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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Benigno-Roberts makes sense to replace Francesa on WFAN 

WFAN midday show hosts Evan Roberts, left, and

WFAN midday show hosts Evan Roberts, left, and Joe Benigno on Radio Row at the Super Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona, on Jan. 30, 2008. Credit: NEWSDAY/DAVID L.POKRESS/Newsday/David L. Pokress

WFAN does not give me a vote, for some reason, but it says here the simplest, safest, smartest move in afternoon drive time is to replace Mike Francesa with longtime midday co-hosts Evan Roberts and Joe Benigno.

That probably is what the station should have done in 2017, thereby avoiding the two-year soap opera that ensued when Francesa left, was succeeded by Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott, then returned four months later.

Give those in charge of the station at the time credit for thinking outside the box, but sometimes staying inside the box is OK, too. Roberts and Benigno are known quantities, and the best bets to make a ratings race of it with ESPN New York’s Michael Kay.

The Roberts-Benigno default plan began to emerge last week after an experiment with John Jastremski joining Scott and Gray flopped badly. Then a plan to have Roberts join Scott and Gray this coming week was tabled. By Friday, Scott was telling people at the station that he was unhappy with WFAN’s contract offers. He has had other options for months, including an offer from ESPN.

On Saturday morning, Newsday and the Daily News speculated that Roberts and Benigno had emerged as the favorites to succeed Francesa, and the New York Post reported that Scott would, in fact, leave for ESPN New York to take over Stephen A. Smith’s old 1 to 3 p.m. time slot.

Scott also has expressed an interest in an increased television role, something ESPN can provide and WFAN cannot.

That likely will leave Gray hosting middays on WFAN with a new partner, perhaps Marc Malusis. Jastremski would remain as the overnight host in that scenario.

There is nothing particularly inspired or creative about any of the above, but there are good, pragmatic reasons to go with Roberts and Benigno.

Sports talk is radio comfort food, a function of habit that has helped keep WFAN ahead of ESPN New York in the ratings race for many years.

The second departure of Francesa presents a challenge, because even though he is a lightning rod for criticism — or maybe because of it — he continues to deliver ratings. (He is in danger of losing the autumn ratings book to Kay, which would be a first.)

Roberts is the ideal candidate to lead a smooth transition. On one hand, he is only 36, and Susan Larkin, regional president for WFAN’s parent company, Entercom, has said that getting younger hosts (and listeners) is a high priority for the station.

On the other hand, Roberts is someone whom Francesa’s older listeners generally are comfortable with. They certainly feel that way about Benigno, 66.

Benigno’s contract expires at the end of 2020, and he has talked about retiring for several years. If he does depart a year from now, WFAN will have the flexibility to find a new co-host for Roberts moving forward, be it from the current roster or from outside the station.

So the new lineup could well feature Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti in the morning, Gray and perhaps Malusis from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., then Roberts and Benigno.

Francesa is expected to depart afternoon drive time in early December, shortly after the end of the autumn ratings period on Dec. 4, perhaps as soon as Dec. 6. He still will be heard daily in some form on Radio.com starting in January and might be heard in a limited role on WFAN itself.

WFAN has had more drama than it needs during the past two-plus years, starting with morning co-host Craig Carton’s arrest in September 2017. Some dust-settling would be a good idea right about now.

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