As WFAN begins its second new era in four months on Tuesday with the return of Mike Francesa, an executive at the center of the dramatic turn said on Monday that he believes all will be well, both in business and personal terms.
“Did we know it was going to be complicated moving pieces around? Yes,” said Chris Oliviero, executive vice president of programming at Entercom, WFAN’s parent company. “Did we know the Internet would explode with emotions? Yes.
“But it was too big of an upside for everyone not to try to figure it out, and in every conversation we had with Mike personally, he agreed 100 percent with our desire and offered to be supportive in balancing all of these pieces effectively.”
The key to that balance was bringing back Francesa while finding a meaningful role for Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott, who succeeded him after he left WFAN on Dec. 15 and who are under contract through 2019.
Moving them from 2 to 6:30 p.m. to 1 to 3 widely and understandably has been viewed as a demotion. But Oliviero pushed back against that notion, arguing that a two-hour show on WFAN still is valuable radio real estate.
“Two hours of content on WFAN in New York?” he said. “Pretty cool, pretty important. What I’m trying to do in my conversations with people as the radio guy is try to make sure that people understand in the year 2018, it’s not 1998 or 1978 anymore, where radio shows need to be contained to certain four-hour blocks, afternoons, middays and mornings.
“It’s about creating compelling audio content. If that’s four hours versus three versus two, as long as it’s high quality — and also people can consume it on these other platforms . . . I don’t think there is anything to be apologizing or ashamed of to say ‘two hours a day on WFAN.’ ”
Oliviero said that, had the station simply announced in December that Francesa was shaving two hours off his day and that WFAN was launching a 1 to 3 p.m. show, “that would be one of the most sought-after jobs in all of American sports media.”
He added, “I need to be crystal-clear about this: No one at WFAN, no one at Entercom, any management up or down the food chain, had any interest in ending our relationship with ‘CMB.’ That was never, ever on the table — period.
“We believe in that show today with the same passion we did when we announced it last year and expect them to be part of FAN for years to come.”
Oliviero said he was “not disappointed” in the afternoon show’s winter ratings, in which it lost narrowly to ESPN’s Michael Kay among men ages 25-54, and would have carried on with “CMB” had not Francesa become available.
“We had zero conversations internally and externally with anyone to replace them,” he said. “This was a result of one unique talent coming back into the marketplace in a unique business arrangement that made it worth it to consider.”
That process began with Francesa and CAA Sports discussing with Entercom CEO David Field the launch of a digital, multi-platform content operation that would include audio, video and live events, not just another radio show.
“This is a completely different animal, with a lot of tentacles on it,” Oliviero said.
One of the key goals was harnessing some of the interest in Francesa that was evidenced last week when he garnered massive digital and print media attention even on the week of the NFL Draft. The idea was to gain control of that content.
Oliviero said CAA shopped the idea to various potential partners, “but I think Mike, CAA and Entercom quickly realized that WFAN for so many reasons was going to be the perfect and most logical dance partner for the venture.”
Rather than a TV simulcast of the show, video from it will appear only on the new app. “Mike, CAA and Entercom understand they’ve got some digital gold in their hands,” Oliviero said. “They just want to control it now.”
All of that in turn led to the idea of a daily radio show as a generator of content for the digital operation, as well as a promotional vehicle for it. Plus, Francesa missed communicating with the radio audience directly.
“I think we all determined quickly that a radio show would be the fuel to the venture,” Oliviero said.
But what about “CMB”?
“That was the two layers of the equation we needed to solve,” Oliviero said. “How do we continue to stay in business with ‘CMB’ in a meaningful way to grow and invest in them and also get back into business with Mike?”
The plan was presented to Carlin, Gray and Scott last Tuesday by Oliviero and Mark Chernoff, WFAN’s VP of programming, the two men most responsible for hiring them.
“The initial conversation obviously was no different than the vast majority of the public when they heard,” Oliviero said. “There was surprise, because there wasn’t really any whispers that this was going on. It moved fairly quickly.
“So there was definitely surprise, and on a human level you have to step back for a second and go, ‘OK, what just happened? My world was turned upside down. Let me digest it.’
“I think as each day passed since we had the conversation, as would be expected, they started to see, ‘Wait a second: I understand why this happened.’ . . . They understand that long term this has a chance to be a huge win, not just for them, not just for Mike, but for the entire radio station. And let’s not forget two other key constituents: a big win for listeners and a big win for clients and sponsors.”
Chernoff said he plans to have Francesa meet with his colleagues in an attempt to clear the air and get everyone on the same page. Francesa said he will do whatever is asked.
“CMB” has taken the high road publicly, but morning co-host Boomer Esiason last week described the circumstances of Francesa’s return as “pathetic.”
“I think some of the [internal] drama that’s being reported is a little overstated,” Oliviero said. “But I get it. We’re all in the entertainment business. As long as everybody is aligned on providing the best sports programming for the audience, that’s the No. 1 and only obligation.
“If everybody is going to get along and go to Thanksgiving dinner, that would be a happy surprise. But, by the way, it’s not essential.”