Chris Oliviero knows he picked a tough time to begin overseeing the most famous sports talk radio station in the United States, there being hardly any live sports to discuss because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as a result, the new senior vice president/market manager for Entercom New York said on Monday he will be patient in assessing the lineup WFAN unveiled in January.
That includes the afternoon drive time show hosted by Evan Roberts and Joe Benigno, which has struggled badly in the ratings this spring. (The full quarterly data is not due out until early July.) “They have a long track record of ratings success [in midday], so to me it is unfair to judge them solely on the last two months,” Oliviero told Newsday.
“Are the numbers where we want them to be? No. Are they lower than Joe and Evan ever thought they would be? Of course they are. Joe and Evan would be the first to tell you that. But again, this is not like a panic mode where it’s like, ‘Oh, my.’ There is a reason we can point to and say there’s an issue.”
Oliviero noted the same issue in assessing the new midday show featuring Maggie Gray and Marc Malusis. “It’s been tough on them, common sense would say that, but they’ve been pros,” Oliviero said. “They have been phenomenal at finding ways to adjust, not just from the editorial but also in remote broadcasting, working from home, not being in the same studio. So I give kudos especially to those two shows.”
WFAN’s morning show and ESPN New York’s afternoon show have been more comfortable than Roberts and Benigno in discussing non-sports current events. But Oliviero said everyone must do what comes naturally.
“It’s always been, you have to be who you are,” he said. “You have to be authentic. You can’t fake it . . . At end of the day, you were hired to be a sports host. Now, clearly, these are uncharted days and there is the opportunity and expectation to go beyond sports. But you also have to check yourself and say, ‘OK, what is my expertise? What is my background and experience? Can I effectively engage in these conversations?’”
Oliviero, 43, was head of programming for CBS Radio when it merged with Entercom in 2017, with a history at the company dating to when he was an intern for Howard Stern in the mid-1990s while still a student at NYU. He left on good terms two years ago for what he said was a much-needed “timeout” from the daily grind, and he dabbled in consulting, investing and “doing exactly what I set out to do when I stepped off the hamster wheel.”
Then Susan Larkin, his predecessor, reached out in March about replacing her when she became chief operating officer. He was intrigued by the “personal tug” of his longtime corporate home and the challenge of overseeing its seven New York music, news and talk stations.
Then the pandemic struck, and in addition to the business problem of a cratered advertising market there was an editorial question: “How do you do sports radio without sports to talk about? It’s like saying to a music station . . . oh, you can’t play music right now.”
The business aftershocks continue, even though WFAN has brought back weekend hosts such as Richard Neer and Chris Moore after a hiatus earlier this spring.
Weekday hosts accepted pay cuts through July before Oliviero took over. He said there have been no discussions about whether to seek any further concessions beyond that.
When sports return fully, Oliviero and Mark Chernoff, who still oversees day-to-day operation of the station, will try to chart a course in a genre that is more than 30 years old – and whose average listener is far older than that.
“It comes down to engaging, compelling personalities – full stop,” Oliviero said. “It is about finding talent that when you put them in front of a microphone, it connects with an audience.”
As part of that process, Oliviero said he and Chernoff intend to maintain a priority Larkin set of seeking a more diverse lineup.
“Your host should reflect the community you serve across the spectrum – diversity, age, however you want to define that,” he said. “So to me that’s going to be the goal with FAN moving forward. If you put a mirror up to FAN, does it reflect New York?
“Clearly, we have a lot of work to do on that front. We recognize that. We talked about that even before I left . . . It’s recognizing the need to be a reflection of the people you serve, knowing we can always do better.”