CBS Radio's $5 million-a-year star, best known for 'Mike and the Mad Dog,' endorses Donald Trump, confirms which New York governor asked to be his co-host, dishes on Les Moonves and Mel Karmazin and rips ESPN and Rick Reilly, as Don Imus and Bill Simmons predict his next move.
Mike Francesa sits in his sparse office at CBS Radio's WFAN, the station at which he has worked for nearly 30 years — initially in a urine-stained basement at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, now in a Soho high-rise — staring at a TV blasting CNBC. Just as he invites his first question, Mark Chernoff, WFAN's vp programming, appears at the door and timidly informs him that the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez may be a guest on Francesa's show the following day. Francesa responds curtly, "That's already been set up, I already talked to A-Rod, but that's OK," and Chernoff retreats.
Unlike most employees in this troubled time for radio — CBS alone has let go of hundreds of employees in recent months — Francesa isn't interested in endearing himself to his bosses. He doesn't have to because he has chart-topping ratings — just as he has had since 1987 — and has already announced that he's leaving the network when his current contract expires at the end of 2017.
If you met Francesa and had no idea who he was, you might assume, from his husky build, thick Long Island accent and blunt manner, that he's a construction worker or a truck driver, rather than "the most relevant sports media figure in New York for almost three full decades," as HBO's Bill Simmons describes him. Francesa does come from a working-class background — he started beating the pavement at 9 with jobs that included parking cars at a beach club for the likes of Fred Trump ("First car I ever saw with a phone"), whose son Donald has been an acquaintance for 35 years and has his endorsement ahead of New York's April 19 primaries ("Although I admit there's a couple of things I'd like to see him hone on the edges"). But he is now paid a reported $5 million a year to talk about sports — riffing on games, interviewing big names, bantering with callers — for five and a half hours every weekday in the biggest radio and sports market in the world. (At the pro level, the Big Apple has two baseball teams, two football teams, two basketball teams, three hockey teams — and millions of fans who believe their true calling is to be a general manager.)
Francesa, who graduated from St. John's and then made his name as a researcher for CBS' Brent Musburger, heard about the launch of WFAN, the first 24-hours-a-day sports station, in 1987, and enlisted his friend and colleague Jim Nantz to help him land a job there. He worked his way up from substitute host, and, like Chris Russo, another up-and-comer at the time, made occasional guest appearances on the highly rated show of WFAN's star, Don Imus, who teasingly referred to the two as "Fatso and Fruit Loops."
"Most important thing that ever happened to us," says Francesa. "I learned so much from him." Imus, for his part, says of Francesa, "I liked him and I still do," adding of the "f—ing hilarious" 62-year-old, "I've met a lot of people in my life, and he's in the top five for sure."
In 1989, Francesa was delighted to be offered the chance to host WFAN's afternoon drive show, but was less than delighted to learn he would have to co-host it with Russo, whose nickname is "Mad Dog." But, with Russo serving as the scrawny and high-pitched Jerry Lewis to Francesa's statelier and more intellectual Dean Martin, Mike and the Mad Dog proved a sensation. The show landed atop the ratings in just six months and quickly developed a national profile; no less an authority than Simmons has called it "my favorite radio show ever," noting, "They were the first ones I'd heard who made you feel like you were overhearing two dudes arguing at a sports bar."
Like Martin and Lewis, Francesa and Russo brought out the best in each other and were beloved by fans — "We had a magical chemistry," Francesa grants — but also bickered constantly over perceived slights (e.g., Francesa refusing to take the show on the road as much as Russo wanted, Russo making on-air criticisms of TV coverage Francesa did on the side), got "sick of each other" (they were on the air for 30 hours a week together and sometimes didn't speak off it for stretches as long as six months) and eventually split up. In 2008, Dog left for SiriusXM after being offered a fortune and a chance to anchor his own channel. Francesa says of Mel Karmazin, the ex-CBS president who was then SiriusXM's CEO, "He was trying to wreck every CBS show he could wreck, which is probably why he went after Dog in the first place."
The breakup was mourned by listeners and surely by WFAN, which had also lost Imus a year earlier, but Francesa, ever dispassionate, took things in stride. He approached Simmons about co-hosting — "I was under contract to ESPN so it was never really an option for me," Simmons says — while "hundreds" of others approached him, including, he confirms for the first time, New York's disgraced ex-governor Eliot Spitzer. ("I was like, 'Are you serious?'") In the end, Francesa decided to go solo — his show is now called Mike's On: Francesa on the FAN — and, he happily points out, his ratings actually went up.
The years since have been good for the man the Daily News refers to as the "sports pope" because he sometimes seems to regard himself as all-knowing and his callers as unworthy. He has topped Talkers Magazine's list of America's 100 most important sports talk radio hosts every year since 2012; won his second Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year — radio's equivalent of an Oscar — in 2012 (he and Dog became the first sports-talk hosts to win one in 2000); and, against all odds, has become something of a folk hero.
There are plenty of Francesa haters. The website Deadspin seems to exist solely to mock him, especially during the years when his show was simulcast — first on the YES Network and then on Fox Sports 1 — and they posted clips of him being pranked by callers (one asked, "Who has lower expectations on a nightly basis, the Islanders or your wife?"), endlessly repeating himself (Google "Mike Francesa and Brandon Inge") and, famously, falling asleep on the air (he still refuses to acknowledge that he was out). But there are also legions of Francesa fans who consider themselves members of "Mongo Nation," more than a few of whom have told him that he's been more of a presence in their life than their father — something that hits home for Francesa because when he was 7 his own father abandoned him, his two brothers (one later took his own life) and their mother. In 2014, a few Mongos organized FrancesaCon, a bar crawl on the Upper East Side, and thousands showed up, many coiffed and dressed like their hero (who, incidentally, has all of his clothes made for him by Madison Ave. haberdasher David Lance). The gathering became an annual affair to raise money for charity, and Francesa has shown up at each subsequent installment, received like a god. "It's the most enjoyable outing I've ever been to," he gushes. "I wish everyone could get that kind of ovation in their life."
On a Monday in late March, Francesa heads into the same recording studio he used to share with Russo and with no notes — but a lot of hand gestures, sips of Diet Coke and glances at CNBC on a monitor across from him — goes into action. He dissects the previous day's Elite 8 games (Why did Coach K lie?! How did Syracuse make the Final Four?!), previews the following day's A-Rod visit (the two are friends, although A-Rod hasn't yet apologized on the air for lying to Francesa about his use of steroids), gravely passes along news breaking on TV (a shooting at the U.S. Capitol) and references perhaps the biggest story of all: He and Russo, who have seen each other just eight times since their breakup (twice on the air, once at Russo's father's funeral), would be reuniting two days hence for a one-night-only show, with celebrity guests, on the stage of — appropriately enough — Radio City Music Hall.
The event, which sold out in an hour, was brokered by Francesa and Russo's mutual friend Barry Watkins, Madison Square Garden's chief communications officer, and James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision and executive chairman of The Madison Square Garden Co., which owns Radio City. Broadcast over three hours on WFAN, SiriusXM and MSG+, and attended by New York sports icons like Mark Messier, Jeff Van Gundy and Joe Torre, it raised $1.1 million for the Watkins-chaired Garden of Dreams Foundation, a charity for children facing obstacles. (There were so many men — and so few women — in attendance that men were able to commandeer the women's restrooms to avoid long lines.)
The heartwarming if somewhat awkward reunion between Mike and the Mad Dog comes at a poignant time: There may soon be neither Mike nor the Mad Dog at WFAN, and CBS Radio itself sits on a precipice. "We're up for sale right now, the radio division," Francesa says. "It's the worst-kept secret in America that [CBS president and CEO Leslie] Moonves detests radio — he hates radio as a business." (CBS has acknowledged that it is exploring sale options for its entire radio division.) He adds of the "egomaniac" and "genius" with whom he directly negotiated his most recent contract, "He gets paid by the stock going up, and Wall Street hates slow-growth businesses. Radio is a high-cash-flow, slow-growth business. They don't like TV anymore, much less radio."
So where does Francesa go from here? Not into retirement, although he loves spending time at his Manhasset home with Roe, his wife of 15 years, and their three preteen kids, and has plenty of savings. ("I'm a big stocks player," he volunteers. "I have a huge portfolio and I know about every stock. I'm a big trader.") Not to SiriusXM like Russo, although the company has deep pockets. ("It's very easy to get lost there," he asserts.) Not to ESPN, which tried to hire him in 1991, but which he now detests for banning its talent from appearing on WFAN (as part of an effort to break into the New York radio market itself) and for being bad for sports (athletes now play to be on SportsCenter, he asserts). Besides, he says, "Cable's dying," adding, "ESPN's no longer the mothership. Once you go to skinny bundles, ESPN's dead." (Even so, he and Russo reluctantly agreed to be the subjects of a 60-minute 30 for 30 episode. Overseen by two former CBS producers, Danny Forer and Ted Shaker, it has already begun filming and will air next year.)
Instead, Francesa suggests, he's exploring uncharted territory that might welcome sports talk with a built-in following. "It's becoming a content-driven, multiplatform business," he says. "Soon you won't be able to tell the difference between where a station starts and a podcast ends." He continues, "Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon — they're all gonna be huge content players. They're all gonna be in sports." He claims he's already received overtures from one of the above, but won't engage in negotiations with anyone until his current contract ends. He also insists that money isn't his only consideration, citing former Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly as a cautionary tale. "He had something he was great at and he went to something he stunk at," Francesa says. "He wrote that back page better than anybody's written anything in this country, and then he went off and became a fool at ESPN."
Imus thinks Francesa may eventually decide to remain at WFAN, saying the notion of him leaving "sounds like bullshit." Simmons, meanwhile, thinks the Radio City reunion is a harbinger of things to come. "My prediction is that Mike and Dog will end up on Sirius or some other streaming service together again for a ridiculous amount of money," he says. "They are destined to grow old together like an old married couple. That's what America wants."
Francesa, for his part, says he wants to try something new. "I will never do Monday to Friday, five and a half hours again," he promises — although, he notes, he would have no problem if Russo wanted to come back to WFAN and replace him. As for them working together again, he says, "I don't see that as being feasible," explaining, "The kind of money it would take to put us on the same show on a full-time basis? That would be an incredibly expensive show."
SPORTS TEAM/PLAYER: "The only team I’ve ever been a fan of is the Yankees and the only idol I ever had was Mickey Mantle."
SPORTS MOMENT WITNESSED IN-PERSON: Game six of the 1996 World Series (when the Yankees clinched a World Series for the first time since 1978), 1991 Super Bowl (when the Giants won because Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood missed a field goal attempt “wide right”) and game seven of the 1994 Stanley Cup (when the Rangers won for the first time in 54 years).
BOOK: "The best biography of all time and the greatest book I've ever read is David McCullough's Truman, which won the Pulitzer Prize. I've read it three times and would recommend it to anybody. The best sports biography? When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss on Vince Lombardi." (He also pays a guy to find and buy for him every book ever written about John F. Kennedy.)
MOVIE: 1972's The Godfather, 1953's Shane, 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood and 1947's Body and Soul. (He’s a SAG-AFTRA member — “and I do like to vote [for the SAG Awards],” he says. The 2015 movie that he loved? Room — “The kid [Jacob Tremblay] should have been nominated. His performance was the best performance I’ve seen on film in five years. I thought it was brilliant and he should’ve gotten the Academy Award.”)
TV SHOW: Showtime’s The Affair. “I can’t wait for that to come back, I love that show,” he says, adding, "The Housewives stuff is stupid — I mean, I wouldn’t let any of them in my house. That show is deplorable."
SONG: Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69."
MAGAZINE: GQ. "I actually like to keep up on the styles," he says.
RESTAURANT: Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, located across from Radio City Music Hall at 1221 Ave. of the Americas.
HOTEL: A tie: the Four Seasons in midtown Manhattan and the Trump Soho.
RECURRING WFAN GUEST: The late George Young, former general manager of the New York Giants.
DUMB ON-AIR CALL: "There have been way too many," he says. "I don’t want to hear 'How are you,' I don’t want to know what they had for breakfast and I don't want to hear how great I am — because it’s all bullshit. I also could do without 'First time, long time.'"