A Tribute to Retiring Sports Radio Giant Mike Francesa: The Most Loved (and Hated) Broadcaster in NY
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the call.
It was a Friday night, around 8:00, when my phone rang. It was Mike Francesa. Sports broadcasting pioneer. Radio icon. New York legend. Mike Francesa.
And he wasn’t happy.
Those with even a passing knowledge of Francesa – who, for the past three decades, has been a staple of afternoon drive on WFAN sports radio in New York — understand that one doesn’t ever want to be on the wrong end of his wrath. Yet I’d managed to place myself there by writing a 7,000 word profile of him which he found – at least in parts – objectionable.
“Joe, it’s Mike,” the gruff voice on the other end of the line said. “I just read your story. And you’re not gonna like what I have to say.”
What came next was a whirlwind. Francesa spent about twenty minutes berating me for the various sins I’d committed. He didn’t appreciate my leading the story with a highly-publicized incident of his nodding off on the air. He felt I shouldn’t have referenced one of his more vocal critics in the New York tabloids. And he was incensed that I’d quoted a writer who delivered a particularly brutal insult about his appearance.
I’d tried my best to play the story down the middle, and was a bit surprised by his reaction. Francesa was savvy enough to know, going in, that the piece wasn’t going to be a love letter. The first third of my article was pretty rough on him. But I thought the last two-thirds painted him in a mostly positive light. Not positive enough for his liking, evidently. The sports radio icon was letting me have it.
And then, suddenly, he turned around.
“You are a good writer,” Francesa said – beginning a brief flood of compliments. “You’re a very good writer.
I took pride in Francesa saying he appreciated my focus on the technical aspects of his radio craft — a part of his repertoire that I believe has gone overlooked by the many who have analyzed his career. Francesa allowed me to observe his show from the control room, and I chronicled a sequence in which he seamlessly dispatched a listener phone call and transitioned to an interview with an NFL coach without a moment’s hesitation. He noticed that I noticed.
“What we showed you, I thought you got it,” he said.
There were more kind statements – some of which I’ll keep private. But the point here is that a central thesis of my story had been proven right. I set out to learn what drives someone to call Francesa’s show. So many listeners who phone in get treated to a tongue lashing – or worse yet, disinterest. But to be the rare person who gets a blessing from a man famously referred to as the Sports Pope, that is the ultimate. A truly unique feeling of validation. It’s like having Beyonce compliment your singing.
See, the praise never came easy from Mike Francesa. You had to earn it. But that made it worth something. In my case, that made it worth everything.
I hung up the phone, invigorated by the stamp of approval I’d just received. I was three years into a fledgling freelance career at that point – this after a few years scuffling around as a talk radio board operator and producer. After my conversation with Mike Francesa, I felt like I’d arrived.
On Friday, Mike Francesa ends his storied run with WFAN – a run which began in 1987. It’s hard to imagine sports talk radio without him. It’s a genre he all but created. In the opinion of this reporter, it’s a genre in which he is without rival.
To commemorate his departure, Mediaite is republishing my 2013 all-access profile – which originally ran on the sports website SB Nation. Francesa didn’t open up his studio to many reporters – only a handful gained admittance over the course of three decades. What follows is a rare behind-the-scenes look at a sports broadcasting giant, and a reflection on why he’s such a vital industry figure.
The Importance of Being Francesa
Originally Published Jan. 8, 2013 by SB Nation
By Joe DePaolo
The clip, all of 1 minute 23 seconds in duration, spread across the Internet with the speed and precision of a missile strike. In the 10 weeks after it was first posted on YouTube, it received approximately 715,000 views. It was originally uploaded onto the popular video portal by someone with the username “sportspope.”
That username serves as an homage to the clip’s subject – veteran New York sportstalk radio broadcaster Mike Francesa. “Sports Pope” is the moniker by which Francesa is commonly addressed in the column of New York Daily News sports media critic Bob Raissman – who deems him to be all-knowing, and dismissive of his audience.
Mike Francesa doesn’t know who sportspope is, per se. But he has an image of sportspope, and his or her ilk, firmly planted in his head.
“(A) bunch of teenagers, and a bunch of people who have a lot of time, and no lives, who just put vile stuff up about everybody on the Internet,” he says, confidently leaning back in his office chair. “We all know that. You can go find that on any public person. I don’t care if you’re talking about the President of the United States. I don’t care if you’re talking about any athlete. I don’t care if you’re talking about me. There’s vile stuff out there that’s not true.”
This clip, unfortunately for Francesa, does not fall into that category. It is unaltered and, as such, incontrovertibly true – although Francesa offers an interpretation of the footage that differs wildly from the general perception. The clip depicts an 83 second excerpt from the television simulcast on the YES network of his daily WFAN radio program – Mike’s On: Francesa on the FAN. Francesa, in this portion of his Sept. 10, 2012 broadcast, is talking to Sweeny Murti, who is the New York Yankees beat reporter for WFAN.
In the first 54 seconds, Francesa gradually closes his eyes, his glasses loosely perched on his nose. His head slowly lowers toward his desk, and his broad shoulders begin to sag. By the 55 second mark, Francesa’s head is practically at rest upon his chest. Murti, who has been talking the entire time, calls Francesa’s name to signal that he’s wrapping up his point. Francesa is startled by the sound of his name, and he violently snaps to attention. He emits a slight, but clearly audible grunt three seconds later, then consults off air with his control room staff – seeming to ask them to catch him up on what he’d missed.
The visual evidence is damning. Mike Francesa clearly appeared to fall asleep on the air.
The only person who doesn’t seem to think so is Mike Francesa.
“Honestly, I don’t think I had fallen asleep on the air. And I still don’t think I fell asleep on the air. I actually know I wasn’t asleep. I know what the video looks like, but if you listen to it on the radio, no one got anything out of it because I didn’t miss a question. I didn’t miss a beat in the interview. I was clearly nodding off, but I was listening to Sweeny the whole time. So I was still there. I was still conscious. That’s why, to me, I never really thought like it happened. I know what the video looks like. But I was still awake, even though it looks like I was asleep.”
The fallout befuddled Francesa. Several prominent sports blogs heavily promoted the clip, complete, with the requisite snarky commentary. GQ contributor Drew Magary took great delight in the incident, calling Francesa “a greased Hefty bag with glasses,” on the magazine’s website. Magary went on to say that “Going to sleep on the air should be the defining moment of his career.” David Letterman even saw fit to play the clip during his Sept. 17 Late Show monologue.
“People used it to attack me. And they used it to make fun of me. Which – listen, I knew it was gonna happen. You just basically live through it.
“(I)t was a unique incident. People took it and put it ‘above the fold’ on websites. They took it, and sent it to everybody, and played it, and passed it, and then it started appearing on all different TV shows. So that went on steadily for a week. And I still hear about it now. I still see stories where people tag stuff in the story, and bring it up.”
One follow-up story on the popular sports site Deadspin featured a clip in which Francesa responded harshly to a trio of listeners who called into his show on Sept. 14 to poke fun at him over the video. The last of the troika, “Justin in Queens,” received a stern admonishment after sarcastically asking if Francesa had fallen asleep during an interview with New York Mets analyst Bobby Ojeda. Francesa, whose exact salary has never been made public but is clearly in seven figures, taunted Justin by making reference to his gargantuan wages.
“(Y)ou sat there an hour to say that,” Francesa said, referring to the amount of time that Justin had been on hold before being put on the air. “An hour to make that point. But I hope you had a good time. ‘Cause it didn’t bother me at all. ‘Cause I’m still gonna be here tomorrow, the next day, the next day, and get paid a fortune to sit here and do this. So, just remember that.”
This is a frequent criticism of Francesa – his aggressive treatment of callers. The critics say he talks down to callers and belittles them. To a certain extent, Francesa will plead guilty as charged. His every utterance on the air is governed by his unshakable belief that he knows more about sports than his audience.
“I don’t believe this idea that everyone knows as much as I do,” Francesa says. “If I go to the doctor’s office, I don’t think I know as much as the doctor. He’s spent his life learning his trade. If I go to my accountant, I don’t know as much about the tax laws as he does. I’d better not.”
He attributes much of his indisputably vast sports knowledge to his 30-year tenure in television and radio. A native of Long Beach, N.Y., Francesa graduated from St. John’s University with a degree in communications and sports administration in 1977. Five years later, he was hired by CBS Sports as a researcher – during which time he worked closely with Brent Musburger and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, among others, as part of the groundbreaking NFL pregame show The NFL Today. He also played a role in the network’s college basketball and football coverage.
He stayed at CBS for 11 years, eventually ascending to the rank of on-air analyst. In 1987, he began to perform double duty – serving first as a weekend and fill-in host at WFAN, and then becoming a full-timer shortly thereafter. In 1989, he was paired with Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo in the afternoon drive timeslot, where he’s remained ever since. For 19 years, the Mike and the Mad Dog show served as a game changer. It ruled the New York marketplace, frequently finishing as the highest rated show in town among men 25-54. The duo won a Marconi Award, radio’s equivalent of an Oscar, back in 2000, for Major Market Personality of the Year. The show helped to further legitimize sports talk radio, and accelerate the growth of the format across the country.
Russo departed WFAN for Sirius Satellite Radio in 2008, and left Francesa to man the afternoon drive slot solo. Francesa, 63, has been able to maintain WFAN’s stranglehold of the time period. He generally beats his main competition, the local ESPN Radio affiliate, by roughly a 2-to-1 margin in that most important demographic. Francesa also captured a second Marconi earlier this year.
But it is a much different media world in which Mike Francesa toils now, despite his continued success. YouTube did not exist when he was first starting out. Now, it is an inescapable part of his reality. “Francesa Snoozefest,” as Deadspin dubbed it, is a byproduct of the new age.
“Clearly, it is a new technology incident. If we go back and that would’ve happened in ’93, nothing would’ve happened. There never would’ve been an incident. “
Mike Francesa has no use for the Internet. The more you listen to him talk about it, the more it becomes clear.
“There’s photo-cropped photos that are disgusting. There’s all that vile stuff there.”
The incident marked the second time in as many months that a Francesa video was a hot commodity on the Internet. On Aug. 23, Francesa opened his show with a 10-minute diatribe against the hapless New York Mets after they had just gotten swept in a four-game series against the equally inept Colorado Rockies. Francesa’s broadcast immediately followed the last game. He was furious that he was stuck with the woeful Mets as his lead-in.
“It was really more a personal thing than anything else because I knew that I was sitting there waiting for them to finish – for me to go on, and I had to share my show with them, which means they were impacting my performance.
“(T)hey’re intruding my space. So I have to sit there and watch that mess– getting tired of the fact that they are as bad as they are because they obviously impact my ratings when they’re in my time period. So I had a personal interest in their ineptitude.”
This is the popular portrayal of Mike Francesa that has existed in the mainstream cultural landscape for better than two decades now: pompous and petty, brash and egotistical, humorless and vain, rude to his callers, and occasionally prone to embarrassing faux pas– such as falling asleep during his own show. It is not a flattering portrait, to say the least.
So why, then, does Mike Francesa matter?
“Sit down,” Francesa says, waving at a chair in his surprisingly compact 10th floor, downtown Manhattan office.
It is Friday, Oct. 26 – a clammy, overcast day in New York City that would serve as a fitting prelude to the catastrophic storm that would arrive in fewer than 72 hours. The television on his office wall is tuned to CNBC (“I know a little bit about business,” he says with a tiny smirk). The volume is on, although quite low and not intrusive. Though the guest chair is positioned at roughly a 60 degree angle from the set, the ticker cannot help but be viewed peripherally as it races across the screen at its customary rapid pace. Francesa takes his seat.
“All right. Let’s go,” he says to his visitor. Though spoken softly, the command is issued in such a way as to strongly discourage defiance.
For 15 minutes Francesa fields queries while making an alarmingly small amount of eye contact – that is to say, almost none. His eyes are fixed on CNBC. The Dow is down at this point, although a mild afternoon rally will allow it to close up slightly for the day. Though this information might be highly pertinent as it relates to Francesa’s portfolio, it is not the reason he is focused so intently on the television at this moment. Francesa is sizing up his inquisitor. It’s his feeling out process. This man does not suffer fools. You must prove yourself worthy of his time and attention, hardly a simple task.
Mike Francesa is a difficult man to satisfy. Though he’s a product of the Vietnam era (he was never drafted but chronic knee problems likely would have excused him from service), he conducts himself like one who came of age during World War II. Behind a tough exterior he holds many of the Greatest Generation’s core values dear. Smiles are few and far between.
Until you prove yourself, you get long, meandering answers. The man often repeats himself – a habit, one would assume, attributable to the fact that he must fill five-and-a-half hours of airtime daily. He doesn’t trust you to talk. Why should he? You simply aren’t as good at it as he is. So he’ll do it himself, thank you.
“I don’t lack confidence. I admit that. I know I’m good at this. If I don’t think I’m good at this, why would anyone else think I’m good at it?”
But it becomes clear, over the course of this 90-minute session, what moves a caller to phone in to try to match wits with Francesa. The callers long for validation. He can provide it. They crave the unmistakable sense of accomplishment that comes from impressing this man. Francesa’s guard will drop, little by little, as the conversation progresses. The happenings on CNBC, a primary concern in the chat’s early stages, would soon be relegated to the background. In the waning moments, he will actually lean over his desk, seemingly relishing his participation in a discussion that he was initially reluctant to sit for.
The turning point in the conversation is the transition to the subject of technology. Francesa suddenly perks up. He’s got opinions about everything, but his opinions on this subject are infused with an unmistakable passion. He can’t wait to tell you about the inherent dangers that exist in this new media age.
He has already experienced them first-hand – the backlash to the sleeping incident being the most noteworthy recent example. But some of Francesa’s resentment towards technology may also stem from the role that he believes it played in getting his friend, and former colleague, Don Imus fired from the station in April of 2007.
“In the old days, I’m not sure the Imus thing would’ve happened,” he says – a trace of regret in his voice. “I think it would’ve been passed over.”
Imus’s derogatory, racially charged on-air conversation with a producer about the Rutgers women’s basketball team (Imus called them “rough girls,” and “nappy-headed hos”) was largely ignored at first, but then gained traction thanks to the fact that the video was easily accessible. YouTube, once again, was the primary culprit.
“YouTube doesn’t interest me,” Francesa proclaims. “I’m not voyeuristic that way. I’m not fascinated by some of the stuff I see there. I think a lot of it is tedious. I’m not a YouTube subscriber. As a matter of fact, on my iPad, I’ve never been to YouTube.”
Do not take his disdain to equal disinterest, however. His recollection of Sleepgate includes a moment in which he betrays his cultural acumen.
“The video kind of became its own force. And it just – it went viral, is the word I know they use. That’s what it did. It went viral.”
Francesa likes to present the appearance that he is disconnected, or at least immune, to the zeitgeist. This is not the case. He knows what is happening outside the world of sports. During a commercial break on his Oct. 26 show, Francesa can be heard casually chatting with his control room staff about One Direction – a British pop act whose target demographic consists of girls at least four decades younger than him.
Surely, a good deal of this cultural awareness stems from the fact that he is the father of three children – twins Jack and Emily, age 12, and Harrison, age 11. One presumes that Francesa and his wife Roe have watched more Nickelodeon than they’d care to admit over the past few years. That said, the idea that Francesa hasn’t always had an acute awareness of the latest cultural trends is a complete fallacy. He knows full well the etymology of the term “viral.”
If there is a media outlet that attracts more of Francesa’s vitriol than YouTube, it is Twitter. Francesa believes Twitter is the enemy of reason and pragmatism. The kind of extreme, profane opinions that are commonplace on Twitter are nowhere to be found on Francesa’s show. He is the rare sports talker whose takes are measured. He cautions that the potential ramifications for those who participate in these heated, nasty conversations on the social networking site are enormous – particularly if they are public figures.
“I did a very controversial rant on Twitter one day, and warned people about Twitter. I said, ‘It’s gonna get players in hot water. It’s gonna get broadcasters fired. It’s gonna get public people sued. It’s gonna cost people their jobs.’
“And we’ve already seen that since I said it,” Francesa added, referring to Exhibit A in his case against Twitter, Scott Torgerson, a Columbus, Ohio, based talk show host. After tweeting that he wished Desmond Howard, a host of ESPN’s College Gameday, “would get fired or die so I could watch Gameday again,” Torgerson was fired.
Despite these perils, due to the rapid growth of cable sports, this would seem to be a golden age for the sports fan. People can watch games from far away locales that, in days gone by, would never have been available to them. Thanks to social media like Facebook and Twitter, fans can congregate and discuss the strategy of a game without going to a sports bar. Thanks to smartphones, fans can take the game with them wherever they go.
Francesa recognizes all this, but also offers a warning that will one day show him to be either comically archaic, or surprisingly prescient. The more you hear his thoughts on the subject, the more you begin to suspect it might be the latter.
“I think there are positives to the technology,” Francesa allows. “But I think there are great dangers to all the technologies.”
Is Mike Francesa getting in the way of progress? Has he outlived his usefulness in the digital age? Should he be dismissed as a relic of a bygone era?
Or is Francesa the sports fan’s last great hope, the sole remaining outlet where reason triumphs over madness? And will the tenor of our national sports discourse further devolve after he’s gone?
Is Mike Francesa the only thing standing between us and noise?
A man in his late 30s, wearing a green uniform for a courier service, pokes his head into Francesa’s office. He’s in a hurry, on the clock, but he can’t help himself. When is he going to get this chance again?
“The New York sports legend, I salute you!” He says, beaming from ear-to-ear.
“Thank you,” Francesa responds, with a tiny smile and a wave of acknowledgment. “Nice to see you.”
“Keep on going!” The man says, before leaving. His jubilant laugh can be heard as he retreats down the hall, his day made.
For the first time in his career, it is not a foregone conclusion that Mike Francesa will take this man’s advice. He’s made a contractual commitment to continue on with his show through the first months of 2014, but is unsure beyond that.
“I’ll be here ‘til after the Feb. 2, 2014 Super Bowl,” he says softly, and deliberately, in what seems to be genuine contemplation. “That’s all I’ll say.”
With three young children at home, millions of dollars in the bank, and a bevy of awards on his mantle, Francesa has plenty of reasons to retire. The thing is, he still loves his job. Apart from the month of February, when he readily admits he’d “rather be on the golf course” in Florida, the allure of the juicy topic is irresistible.
“When there’s something really going on, there’s no place I’d rather be. Anywhere. Anytime. I can’t wait to get here.”
Mike Francesa, though he seldom smiles, seems happy, content, at peace. It’s hard to picture him departing, even after the expiration of his current pact.
To hear him tell it, the relationship between him and his New York City audience has been a quarter-century long love affair. Lest you think Francesa’s harsh tactics with callers are a source of acrimony, he maintains that his run-ins with listeners are almost always cordial.
“It’s 99.9 percent positive,” Francesa says of his personal interactions with the public. “I love the fans. They couldn’t be nicer. Whether it’s policemen, fireman, guys walking down the street, I get recognized everywhere I go, and I’m appreciative of it.
“New York City,” he says, pausing to reflect. “Hey, listen, they’ve given me an incredible life.”
Approximately halfway through his show later that day, the Friday before Game 3 of the World Series, Francesa interrupts his broadcast to play the press conference of Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. He remains in the studio, watching the video feed of Leyland addressing the media.
Francesa is rooting for the Tigers, citing his friendship with Leyland. Though Francesa is nine years younger, he considers the venerable skipper a peer.
“The athletes are a lot younger than I am now,” Francesa says. “I have friendships with coaches. I have friendships with owners. I’m 58 years old. I’m not gonna hang out with athletes. I don’t want to be friends, or hang out with athletes. It’s not my thing.”
Not only is Jim Leyland more likely to appear on Mike Francesa’s social calendar than, say, Justin Verlander, he’s also more likely to appear on Francesa’s air. Francesa believes coaches provide far more insight into the games than players. During the Series, he plays significant portions from the press conferences of the two managers prior to each game. With Leyland’s club facing a two-game deficit, there is no one that Francesa would rather hear from.
One particular part of Leyland’s address strikes a chord with Francesa. Speaking about his team’s approach to Game 3, Leyland voices a virtue long held by Francesa – even invoking a Francesa-ism in the process.
“This is simple to me,” Leyland says. “We’re going to work, bring your lunch bucket, go to work, give ‘em a good day’s work for a good day’s pay, and go home.”
While Leyland’s entire sentiment resonates with Francesa, touching on the core values that Mike Francesa holds dear, the words “Bring your lunch bucket,” in particular, bring a smile to Francesa’s face. Long-time listeners can attest to the fact that the phrase “bring your lunch” is a Francesa mainstay.
“I like Leyland’s approach,” Francesa said over the air, upon the conclusion of Leyland’s remarks. “Matter-of-fact. Not a lot of nonsense. Just go out there, bring your lunch bucket, put in a good day’s work.”
“I don’t like where the culture of sports has gone,” Francesa says. “I don’t like all the nonsense that goes on, all the silliness. We’ve taken sports in a terrible direction. We crown people when they’ve been around six months. We pay people an exorbitant amount of money and take away their incentive when they’ve been on the job a year. It’s all done backwards. We don’t make people earn it anymore.”
Francesa has an opinion as to why the culture has strayed so far from Leyland’s approach. Part of the blame, according to him, should be assigned to the outfit that is, perhaps, the single most powerful entity in the sporting universe – ESPN.
“ESPN, by no fault of their own, got too big,” Francesa declares.
The rivalry between Francesa and ESPN is long and complicated. ESPN entered the New York radio market in 2001 and in an effort to take over the marketplace, forbid their talent from appearing on Francesa’s show – or any other on WFAN. Yet the withholding of their talent has, to date, failed to help ESPN radio close the ratings gap with WFAN.
This does not keep Mike Francesa from criticizing ESPN’s practices, and their overall contribution to a culture that he detests.
“They became too much a part of the landscape because they have an amazing amount of money. They’ve wielded it like a club.”
Despite ESPN’s ban, Francesa still maintains strong relationships with several ESPN personalities. Former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, and Francesa’s former WFAN colleague Mike Breen were both longtime regulars before the ESPN edict came down. The latter was recently taken in briefly by Francesa as a Hurricane Sandy refugee.
Then, there is the case of ESPN’s “Sports Guy,” Bill Simmons. The two have been mutual admirers for some time. In a fawning 2006 column Simmons called Mike and the Mad Dog “my favorite radio show ever.” Francesa, in turn, views Simmons as incredibly witty and when Russo left the show in 2008, he even called Simmons to gauge his interest in co-hosting. Since then, Francesa has watched Simmons’s role at ESPN expand from writer and editor to serving as host of his own podcast – The BS Report – and appearing on ESPN’s NBA pregame show, NBA Shootaround. Francesa does not seem to approve.
“When you find something you’re good at, stick with it,” Francesa says – voicing a personal philosophy that runs counter to Simmons’s recent career developments. “I think what happens in our business is that people get to a certain level, and then they’re like, ‘OK. I have to go prove I can do this now.’ Why? Why can’t you just stay there and do it really well? When you do something well, why can’t you stay there, and perfect it, and prove that you can do it really well?”
In response to a direct question about Simmons, Francesa shares an experience from his own career, illustrating a fundamental difference between the two iconic personalities. “A year-and-a-half into Mike and the Mad Dog, I got offered an enormous TV deal to leave, and I turned it down. It was the best decision I ever made. I could’ve left. But understanding where you belong, and understanding where you’re supposed to be and what you’re good at – I never entertained another serious offer. But I had a very serious offer that was wide in scope, and was a very big opportunity. And I turned it down.”
While ESPN has cast these men as professional foes, Francesa directs his scorn mostly toward those at the local ESPN Radio affiliate – and those at the corporate level who have dictated the policies at that station that Francesa deems to be both selfish and fruitless. Indeed, the battle between Francesa and ESPN is unlikely to conclude anytime soon.
Bring your lunch.
It is 4:05 p.m., and Jason Garrett is late.
The head coach of the Dallas Cowboys was scheduled to call in to Francesa’s show at the top of the fourth hour on Oct. 26, in advance of his squad’s showdown with the Giants. Francesa’s producer, Ray Martel is not panicking. According to him, NFL coaches are frequently tardy for their appearances.
“Happens all the time,” Martel says. “He could be in a meeting or something.”
Still, the show is forced into a holding pattern. Francesa takes phone calls, something he hadn’t originally planned on doing. Update anchor Bob Heussler is told his services won’t be needed at 4:20 p.m., that there will be no update until after the Garrett interview. This is a freedom extended to very few hosts.
“The regular guy is not supposed to go through the ‘20s,’ or go through the top of the hour,” Francesa explains. “He’s gonna hear about it from the program director. I have complete control. I can do whatever I want. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I have some latitude. I have latitude that most people don’t.”
He’s about to demonstrate why.
At 4:15 p.m., the control room starts to get a little antsy. With two regular contributors – FOX NFL personalities Jay Glazer and Troy Aikman – slated to call in, and Francesa’s popular NFL Picks segment still on the docket, time is beginning to run short. Not only is the interview scheduled to be aired live for his predominantly local audience, Francesa also plans on replaying the interview during his nationally syndicated football show, The NFL Now, on Sunday morning.
Francesa continues to field calls, while Martel and board operator Pete Bellotti (both of whom left Francesa’s show on Dec. 28 to work for the newly launched CBS Sports Radio Network) plan for the possibility that Garrett will not show. Finally, at 4:23 p.m., a representative from the Dallas Cowboys calls to inform Martel that Garrett is ready. The control room springs into action. Martel must simultaneously greet Garrett, inform Francesa that Garrett is on the line, and set up his computer to record the segment for playback on Sunday. Bellotti is frantically shifting commercials around in the automated log, melding two commercial breaks into one and telling the YES Network control room, based in Stamford, CT, that they’ll need to do the same.
This is all happening directly in Francesa’s field of vision, even as he is taking a phone call from “Chris in Riverdale.” Chris makes a comment that he believes New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning should be considered a serious MVP candidate. Francesa – a longtime Manning backer whose support of the quarterback while he was struggling in the early part of his career ultimately proved prescient – agrees. But now that his guest is on hold, he must succinctly state his point and quickly bring Garrett on to the show.
“You’re right,” Francesa tells his caller. “The guy bringing it all together is Eli Manning. And Eli Manning has played the first seven games like an MVP candidate. There’s no question about it. You look at the numbers, and you say ‘Wow! I like the yardage. But 12 TDs, seven picks, that’s not MVP.’ You know what? It is MVP because he’s done it with a myriad of receivers. He’s done it in close games. He’s brought them from behind in the fourth quarter. So it is MVP-type. So to me that’s been a big difference. And the guy who’s going to have to deal with that this Sunday is the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and an old friend, Jason Garrett. Jason, welcome, how are you?”
The transition is seamless. Francesa didn’t pause for as much as a split-second. The listener, or the viewer, for that matter, hadn’t the slightest inkling that any of this controlled chaos was happening behind the scenes.
“He’s the best,” Martel says.
When people attempt to analyze Mike Francesa’s success, moments like that tend not to be factored into the equation. Francesa believes that people often overlook his skill as a broadcaster. He says that there’s a lot more that goes into his show than meets the eye.
“(T)here’s an art to holding an audience,” Francesa says. “I don’t think it’s just, ‘Oh, whatever I say, my wit and my charm is going to make people always gravitate to the radio.’ I think there’s work involved. I think there’s process involved. I hope part of it is my wit and charm. But a big part of it is a process, where I believe that this is how I formulate a show.”
It is difficult to fathom that a single person hosting a five-and-a-half hour radio show is not improvising. But, indeed, every single segment of Francesa’s show is plotted. “My show is formulated. It is formulated only in my head, but it is formulated. That’s something that I’ve always thought was important to do every day. Have an idea. Don’t just go in there rudderless.”
At the top of each show, Francesa delivers an uninterrupted 10-12 minute monologue. Beforehand, Francesa knows precisely what he will say and how he will deliver it.
“Just like a writer knows the end of a story before he starts – I mean, he knows the end, he knows the beginning, he knows the middle before he starts – I know the end (of my monologue) before I start. But it isn’t scripted at all. It is stream-of-consciousness, but I know where I’m going. I know where the start is, I know where the middle is, I know where the end is. I know what the last line’s gonna be before I start.”
Don Hewitt, the late executive producer of 60 Minutes, held a famous maxim. “Tell me a story,” he would often say. The groundbreaking journalism produced by 60 Minutes over the years, in Hewitt’s opinion, boiled down to that simple credo. Under Hewitt’s stewardship, 60 Minutes told stories.
Mike Francesa is a huge believer in “Tell me a story.”
“When you talk about a player, or you talk about a team, wrap it up in a way that you’re telling a story about that player, or about that team. We all love a story. Being able to tell a story is vastly underrated. If you tell the audience a good story, they’ll always listen.”
The subject matter of the story, according to Francesa, can’t just appeal to the storyteller. It has to appeal to the audience. Francesa believes that this is one of his greatest talents, and one of the most overlooked secrets to his success.
“Don’t go in there and do what you want. This is what I think a lot of people miss the boat on. Go in there and think (about) what your audience wants. I think I’ve always known what a story is. I think I have a good sense for what a story is.
“A perfect example – I got on the Penn State story a week before anybody else did. And I was pounded. People were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I knew it was gonna be huge. I felt it from the minute I heard it that it was gonna be huge. I (first) talked about it on my Sunday morning show (on Nov. 6, 2011). It didn’t start getting major play until the next Friday (Nov. 11).”
An ESPN.com article written by the Poynter Institute while disputing the precise timeline, partially confirms Francesa’s assertion. According to the piece, ESPN, as a whole, “was slow to grasp the full implications” of the scandal. By the afternoon of Nov. 8, however, Poynter concluded that the tenor of their coverage had begun to change.
In his later years, Francesa has been more apt to talk about serious subjects like the Penn State scandal. A recent crusade of his has been taking on drunk drivers. A number of New York athletes have been arrested for DWI of late – most notably New York Knicks point guard Jason Kidd and New York Giants offensive lineman David Diehl. Francesa has come down very hard on drunk drivers, admitting that it’s an issue that hits close to home. “I know people who’ve been badly hurt, and I know people who’ve been killed (by drunk drivers).
“If you have a drink, get someone to drive you home. I mean, that’s just inconceivable to me.”
Meticulous plotting. The ability to tell a story. Identifying what the audience wants to hear. And having the gravitas to tackle a tough issue.
Four big reasons why many listeners are inclined to agree with Ray Martel’s assessment of his former boss.
Jason Garrett’s tardiness, an event that passed for a minor crisis in Francesa-world on Oct. 26, couldn’t have meant less on Oct. 29 – when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the northeast. Many of Francesa’s listeners suffered devastating property losses. Many more were without power and listened to the show on transistor radios.
Days like these serve to underscore the folly of incidents like Sleepgate. They might make for humorous fodder in the blogosphere, and perhaps Francesa would be better served to laugh at himself in such cases. But any attempts to truly trivialize his career, and what he’s meant to New York City, solely on the basis of incidents like this are misplaced.
“Local radio, done right, is special.” says Francesa. And as the water began to recede and the scope of devastation was revealed, New York City needed Mike Francesa to be special. For two days, on Monday, Oct. 29, and Tuesday, Oct. 30, he broadcasted from home in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, and as his ISDN line frequently faltered, he was often forced to resort to a standard phone line. The specific content of these shows was almost secondary. All that was required of him was his presence, his familiar voice. Not that the scrupulous plotter would ever allow content to take a backseat. The broadcasts would be just as carefully planned as any, particularly when he returned to the studio.
“When we got back in the studio, obviously we knew things weren’t anywhere near normal. So I thought the thing was to try and mix some sports in, to give people something to help with their troubles, but also to provide information.”
In between the sports and the information, he tries to make them laugh. On Thursday, Nov. 1, Francesa opens his show by doing what he does best – thinking about what his audience wants and telling a story. This one is not about the Giants or the Yankees. In fact, it is not about sports at all. He tells a self-deprecating story about getting a flat and changing a tire while traveling through Long Beach, one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy:
“Now,” he says, chuckling. “I haven’t changed a tire in – I can’t tell ya how long. And I’m like, ‘Oh no.’ I can’t call now, okay … no one’s comin’ … They got a lot more issues (sic) to worry about than me … No one’s gonna help me, so I gotta change the tire myself.
“Now, I don’t have the manual. So I’m like ‘Where exactly do I put the jack?’ … (T)here’s gotta be a place underneath … Now, I’m on the street … and it’s all wet there too. So now I gotta get soaking wet ‘cause I gotta look under the car to see where I can find the little thing … Y’know, I was dressed in sweats. So I get on the ground now, and I’m looking under the car, and I find the little thing.
“Listen, I used to be able to do this. I used to park cars. So I did it. Loosened the lugs before I jacked it up … Try to get it up … Crankin’ it, crankin’ it. First coupla times, it slips out … Finally get it where it’s pretty stable.
“Now, I gotta get the rest of the lugs off, and fit the tire in … So I’m all the way over to the side – where it’s wet, muddy, sandy. And I sit on the curb … So I sit in a whole thing of sticker bushes right on the side of the curb … I’m actually picking these things out of my rear end as I’m making … you know, I’m getting’ dirty … wet … ugh.
“Finally, got it done. I don’t know how long it took, took me about a half hour. Got to my house … took a shower … So that was my morning. And my wife’s like, ‘Did you actually change the tire?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She goes, ‘No you didn’t. Who helped?’… I said ‘No! I changed– … And then my daughter says to me, ‘Dad. You didn’t change the tire. Who changed it?’ I said, ‘I changed it! Look at my hands!’ “At this point, Francesa is again laughing. “Might’ve been the first one I changed in fifteen years. But hey … what choice did I have?”
For a man who doesn’t often poke fun at himself, Mike Francesa picked a perfect time to do it. The story was a prime example of local radio done right. It made people laugh, and, for a moment, to forget.
One of the issues that moved the meter the most in the days following the hurricane was the status of the New York City Marathon. Francesa, during these broadcasts, was one of the most vocal critics of the New York Road Runners and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who, for several days, attempted to go forward with plans to run the race on Sunday, Nov. 4. Francesa was opposed and he voiced his opposition loudly and repeatedly.
“It would’ve been in bad taste. They were still digging bodies out of Staten Island.” On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 2, the New York City Marathon was cancelled and over the next few days, Francesa would field many calls from listeners who congratulated him on helping to get the race stopped. He, however, downplays his role.
“I got too much credit,” Francesa contends. “I was the loudest critic, but I think the Mayor, understanding that there was a groundswell of unrest and criticism there, changed what would’ve been a very, very bad decision. So I know I was a very loud critic on that, and it’s obviously flattering to give me a lot of credit. But I don’t take that credit. I think the Mayor just made a change.”
Less successful were his attempts to get the lights turned on. The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), in particular, was widely thought to have dropped the ball. Their customers seemed to be coming online at a much slower rate than the rest of the area. “I was trying to see if we could push some of the power authorities along. I knew there were two central issues, power and gas. I was trying to provide information, and also, give people a place where they could kind of voice their frustrations a little bit.”
The audience responded in droves. For the better part of two weeks, Francesa’s show became an auxiliary complaint department for LIPA. Quarterback controversies were kept in perspective.
“I was being inundated with faxes and texts and all different stuff. And people had all different complaints. LIPA was just so ill prepared, they were just so overwhelmed. I don’t think it was that they weren’t trying. I just think they were not able to do their job.”
The Long Island Power Authority may not have been doing their job in the tenuous days after Hurricane Sandy. But Mike Francesa most certainly was doing his. He didn’t put up telephone poles. He didn’t clean up the excess water from the subways. He didn’t rebuild homes. His contribution to the recovery effort was as simple as it was important:
He took his place behind the microphone, thought about his audience, and told his city stories – just like always.
Joe DePaolo is the senior writer and sports editor for Mediaite. His profile of Mike Francesa was a notable selection of the Best American Sports Writing 2014. Follow him on Twitter @joe_depaolo.
[image via screengrab, videos via YouTube/YES Network]
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