Thirty years? It’s less time than you think!
Consider that when WFAN went on the air, Suzyn Waldman opened the show with an update on a Yankees game in which Rickey Henderson led off.
On Sunday, Henderson was back in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium and Waldman was back on the FAN, calling the game from the radio booth.
OK, so this time Henderson was playing in the Old-Timers’ Game, but you get the point. Some things never change.
Here’s another way of looking at it: Evan Roberts, a candidate to move into afternoon drive time when Mike Francesa vacates that slot, is 33.
That means that in 30 years, he will be the age Francesa is now, and perhaps still going strong, along with the station and maybe even 24-hour sports talk radio itself, which WFAN launched at 3 p.m. on July 1, 1987.
Then again . . . maybe not.
The vote here is not — at least not as we know it today.
WFAN came along at exactly the right time, in a sweet spot between the declining sway of newspaper columnists and the arrival of the Internet.
Or, in other words, an era between that of very few being able to voice an opinion publicly to an era of everyone with access to the web being able to do so.
WFAN tested those waters with hosts and callers who could pop off on any topic, with or without knowledge. It was an eye-opener for athletes, who found that print journalists suddenly were the least of their problems.
Former CBS Radio CEO Joel Hollander recalled a conversation years ago with Fred and Jeff Wilpon of the Mets about a changed world in which “players used to get really upset at the writers, then all of a sudden after 1987, they lose 3-2 to the Dodgers in 12 innings, get off a plane at 5 o’clock in the morning, turn on the radio and they’re getting hammered on the air.”
That was nothing compared to what players face today on social media, where at least they have the opportunity to answer back, creating a free-for-all of facts, falsehoods and frayed feelings.
Which leads to the question of whether traditional radio sports talk can endure into the middle decades of this century.
Its listeners are younger than those of political radio but still, they are not young, certainly not as young as they were in 1987.
Go back even further to Bill Mazer’s pioneering sports talk show on WNBC in the 1960s, and the calls were dominated by teenaged boys.
Those teenagers are in their mid-to-late 60s now, and have not and will not be replaced by 16-year-olds of this generation, who tend not to rely on talk radio for sports discussions. The world is more complicated now.
“The business has changed so dramatically in 30 years,” Hollander said. “Thirty years ago, there was no SNY, no YES, there was one ESPN, not five ESPNs, there were no mobile phones. Then Steve Jobs changed the world 10 years ago [with the iPhone] and now you get your information instantaneously.”
Sports debate never will die. If it does, the sports business itself will die with it. But in 30 years, will the durable WFAN format still exist?
Remember, the original mission of the FAN was to outmaneuver Sports Phone, the service in which fans (and bettors) could get scores by paying to call in to a designated number.
“That’s why we did updates every 15 minutes,” said John Minko, an update man then and now.
It worked, because Sports Phone is long gone. But there always is something else to come along.
So far, sports talk endures, and Francesa and WFAN’s morning team of Craig Carton and Boomer Esiason still exert considerable influence on the local sports agenda, along with their counterparts at ESPN New York Radio.
At the FAN’s 30th anniversary celebration at Grand Central Terminal last week, several of its prominent figures expressed optimism about that continuing into the uncertain future.
“It’s got the recipe of how to operate and touch the community,” Carton said, “so I would think as much as we think we’re the greatest at what we do, long after we’re all gone, FAN should still be a viable commodity as a sports talk station.”
Said Mark Chernoff, the vice president of programming, “I think people still like to talk to the masses . . . You turn on the radio at 660-AM or 101.9-FM and there’s hundreds of thousands of people listening. If you want your voice heard, a lot of people are going to hear it.”
Waldman acknowledged the challenge moving forward but also said sports talk provides something social media does not: direct human interaction, even if it is over a phone connection.
“I think it’s a lot harder [in this era],” she said. “It’s very hard, because there’s the immediacy of tweets and all that. But I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of radio, because that’s people. Radio is a person talking to another person.
“It’s a person, and you can hear the feelings. And I think if you’re a host, this never goes away: If you’re on the radio, fans know immediately whether you’re full of baloney or you’re not. They can love you, they can hate you, but they know whether you’re honest. You can’t hide.”
All fair points. Remember, 2047 is not that far away.