WFAN celebrates 25 years of ingenuity

WFAN afternoon radio host Mike Francesa at the

WFAN afternoon radio host Mike Francesa at the beginning of his show. (June 19, 2012) (Credit: Craig Ruttle)

It began at 3 in the afternoon on July 1, 1987, with Suzyn Waldman greeting listeners who were "sharing a part of radio history'' as WFAN, the first 24-hour-a-day all-sports local radio station, went on the air at 1050 on the AM dial.

That first update began with a report on Ron Guidry's "vintage'' outing in the Yankees' 4-0 victory over the Blue Jays the night before. Soon the first caller to Jim Lampley was accusing Darryl Strawberry of being a "prima donna.''

Within a few days, update man John Minko recalled, morning host Greg Gumbel was so tired of Strawberry calls that he tried to prohibit them.

The rest is radio history. Twenty-five years of scores and callers later, WFAN still is at it, having spawned hundreds of imitators. And about that Strawberry ban: Nice try, Greg. He was on the station as a guest as recently as Friday.

"What we built here at FAN is enduring, I think it's special, I think it completely changed the AM dial,'' longtime afternoon host Mike Francesa said. "So yes, Jeff Smulyan should take pride in that. Everyone who's worked here should take pride in that. Don [Imus] and Dog [Chris Russo] and yes, myself, should take a lot of pride in that, absolutely . . . WFAN has a place in radio history and that can never, ever be taken away.''

Scores of hosts, update people, producers and engineers have come and gone in a quarter-century. But to celebrate next Sunday's anniversary, Newsday spoke to five FAN fixtures who since the late 1980s have watched the New York sports parade go by from a unique perch.

 

John Minko

The future "Mink Man'' ended his pre-WFAN career by calling a high school all-star basketball game in Louisville, Ky., on June 27, 1987, handing his equipment to his analyst and saying, "Bring this back to Indianapolis. I'm going to New York.''

What he found at a staff meeting two days later was the infamous subterranean Astoria studios that would be his professional home until 2009.

"I said, 'My goodness, this is it,' '' he recalled. "It was hard to believe, and as the years moved along, I realized we worked in the only place where you had to walk upstairs to get to the basement.''

But Minko stuck it out despite reservations about both the facilities and format. Like most FAN originals, he recalls an early, ultimately misguided attempt to focus more on scores than personalities.

"It almost seemed to me we were trying to put Sports Phone out of business,'' he said. "We did updates every 15 minutes as opposed to 20, and boy, did it come quick. We hyped that more than we hyped the hosts at the beginning.''

By late July, when his mother asked how the new gig was going, he said, "I don't know if it's going to work.''

Eventually it did, as the station began to find its voice and vibe. Minko credited that change in philosophy, along with on- and off-air stability, for making what seemed like a far-fetched idea work.

As he spoke in the station's gleaming new Manhattan offices, he recalled the early days using typewriters and reel-to-reel tapes, and of coming home reeking of the cigarette smoke that was common in the newsroom then.

"Pretty incredible,'' he said, shaking his head.

 

Eddie Scozzare

Eddie Scozzare did not arrive until late 1989 but has made up for lost time by working with a spectacular diversity of hosts as a producer or board operator.

That includes, well, you name 'em and he's known 'em, from Imus to Francesa and Russo, from Waldman to Sid Rosenberg, and most recently Craig Carton and Boomer Esiason.

"I've worked with three giants: Imus and Mike and the Mad Dog -- the top of the sports radio profession, certainly,'' he said. (Scozzare worked as a sub for Lou Ruffino on Imus' old crew.)

Ask him to summarize his WFAN resume and you get an annotated stroll through station history, from the infamous Len Berman / Mike Lupica Midday Feud of 1993 to the tumultuous reign of Rosenberg.

"Love him to death,'' Scozzare said of Sid. "Extremely talented, but tormented.''

On Mike and the Mad Dog: "Of course there were mundane times, and they would fight. But for the most part they had a lot of magic in that show.''

Scozzare could write a book but says he won't. Mostly, he is grateful to have been a part of it, having arrived as an intern with no experience, fudging his way in by using lingo he picked up at the college station at Stony Brook.

"I handle internships now,'' he said. "I would not even give myself an interview at this time.''

Scozzare said the station caught on gradually, but when it did, it hit big. "We became part of the fabric of the community, of the city," he said. "We became part of the woodwork. We became comfort food.

"People would return from vacation and couldn't wait to get in the car, turn on the FAN. To have that connection with people is just special, I think.''

 

Bob Gelb

Sports talk history mostly recalls Bob Gelb as the original producer of "Mike and the Mad Dog,'' but that gig, iconic as it was, followed an even wackier period running earlier incarnations of afternoon drive time.

Enticed by a massive raise (to $55,000), Gelb left WCAU in Philadelphia to run WFAN's first showcase program starring Cleveland sports talk veteran Pete Franklin.

Franklin's stay in New York was a dud when he worked, but he often did not because of poor health, forcing the station to use assorted fill-ins, including a memorably strange turn by Hank Stram.

Gelb was there on Day One, when he said host Jim Lampley pushed the wrong button and thus gave "a 12-year-old asking how the Mets are going to do this year'' the honor of being the first caller.

"Our second call should have been our first call,'' he said, still annoyed 25 years later.

Eventually the station found its way, especially after then- program director Mark Mason paired Francesa and Russo in 1989, with Gelb as referee. "It was the greatest idea of all time,'' Gelb said.

He played a crucial role. Gelb said there were nightly calls to the co-hosts to plan the next day's show, and nightly fibs to each about what the other had told the producer.

Gelb reluctantly moved into ad sales for WFAN in 1997 in search of a better income and has been there since, save for a brief stint at WABC when Imus joined that station.

The magic of the early years, Gelb said, was a function of both the people and moment. As the phenomenon grew, newsmakers couldn't wait to go on, or at least provide information.

"We changed, at a time when it could only have happened, the way people got their sports news, especially a lot of breaking news,'' he said. "It obviously couldn't happen now, because now the cab driver is tweeting about who was just in his cab.''

 

Dov Kramer

In 25 years at WFAN, Dov Kramer has worked shifts (primarily as a board operator) at every time of day, beginning with the original overnight show starring Steve Somers.

But he never has worked from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, owing to his beliefs as an Orthodox Jew. Such work restrictions hardly are remarkable in the New York area, but they are unusual at a sports talk station.

Kramer said executives and hosts have been accommodating from the start, and he has managed to balance two very different worlds.

For example: In 1995 he requested a move to middays to give him time for other interests, including co-founding a Jewish elementary school in New Jersey.

"Thank God there are other priorities I have in life,'' he said, "but other people who work here, and it's important for what they do here, their primary existence is sports.''

Not that he's judging anyone. Kramer said as a natural-born observer, he has enjoyed getting to know an assortment of characters over the years, including current midday hosts Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts.

"The station is, at its very core, real,'' he said. "There is nobody more real than Joe Benigno. Unfortunately for him, he is most entertaining when he is in the most pain about his teams. You can feel the angst through the airwaves. It's not that he's trying to make a big production out of how upset he is. This is who he is. This is what he's upset about. And for the most part, that's why it resonates with people.''

 

Mike Francesa

It wasn't until a few weeks after WFAN went on the air that Mike Francesa debuted, but it didn't take long for him to catch on as a weekend host and weekday fill-in.

Alas, the first of those weekday afternoons happened to be Thanksgiving 1987. Guests and callers naturally were difficult to come by.

"I was like, 'Wow,' '' he said. "That day was tough. The next day, Friday, turned out to be a normal day. I felt a lot better about Friday than I did about Thursday.''

Francesa recalled initially loving the idea of an all-sports station but not the programming thrust.

"It was this idea of doing, basically, national shows into a town that is extremely, extremely a small town in that regard,'' he said. "Once they turned it and realized we have to scrap all our national hosts and integrate local hosts, they started to catch on.''

Francesa cited three pivotal early events: moving from 1050 to 660 AM on the dial and adding Don Imus as the morning host, both in 1988, and the debut of the "Mike and the Mad Dog'' show in '89.

Francesa had hoped to do a show by himself, but executives didn't give him that option and gave him the weekend to agree. He did, and by the spring of 1990, the show was a phenomenon.

"You only go through that kind of thing once in your life, where you're hopeful things are going to work out and then all of a sudden it works out better than your wildest dreams,'' he said.

Francesa credited Imus ("smartest radio guy who ever lived") and Russo with having had the biggest impact on him professionally. But he also stressed the importance of FAN veterans whom listeners know less well, such as Minko, Bob Heussler, Ed Coleman and Kramer, executives such as Eric Spitz and Mark Chernoff, and many others.

The job has changed, Francesa said, now that listeners have as much information at their disposal as hosts do. But he believes that 25 years from now, radio in general and sports talk in particular will be alive and well.

"Listen, the medium is going to change, the technology is going to continue to change, so it might not be exactly the same,'' he said. "But I think there will always be a WFAN long, long after I'm gone.''

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