Interviews

SiriusXM’s Chris Russo says Mike Francesa won’t likely admit that his return to WFAN was a mistake

Russo: "I am an acquired taste"; Of other national talkies, he says he's best compared to Stephen A. Smith, "We're both a little bombastic"

 

Chris Russo wears his emotions on his sleeve and his anger on his lips. He’s occasionally tough on the surface, yet he’s always soft inside.

There’s no mistaking Chris. He’s as enthusiastic and animated today as he was when he first sat in front of a New York mic some 32 years ago.

Today, when you put on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio (Channel 82) and hear a mix of resonance, gruffness and laughter, sometimes all at the same time, it’s likely Chris Russo. To many he’s simply Mad Dog, a tag bestowed upon him a score of years ago by longtime New York Daily News critic, Bob Raissman. The apt moniker stuck.

A Long Islander, by the way of prep schools and Rollins College in Florida, Russo arrived thunderously at WMCA Radio in New York in the late 1980s. Think of the environment then. ESPN hadn’t fully blossomed and cell phones were an embryo. The internet wasn’t born and SmartPhones were still a dream of the late Steve Jobs.

People still searched AM radio dials for sports and entertainment. At WMCA, Russo drew the attention of hardcore fans and folks in the radio business. He was novel, the first New York sports host to rant. His predecessors never did, not Art Rust Jr. and certainly not Bill Mazer. John Sterling lost it on callers and hollered, but he didn’t rant. Chris was the first.

Russo was memorable from day one. His pronunciations were starkly redolent of his New York area roots. He never did shed the accent despite what I’d imagine were his British mom’s best wishes.

He’s entertaining and by his own admission bombastic. And when he bellows that throaty laugh of his, it’s contagious. Listeners relate to him. He often sounds like he is one of them. At times, when there’s rage in Russo’s speech, there’s laughter in listeners’ voices.

In 1988, a year or so after WFAN became America’s first all-sports talk station, Russo was asked to do fill-in work, including overnights. His distinct voice qualities, giddy enthusiasm and unique delivery caught the attention of Don Imus who gave him reps on his highly rated morning drive show. Russo then landed a permanent weekend slot on the station’s burgeoning format.

By 1989, the station was high on him. Mark Mason, a radio veteran who programmed WFAN, teamed Russo with Mike Francesa, who at the time was considered to have encyclopedic knowledge of sports. The thought was that the two, Russo and Francesa, would anchor the station’s potentially lucrative afternoon drive show. Francesa would spew sports data and Russo would emote about just anything that he experienced.

Russo (Maro Hagopian/SiriusXM)

His favorite target was impassible traffic. No matter what the bridge was called, the 59th Street, the Queensboro or the Ed Koch, if it was referenced, Russo would erupt into a colorful tirade. Most New Yorkers felt the same way about the maddening traffic in town, so it was a tirade that listeners found consoling and entertaining.

Management wasn’t wrong. The pairing of the two paid off. The Francesa-Russo partnership was symbiotic. The duo dominated drivetime among male listeners. As for WFAN, the big picture was pretty. At its peak, the station billed $70 million and did $35 million in cash flow. Quite a story for an AM station.

Joel Hollander who steered WFAN through many of its years of growth and financial success told us last summer, “Other than a Howard Stern or an Imus, there was only one other personality I knew of as compelling as Francesa and Russo, Frankie Crocker. You got a sense that everyone was listening.”

But stress and tension between the two boothmates mounted. After 19 years, Francesa and Russo split. In 2008, Russo extricated himself from his WFAN contract and took his bubbly enthusiasm to SiriusXM. Among other things, he would never have to cope with whatever that bridge is called today. His studio was no longer in Astoria, Queens, it was in the heart of Manhattan. There, at least initially, he would be charged with the responsibility of building a whole new programming platform, an eponymous Mad Dog Channel, featuring sports-talk 24/7.

The subjects of his conversations on-air would change too. They were national in scope and the callers were a little less emotionally invested than they were on WFAN.

The financial dynamic at SiriusXM is different from a typical radio station. There’s projectable, recurring revenue from subscribers and while advertising dollars were growing, the business model wasn’t dependent on it. As such, SiriusXM isn’t reliant on ratings books. 

The one thing that remains steady, no matter his work address, is Chris’ parting words to callers and colleagues. With an avalanche of gusto it’s, ’Good job!’

We caught up with the likable Russo. 

If you wouldn’t have done sports talk, what would it have been?

My father was a jewelry salesman. I would not have gotten into that. I would not have done political talk shows. I would likely have pursued a career in teaching. I like informing. I’m curious. I like going out learning something myself and then sharing it with the audience. The interview that I did with the biographer of Harry Houdini, Joe Posnanski was a perfect example. I was always a very good camp counselor. I love being a mentor to others.

And you want to hear something funny, I would also have loved to do schedules, team schedules, airplane schedules, airline routes. Yes, when the NFL schedule is released each April, I’m the only one who gets Howard Katz on for an interview. (Katz is responsible for developing the NFL schedule and equally satisfying network television partners with the games they’re dealt.)

What was your first challenge trying to build an audience at SiriusXM?

Locally at WFAN, the hometown teams are the common denominator. In New York, there’s always a ready bank of callers. They want to talk Knicks, Mets, Yankees, and Giants, sometimes some Rangers. Nationally, it’s very difficult to focus on the depth of one team. No one in Walla Walla, Washington cares about Mickey Callaway pinch-hitting for a batter in the month of August. Nor will they care very much about a Giants-Jets game. It took me a while to learn how to do find a national common denominator.                    

It’s generally topical issues so there’s more flexibility for the host. A game with some huge controversy is a subject that always resonates. But it takes a while to develop an audience. 

When I first arrived in 2008, I did not realize how much work would be involved in this undertaking. I had to do five hours on-air plus manage the channel!

In my second contract, which I signed after five years in 2013, I gave up management. I also reduced the number of hours I was on-air per day from five to three. I did add the television element with MLB Network.  

How does planning for a show differ, WFAN versus SiriusXM?

Here’s one difference as an example. The Monday after the showdown game between LSU an Alabama, I could have led with it on SiriusXM. I could not have done it on WFAN in New York.

Do you still keep up as assiduously with New York sports?

I live here in the New York area so I know quite a bit about the New York teams but I certainly don’t have the great detail that I did when I was doing the local show. For instance, with a national forum there’s no need for me to watch a losing Giants team every week. When I was at WFAN, I had to, win lose or draw.

Of national talk show hosts, Dan LeBatard, Colin Cowherd, Dan Patrick, Jim Rome, or Stephen A. Smith, who are you most like?

I can’t compare myself to Dan Patrick. He has an ensemble in his Connecticut studio. He has had great success on television.

Stephen A. is a little bombastic, as I am. He’s also an entertainer and he can sell something. So you might say that there are comparisons between us. I can’t be compared to Cowherd who does a very good talk show but he doesn’t take calls. I do.

Talk about talking with callers.

I love the feeling, the connection with callers, the bond you have with the audience. The other shows you mention don’t necessarily take many calls. I always do, virtually every day, unless we’re on a remote, say the Super Bowl. Those days are filled with interviews.

Interestingly, there are callers around the country who are displaced New Yorkers and comfortable with me. So they’ll call. Other callers are those who have just caught on, having now listened to me the last ten or eleven years. Truck drivers surf the dial. Some sample the show and stay on. They may become a steady. I am an acquired taste.

I cover sports that are generally not referenced elsewhere on other national sports talk shows. And doing so helps me attract the fringe fan. I’ll get Jack Nicklaus or Frank Nobilo to talk golf and so on. The others do not.

John Sterling was a popular New York sports talk host when you were young. Did you listen to him?

When he started in 1971, I was a big John Sterling listener. I was about 12 years old when he hit the airwaves in New York. I was a Baseball Giants fan in 1971 and John Sterling had Chris Speier on his show. I’ll never forget it. The Giants won the division that year.

The Mike Francesa fiasco. What are your thoughts?

Mike should never have come back. He should have stayed retired. He had a great run and developed a great legacy. Those last couple of weeks before his first retirement were memorable and wonderful. He had an amazing sendoff. Three months later he was back. The whole return was crazy. No one expected it.

WFAN had already placed his successors on-air. The station had to uproot them. People wondered whether Francesa can reclaim the wins he was getting consistently in the ratings book. All of a sudden, Mike was back in the mix and it created an unhealthy rivalry. 

Mike would likely not admit it but he might realize that it was a mistake.

How about the ongoing rivalry between WFAN’s Mike Francesa and New York ESPN Radio’s Michael Kay?

Frankly, I can understand both sides. For so many years, ESPN was picked upon as weak. I did some of the picking myself. They were downtrodden, a joke. And now Kay is beginning to win, so let him pump his chest a bit. Then again, I could see why Mike would be annoyed by it.

You’re a student of play-by-play broadcasting, who is your favorite NFL Network broadcaster of all-time?

I started watching games in the late 60s and early 70s. Curt Gowdy at NBC was network television’s top play-by-play voice. I might have been impressionable then but I always thought Gowdy was the best.

How about network play by play announcers who stay and hang around too long?

Al Michaels is still very sharp. Is he as sharp as he was 15 years ago? Maybe not 100%. Yet he’s still right on it. As for Marv Albert, I guess he needs the job to stay alive. 

The Frick Award is up for 2020, baseball’s recognition for broadcast excellence. Who do you like?

Ned Martin. It’s not a sexy choice but I used to go to Martha’s Vineyard every summer and I heard him. He did the Red Sox in the years they were good in the 1970s. Lots of good choices on the ballot.

Chris on NBA load management:

ESPN is absolutely right to ban political talk; The network is a sanctuary, an escape from friction

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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I was in New York when the Francesa-Russo pairing began–or, as Imus called them with what I would say is some degree of affection, “Fatso and Froot Loops.” They were a riot. I THINK it was on an April Fool’s Day that Francesa was off and Russo claimed he’d been named GM of the Mets and did a fake interview with him with all of Francesa’s favorite phrases cut in, like, “You can’t mortgage the future.” But I sensed even then that someday, the booth wouldn’t be big enough for the two of them. Russo was a lot of fun… Read more »