WFAN morning show hosts Craig Carton, right, and Boomer Esiason...

WFAN morning show hosts Craig Carton, right, and Boomer Esiason dress up on Halloween in the WFAN studios.

Sometimes the guy shooting spitballs from the back of the classroom ends up with straight As.

Not everyone has to like it, but in a results-oriented world, the end generally justifies the means -- and even some occasional meanness.

Take Craig Carton, who with Boomer Esiason has spent the past four years turning a crisis into a triumph at WFAN with a string of No. 1 ratings among men ages 25-54 dating to the spring of 2009.

They have done it with a blend of New York sports talk and blunt morning radio irreverence that never before has existed in the market on a stage as prominent as the FAN.

Listeners have responded, most recently in the monthly period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 12, in which they averaged 6.5 percent of the audience in the demographic most important to the station. (ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," ranked eighth at 3.9.)

"That level of success, you pinch yourself," said Carton, who began with Esiason in September 2007, five months after CBS Radio fired longtime morning man Don Imus.

"I thought we would be successful. I knew we would do a good job. But the fact we're No. 1 in every male demographic and we're the only show on the station that can make that claim is great."

WFAN morning radio hosts Boomer Esiason, left, and Craig Carton...

WFAN morning radio hosts Boomer Esiason, left, and Craig Carton have been No. 1 in the key male demographics since 2009. Credit: Newsday / Alan Raia

In case you missed it, the reference to being the only No. 1 show was a reminder that Mike Francesa, first in the afternoon for most of the past two decades, has not been No. 1 for most of this year.

Hurt in part by the drag of low-rated Mets games and by the rise of classic rock Q104.3, his 1 to 6:30 p.m. show was second in the spring and is again so far this fall.

(Francesa's YES simulcast comfortably out-rates Esiason and Carton on MSG.)

That hardly means his reign is threatened -- he remains a ratings pillar, with a contract through 2013 -- but coincidentally or not, the morning show has been less bashful than ever about taking him on.

Two weeks ago Carton and Esiason took issue with Francesa for not crediting them for an interview in which Dwight Gooden discussed missing the 1986 World Series parade -- long before he did so on ESPN.

Francesa said on the air he is busy with his children at that hour and was unaware of the May interview.

Last week, Carton criticized Francesa's notorious interview with Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, calling the line of questioning "idiotic'' and saying Francesa had an "agenda.''

When a caller relayed those comments, Francesa said he doesn't care what Carton thinks.

Carton said he felt compelled to stick up for the show regarding the Gooden interview, and to comment on the Revis interview because it had become big news.

Carton also has tweaked Francesa's friend, CBS' Jim Nantz, and his producer, Ray Martel. But so far Francesa has resisted firing back. He declined to comment for this article.

WFAN operations manager Mark Chernoff, a veteran of radio battles featuring the likes of Howard Stern and Imus, would not discuss the shows' relationship but as a rule he strongly discourages public sniping.

Esiason insisted it's all just show business. "Everything from the seat I sit in is tongue in cheek,'' he said. "It's not a rivalry.''

Said Carton: "We make fun of ourselves more than anyone, and we make fun of everyone.''

Esiason said Nantz asked him at a CBS meeting about Carton's shtick.

Said Esiason: "I'm like, 'Hey, listen, dude, all you have to do is come on and defuse it. I am not going to stifle my partner in any way, shape or form. You wouldn't do that to one of your partners.' ''

Despite their different backgrounds, Esiason, 50, a former NFL MVP, and Carton, 42, a career radio instigator, appear to get along famously on and off the air, with each other and the rest of the morning cast.

Esiason knew from the start there was the danger he could be dragged into subjects that could reflect badly on him. "But I think people hear it with the humor that's intended,'' he said.

Said Carton, “I don’t think we ever got close to a point where I’m worried about a topic we choose or what we’re talking about.’’

Chernoff said it’s all part of the nature of morning radio, and that he’d rather have hosts that stir passion than not. He said he knew from the first time he heard them on a practice show he had his morning men.

“The hardest thing in radio, I think, is for people to change their morning listening habits,’’ he said. “I give them a lot of credit.’’

Not that anyone is trying to be profound.

"I don't think there's any socially redeeming value to this whole thing,'' Esiason said. "This is not rocket science. This is not painful. We don't need drugs to do this . . . The addiction is coming here and laughing.''

Chernoff said he figured Esiason could do the job but was not sure a former pro would be willing to wake up at 4 a.m. five days a week. So far, so good.

Esiason said he no longer even needs an alarm clock. Can he endure another six years to fulfill Carton's goal of at least a decade-long run?

"If you ask me that right now, of course,'' he said. "Why wouldn't I do that? . . . I think it's morphed into something that's like radio gold. We got lucky. We really got lucky.''

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