It began with Suzyn Waldman talking about the Yankees, with the best record in baseball, facing their most important rival of the moment.
It reached its latest milestone with Suzyn Waldman talking about the Yankees, with the best record in baseball, facing their most important rival of the moment.
So in that sense nothing has changed since WFAN went on the air – from Waldman’s first update on July 1, 1987, that led with the Yankees beating the Blue Jays, to Thursday night, when she was to call their game against the Astros.
But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. Much else in sports media – and sports more broadly – has changed over these 35 years, and WFAN has played an undeniable part in that.
The galaxy’s first known all-sports radio station was revolutionary in its time, and its greatest impact is hinted at in its call letters: WFAN empowered fans.
For most of sports history, players heard from fans primarily in the form of boos or cheers from the stands, leaving jocks to focus most of their annoyance on what media members said or wrote about them.
Call-in sports talk radio was not entirely new in 1987. Bill Mazer started hosting a show on March 30, 1964, and others followed, including John Sterling, Art Rust Jr. and the venerable “One on One” on Fordham’s WFUV-FM.
But WFAN altered the dynamic in the sports ecosystem, as players learned a startling truth: Many fans were even more ill-informed and negative than sportswriters were.
At the same time, newspaper editors began reacting less to their own news judgment and more to what they were hearing on WFAN from hosts and callers, assuming those were the issues “people were talking about.”
It was a key step in altering what had been a clubby clubhouse culture, a change that accelerated during the internet/social media era and made athletes warier of everyone, from journalists to sports talk hosts to fans.
Eventually, technology allowed athletes to talk directly to the public – and vice versa – eliminating the middlemen.
It was a process, though. No one was thinking about that stuff on July 1, 1987.
Some thought the idea of 24/7 sports was absurd, others thought there was a market for it. But in the early days, WFAN did not know quite what to do with itself.
The first voice heard at 3 p.m. was Merle Harmon calling the end of Super Bowl III, then the staff announcer, then Waldman with the first live words.
Her update included not only the Yankees, Mets and Wimbledon, but results of the first race at Belmont.
Asa Dorfman followed with a general news report, leading with Ronald Reagan nominating Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. (Spoiler alert: Things did not go well.) Dennis O’Mara’s traffic report was to follow, but a glitch caused it not to be heard at all.
The first commercial was for since-defunct Channel Home Centers and the second for a bizarre product called “Sport Baseball Video Magazine,” in which VHS tapes would be sent to subscribers four times a year.
But what was most telling about how directionless WFAN was in the early days was non-New Yorker Jim Lampley’s meandering opening monologue, which led with precisely the opposite of what the station would come to be about.
He critiqued newspapers and Mets and Yankees players themselves for making such a big deal about games in early summer when much of the season remained to be played.
Then he took 10 calls in the first hour – five with concerns about the Mets – and none of the fans appeared to agree with his chill perspective.
That tone-deaf approach did not last. Come autumn of 1988, WFAN moved from 1050-AM to 660-AM, added Don Imus in the morning and in 1989 put a couple of Long Islanders, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, in afternoon drive time.
WFAN has evolved over the decades, drifting away from updates and broadening discussion topics beyond sports, a change that has accelerated recently.
Times change, for better and/or worse. But what happened in 1987 was pivotal. It added new voices to the chorus, and turned up the volume forever.