Neil Best leaves no stone unturned in the world of sports media.
Mike Francesa, unabridged
Here is the thing about interviewing Mike Francesa: He is very quotable, as you would expect from a guy who talks on the radio for 5.5 hours each weekday.
But he also is very wordy, as you would expect from a guy who has to fill 5.5 hours on the radio each weekday.
That makes it extremely difficult to fit what he has to say into a newspaper article, but that is why God created blogs.
Here are (mostly) complete transcripts of conversations I had with Francesa, Michael Kay and their immediate radio supervisors that I had to distill onto a newspaper page for Friday.
You can read it all, though. Enjoy.
Francesa on the upheaval at WFAN when Chris Russo left in the summer of 2008 and how Francesa was able to maintain the show's ratings edge:
"Obviously the station at that time went through a lot of upheaval for a couple of years. It seemed like there was a lot going on. We kept having a lot of change [beginning with the firing of Don Imus in 2007]. It was a real unsettled feeling.
"I really believe that over this period, from the start of 'Mike and Mad Dog' and what has followed through, having been in the same time period all that time, what I have developed with the audience is the idea of consistency, and I’ve become one of the real constants in the city in that people turn to me for their sports, they turn to me not just for the big story or the big news but just on daily issues.
"Dog and I created a niche where we became part of a lot of people in this town’s lives. We became a daily part of their lives and the goal, and I really believe the objective, was to maintain that. It couldn’t be exactly the same show. It had to be different.
"But remember, I had always done a show by myself on Sundays. I had always done a show at different times in the summer. We would work half the summers solo, so we both knew how to do shows by ourselves. It wasn’t like, oh my god, I’m a fish out of water.
"Other shows shut down. We never did that. We actually liked our time to work by ourselves, and I think we were competitive about it, too. We were highly competitive about it. That’s part of what Dog and I always were about. It was a team but it also was a highly competitive aspect of our relationship.
"I can’t tell you the company wasn’t worried, and I can’t tell you that I wasn’t at least saying, hey, I know what I have to do here. I knew that people were lining up. They’ve been waiting for a long time. They’re still waiting for a long time. You get to a point in this town where the only thing left is to write someone’s demise."
Me: Sounds like what Derek Jeter is going through . . .
"I actually have watched what’s going on with Jeter and thought, geez! I am not comparing myself to Jeter. What I’m saying is when you’ve had a lot of success over a long period of time, some people are going to revel. I think Jeter is incredibly popular. A lot more people are going to revel in my demise, many more. I readily admit that.
"I do understand that the big story that everyone was lined up for was, hey, this could be it, finally. And it didn’t happen and I’m sure it disappointed a lot of people. But I tell you, I was very concerned about it. I took it seriously. I felt there was a lot of pressure, no question about it. But what I went in to do was just basically do what I do and be true to who I am and what my personality is.
"I wasn’t going to try to do something that I don’t believe in. I wasn’t going to try and goof the show up. I wasn’t going to try and do anything I didn’t believe in. 'Mike and the Mad Dog' never did that. We were always being ourselves. I’m not saying we didn’t perform and didn’t sometimes create stuff, but that’s part of it, too. You’re an entertainer, a performer.
"What I said is listen, I’m going to be what I’ve always been. It’s a different dynamic, the show changes in certain ways, but my idea was to just be who I am and bring the same stuff. I did not want to dumb the show down. I did not want to change the show in some way that I wasn’t comfortable with and basically let the chips fall where they may.
"The dumbest thing I ever did was tell [Newsday] I would have someone on the show by Labor Day. My intention has always been to bring some other personalities into the show. I haven’t found any that I’m comfortable with. I still am looking. I admit that.
"But I got to a point where I said I can’t be bringing people into the show. The worst thing we ever did was try people out just to see how they felt. I never should have done that. That was the biggest mistake I ever made. And I was much happier when we got past all that because then I could just go to work and not have to worry about setting this person up or doing this or doing that.
"That was not going to work because everyone in that way was going to be compared to Dog and that wasn’t fair. There is no way to do this while you’re on the air. It would just have to happen where someone started to contribute and their role grew. That’s the only way how I knew. It has never happened. It would have to happen organically.
"Once the first book was so successful and the next two were a couple of the biggest we’ve ever had in 20 years, there was no more talk of it. There was no more talk since then because we’ve had a great run. We’ve had very, very good ratings. There’s been not one conversation.
"[Operations manager] Mark Chernoff and I have talked about a million things because it’s such a long show. We’ve talked about many elements we were going to try. But I’ve really come to the conclusion that the only thing that would work would be to organically grow a role that started small and took off on its own steam. That has not happened. If it ever happens, you’ll see it happen that way."
On the competition from ESPN Radio:
"Dog and I had this thing to ourselves for a very long time. We were it. We were as hot as any two-man team had been in a very long time. We got a challenge from Opie and Anthony. They came and gave us a real good run for our money after we had been established for a long time.
"But when the other sports station came along [in 2001], first of all, they were ESPN, so you have to notice. Secondly they came out and made all kinds of wild predictions. They were going to bury us in a year, they were going to do this, they were going to that, they were going to this, they were going to do that.
"And remember, early on it was ugly. There was a lot of nastiness back and forth. There was a lot of nasty stuff said at that time. After that there really hasn’t been any. It calmed down. There has been nothing in any way said between the programs or the shows. Early on we gave [Michael] Kay a hard time. Kay said nasty things about us. When I see Kay now we have a very pleasant relationship."
What about that February 2009 line when you said, "If you're going to come at us you better bring more than a pea-shooter?"
"That started because of Dog and Howard Stern. It wasn’t ESPN, but I went off on them. But I was told of this party they threw when Dog left. Did the party get my competitive juices flowing? Of course it did."
On Kay attributing his ratings deficit in part to 1050's inferior signal:
"That’s utter nonsense. First of all, they’re not close in the ratings. They are so far away you can’t even see them, OK? I compete to finish first in the marketplace. They finish usually 15th to 20th in the book. To me we are not talking about the same playing field. I get grief if I don’t finish first in the entire demographic. That’s my only goal. Everyone is my competition.
"I worry about beating Lite FM, I worry about beating CBS-FM, I worry about beating every station in the city. I think there are times it’s a challenge. But No. 1, their signal in New York City is far better than ours. No. 2, there is nowhere that you don’t go within a half-hour car ride of Manhattan that their signal is not perfect. Their signal is fine throughout Nassau County. Their signal is fine anywhere.
It’s a problem an hour and a half or two hours out of Manhattan, or after dark, which doesn’t affect that show. I hate to say it: That’s a cop out. That’s a total cop out. Let’s be honest. They would like to beat me. They’ve never even been in the ballgame, no less beat me. To say they would like to beat me, first they have to get in the game before they can beat me. Let’s be honest, they’ve never been within 15 spots in the book."
On the gap closing in recent weeks:
"I’m not going by one month. Let’s go by 10 years. What do you mean, one month? That’s ridiculous. This book they’re in the same place they’ve always been. We happen to be in a book which happens once in a while where instead of me having a 7.9 this book I have a 5.8 because of the FM music stations doing well this book. It happens once in a while.
"If you look for the last 10 books you will see no marked change. If you go back 10 years you’ll see no marked change. Two books ago I had the same advantage on them that I had 10 books ago, or 15 books ago. It’s not based on them doing anything. I just happen to be in a very competitive book, which I can show you over 20 years happens. It’s a very odd book.
"They’re using that to say we closed the gap. Their number’s no different. My number is lower than normal because I just happen to be in a very competitive book. Right now we’re second and they’re 16th. They’re using a couple of weeks. Their number hasn’t changed. I just happen to be in a very competitive environment.
"FAN is having a bad book so far. What we’re seeing is it’s a very strong book for FM stations right now. FM music is having a very big book. There are stations I haven’t seen register in the top five in 15 years. You show me over three or four years how that changes. Go back and look in the fall book at what they did against me.
On initial worries when ESPN entered the market in 2001:
"Of course we were worried. Let’s be honest, they haven’t done a good job, and we’re very good at what we do. I’ve been No. 1 for 23 years. I was No. 1 22 years ago. I was No. 1 the last book. In this book they’re talking about, which is very tightly clustered, I’m 0.1 out of first place. They’re like 17th. If you look at their performance it hasn’t changed.
"The first seven stations are all FM music. You get weird books. You can win with a 5.9, you can win with a 7.8 or an 8. You just don’t know. All I can do is finish first. That’s what I try to do every book.
"They came in and talked big. Plus they’re ESPN. You worry about them. Plus they’ve been extremely heavy handed. How about taking every guest, including a lot of my friends, off the show. It was done for 'Mike and the Mad Dog' and it’s continued for me. You would think you would want your TV network promoted on a show of this size.
"They’re very divided about it. I’ve had guys there tell me it’s ridiculous."
On reaching a younger audience, which 1050 considers its strength:
"In 1989 I asked, what is my goal? What is my directive? They said you only have one job, win 25 to 54. They said you’ll never finish first. At that time Bob Grant dominated. But they said get in the top three you’ll have an enormously successful career.
"We were third the first book, and within three books we were first by a wide margin and we remained dominant for 20 years, 19 together and now three and change by myself. That’s the only goal I’ve looked at. That’s the number you get paid on.
"If [my original listeners are aging,] how come I still win 25 to 54 by a mile? Most off that group is still under 45.
"It’s something I think about a lot. You have to watch if you’ve had this kind of run and this kind of success. You realize your audience going with you is getting older so you have to remember to appeal to that younger audience.
"Now, I’m not going to start playing rap music. I’m going to talk about what works for me. But I’m not going to ignore that you have to pay attention to culture. I watch 'American Idol' with my kids. I pay attention to movies and movie stars. I know who Katy Perry is. I understand that stuff.
"I’m not going to go out of my way to skew my show that way, but I’m also not going to run away from that stuff if it’s there. I think as a good radio host you have to have a pretty good feel for culture, politics, at least a working feel for what America cares about. Read the front of the paper, too."
On how long he plans to do this:
"I don’t know. I’m year to year. I’m year to year right now. I’ve been fortunate. I’m year to year right now. My goal was to make this a success. I’ve given it my life. My goal was to make 'Mike and the Mad Dog' special. We both did it. We were very fortunate. We hit it very big. We had a great run.
"People talk about, oh, they didn’t do this or that. We had 19 years of success together. There were times we didn’t talk to each other, but we spent 19 years together, and we built something, something we’re very proud of. I don’t take away from that. That’s a big part of my life.
"But then I was handed a bunch of new challenges, and it was very important to me. My career wouldn’t have been complete if I didn’t have this run that I’ve just had for the last three years. It was very important to me. Now I’ve done that. It’s been very rewarding and very important, because it was a personal challenge, and I took it as a personal challenge. That’s just the way I am.
"I tell you, I’ll try to be No. 1 every day that I’m in there. I don’t know how to do anything else. Frankly, I’ll be honest with you, and this is not to knock anybody: I couldn’t sit there and be 15th for long. I’d say it was time to go. Not after what I’ve done. First of all, I’d be ridiculed every day. Second of all, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
"If you ask me my biggest goal in life right now, it’s to be at my daughter’s wedding, and my daughter is 6 years old. That is the greatest goal. That is the goal of my life right now. That’s basically it. That’s my most important thing by far."
On losing 65 pounds several years ago:
"I’ve kept it off. I’d like to get down more if I can. I’m working on it. But I want to be there when my kids get married."
On his competitive side:
"I think I’m more competitive than most, by far, and I don’t mean that to be laudatory. I think there’s also a lot of negative in that, because I carry it home. I finish second and I’m miserable. I make my wife miserable. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
"But then you see Gary Carter. If that isn’t a wakeup call for all of us. I’ve been more fortunate than anybody. I’ve had the best job. I’ve been handsomely rewarded. I like to squabble and fight and get into it and compete. But when you see it can change on a dime, a guy who you see is healthy one day and a day later he’s got stage four inoperable brain cancer, it hits home. [Carter is two weeks younger than Francesa.]
"That really hits home, it’s scary. You realize if you can have one gift the only one you want is health. The rest of it is conversation.
"I do understand people have to eat and make a living, but for me, my perspective has changed a lot. That doesn’t mean I’m not as competitive as ever. I am. Those names, those letters, ESPN, they make you compete.
"If it was WWRW it wouldn’t have gotten your attention as much as ESPN. Then we always got the feeling the mother ship really wanted to take us down. And I’ve heard through the years I’ve been an enormous thorn in their side, and they’ve acted that way, too. And I think unreasonably at times.
"If I can keep beating them, I enjoy beating them. I do enjoy beating them. I don’t hide that fact.'
Chernoff on how and why Francesa has retained the "Mike and the Mad Dog" audience, and the decision not to add a new sidekick:
"I think the pressure was that it had always been 'Mike and the Mad Dog,' the most successful team in sports radio history, and now Mike was going to be doing it alone, so what was going to happen. Are you OK, can you do this by yourself? I think Mike decided to keep all the pressure on himself.
"If we brought a partner in, let’s say it’s the wrong person. The ratings go down and you say, bad partner, didn’t work . . . I think Mike decided the success or failure was really going to be on him. I’m going to take the blame if it doesn’t work. He wanted to do it himself, that’s what it came down to.
"Mike realized as the numbers were holding and even getting better than in the Mike and Chris days Mike decided now if I put somebody in there and it goes down, it’s going to be a problem. I didn't want to bring someone else in for a month or two and say it’s not working, good-bye."
Michael Kay on 1050 ESPN being pleased with the direction of his show:
"My goal obviously is to beat my competition, and my competition is Mike. I know it’s difficult with our signal, I understand that. It’s difficult not having a baseball team. I don’t know if my goal is the same as the radio station’s. They want to make incremental jumps. They say we’re not going up against one person, we’re going up against all radio stations. They like what they see. I’m happy that they’re happy. There is significant growth.
"But I always look at the guy who does the same thing as me in that time slot and Mike is iconic in that slot and I’d like to one day be able to beat him. I’d like to one day be able to have the tools to be able to beat him. But I guess any ground we make up on him is good.
"I love the way the show is now. Don [La Greca] is pretty much an equal on the show, which I think is important because sometimes I’m not there. It’s a lot more fun than it was. I thought in previous years it had become much too regimented and formatted and I don’t think that’s good.
"I’ve always envisioned it as a cleaner morning show sort of thing. Having fun and joking around and still talk sports. I think the show sounds as good now as it's sounded. I think we’re having fun. If we’re having fun doing it I assume people are having fun listening, which is what we want."
More on the frustration over the ratings:
"It’s totally frustrating, and the best way I can put it, and this is not a knock on Mike, because Mike is the guy who pretty much set the standard for this, is we have a home run hitting contest and Mike gets 700 swings and I get like 500 and they say, well, go hit the same amount of home runs.
"It’s hard, because of the signal. We reach fewer people. What they tell me is to get as close as we’ve gotten is an accomplishment, but I want to win and I don’t want it on my permanent record that I was never able to beat my competition. I’d love for us to be on equal footing and have the same kind of signal. Maybe that happens one day.
"Then I would feel better. I’d even feel better if we lost then. Because if we had the same signal and I lost, that tells me more people want to listen to Mike. If we had the same signal and I won, these last couple of years would be less frustrating because I’ll know that was one of the reasons we lost."
On his dual work load on 1050 and YES:
"It’s tough but everybody involved makes it easier. YES makes it easier for me, 1050 has given me a lot of time off. I think it’s become part of my normal life where it’s not exhausting me as much. And I love doing the show so much in the winter that I’m going to suck it up during the six months of the baseball season.
"Admittedly the six months of the baseball season is hard. But everybody at ESPN makes it a lot easier."
1050 ESPN GM Dave Roberts on the Kay show:
"We're very pleased with the consistent progress that we are experiencing in virtually every major day part, particularly in 'The Michael Kay Show.' When you listen to 'The Michael Kay Show' there is an energy and enthusiasm and a variety of content and excellent interviews that are second to none in the marketplace.
"No one person can win the championship, no matter what team sport we’re talking about, be it on the field, on television or inside of radio studios. Michael Kay is a unique talent and we are doing everything we possibly can to make sure he doesn't have to carry the load all by himself. We’re very pleased with the progess we as a station are making.
"[Kay's show] is a franchise that we are proud to be building around and we’re very confident with the game plan we have in place. New Yorkers have known Michael Kay. The reality is ESPN 1050 was not the first sports talk station on in New York, but as the overall power of the ESPN brand continues to build momentum in the New York market everyone will be the beneficiary of such a powerful brand.
On 1050's relatively weak signal:
"The signal is always top-of-mind reality, one that everyone recognizes and one that remains a goal to be addressed. But for me, the bottom line is making sure we have the best people and the best product on no matter how far the reach of the signal might go.
"If in fact one day the signal is addressed to everyone’s satisfaction we’ll be more than happy to satisfy the needs of the customers who will be able to listen to us who may not have been able to before.
"We’re in this to win, that’s the bottom line."
"I’m not going to comment on the competition. The competition has a heritage position, but we’re very pleased and proud of the position we are bulding through the strength of our own lineup."