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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

A unique start to WFAN Radio's new decade with its new lineup 

Boomer Esiason discusses preparations for the Empire Challenge

Boomer Esiason discusses preparations for the Empire Challenge football game at Hofstra University on June 12, 2019. Credit: Peter Frutkoff

WFAN has been sensitive about the notion that Thursday was the start of its post-Mike Francesa era, given the fact that Francesa still is part of the family, with a half-hour daily mini-show scheduled to debut on Monday.

But a new era it is, with a lineup absent Francesa in drive time for the first time in more than 30 years save a few months in early 2018.

Not that the revamped lineup brought anything revolutionary. On the contrary, it was full of familiar voices, with Maggie Gray and Marc Malusis in middays and Evan Roberts and Joe Benigno succeeding Francesa.

As it turned out, the day’s biggest intrigue involved WFAN’s most prominent remaining full-time host, Boomer Esiason, arriving 50 minutes into his 6 to 10 a.m. show with Gregg Giannotti.

For a time, there was concern for his well-being, but he said he merely was extra tired after playing hockey Wednesday afternoon and slept through his alarm. He apologized to the audience.

“That’s the way 2020 gets started with us – perfect,” Esiason said.

A couple of hours later, things got even more peculiar, when Giannotti and Esiason criticized how WFAN chose to announce its new lineup, with Esiason calling it “idiotic” and Giannotti calling it “nonsense.”

The two had wanted to welcome their four colleagues and announce the lineup on their show last week, but they said they were told by WFAN senior vice president Mark Chernoff that they could not.

Roberts and Benigno mentioned on the air on Monday that they had signed new contracts.

At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, shortly after the morning show left the air, WFAN finally made an official announcement on its Twitter account.

“Now you basically just shoveled it into the street,” Giannotti said. 

Esiason called it a “news dump.”

Giannotti added, “The way that this went down, if I’m Moose [Malusis] or Joe and Evan, I’m thinking, ‘What is this?’ This is the way the Baltimore Colts left - in the middle of the night. What are we doing?”

Later, Chernoff told Newsday that Esiason and Giannotti “love to tease” him, but that the company could not announce anything until all contracts were signed.

He admitted New Year’s Eve was “maybe not the ideal time to announce it, but it was not meant in any way to minimize anything.”

Esiason and Giannotti strongly praised the new lineup, making it clear that the years of tense relations between the morning show and Francesa’s afternoon show are over.

"Moose and Maggie, I like both of them; they’re going to be great,” Giannotti said.

As for Roberts and Benigno, whose midday show Giannotti produced for two years, he said, “Those two guys have been great to me and I am so happy for them and I am rooting like hell for them.”

Malusis and Gray were guests late on the morning show, and Malusis said, “When I was told I was going to get the job, I nearly cried. It was sheer joy.”

Gray said she and Malusis developed chemistry “almost immediately” when they worked together at CBS Sports Radio.

She also praised her former WFAN partners, Chris Carlin and Bart Scott, both of whom now are at ESPN, calling Scott “like a brother to me, and a great friend.”

Scott remained on WFAN with Gray this autumn even as he negotiated with ESPN, to which he was lured in large part by his desire to be on television more. He appeared on “Get Up” Wednesday and Thursday.

Scott will be on ESPN New York radio starting Jan. 20 for a new 1 to 3 p.m. show with Alan Hahn. ESPN announced last week that Scott would start on Thursday, but WFAN had sought to delay his start using contractual leverage.

An ESPN spokeswoman said that with Stephen A. Smith scheduled for a final week of national shows in that slot the week of Jan. 13, ESPN New York general manager Tim McCarthy decided to give Scott this week and next off rather than have him start the new job then stop for a week.

Hahn, solo, opened at 1 p.m. by explaining to listeners that Smith wanted one more week on his national show to say goodbye to listeners, but that as of Jan. 20, “We are staying local, though. That is not changing. You will have 14 straight hours of local coverage right here on 98.7 ESPN.”

Carlin was to begin a new 7 to 10 p.m. show on ESPN New York on Thursday.

WFAN had sought to retain Scott, whose contract expired on Tuesday. Chernoff confirmed “we had a place for him on the radio station” had he chosen to stay. But he would not say in which time slot.

When told by Newsday last week that WFAN might seek to delay Scott’s start, McCarthy said, “Here’s the bottom line: Bart doesn’t want to be there. He wants to do TV. He wants to move on . . . It makes zero sense to me. I just don’t get it.”

Chernoff said he likes the vibe between Gray and Malusis. He said he considered John Jastremski as a potential partner for Gray as well.

“I had just given JJ the overnight show [after Tony Paige retired],” he said. “He’s developed his persona of ‘JJ After Dark.’ He’s really good at what he does. I felt at this point in time, let him keep developing.”

The key to the new lineup is Roberts and Benigno, as they take on ESPN’s Michael Kay, who out-rated Francesa for the first time in the fall.

Chernoff cited their long partnership, which dates to 2007, their ratings success in middays and how they “check all the boxes,” including familiarity, entertainment value, information and New York sports sense.

When a caller in the final minutes of the show told Roberts and Benigno that they should have gotten the job over Gray, Scott and Carlin when Francesa first left in 2017, Roberts said, “I was not annoyed two years ago, and in fairness, can I say this: I don’t think those guys were given a fair shot.” (Benigno agreed on both counts.)

Benigno, 66, frequently has talked of retiring soon. Now he has a new time slot, a raise and a contract believed to run through 2022.

“I believe Joe has changed his mind,” Chernoff said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to go into this if you’re telling me you just want to work the next year.’ He said, ‘I feel invigorated.’”

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was scheduled to join Benigno and Roberts on their first show. He had refused to go on with Francesa this season, so that in itself was the sign of a new beginning for the station.

Roberts and Benigno did not dwell on the new role when their show began, but Roberts did note that one difference is getting afternoon-drive-time-quality guests such as Gettleman and Dellin Betances.

Said Benigno: “Are you kidding me? When are LeBron and Brady coming on?”

For WFAN, the new lineup could represent a period of stability after a trying 28 months dating to morning co-host Craig Carton’s arrest and eventual resignation in September 2017.

“I am certainly hoping we have some nice, long-term solutions,” Chernoff said.


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