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Ex-CBS Radio CEO Joel Hollander recalls the birth and growth of the USA’s first all-sports station, WFAN

Hollander says WFAN lost $7 million its first year, going down the wrong road; Its eventual success spawned hundreds more sports-talk stations

THIS MONDAY, WFAN CELEBRATES ITS 32ND ANNIVERSARY; BORN JULY 1, 1987

 

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Halberstam

By the 1980s, the trend was irreversible. AM radio, dominant a score of years earlier, was rapidly losing its audience share to stations on the FM dial. Once popular AM music formats like top-40 were migrating to FM. The AMs that survived were running talk or news.

Yes, cable television was beginning to blossom but the internet was still in some thinktank. CNN, ESPN and other early cable entrants were making inroads but the three major over-the-air networks, ABC, CBS and NBC still dominated American viewing.

In 1986, Indianapolis based Emmis Broadcasting bought New York’s WHN from Doubleday Communications. When Emmis acquired the station, its format was country music, a genre that is hardly considered mainstream in the nation’s number one market.

Joel Hollander, longtime radio exec and a key player in WFAN’s growth

The station though had built a sports heritage, through previous decades of carrying major play-by-play and running early-generation sports talk. The voices through the years that boomed off WHN’s transmitter read like a who’s who of sports broadcasting. Mel Allen, Red Barber, Marty Glickman and Marv Albert were at some point during their glorious careers, part of the station’s play-by-play coverage.

At 1050 on the AM dial, WHN though had significant signal challenges in densely populated areas like New Jersey.

Joel Hollander was WHN’s sales manager and reported to Jeff Smulyan who today still heads up Emmis. Management knew that something drastic had to be done.

Hollander and the Emmis brass brainstormed an idea that Smulyan was championing, switch from country to all-sports. Never had such a format been either developed or tried.

As a general rule, no matter the mission, pioneers are stimulated by conviction and fueled by self-justification. So, facing an imperative, Emmis’ bold ownership rolled the dice.

At 3pm on July 1, 1987, 32 years ago this Monday, Emmis made history. It introduced a spanking new format, one never programmed before in the then 66-year history of radio.

Management went all out. Big named national talent served as the front cover of  a 24/7, sports news, play-by-play and talk format. The station was rechristened WFAN. The call letters, WHN, part of New York’s radio lore for six decades, were retired.

The doomsayers surfaced immediately as they did eight years earlier when ESPN hit the cable airwaves. They said no way. It can never work. How does the old-line go, pioneers get it in the back!

As it turned out, of course, the Cassandras were dead wrong. What would occur over the next couple decades was simply remarkable. The format’s eventual success transformed the landscape of radio programming, reviving hundreds of stations, keeping them vibrant and profitable for years, when otherwise, they were predestined for failure.

But it was hardly smooth sailing, not immediately. There were pitfalls to sidestep and challenges to survive.

Listening to WFAN’s first thirty minutes on-air, it was apparent, at least in retrospect, that the initial plan was costly and perhaps misguided. Suzyn Waldman was the first live voice listeners heard. She came on after a recording of old sports highlights that included Merle Harmon’s call of the Jets’ win in Super Bowl III. Waldman who later turned into a successful radio commentator was miscast as a studio sports update announcer. Her delivery wasn’t crisp, albeit she sounded comfortable and confident.

When it was time for WFAN’s first ever traffic update, the cart voiced by Dennis O’Mara didn’t load. A news update followed including an item on Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s conservative nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat. Not much has changed. Political bickering doomed Bork. He fell victim to a Democratic majority in the Senate.

WFAN’s first host that Wednesday afternoon was Jim Lampley, an excitable network man with a southern twang. After greeting new listeners indifferently, Lampley proceeded to bellow an impromptu sermon, one that included references to the Tour de France and Wimbledon.

Like politics, sports are local, something WFAN didn’t realize on its maiden voyage. A bike race through the Alps won’t catch the attention of New Yorkers.  At the outset, it seemed that WFAN was trying to be something for everyone.

And the one sure thing that the station did have on its air was Mets play-by-play but in Lampley’s opening monologue, the National Leaguers were hardly the driving subject of conversation.

WFAN made changes along the way, tightening its direction, giving its programming a local flavor, getting new ownership, landing on the most powerful AM frequency in the marketplace, picking up the Knicks, Rangers and the Jets and most importantly hiring local talent. 

There was an unforgettable and ignominious moment in the summer of 1988, one that you might say was the station’s low-point. Lou Boda, who had flirted with success at ABC Sports but never quite reached the top echelon, was doing updates. WFAN was making cuts and he was told that his time was up. On his parting sportscast, Boda stung his employer by playing off the station’s slogan, “the sports authority.” He closed his last shift on-air, “If this is the ‘sports-authority,’ I’m going to sing in Carnegie Hall.”

Joel Hollander was the one constant in management. He would eventually be promoted to General Manger and steer WFAN’s enormous growth. Some twelve years later, Hollander, a driven, smart and savvy New Yorker, became the CEO of Westwood One, a publicly traded radio network made up of talk, news, music and sports. A number of years afterward, Joel was appointed CEO of CBS Radio. Not bad for a kid from the Bronx who a couple decades earlier peddled country music.

Now retired, Hollander is still quite active. He sits on the board of Entercom, the company that eventually bought CBS Radio and also owns WFAN.

Many hundreds of American all-sports stations trace their roots and successes to the revolutionary move made by Smulyan and the Emmis brass.

Joel and I had a chance to catch-up and reminisce about the birth and growth of WFAN.

From an historical perspective, whose idea was it to launch the first all-sports format?

It was Jeff Smulyan’s. Country was failing. Some in management thought it would be best to sell the station. Others thought sports would work. I was a passionate New York sports fan. We had the Mets on the air. I thought we should do it.

There were expected roadblocks and pitfalls early. What were they?

We failed horrendously at the beginning. We wanted to be everything to everyone. We covered horseracing and motor racing. We went down the wrong road.

What was the response on the street?

We couldn’t get ourselves arrested. The expectations were so inflated and unrealistic that they were just not attainable. Agencies are ratings driven and we didn’t have any numeric story.

That said, we did $400,000 in our pre-sell period, selling something on the come. All those years ago, it was pretty good.

On the expense side, the spending at the outset was out of control. We were flying in talent from out-of-town to do weekend shows.

At the end of the first year, we had lost $7 million!

At what point, did the station determine to tighten its programming direction and focus almost exclusively on local sports?

We spent a day at Trout and Ries (a legendary marketing agency that advises clients on brand positioning). We were told and rightfully so that our focus should be primarily local, ‘play the hits’ so to speak. Follow what was on the back pages of the tabloids. At the time, it might have been something to do with Giants’ coach Bill Parcells or the Mets’ Darryl Strawberry. We essentially stopped concentrating on national stories unless it was something big like the Magic Johnson AIDS story.

When did you make sufficient inroads that you said to yourself, ‘We’re going to make it’?

I’d say that from October, 1988 to September, 1989, four developments set us up for success.

  1. When Emmis acquired WNBC Radio from GE, we moved from 1050 to 660 the most powerful frequency in town. It was on October 7, 1988.

 

  1. In the process, we added the Knicks and Rangers to the programming mix that already included the Mets. So our play-by-play stable was enormous and year-round.

 

  1. And we got a proven morning show, a strong personality in Imus who had been on the old WNBC.

 

  1. Less than a year later, September, 5, 1989, we teamed Chris Russo and Mike Francesa in afternoons. The two would become the standard-bearers of sports talk radio.

 

Was there a flash-point that you can recall like it happened yesterday?

Yes. The morning Imus came into the station for the first time. We were housed in Astoria, Queens. He had worked out of NBC’s Rockefeller Center studio. Imus was wearing a pair of bicycle shorts. He says to me, “How do you feel, you f___ head? I just doubled your revenue.

Imus was out of rehab.

Was he right?

He wasn’t far from wrong. We did double the revenue a few months later.

In fact, not much later, we were the top billing radio station in the country for four or five straight years.

What did Imus help WFAN accomplish?

He brought the casual listener to the radio station. They’d sample the station and many who did stayed.

Mike Francesca and Chris Russo were hired to host afternoons. How did it come about?

It was Mark Mason’s decision. He was the Program Director and deserves full credit for teaming the two. Other than a Stern or an Imus, there was only one other personality I knew of as compelling, Frankie Crocker. You got a sense that everyone was listening.

In 1992, Emmis sold WFAN to Infinity which was run by media icon, Mel Karmazin. He elevated you to General Manager.

Smulyan had bought the Mariners and ran into cash-flow challenges. He needed money so he had to sell WFAN. I knew Mel from the time I was a salesperson at WKTU which he was running.

What did Karmazin bring to the sports talk effort?

Mel doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He opened the purse strings. He paid the talent and he provided the money to buy rights to the local teams. We first got the Jets which enriched our play-by-play. We now had the Mets, Jets, Knicks and Rangers.  

And truth be told, Imus, Francesa and Russo were driving the station.

Later, when Imus moved on, Boomer Esiason became a critical part of WFAN, anchoring mornings. He understood the role immediately, embraced it and has since meant a lot to the station. Now, Boomer and Gio are a great team in AM drive.

At its peak, WFAN billed $70 million and did $35 million in cash flow. Quite a story for an AM station.

Francesa’s ratings battle today with ESPN’s Michael Kay gets tons of attention in the New York dailies. At the end of the day, doesn’t all the publicity help both parties and the format too?

It’s great for ESPN, New York and the FAN. Hate or love Mike Francesa, you can’t debate his success for 30 years. He’s always one or two in his demo. Competition is immense today; cable, RSNs, Smartphones, you name it. We’re living in an instantaneous society and Francesa is still dominant.

Once WFAN demonstrated that sports talk can excel, how long was it before you got phone calls from out-of-town stations interested in running the format themselves?

I had a call from Rainbow Sports which was owned by Cablevision and the Dolans. They were looking at purchasing WKNR in Cleveland and turning it all-sports. They asked me whether I would sit down with Jim Dolan to give him a rundown of what it’s like managing an all-sports station.

The format ballooned. Some markets have multi all-sports stations. Sports fosters community.

Radio in recent years has had its challenges. Smartphones have discounted the medium’s need. How does radio tackle something so overpowering?

It’s tough. Yet, think of it. Radio had survived the advent of television, cable and more. Now the medium knows that it must get a piece of every possible tentacle available, all digital platforms including podcasts. Radio has to be integrated through Twitter too. It’s a slow process.

Suzyn Waldman, was the first voice that WFAN listeners heard when the station went on-air. Anyone else at WFAN who’s on today, who was also there on day one?

There are others who were there in the beginning. Steve Somers, Ed Coleman, John Minko. These guys have been part of the New York tapestry for over 30 years. WFAN also helped launch the careers of Ian Eagle, Mike Breen, Steve Levy and Howie Rose, among others.

I have great memories of being a part of WFAN!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Michael Green
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This was very special for me to read. I moved to New York City in September 1988 to go to graduate school and WFAN was my connection to home in the sense that it carried the Mets, and I could listen to major league baseball, especially the National League. So I sampled other shows. My memories include …. –Imus’s sign off, which went something like this: “This concludes the entertainment portion of the WFAN broadcast schedule. We now present the rest of our programming: 19 1/2 hours of imbecilic prattle between contemptibly limited mouthpiece hosts and the same 13 housebound… Read more »