Mike Francesa spent half his life at WFAN, a third of a century on each side of his debut in 1987, shortly after the station launched.
That is a long, long time, and over the past two months both he and station management concluded it was long enough.
The road to that point was bumpy, thanks mostly to a less-than-smooth comeback that started in May of 2018 and ended quietly with his final show on Friday.
There were detours, including the launch of an app in 2018 and a streamed-only hour on Radio.com in 2020, neither of which stuck.
But now that it is done, Francesa can take his proper place – love him, hate him or some of both – as an iconic, inimitable figure in New York sports media history, and the rest of us can march onward.
That starts with WFAN, which finds itself with an aging audience in an aging genre amid a global pandemic that has complicated both the business of sports and business of radio, neither in a good way.
It will not be easy, but the task is clear: Retool to attract new listeners while not alienating the old ones, and on a related note, seek a more diverse lineup in terms of age, race, gender and even New York baseball loyalties.
As Francesa told Newsday last week, “Change is inevitable, and when it happens it can be stark. But you know what? It’s what life is all about.
“It’s time for FAN to go to a new generation, and I think they’re getting there. They’re taking their time to get there, and they will get there in the next couple of years.”
The man who will oversee that process is Chris Oliviero, market manager for New York stations at Entercom, WFAN’s parent company. He is a New Yorker who knows the FAN and its personalities – past and present – well.
In an interview with Newsday last week, he on one hand called Francesa’s sense of timing “spot-on” in opting to move on, but on the other insisted he is happy with his remaining lineup.
“One of the downsides of success is when somebody is successful for so long, you don’t move on to other plans, because it’s a successful show and we stick with it,” he said. “Mike’s been around so long, that has been an issue, a good issue to have, being able to transition. We will move ahead now with the transition.”
He added, “If people are out there saying, ‘Mike might come back again,’ I think you heard it in your conversation with Mike, and I definitely heard it in my conversations with Mike, this is a firm decision. We’re moving on, he’s moving on, and it’s the right time for everybody.”
At the same time, Oliviero said he likes his current roster, which has consistent success in the mornings with Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti but a ratings-challenged afternoon show in Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts.
Michael Kay’s ESPN New York show out-rated Francesa for the first time in last fall’s book and extended its lead in his first two quarters of 2020 against Benigno and Roberts, one of which covered a sports-less spring.
Benigno, 66, is six months older than Francesa, frequently has spoken of retiring in the near future and is social-media challenged.
All of the above has led to logical speculation about a shakeup in the afternoon come 2021, perhaps with Roberts returning to middays and a fresh look in the afternoon.
Former morning co-host Craig Carton – who is close to Oliviero personally – is out of prison, and there are other intriguing names out there, including Detroit host (and native New Yorker) Mike Valenti.
The station also might seek to bring in a retired athlete as part of a new show.
There are many directions in which WFAN could go, but it needs to go somewhere.
If listeners age 55 and over mattered to advertisers, the station would be doing fine, but advertisers look primarily at the men ages 25-54 demographic.
Oliviero is smart enough to know this stuff, and also smart enough not to show his hand publicly.
He has said it is unfair to judge sports talk hosts on a time when there was no sports, which seems reasonable. He also said last week “the lineup is in place permanently,” which seems less reasonable.
“I know everybody loves to try to project what’s going to happen in ’21 or beyond,” Oliviero said. “I think you would agree that’s a speculative, silly game to play. I can be crystal clear with you: This is our lineup. We like our lineup. There’s no other changes coming to lineup.
“But if you’re asking me, is this the lineup that’s going to be here for the next 33 years, like Mike was? I can’t tell you that. If that’s the certainty you’re looking for, I can’t give you that. All I can give you is there are no other changes on the horizon. This is the lineup. And by the way, we love everybody on the lineup.”
As they say in the radio business: Stay tuned.