract prohibiting him from announcing any new venture until the spring, has stayed coy about his future.

Whatever his future holds, there are plenty of sports fans who will miss Francesa when he is off the air. His authority (or arrogance, depending on one’s perspective) has inspired the nickname “Sports Pope.” His abdication, in turn, is being treated like a rough breakup.

“I just needed to call one last time,” said Kevin from Ocean Point, a caller on Francesa’s show this week.

“Thank you,” Francesa said. “What’s up?”

Francesa has tried to reassure his audience that there will still be ways to listen to him, even if, he has joked, that means going door to door giving his opinions about the day’s sports news.

In his office, there was a pile of unopened letters atop an empty desk and a framed acrylic painting of his hero, Mickey Mantle, on the floor. He will not, as he says on air, be “back after this.”

Francesa’s exit — stemming from a contract dispute with WFAN’s former parent company, CBS Radio, two years ago, which led to Francesa’s refusing to re-sign after his contract expires — leaves a major vacancy at what is arguably the flagship sports station in the country, WFAN, the first 24-hour, all-sports radio channel.

Francesa’s replacement on WFAN in the afternoons is a trio: the former Jets linebacker Bart Scott, Sports Illustrated’s digital video anchor Maggie Gray, and Chris Carlin, who began as a producer for “Mike & the Mad Dog.” Mark Chernoff, the station’s longtime vice president for programming, said he expected their varied backgrounds and personalities would bring in new listeners.

“To try to replace Mike with something that sounds exactly like Mike is a death sentence,” Oliviero said.

Francesa seemed skeptical that any departure from the traditional approach to attracting listeners on radio — with good, old-fashioned content — will make a difference.

“When radio is at its best, it’s live and local,” he said. “They’ve put too much of their effort into digital, and not enough selling to the people who are in their backyard.”

Kornheiser, whose podcast, the Tony Kornheiser Show, grew out of his former radio show on ESPN Radio and various stations in the Washington area, said Francesa might be the perfect entertainer to bridge the gap between the hyperlocal formula of traditional sports-talk and the wider world of podcasting.

“You can get so much national stuff,” Kornheiser said. “But local is the commerce of your life.”

Indeed, Francesa’s shows are marked by his argumentative, often dismissive, repartee with the callers. Brian Monzo, Francesa’s producer, said the show averages 30 to 40 calls per hour, on five different lines, and those are only the calls that get through.

Some eccentric callers have developed their own reputations. A glance at a number on hold revealed how many times that person had called (409) and how many times he had gotten on air (87).

“I’m guessing that’s Mike in North Carolina,” Monzo said. “I can tell it from the area code.”

Ian Eagle, a former board operator for “Mike & the Mad Dog” and now the play-by-play voice of the Nets, said Francesa boasted an “encyclopedic” memory for sports information, but that was only part of his talent. Francesa’s ability to “discern what was most important in an event or story was unparalleled,” he said.

Francesa, though, started as a researcher for CBS Sports. Colleagues called him a “facts machine,” and he still does his show with several newspapers in front of him, opened to the agate page of statistics and standings. The turning point came in 1989, when WFAN paired him with Russo, blending his over-the-top energy with Francesa’s blunt, outer-borough, barstool-style authority. It proved a success almost overnight. Sports-talk channels began popping up around the country, replicating their formula.

“If those guys had failed, this whole push toward sports-talk radio would have definitely had a serious slowdown,” said Ted Shaker, a former CBS Sports executive producer.

Now, with Russo on satellite and Francesa contemplating a jump to podcasts, that era appears to be winding down.

“I’m going to miss him,” Oliviero said of Francesa. “But from a business standpoint, we’re excited.”

Undoubtedly, WFAN and its parent company are making a trade-off. In late November, after the Giants benched their quarterback, Eli Manning, a vintage, bellowing Francesa rant confirmed to listeners that he was not slowing, despite those notorious clips of him falling asleep on the air. The tirade quickly caught fire on social media. On YouTube, a recording of it has been viewed more than 157,000 times.

But how many of those listeners ever tuned into the show? That is the problem Entercom and other radio stations are trying to solve.

That is no longer Francesa’s problem. After Friday, he becomes just another New Yorker with a lot of opinions, looking for a place to channel them.