It has been 10 years since Mark Chernoff, WFAN’s longtime programming poobah, made the greatest save in New York sports talk radio history, finding a gem in the ruins Don Imus left behind in morning drive time.
Now he faces a task that makes that one look easy in comparison.
The news early Wednesday that the FBI had arrested morning co-host Craig Carton — part of the post-Imus solution a decade ago — followed Wednesday night by WFAN’s suspending Carton pending further investigation, would have been a bombshell by itself.
The fact that it happened three months before the clock runs out on Mike Francesa’s reign in afternoon drive time further complicated life for the executives in charge of the 30-year-old station.
Let’s just say this is an interesting time to be Mark Chernoff, who when reached Wednesday referred all questions about Carton to a CBS Radio spokesperson.
By Wednesday night Carton was halfway out the door, after being charged with securities and wire fraud tied to a Ponzi scheme involving discount tickets, allegedly to pay his casino debts. CBS Radio did not have much choice. It would not have been a good look to employ a host who may have used his professional status to help make an alleged criminal enterprise work.
Carton is facing up to 45 years in prison, but even if he avoids jail, seating him in a studio beside his longtime partner, Boomer Esiason, anytime soon would make for some mighty awkward optics.
Esiason seemed blindsided by the news, first being told — and telling listeners — that Carton had called in sick, and later learning that he had been arrested.
As Esiason signed off, he said, “Thanks for staying with me this morning. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I’ll be here. I know that. I know Al (Dukes) and (engineer) Eddie (Scozzare) will be here and so will (update man) Jerry (Recco). Have a great day, everybody, and as always, New York, stay classy.”
Esiason long has used that sentiment at the end of the show, but in this case he did so with a far less cheerful tone than usual. He will be joined by Phil Simms as a guest co-host Thursday.
The question is whether Esiason would be willing to carry on without Carton. He has said his primary motivation for doing the show is to maintain his visibility for the sake of his foundation and its support for the cystic fibrosis community. If Esiason stays on, finding a replacement for Carton who is as well matched to him will be a challenge.
Meanwhile, Francesa has not wavered since announcing last year that he would step down when his contract expires in December, and Chernoff’s initial Labor Day goal to identify a replacement has come and gone.
Carton has criticized Francesa for years, with Francesa occasionally firing back, including after Carton told Newsday in June that Francesa is “tarnishing his legacy” in his final year.
Some fans hoped Francesa would gloat when he went on the air Wednesday, but instead he referred them to CBS Radio’s initial statement and warned callers not to seek anything further from him, which they did not.
The question is whether Francesa now might be persuaded to stay if the station asks him to help it through this programming crisis. Before Wednesday, he would have been criticized — and mocked — for changing his mind. Now he could do so and be viewed as a team player coming to the rescue. But there has been no indication that Francesa is so inclined.
The default option would be to move the midday show of Evan Roberts and Joe Benigno to afternoon, a safe if uninspired choice. More likely would be Roberts and Benigno splitting up, with Roberts moving to the afternoon with a new partner and Benigno remaining in midday.
Many in the business would like to see former WFAN host Sid Rosenberg get a shot, perhaps with longtime WFAN fill-in Kimberly Jones, a pairing that would provide a different sound for the station and create buzz.
Rosenberg is under contract to WABC radio, however, and has his own checkered past that included gambling problems.
Chernoff never was going to have an easy answer. As of Wednesday, he has another difficult question.