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Mike Francesa’s return to WFAN creates a radio soap opera, and that’s good for business

Mike Francesa talks with guest host Bill Simmons

Mike Francesa talks with guest host Bill Simmons (not pictured) during Francesa's show at the WFAN studios in Manhattan on Monday, May 16, 2016. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Explaining all of this to people from smaller, perhaps saner burgs is darn near impossible.

During a week in which local teams are picking second and third in the NFL Draft and the iconic local baseball franchise is on a roll, the notion that a sports talk radio host could assume control of newspaper back pages and website traffic is . . . nutty.

Yet here we are. Mike Francesa is back after a 4½-month break and will be on WFAN on Tuesday. As usual, everyone seems to have an opinion — good, bad but almost never indifferent.

And that is the point, of course. Something about the guy inspires strong feelings and strong radio ratings, and that is the only thing that matters from a business standpoint.

For those of us who are not in that business, the fun part is the drama around the ongoing soap opera that is New York sports radio, this time featuring a plot twist no one saw coming.

Not this soon, after only one ratings book in which Francesa’s replacements lost narrowly in their race against ESPN New York’s Michael Kay.

So it has come to pass, though, as part of a partnership involving Francesa, Entercom, which owns WFAN, and CAA Sports, and which will involve an app launching this summer that Francesa said was the driving force behind the deal.

But in the nearer term, this is about radio, pure and simple, and about whether Francesa can do what countless entertainers, athletes and politicians have failed to do before him by mounting a successful and lasting comeback.

The degree of difficulty is high, even compared to 2008, when he had to carry on without Russo and largely maintained his ratings performance.

First, Francesa must navigate a workplace where there are co-workers less than thrilled to have him back, notably Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott, who were displaced.

Those three have taken the high road publicly, but morning co-host Boomer Esiason called the situation “pathetic.”

On Tuesday, Francesa cryptically cited a “campaign” at WFAN warning him not to return as one of the reasons he decided to do so. On Friday, he said he was reacting to anonymous quotes in news accounts in which staffers said they were opposed to his return.

“Somebody saying I wasn’t welcome there was not going to keep me from going back was my point,” he said.

Francesa said he is prepared to play a “leadership role” in mending fences if asked. Mark Chernoff, vice present of programming, said he plans to have Francesa meet with co-workers to get everyone on the same page.

“We knew there was going to be hurt feelings,” Francesa said. “We discussed that. They told me nobody would lose a job, nobody would lose any money. We knew that there was going to be a reentry that was going to be touchy.”

Asked how ‘CMB’ reacted when given the news, Chernoff said, “I think as you would expect: disappointed.” But he added that he still believes in the trio and that they will continue to grow, even in a lesser role.

Francesa said he was baffled by the level of anger in some of the responses to his return from inside and outside the station. He said WFAN merely was trying to improve itself.

“Wouldn’t you if you had a baseball team or you had a lineup?” he said. “Wouldn’t you do everything you could to improve the lineup every day? Isn’t that your job? I think that’s what they are trying to do.”

Even more important than all of that, Francesa must regain the loyalty of listeners who generally responded well to his farewell tour but now might feel betrayed by their investment of time and attention to all the hoopla and special events.

There were times over the last year or two he seemed grumpy and ready to move on.

What now? Might his return reenergize him? Might working 3 ½ hours per day rather than 5 ½ make for a peppier feel? Might public feuding break out among the station’s four shows and eight hosts across a 12 ½-hour stretch of programming?

Let’s hope so, because sports talk radio just doesn’t resonate as much as it did in the 1990s in the current, crowded cultural and media landscape, and its audience is aging rapidly.

The more chaos the merrier.

Francesa, 64, hopes to build his app into a legacy that lasts beyond his own career, but in the short term all ears will be on a traditional radio show, and one last round of ratings shootouts.

If Kay finally beats him after more than a decade of trying, it will make for a good story. If he never does, that will be a good story, too. It’s why New York still cares, against all odds.

It’s business, and it’s also personal.


The saga of Mike Francesa:

Sept. 5, 1989

“Mike and the Mad Dog” premieres in afternoon drive time, starting a 19-year run that reshapes sports talk radio.

Yes, Yes, YES March 19, 2002

The new YES Network being simulcasting “Mike and the Mad Dog,” adding a new, visual element to the show.

Split hits the FAN Aug. 14, 2008

Two months after Newsday reported “Mike and the Mad Dog” might be over, Chris Russo leaves for satellite radio.

A-Rod tells a fib Nov. 20, 2013

In one of Francesa’s most news-making interviews, Alex Rodriguez storms into his studio - and lies about PED use.

Boys are back March 30, 2016

Russo and Francesa reunite at Radio City Music Hall to raise money for the Garden of Dreams Foundation.

Fond farewell Dec. 17, 2017

Francesa caps an extended farewell tour by taking calls from listeners for 5 1/2 hours on his “final” day at WFAN.

On second thought . . . April 24, 2018

Four months after leaving WFAN, allegedly for good, Francesa says he will return. His first show is May 1.

New York Sports