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Craig Carton, Evan Roberts and the ratings battle ahead for WFAN

WFAN's Craig Carton attends the "Mr. Chibbs" opening

WFAN's Craig Carton attends the "Mr. Chibbs" opening night screening at the IFC Center on May 3, 2017 in New York City.  Credit: Lars Niki

As guarantees by Jets quarterbacks go, it was not as historic as some. But there was former Jet and current WFAN host Boomer Esiason early Friday morning with a bold on-air prediction:

"They’re going to win that time slot," he said of his former partner, Craig Carton, and Evan Roberts, Carton's new afternoon drive-time partner. "They’re going to crush the other guys. I guarantee it."

"The other guys" are ESPN New York’s Michael Kay and friends, who have a new challenge now after out-rating Mike Francesa for the first time in last autumn’s book and handily beating Roberts and Joe Benigno this year.

Carton and Roberts start Nov. 9, and the fact that the stations’ old afternoon ratings wars are about to heat up again is one example of why WFAN quickly brought back Carton after he spent a year in federal prison for fraud.

ESPN declined to comment on what Esiason said, but Carton echoed him, albeit more cautiously.

"I love having that support," Carton told Newsday on Friday. "And yeah, listen, that’s my plan, for sure."

Carton frequently finished No. 1 among men ages 25-54 with Esiason from 2007-17. But that was against national programming. Kay will be difficult to dislodge.

It appears there at least will be less personal animosity in the race than there was between Francesa and Kay.

Carton, who was a guest on Kay’s show in April 2019, reached out to him on Thursday.

"I wanted to thank him again for letting me go on the show a year and a half ago and to let him know I appreciate it, and my job is to beat him, and to wish him good luck," Carton said.

"He said he recognized that and competitively he’s going to try to beat me and he was happy I was potentially bringing more listeners to afternoon radio."

Chris Oliviero, the market manager for Entercom New York, WFAN’s parent company, considers the executives at ESPN friends but acknowledged the battle to come.

"’Crush’ might be too extreme of a word, but I would say this: Craig Carton has never not been No. 1 wherever he’s worked.

"So it’s almost like the Yankees: What is the expectation every year? Win a championship. Anything less than a championship is disappointing. No pressure on Craig, but those are the standards he holds for himself, so that’s the expectation. But it will be tough. It will be tough."

Carton said it is unfair to judge Roberts and Benigno on ratings from the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, given they did a sports-heavy show that had succeeded in middays and now had no sports to discuss.

"That being said, my belief is if Evan and I do the entertaining, compelling radio that he has done on his own and I believe I have done and did for 10 years at WFAN, I think we’ll zoom right to the top of the ratings," Carton said, "and it won’t be much of an issue."

It has been a challenging business year for most media companies, and even though Oliviero said WFAN is faring better month by month, having a jolt of publicity and energy from Carton should help.

The announcement on Thursday of his return, followed by a 70-minute, late-afternoon preview show, generated much attention, and Carton said he is grateful most people have been "extraordinarily supportive."

"Social media is the most negative place in the world, and the reaction I’ve gotten so far has been overwhelmingly positive," he said.

Roberts joined Carton for part of the hour-plus. Carton, Oliviero and Entercom senior VP Mark Chernoff all said they were pleased with the byplay and expect the pairing will work.

Oliviero said Roberts and former WFAN and current ESPN host Bart Scott, who opted to remain at that network, were the "clear front-runners" to pair with Carton.

Roberts and Scott would seem to have little in common as options, but Oliviero said Carton’s versatility is such that he could have worked with either one. All involved insist Roberts can adapt his sports-heavy persona to Carton’s broader act.

"Although it was only 10 or 15 minutes, I think you saw immediately how he’s capable of playing off non-sports stuff and being very quick-witted," Carton said.

When Carton was arrested Sept. 6, 2017, Francesa still was working in drive time, before the first of his two retirements. After three years of turmoil in that time slot, the hope for WFAN is that Carton and Roberts will bring stability.

There also figures to be a far better relationship between the morning and afternoon shows than during Carton’s first decade at the station.

"It’s no secret Mike and I personally and professionally disliked each other, and that turned out to be good for radio, I thought," Carton said. "Mike never played into it as much as I wanted him to. If he had, it would have been even better.

"But now you have a situation where some of my best friends at the radio station are working from 6 to 10 in the morning . . . I think you’ll see a real cooperative relationship between the two shows and I think we’ll be able to have fun with each other and at each other’s expenses."

Regarding Francesa’s return from retirement in May 2018, Carton said, "I felt bad for the people that were hired to replace Mike and him not staying away when he retired and not allowing that show and all the shows at the station to grow.

"But I also understand him missing doing it. It’s a very unique job we have, and most people who do radio for a living would tell you they don’t know what else to do if they didn’t have radio. I understand. I get that after doing it for 30 years, it’s very hard to walk away. It really is."

Francesa declined to comment on Carton’s return.

Carton, 51, said he was reminded on Thursday of how much he had missed the job. "Just being able to sit behind a microphone, it’s just so comfortable and natural for me," he said. "It’s like oxygen."

The morning and afternoon shows appear to be settled for now, but it is possible there will be changes in middays in the months ahead.

Oliviero praised Maggie Gray and Marc Malusis for how they have navigated a pandemic-marred year, but he would not discuss any future potential roster moves. "I am not playing fantasy FAN lineup anymore," he said.

For now, the focus is on the new afternoon show, and the one at ESPN on which it has its sights set.

"My goal, and I think everyone’s goal, should be to win as quickly as possible and be successful as quickly as possible," Carton said. "Evan and I are on the same page: To go out there and do the best radio from Day 1."

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