Michael Kay completed his long, steady radio ratings rise on Monday by toppling Mike Francesa and WFAN from its decades-long perch atop the local sports radio race.
As expected, Nielsen Audio’s data for the autumn ratings book covering Sept. 12 to Dec. 4 showed “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN New York beating Francesa for the first time since Kay moved to drive time in 2005.
And it happened just in time for Kay, because this was his last chance. Francesa left drive time after his Dec. 6 show to move to shorter shows on Radio.com and WFAN itself starting in January.
Among men 25-54, the target demographic for both stations, Kay was No. 1 among all New York-area stations from 3 to 6:30 p.m., averaging 7.4 of those listening. Francesa was No. 2 at 6.1 percent.
Both stations’ figures include over-the-air and streaming audiences combined.
After the ratings were released, Francesa told Newsday, “It didn’t happen in my first tour [that ended in 2017]. It wasn’t a major concern, or I wouldn’t have returned. Would I have rather left with a perfect record? Clearly. Instead I have to get by at 60-something-and-1.
“Still proud of my record. I think it would have hurt more if I was 10th. I finished second. They had to earn it. They put up a good number.”
Tim McCarthy, general manager of ESPN New York, credited the hard work the Kay show team has put in over the years, as well as the consistency of the station and its hosts.
“What is most satisfying is when we were on a crummy signal [1050-AM] and getting beaten up with those type of comments, this team stayed together,” McCarthy said, referring to Francesa’s vows over the years never to lose to Kay.
“We easily could have abandoned ship and tried to find different people, but I believed all along in Kay and [Don] La Greca and all the other folks, [program director] Ryan Hurley, the producers.”
Regarding the competition, McCarthy said, “Francesa’s had an unbelievable career and still is leaving in a good place. He’s not 15th.”
The writing was on the wall after Kay led the monthly races in September and October. Francesa acknowledged to Newsday on Dec. 3 that it would take a “miracle” for him to recover.
For Kay and ESPN, it was a triumphant moment given the long, contentious relationship between the hosts, evidenced most famously by a Francesa monologue in 2009 – shortly after his partner, Chris Russo, left for SiriusXM Satellite Radio – in which he said this:
“You have never gotten close and you never will as long as I’m sitting here. Maybe someday after I’m gone, but not while I’m sitting here. You can take that to the bank. You can quote it, you can hang it up in their offices and the Sirius offices, because as Yogi once said, you can look it up.”
He added, “You better bring more than pea shooters if you’re going to come after us. Because you know what, the FAN has been No. 1 here for 20 years and it’s going to be No. 1 long after I’m gone. But while I’m sitting here you can be damn sure it’s going to be No. 1.”
It appeared Francesa was right when he initially left in December of 2017. But he returned four and a half months later, putting the streak at risk.
Kay first claimed victory in early 2018, because that winter’s book had Kay ahead if one did not include Francesa’s streaming numbers. The arcane dispute over methodology continued until now, when Kay won by any measure.
Even so, ratings are an incomplete science. The target demographic does not include men ages 55 and over, a group that Francesa wins. It also does not include women.
Kay’s audience on the YES Network’s television simulcast does not count, either. Regardless, the men 25-54 demo is what the stations go by, so Kay was the clear victor.
In the Dec. 3 interview, Francesa credited the addition of Peter Rosenberg alongside Kay and Don La Greca for helping to attract younger listeners. McCarthy agreed.
Beyond the race between the two sports stations, the bigger picture story is the enduring health of the genre itself 32 years after WFAN premiered. Kay and Francesa beat every other station in New York, from news to music to political talk. Kay’s victory was more a matter of his rise than Francesa’s fall.
Kay used to lose to Francesa by huge margins, often by more than a 2-to-1 ratio, and in the final full quarter of 2017, Francesa won over him, 6.6 to 5.0 Francesa has been mostly in the 6.0s range recently, while Kay has built upon his years-long status as ESPN New York’s most highly rated show. Kay got a boost in 2012 from ESPN moving to a better FM signal. He replaced Francesa on YES in 2014.
WFAN retained its edges over ESPN elsewhere on the schedule for the fall, with every other show finishing No. 1 in the market.
Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti averaged a 6.8 percent share of the audience from 6 to 10 a.m., with ESPN finishing 11th at 4.0.
Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts averaged a 7.7 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with ESPN finishing fifth at 5.4.
Maggie Gray and Bart Scott averaged a 6.5 from 1 to 3 p.m., with ESPN seventh at 4.9.
WFAN still has not announced its new lineup starting Jan. 2. Roberts and Benigno are expected to succeed Francesa, but contract negotiations have dragged on and delayed an announcement.