One was a former NFL MVP faced with waking up at 4:15 every weekday morning, indefinitely. The other was a little-known, quick-witted pot-stirrer tasked with replacing an iconic, quick-witted pot-stirrer.
Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton? The notion that they would save mornings on WFAN after the abrupt firing of Don Imus — the man credited with saving the station itself in its early years — seemed far-fetched when they began on Sept. 4, 2007.
Ten years later, they not only are a ratings hit but the pillar of a lineup soon to be scrambled by the departure of Mike Francesa from afternoon drive time.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” Carton said recently. “There are a lot of times when it feels like a week ago we were in the basement in Astoria and were just getting started.”
That start followed Imus’ firing in April after a remark aimed at the Rutgers women’s basketball team that widely was seen as racist and sexist, and it ended a summer of experimentation much like this one to find a replacement for Francesa.
But because Carton still was working at the time for a station in central New Jersey, he never appeared on the air with Esiason until getting the job. Instead, they did test shows off the air.
“I had Chris Oliviero, our executive VP of programming, with me, and I looked at him after a couple of things I had them do and said, ‘This is my morning show,’ ” WFAN VP of programming Mark Chernoff said.
Chernoff pushed for a program anchored in sports, far more so than Imus’ was, but with more leeway to drift off topic than the rest of the station’s lineup.
The result has been an eclectic mix of sports, pop culture and “guy talk” that has morphed more into “family talk” as the hosts and their children have grown up.
“You start taking stock of your own life,” Carton said. “When we started the show, I had three kids, none of them older than 6. Now I have four kids, a daughter that drives, a teenage boy, and life kind of just goes.”
Esiason, 56, has played the (relative) voice of reason to Carton’s manic unpredictability. Carton, 48, mostly has managed to stay on the safe side of the line he sometimes crossed into controversy during his Jersey days.
The show’s biggest controversy actually fell on Esiason, who in 2014 suggested the Mets’ Daniel Murphy and his wife should have scheduled a C-section for the birth of their son so Murphy would not miss Opening Day. Esiason apologized.
“I knew from Day One with Boomer the things I wanted in a partner — not that it was my decision — he brought that,” Carton said. “He doesn’t fight me for the mic. He didn’t want to do the radio [mechanics] part. And I say this all the time: From Show One to show whatever-the-hell-it’s-been, it’s the same show. The dynamic has never changed.
“For two Type A personality guys — him a lot more Type A than me — to share a small room with each other, and then three or four other men, and there really never being a cross word on a personal level, I mean, I don’t know if that’s ever happened anywhere.”
Esaison said he recognized a week into the show that it was best served by Carton as its emotional core.
“Let him drive the narrative when it’s negative or when it goes into any sort of impersonation, and let’s play off of what he does, because he’s very talented that way,” Esiason said. “I know he has got other issues, but the other issues are what make him who he is.
“He has ADD [attention deficit disorder]. He has a touch of Tourette’s [syndrome]. He has restless leg syndrome, partially photographic memory. He can’t sleep. That is what makes him the radio star that he is . . . Like any quarterback would on a football field, you recognize what people do well and try to get them the ball in that situation.”
Carton has not lost his talent for needling people, including Francesa and Francesa’s ESPN competition, Michael Kay, both of whom he is openly hostile to, and impersonation subjects such as Yankees radio announcer Suzyn Waldman.
The audience responded, with the show regularly rating first in the target demographic of men ages 25-54.
“If you would have said when I took the job, ‘Would you sign up for 10 years?’ I’d be, ‘Absolutely,’ ” producer Al Dukes said. “In my head I was like, if this goes five years, I’ll be happy, decent run, especially of all the shows I’ve worked on previously.”
Dukes sensed it might work when he saw that Esiason, who grew up in East Islip, could take a joke.
“Early on we took a couple of calls where guys were busting Boomer’s chops, and he laughed at it,” Dukes said. “I knew then that, hey, as long as Boomer can take doing the hours, then I think he’ll be great at it.”
Ah, the hours. It is the bugbear of all morning radio hosts, but especially those in sports, where the games often end later than any reasonable bedtime.
“When he told me he would get up in the morning and do this, of course I said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re going to do that,’ ” Chernoff said. “He said, ‘No, no, if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.’ Really, that was my biggest question, and he’s never been late for work.
“He’s always where he needs to be, whether it’s at the station or at a remote, and he manages all of his other things, amazingly, his foundation, his TV work [for CBS and Showtime] and whatever else he has on his plate.”
Esiason said the fight against cystic fibrosis inspired by his son, Gunnar, keeps him going.
“I have to stay relevant for the bigger picture of my life,” he said. “I could have retired 10 years ago, moved to Arizona, lived on a golf course, said goodbye to all of it. But there’s a bigger aspect of my life . . . I’ve raised $150 million in that life, and my son is a big part of it now and it’s driving everything that he does. You can’t just walk away from that.
“I [cannot] become somebody that is not on WFAN or ‘NFL Today’ or Showtime or the Kitten Bowl or whatever else, because every time I do something, every single one of those companies is supporting me in some way, shape or form on the back side of it. So it’s really my motivation.”
None of which is to suggest Esiason is not enjoying the job, early wakeup calls or not.
“I love that show, because I laugh every single day,” he said. “The guys that I work with, Eddie [Scozzare], Al, Jerry [Recco], Bobby [Dwyer] are unbelievable guys to work with. Chernoff is funny, a great boss and a great guy to work for.”
For years, Carton half-jokingly would tell Esiason on the air that he owed him a 10-year commitment. Now that the decade is up, how long might this go on?
“I swear to God, I have no idea,” Esiason said. “I could wake up tomorrow and tell you I’ll do it a year and I could also wake up and tell you I’ll do 10 more years. It actually does keep you young and keeps you kind of in the loop.”
Perhaps, but on the recording of their first show, Carton’s voice sounds noticeably younger. (“Ten years of waking up super-early and probably eating heavy Italian food at 4 o’clock in the morning isn’t great,” Dukes said.)
But Carton said he is up for more and figures it is time to extend Esiason’s original 10-year “commitment.”
“Boomer owes me at this point,” Carton said, “because think about it: Ten years ago, who was Boomer Esiason? Where was he? What was he really doing that was all that important outside of his foundation? . . . Now, what I’ve done for him is I’ve given him a life. I’ve given him a voice. I don’t know that we’ll do another 10, but I know that he owes me.”
But seriously, folks, Carton said he is “not addicted to the microphone” and could see himself moving on.
“I enjoy not being around anybody else,” he said. “So the notion of maybe just fishing seems appealing to me. Not today, of course, because I love doing it today.”
The radio veterans on the crew know how rare this is, so why mess with success?
“It’s very hard to have a hit radio show and to work on one,” Dukes said. “You don’t really get two chances to do that. This was my chance.”
Said Carton, “For 10 years, we’ve overcome. My own father says, ‘You guys are No. 1?’ . . . Boomer and I were given a great platform 10 years ago. We’ve exceeded all expectations of having that platform, but we are very respectful of the platform afforded us.”
Later, he said, “If you talk about me and Boomer doing another 10 years, it’d be great. We have a responsibility to Al and Jerry, because without us, what are they going to do? Sports Phone doesn’t exist anymore, and Al’s got no other perceptible skills on this planet, so it’s all good.”