Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.
Times Square, Dec. 18. There might be no better place and time to encounter a broad cross-section of Americans in their element: shopping and sightseeing.
That made it a timely setting for WFAN's Craig Carton and Boomer Esiason to be yelling into microphones, mixing improvised shtick with a promotional script for their CBS Sports Network simulcast set to premiere Jan. 6.
As you might expect, many onlookers recognized them as they stood on the upper deck of a tour bus, greeting them by name from the sidewalk and seeming genuinely happy to see them.
As you also might expect, many other passersby ignored them, not sure what or who the fuss was about. Some were indifferent New Yorkers, but others surely were just confused visitors from the hinterlands.
That, in a nutshell, is the challenge the radio station's morning hosts face as they embark down an unconventional path on the simulcast road: They have a popular New York radio show that they insist will remain focused on local events, but they are about to be seen on national TV four hours a day.
"We're going national, baby!" Esiason said for a TV ad being filmed atop the bus.
"Wait until Oklahoma gets a load of us," Carton cracked in a more informal moment.
The idea took getting used to, especially for Esiason, who was happy at MSG and wary of going from an established local network to a fledgling national one that has yet to so much as sign up for ratings to be calculated by Nielsen.
"I initially was thinking, man, this is not going to be a great thing for us," he said as the bus made its way up Sixth Avenue from WFAN's Soho studios. "But the more I am around these people at CBS Sports Network, the more I realize they really want this thing to go well."
Part of the point is to help put the channel on the map, even if the map in this case is skewed toward the New York area. With CBS Radio (which owns WFAN) and MSG unable to come to an agreement after their original three-year deal neared expiration, CBS stepped in and decided it could use the show itself.
The short-term cost to Esiason and Carton is the visibility a channel such as MSG or YES provides. The long-term corporate goal is a viable cable sports arm.
"Our job is to make it more established; that's why they want us," Esiason said. "I think we're a great promotional vehicle for a fledgling network that is trying to get off the ground, and I have no problem with that."
Said Carton, "I like the fact that we're on a network that's still relatively new and building an audience, and I like it more from the bigger picture of what the company has."
What did Carton think of Mike Francesa, his afternoon counterpart at WFAN, recently telling Newsday that CBSSN would not be a viable fit for him because of its national scope?
"Well, my opinion would be that he's completely missing the boat on the value of being with CBS Sports Network, but what Mike does with afternoons is Mike's business and what we do in the mornings is our business," Carton said.
Simulcasts have been in the news in recent days, with Francesa leaving YES in early February and Michael Kay's ESPN New York show set to replace him there. Truth is, simulcasts are not nearly as important as the radio shows they televise. Radio personalities primarily are in the business of generating radio ratings. The perks of a television outlet are more revenue, some added visibility and, as Carton put it, "It's a big ego play to be able to say you're on TV."
Still, Carton and Esiason are in uncharted territory. For example: ESPN Radio's national morning show, simulcast on ESPN2, on Thursday opened with the previous night's Pacers-Heat showdown. WFAN opened with Knicks-Bucks.
Starting Jan. 6, that could get a tad awkward. But the hosts said it will not be a consideration.
"I don't see anything changing with how we approach the show," Carton said. "We're going to do the 'Boomer and Carton' show. If we did anything other than that, we'd be going against what helped us build the success we've had. No one ever came to us and said, 'Hey, listen, you are going to be in Nebraska now. You'd better talk about the Cornhuskers.' We are what we are, and that's not going to change one bit."
Esiason said he wanted a simulcast from Day One in 2007 but initially ran into skepticism about whether the show would succeed. It has. Esiason and Carton are on pace to finish second in ratings for all New York-area morning shows in WFAN's key demographic of men ages 25-54 when the autumn figures are released Monday.
Now it is about to be exposed to a broader potential audience. Some of those would-be viewers were in Manhattan as Carton ad-libbed a routine as a make-believe, nonsensical bus tour guide, explaining how Sixth Avenue used to be under water but that after the Big Bang, the river shifted west.
When he saw a Yankees Clubhouse store, he announced, "Mike left YES. We're boycotting all Yankees gear!"
And so on. It was an entertaining bit of New York-centric theater. Soon we'll see how it plays in Peoria.