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Mike Francesa reflects on his two-year return to WFAN

WFAN Radio host Mike Francesa at the fourth

WFAN Radio host Mike Francesa at the fourth annual "FrancesaCon" on March 4, 2017. Credit: Corey Sipkin

There was no farewell tour this time, and there will be no grand finale on Friday when Mike Francesa hosts his final afternoon drive time show on WFAN after 30 years.

Francesa initially would not even confirm Friday will be his last show during a 30-minute interview with Newsday in his Manhattan office on Tuesday, although he later did so on the air.

There are two reasons for his low-key approach to the milestone. First, he had his celebratory departure two years ago and understands this one must be less eventful.

Second, Entercom, WFAN’s parent company, wants it known that he will remain in the family, on WFAN itself with a mini-show starting in January from 6 to 6:30 p.m., and with a daily, 90-minute show on Radio.com.

"We’re super-excited about it, really excited,” said Susan Larkin, Entercom’s regional president. “He’s going to get to do some very interesting things and be on multiple platforms for us.”

Francesa’s core mission will be raising the profile of Radio.com, which bought his app in September and where his online content will reside for at least the next three years.

The details still are being worked out, but he expects his online show to last 90 minutes, split roughly two-thirds sports and one-third politics. It would be posted at various times of day and might include callers and/or guests.

The WFAN show will be live most days, but he said he is planning an innovative format that he would not reveal. He will be able to do the show from his home in Manhasset, his second home in Florida or elsewhere.

There have been discussions about bringing back his old Sunday morning NFL show, but he is not sure he wants to do that. He said he might write a book in the next year or two, and already has a writer lined up.

Francesa will leave two days after the end of the autumn ratings period. WFAN will need a new show in place by the start of the next book on Jan. 2. The only thing that seems certain for now is that Evan Roberts will be part of it.

For Francesa, Friday will end a tumultuous 19 months since he returned following a four-month absence. He said he has no regrets about doing so after Entercom CEO David Field asked him to.

He said Entercom wanted him in the fold to help establish itself in New York as WFAN’s new owner, and said the station was in a revenue slump after his departure.

But he acknowledged that his return did not afford Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott room to establish themselves in drive time.

“Obviously, we didn’t give the other show enough time to find its legs, which is probably fair,” he said. “I wish they had had a little more time, because it was probably abrupt. They only had four months.”

Francesa said he had an offer to do a show on another station, which he would not name, but WFAN executives persuaded him to return and assured him there was support from management for him to do so.

“I said, ‘If you guys have any issues in the whole place just tell me and I’m not coming back,’” he said. “They said, ‘No, no, everybody wants you back.’ Well, I don’t think that was really true. I think I got a little misled there.

“I know they didn’t mean the people I was replacing. I think they meant everybody else, but I don’t even think that was true . . . If I had known that it was going to be as rough as it was, I probably would have just said ‘pass’ and gone and done my original plan.”

Part of his motivation was to promote the new app that he would launch that summer. He knew that not being on radio might drive more people to the app. But being on the radio saved huge promotional costs.

Francesa said the app, widely criticized for its $8.99 per month price tag, made a profit every month and made a “big profit” in being sold to Entercom, but that it might not have if it had had to spend heavily on advertising.

While the app might have succeeded financially, Francesa admitted he was not up to the added commitment.

“It turned out to be a lot more work for me than I wanted it to be, not just on the air but in terms of making so many decisions,” he said. “It was consuming me. I thought I didn’t want that at this stage of my life.”

By returning, Francesa put at risk his long ratings winning streak over ESPN New York’s Michael Kay, a streak that almost certainly will end when the quarterly autumn figures are released on Dec. 23.

“Right now, it looks like I’m going to lose, unless I have a miracle,” he said.

Francesa’s ratings have been mostly flat, while in the first two months of the book Kay has continued a long, upward trajectory.

Francesa, 65, noted that his audience has aged with him, and that while he does better than Kay with listeners over 55, Kay has been helped by his success on the younger end of the key 25-54 demographic.

In part, Francesa credited the addition of Peter Rosenberg alongside Kay and Don La Greca for attracting younger listeners. (He stressed he has no complaints about use of the 25-54 demo, noting he has “lived off it for 30 years.”)

So how will he feel on Dec. 23 if he loses officially?

“I would have rather left with a perfect record, but how upset am I going to get about finishing 60-something-and-1?” he said. “Let’s be serious.”

Francesa said he would give Kay more credit for beating him had Kay not celebrated a “victory” for the winter book that did not include WFAN’s live streaming audience and did include ESPN’s.

“They claimed victory when they didn’t win, which I think will take away from their victory now, because why are they claiming victory now?” he said. “Why is it a big deal if they already claimed victory a couple of times ago?”

Francesa added, “We’ve played 60-something matches, and I’m 62-0, and now I’ll be 62-1. If they hadn’t lied about the others, I would say, ‘Congratulations.’ You know what, if they finally win one, I hope it makes them happy, but the bottom line is, I’d rather have my career. I’d rather be 62-1 than 1-62, or whatever it is.”

Aside from the ratings drama, Francesa’s reputation has taken hits in recent years from Twitter feed @BackAftaThis, which chronicles his mistakes and contradictions.

Francesa accused the anonymous poster of editing clips to make him look bad, and said it is the only Twitter feed he has blocked. (The poster denied doctoring clips in an answer to a direct message from Newsday.)

“I think the guy is a fraud; I think the guy hides,” Francesa said. “The guy is a coward and a bad guy . . . It really is hurting my career a lot, isn’t it? Not really.”

In an interview with Sports Broadcast Journal last month, Francesa’s former partner, Chris Russo, said, “Mike should never have come back. He should have stayed retired.”

Francesa said Russo is “allowed his opinion,” and said he has not heard from him since the announcement in June of 2018 that Francesa had been selected for the Radio Hall of Fame.

“If you notice, Dog spent a lot of time opining on my career in the last 10 years; I’ve never once given an opinion about his – not once,” Francesa said. “It’s something he spends a lot of time doing.

“I think it’s fair to say that I’ve lived my solo life in a very, very public, very, very open place and he’s lived his in a very quiet place [at SiriusXM Satellite Radio], where you don’t see much of him or hear much of him.”

Francesa said if their old “Mike and the Mad Dog” show ever is selected for the Hall of Fame, “I’ll be very happy to go in with him.”

As he looked back on the past two years, he said he is at peace with how it all played out.

“I promised them two years, I came back for two years, and that’s it,” he said. “I didn’t want to stay a long time. I hope I did what I needed to do here.

“Have there been some things that haven’t worked out with FAN? Yeah, listen, I think there have been some people who haven’t been happy that I’m here. But the station is in a much better place than it was, which is important to the company.”

He said he does not know who will succeed him and has stayed out of the process.

“It’s a very big opportunity for somebody – a very big opportunity,” he said. “For somebody it’s a very exciting time in their life. And it’s a chance, if they are successful, to have a great run.

“I couldn’t envision having a better job than I’ve had. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve had the best job in sports for 30-plus years. I don’t know how you’d have a better job. There was nobody in town that wouldn’t talk to me. We were always the center of everything from a sports standpoint in this town.”

Now it is almost over.

“Listen, I asked to go there 30 years ago,” he said. “I exceeded my own expectations. I never thought it would ever be as good as it’s been. So I have no regrets. I’ve had an incredible run.”

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