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Francesa still top dog three years later

Mike Francesa's ratings have remained strong even after

Mike Francesa's ratings have remained strong even after the departure of former "Mike and the Mad Dog" co-host Chris Russo. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Mike Francesa does not lack self-confidence, as every metropolitan-area sports fan who has turned on a radio during the past nearly quarter-century well knows.

But even he had his moments in the summer of 2008, facing a future without Chris Russo, his partner of 19 years, after the "Mad Dog" strayed to satellite radio and threatened a pillar of WFAN's economy.

If ratings dropped, Francesa knew it would be on him, not Russo, and that his critics were "lining up" to write his professional obituary.

"I was very concerned about it; I took it seriously," he said Wednesday in his lower Manhattan office. "I felt there was a lot of pressure, no question about it."

Three years later, the pressure is not off; it never is in a ratings-obsessed business. But the numbers have dispelled any notion that the breakup of "Mike and the Mad Dog" would bring down Mike in the short term.

In the last two full quarters with Russo in 2008, WFAN finished second among all New York stations in afternoon drive time (3 to 7 p.m.) among men ages 25-54, out-rating ESPN 1050 by roughly a 2-to-1 ratio.

In the eight quarters since (not counting summers), WFAN has been first five times and second three times, and has out-rated 1050 by an average ratio of 2.5-to-1. (It ranked second midway through this spring.)

If you count Francesa's full 1-to-6:30 p.m. shift, he has finished first in seven of eight quarters.

"The big story everyone was lined up for was, hey, this could be it, finally," he said. "It didn't happen. And I'm sure it disappointed a lot of people."

That presumably includes Mel Karmazin, CEO of Sirius XM, who said when he hired Russo, "If I were a competitor to WFAN, I'd be thrilled today." (Said Francesa: "Mel should worry about his own company and his own stock.")

And it presumably includes 1050, whose prospects Francesa publicly dismissed in a memorable on-air rant in February 2009.

After Russo suggested on Howard Stern's Sirius show that 1050 was making inroads, Francesa said of the station, "You have never gotten close, and you never will as long as I'm sitting here."

That has been true, but it has been an unusually weak spring at WFAN, which Francesa attributed to uncharacteristically strong showings by several FM music stations. Perhaps, but competitors are keeping an eye out for a downward trend.

Regardless of ratings, Francesa's show obviously has changed without Russo, losing much of its goofy charm, chemistry and byplay, leaving the famously abrasive Francesa alone for the daily marathon. But people keep tuning in, like him or not.

Francesa said the "dumbest thing I ever did" was say he would have a new sidekick by Labor Day 2008. He also said the "biggest mistake I ever made" was bringing in a series of people that autumn to gauge the on-air mix.

"That was not going to work because everyone in that way was going to be compared to Dog, and that wasn't fair," he said.

Francesa still has not ruled out adding elements, but he said it would have to happen organically, not be forced. Besides, why tinker as long as the ratings are strong?

Francesa, 57, is under contract through 2013. But he said he is taking his career "year to year" while considering other priorities. "If you ask me my biggest goal in life right now, it's to be at my daughter's wedding -- and my daughter is 6 years old," he said. He also said the recent news that Gary Carter, who was born two weeks after Francesa, has an inoperable brain tumor was a "wake-up call."

But he stressed that his competitive nature never will subside, and it made him determined to maintain the legacy he and Russo established.

"It was very important to me," Francesa said. "My career wouldn't have been complete if I didn't have this run that I've just had for the last three years."

New York Sports