The two old radio warriors were together again on Wednesday night, treated like kings by the nostalgia-soaked audience at the Tilles Center at LIU Post and once more flashing their chemistry.
But amid all of the love for Mike Francesa and Chris Russo at WFAN’s Francesa fete, dubbed “A Night to Remember,” there was a timely reminder from Mike and the Mad Dog themselves.
They recalled on stage how widely disliked their show initially was in 1989, from listeners – even without access to Twitter to vent – to the most visible personality at the station, Don Imus.
Eventually the show found its groove, the audience grew and, well, here they were, two rich, famous, Long Island guys playing to a sold-out house and celebrating Francesa’s 30 years at the ’FAN.
It was impossible not to think of that in the context of the news of the day – official word of WFAN’s new afternoon team of Chris Carlin, Bart Scott and Maggie Gray – and the reaction to it.
Russo had ripped the selection of Scott on SiriusXM Satellite Radio on Tuesday, and Russo and Francesa playfully danced around the topic of the new crew on stage. Francesa said afterward he would stay publicly neutral on the topic.
Meanwhile, in the audience, there were boos when the subject of the new show, and of Scott in particular, came up, echoing skepticism swirling on social media.
To which I say: Check back on Jan. 2, when the show premieres. Better yet, check back in mid-April, when ratings for the first full quarter come out. Or, really, a year from now.
That is the only fair way to assess a risky move by WFAN and its VP of programming, Mark Chernoff. But risky was what was called for here. Absent bringing back Russo, the best way to deal with a post-Francesa WFAN was by doing something so different that comparisons to Francesa (and Russo) are beside the point.
The closest thing to a given in the group is Carlin, but his most prominent sports talk radio hosting has come in some small town south of here that puts Cheez Whiz on steak.
Scott has a big mouth and big personality, which could stir things up, and also could alienate some listeners. Gray largely is an unknown quantity who was not exactly at the top of Chernoff’s original wish list.
Could this be a creative and/or ratings debacle? Oh, yes. Will it be? Who knows?
Few people outside of central New Jersey had heard of Craig Carton before Chernoff hired him 10 years ago for a morning gig that became a home run – eventually, that is, just like “Mike and the Mad Dog” before it.
This is another programming curveball, this one with an explicit subplot: Trying to add more diverse voices, and more diverse listeners. That includes reaching younger listeners, if that is even possible in 2018.
When Bill Mazer pioneered New York sports talk radio as we now know it in 1964, his calls were dominated by teenage boys. Many of those callers have aged along with the genre, which makes them . . . not so young anymore.
In a perfect world for WFAN, the old guard will give the new show a chance – as Francesa urged from the stage Wednesday night – and the station’s audience will broaden.
If not, well, these are not lifetime appointments. The financial risk is relatively low in that Carlin, Scott and Gray combined will earn far less than Francesa did himself.
The newcomers should benefit both from initial curiosity and from New Yorkers’ 30-year habit of turning on WFAN.
This will be fun for those of us who follow ratings, because for years Michael Kay’s ESPN New York show has been the most successful one on that station, and now it presumably has a chance to summit Mount WFAN at last.
In a word: interesting.