Francesa’s replacement on WFAN in the afternoons is a trio: the former Jets linebacker Bart Scott, Sports Illustrated’s digital video anchor Maggie Gray, and Chris Carlin, who began as a producer for “Mike & the Mad Dog.” Mark Chernoff, the station’s longtime vice president for programming, said he expected their varied backgrounds and personalities would bring in new listeners.
“To try to replace Mike with something that sounds exactly like Mike is a death sentence,” Oliviero said.
Francesa seemed skeptical that any departure from the traditional approach to attracting listeners on radio — with good, old-fashioned content — will make a difference.
“When radio is at its best, it’s live and local,” he said. “They’ve put too much of their effort into digital, and not enough selling to the people who are in their backyard.”
Kornheiser, whose podcast, the Tony Kornheiser Show, grew out of his former radio show on ESPN Radio and various stations in the Washington area, said Francesa might be the perfect entertainer to bridge the gap between the hyperlocal formula of traditional sports-talk and the wider world of podcasting.
“You can get so much national stuff,” Kornheiser said. “But local is the commerce of your life.”
Indeed, Francesa’s shows are marked by his argumentative, often dismissive, repartee with the callers. Brian Monzo, Francesa’s producer, said the show averages 30 to 40 calls per hour, on five different lines, and those are only the calls that get through.
Some eccentric callers have developed their own reputations. A glance at a number on hold revealed how many times that person had called (409) and how many times he had gotten on air (87).
“I’m guessing that’s Mike in North Carolina,” Monzo said. “I can tell it from the area code.”
Ian Eagle, a former board operator for “Mike & the Mad Dog” and now the play-by-play voice of the Nets, said Francesa boasted an “encyclopedic” memory for sports information, but that was only part of his talent. Francesa’s ability to “discern what was most important in an event or story was unparalleled,” he said.
Francesa, though, started as a researcher for CBS Sports. Colleagues called him a “facts machine,” and he still does his show with several newspapers in front of him, opened to the agate page of statistics and standings. The turning point came in 1989, when WFAN paired him with Russo, blending his over-the-top energy with Francesa’s blunt, outer-borough, barstool-style authority. It proved a success almost overnight. Sports-talk channels began popping up around the country, replicating their formula.
“If those guys had failed, this whole push toward sports-talk radio would have definitely had a serious slowdown,” said Ted Shaker, a former CBS Sports executive producer.
Now, with Russo on satellite and Francesa contemplating a jump to podcasts, that era appears to be winding down.
“I’m going to miss him,” Oliviero said of Francesa. “But from a business standpoint, we’re excited.”
Undoubtedly, WFAN and its parent company are making a trade-off. In late November, after the Giants benched their quarterback, Eli Manning, a vintage, bellowing Francesa rant confirmed to listeners that he was not slowing, despite those notorious clips of him falling asleep on the air. The tirade quickly caught fire on social media. On YouTube, a recording of it has been viewed more than 157,000 times.
But how many of those listeners ever tuned into the show? That is the problem Entercom and other radio stations are trying to solve.
That is no longer Francesa’s problem. After Friday, he becomes just another New Yorker with a lot of opinions, looking for a place to channel them.