Mike Francesa is well aware that there will be some lingering “hurt feelings” when he returns to WFAN on Tuesday, but he said his primary focus will be the task at hand.
“My job is to go there and be No. 1,” he said in a wide-ranging interview Friday shortly after Entercom, which owns WFAN, announced that he will return after 4 ½ months off the air.
“That’s my job, is to go there and do what I’ve always done, which is to try to drive my program to No. 1. The other stuff that comes with that, if I have to take a leadership role, I’ve never been afraid of taking that.”
By that he meant meeting with colleagues to clear the air, presumably including Chris Carlin, a former “Mike and the Mad Dog” producer whose relationship with Francesa has been strained, and Carlin’s colleagues, Bart Scott and Maggie Gray.
Those three are expected to move to 1 to 3 p.m. weekdays from their current 2 to 6:30 slot to make way for Francesa from 3 to 6:30 p.m.
Francesa said he already has been asked by management “to take a leadership role in terms of certain things,” but he said he will follow its lead in navigating a situation that Carlin acknowledged will be “awkward.”
“If they ask me to meet with someone, I’ll meet with them,” Francesa said. “If they ask me not to meet with them, I won’t meet with them. I’ll do what they ask me to do. I’ll take their cue.”
Mark Chernoff, WFAN’s vice president of programming, said Friday that he plans to have Francesa talk to his colleagues when he returns.
Francesa insisted his return is about more than a mere radio program; it is part of a larger project built around a new app he is developing in partnership with CAA Sports and Entercom.
But he added that he is eager to reconnect with his old audience.
“The chance to come back and get in front of the fans for a couple of hours a day is a joy for me, because I’ve missed them,” he said. “I’ve missed them a ton. I’ve missed not performing.
“After all this stuff that’s gone on, I can’t wait to get in front of my audience who I love being in front of and I can’t wait to connect with again.”
While Carlin, Gray and Scott have resisted firing back at Francesa or the station, Francesa has taken flak from multiple directions, including from morning co-host Boomer Esiason, who on the air called his return “pathetic.”
Francesa spent more than a year preparing publicly for his departure on Dec. 15, complete with special events and tributes. Many have criticized and/or mocked him for his quick turnaround.
“I don’t worry about it,” he said. “Listen, let other people worry about it. I have no time to worry about that. I’m looking forward. I live my life this way: At the time, that was all real. Every bit of it was real.
“If you had said to me in January I was going back to FAN, I would have never believed it. If you had said to me in February I was going back to FAN, I never would have believed it. I wouldn’t have believed it maybe even three weeks ago that I was still going back.”
But Francesa said he has been speaking to Entercom CEO David Field since December about trying to acquire the rights to the “Mike and the Mad Dog” archives and name for use on his app.
Francesa said he had been prepared to make a deal with Entercom for those rights and then go elsewhere for a new daily platform but that in recent months Field had pushed him to return to WFAN in some form.
“I made it very clear to everyone on the Entercom side and on the FAN side that if anybody in management or any person had any issue with me going back, I would gladly go to another station in New York,” he said.
“But here’s what was going to happen: There was going to be a third sports station in the afternoon. That’s what was going to happen. They didn’t want any part of that.”
Francesa would not say what station he was referring to. WOR has the rights to Mets games, but it has a powerful afternoon lineup of political talk.
In the end, Francesa said, it made sense in business terms for Entercom to bring him back. Carlin, Gray and Scott narrowly lost in the ratings race to ESPN New York’s “The Michael Kay Show” among men ages 25-54 from January to March.
“None of you ever discuss business,” he said. “You guys never bring up business in anything you do. You talk about, ‘this guy said this, this guy doesn’t want that.’ You know what: this is a business deal! It’s all business.
“Why do you think the owner wants me there? Because it’s better for his company. Are they better the day I show up there at 3 o’clock? They’re much better. We all know that. You would have to be dumb to claim otherwise.”
Francesa’s rebooted show will be called “Mike’s On,” as will the app, which is set to launch in late summer. The plan is to have a video stream of the radio show on the app, which also will include archived material.
The app will stream a new version of Francesa’s old Sunday morning NFL show, which for now will not be on radio but might find a TV home. Francesa also wants to develop new sports talk voices through the app.
His partnership with CAA Sports and Entercom also is to include live events.
Francesa said the radio show will emanate from “multiple sites,” presumably including the station’s lower Manhattan studios and his Manhasset home.
What will the breakdown be?
“I will not be giving you guys the schedule, sorry,” he said.
He said he will not take nearly as much time off this summer as he has in the past.
Francesa, whose new contract runs through 2020, would not discuss his salary beyond saying he will be paid “extremely well” and on the “same level I’ve been paid in the past.”
But he noted that his show will be two hours shorter than it was in the past, presumably an indication that his pay will be similar per hour but less than it was for 5 ½ hours of work.
“The idea they wouldn’t pay me extremely well doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
On Tuesday, Francesa told Newsday that he planned to return to WFAN but cryptically mentioned this as a reason:
“This is for those who started this campaign in recent days. I didn’t decide to go back to WFAN until I was told I better not go back. For those behind it, that was the moment I decided to return.”
On Friday, he said he was reacting to anonymous quotes in news accounts in which WFAN staffers said “it would be terrible for the station and no one wanted me back. That was basically hoping that I would say I don’t need this and go away.”
He added, “The only reason I even went public was because there were stories written and there were nasty comments in the stories. Now, unless the comments, which were FAN sources and FAN hosts making nasty comments, unless they were fabricated comments, they were pretty nasty comments about how no one wanted me back, which is nonsense.
“If you’re a host, are you happy I’m coming back? Probably not, because it makes it look like I have to come back to save the season, which that’s not what I’m trying to do here. But if the station was hitting it out of the park in every day part, they probably wouldn’t be trying to bring me back right now.”
He added, “Somebody saying I wasn’t not welcome there was not going to keep me from going back was my point.”
Those stories appeared on Monday, though. Wasn’t Francesa’s return to WFAN already well in motion by then? When pressed on the timing, Francesa grew impatient.
“I had not made up my mind completely, but my point was they weren’t going to keep me away,” he said. “That was written to try to keep me away and saying, ‘Don’t come here; you’re not wanted.’ But you’re making way too much of this.
“The owner of the company wanted me to come to FAN in the worst way; management wanted me to come back in the worst way. Those are facts.”
Francesa pushed back against a report that Chernoff was against his return.
“If Mark Chernoff didn’t want me at FAN, I wouldn’t set foot in the building, ever,” he said. “You think I’d go to a place where the program director didn’t want me? Not in a thousand years. If anyone had done anything except urged me — and you can underline urged — me to go back, I would never have gone back.”
Francesa added, “What’s been written is absolute fiction . . . The idea that anybody in management didn’t want me at FAN is so patently ridiculous it’s laughable, absolutely laughable. They did everything they could to bring me back to FAN. That is a fact.”
Chernoff said later Friday that he is “100 percent” in favor of Francesa’s return.
“I believe there’s a lot of room for growth with ‘CMB’ and I am excited to have Mike back . . . We put [‘CMB’] in there knowing that was going to be our afternoon drive show, so I believe in them. But given the opportunity to have Mike come back, I wasn’t going to pass on that by any means.”
Francesa said the app has been the driving force behind his post-WFAN plans from the start, and that it was decided that a traditional radio outlet would be the best “conduit” to the app.
He said that when Entercom suggested WFAN itself, he said, “ ‘That’s going to be ticklish.’ They said, ‘It can be done.’ We started going forward with that. The first time it was introduced was maybe six weeks ago.
“We started to figure out if that would work. We knew there was going to be hurt feelings. We discussed that. They told me nobody would lose a job, nobody would lose any money. We knew that there was going to be a re-entry that was going to be touchy. We understood that. We knew there would be criticism.
“But there are two reasons it wound up on FAN. One, my loyalty to the station, which is very strong for me. I don’t care if anyone believes it or not. I [couldn’t] care less. It’s strong to me. I spent 30 years there. That’s my team.
“Number two, they had stuff I wanted. I badly have wanted and have been trying to get the ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ library and the ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ name for 10 years . . . I wanted it to be part of the app. Now it is. Now it will be. I now have the ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ name under my control, which is something I’ve wanted for a very long time.”
Using WFAN as the “conduit” made the business transition smoother, he said.
“It meant going home, which on a lot of levels I like. When I get in front of the audience, it’s going to be great. I love that part. The other part, obviously, there are some things that have to be worked on and paved over, there’s no question.”
Since news of Francesa’s return broke on Tuesday, he has landed on the back pages of Newsday and the Daily News and driven massive traffic on local media outlets’ digital platforms even against the NFL Draft.
“I’ve gotten very used to getting a lot of attention, I mean, I just have,” he said. “Was it extreme this week? Yeah. I was surprised there was so much anger and negativity about me coming back from a standpoint of you can’t ask a company that is a public company to not try to improve itself.
“Wouldn’t you if you had a baseball team or you had a lineup? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to improve the lineup every day? Isn’t that your job? I think that’s what they are trying to do.”
Francesa was upset by reported quotes suggesting he had come back to work to get away from spending too much time with his wife and three children.
“I’ve heard people make utterly stupid and ridiculous comments like, ‘Oh, he found out how hard it is to be home,’ ” he said. “You know what? I have the best family in the world. I love being home. I could stay home every day. I like what I’m doing. But I always wanted to come back and have some ventures. I like to build things. I really have this passion to build this app.”