Chris Russo Q/A: Looking back on Mike and the Mad Dog

They are separate now. It’s Mike. It’s Mad Dog.

The “and the” disappeared in 2008 when Chris Russo decided to end his famous pairing with Mike Francesa and start his own Mad Dog network on SiriusXM.

Yet they will be forever linked. For 19 years at WFAN 660, they were sports talk radio’s most powerful duo. They owned New York and beyond, while helping to define the new genre.

Last week, Russo was reunited with Francesa during the station’s 25th anniversary show. It was a fun segment, reliving old times.

Given all the attention on the big birthday, here’s an interview I did with Russo a while back in which he discusses his famous pairing with Francesa.

How did it start?

I got there in ’88. During that seven-month period, I worked for Imus. Imus said, ‘Listen to this guy. He’s nuts, put him on.’ (Afternoon host Peter) Franklin was having issues. He and Imus hated each other.

So they put me and Mike on.

How well did you know Mike?

It was, ‘hello, how are you?’ We saw each other around. I wanted to do it solo. I thought I could do it by myself. I had a job in Orlando.  But I was 29. It was a job I had to do take.

The show took off quickly. Why?

If we had started in ’87 when (WFAN) just began, who knows? We were able to come on the station two years after it got its feet wet. That helped a lot.

I think there was the fact that Mike and me, we’re both Long Islanders. I think it was the dymanic of both personalities. There was a lot of anti-Franklin. We got to the station at the right time. Imus was situated. We had the Mets. We had the Giants. The station was beginning to find its footing.

Talk about your on-air chemistry with Mike.

It took a while for us to develop a friendship, a kinship. Mike and me.

Mike is a lot funnier than people think. Very funny. Very quick mind. I’m more the radio guy. I knew how to do the mechanics of the show. Move the show along. That combination seemed to work.

People identify with radio show hosts much more than TV guys. TV guys are polished. The hair is combed properly. Radio is out there. A little more naked. You’re doing a show for five hours every day. There is a kinship that develops with your audience.

What about your relationship with Mike?

I had a good relationship with Mike. There were some ups and downs. Absolutely. We’re both dynamic personalities. You have to know each other’s whims. If Mike in a bad mood, I have to handle it. If I’m cranky about something, he’s going to handle it.

There was some tension. We had about four periods in the relationship where we didn’t talk at all for about a three-month period.

From the standpoint of our relationship, it probably wasn’t a bad time to leave. We had been together for so long. We had a lot of fights in the spring.

Listen, you put two guys together for 20 years, you’re going to have some issues. There’s no way around it.

When did you realize you guys were big?

To me, it was early. In the Buffalo-Giant Super Bowl in ’91, I picked Buffalo 49-13. There’s no way the Giants win that game. Buffalo scored 51 against Oakland. Bill Parcells was all pissed off at me. He told Mike, ‘How does your ham and egg partner think our team will give up 49 points at the Super Bowl.’

You began to sense you could have an impact with what you said.

Throw in (Jets coach) Bruce Coslett. We both said if he doesn’t win his last game, he will get fired. He got fired two days later. We had a good relationship with him, but he didn’t do anything. We influenced the Jets to do something in that situation. So many people were screaming their heads off.

We got (Mike) Piazza here. The Mets were not going to trade for Piazza. We screamed and yelled. (Mets owner Nelson) Doubleday heard it, and got Piazza traded to the Mets.

These guys listen. GMs listen. Players listen. They put on FAN.

Why did you decide to leave in 2008?

When a man of (Mel Karmazin’s) stature  said, ‘I’m going to give you a channel’…Well, I don’t know when that opportunity will come again. If I ever was going to leave, this was my parachute to leave.

You’ve mention that you were surprised by the intense reaction to the break-up. Why?

When I left, it was a much bigger story than thought it would be. Fans were hurt that I left. They felt I was part of their family, part of their routines for nearly 20 years. I broke up the routine. That bothered a lot of fans. But it was a move I had to make.


And here’s an interesting aside. Russo, in an interview with the New York Daily News’ Bob Raissman Sunday, didn’t rule out a more permanent reunion. From Raissman’s story:

Now, with one year left on his Sirius/XM contract  and the radio business changing quickly, would Russo consider going back to WFAN  to team with Francesa if the pontiff blessed the move?

We asked the question over the telephone. For once, Dog didn’t have a quick  response for this longtime listener. There was silence, then an “uhh.” Then  Russo said he “can’t” answer the question. Then he did.

“You never want to say never. You know how the radio business is. So, you  never say never, but I haven’t thought about it in my crystal ball, let’s put it  that way,” Russo said. “But I’ll tell you right now, if Mike and I did shows  together we would have no trouble picking right up where we left off.”

Let’s just say that’s a story for another day. Perhaps Russo posturing a little bit as he goes into a free agent year.










Don Imus saved sports talk radio; Mike and Mad Dog help WFAN explode

Part 2:

In the first part of my interview with Jeff Smulyan, founder of WFAN, he discusses how people thought his idea for a 24/7 sports talk station was “stupid.” A rough first year seemed to confirm that notion.

However, Smulyan’s vision eventually was rewarded when Don Imus became the morning host. He helped saved the station, and likely the sports talk format.

WFAN then hit it big in the afternoon with the pairing of Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, who soon would be known as “Mike and the Mad Dog.”

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of WFAN, here’s part two of my interview with Smulyan. He talks about Imus, Mike and the Mad Dog and the impact of WFAN on changing the face of radio.

Why was Imus so important to sports talk radio?

In 1988, we moved to 660 by acquiring the signal of the former WNBC. The station now had a much stronger reach throughout New York. The move also gave us Imus.

We started (WFAN) with Greg Gumbel in the mornings. He was struggling to generate an audience. I always knew sports would be tough in the morning.

So we inserted Imus in the morning slot. The idea was for listeners to tune into the station in the morning and then hopefully stay with it for the rest of the day.

How did Imus react to working for a sports talk station?

When Imus was on WNBC, he talked a lot about sports. When he got to the Fan, he said ‘I’m not talking about sports.’

At the end of his shift, he said, ‘It’s 10. This ends the entertainment part of today’s programming. For the next 20 hours, you will hear mindless drivel by idiots talking about sports.’

What was his impact on the station?

He was perfect. Most of the decision makers loved sports and they loved Imus. Imus gave us listeners and credibility. I can’t minimize his impact.

Would there be sports talk radio if not for Don Imus?

Good question. (Long pause). I don’t know. Not as much.

You had an afternoon host named Pete Franklin. He and Imus didn’t like each other. Franklin called Imus ‘Minus,’ and Imus labeled Franklin as a ‘dinosaur.’ Franklin, though, didn’t work on WFAN. Why?

Pete was Mr. Cleveland when we brought him to New York. I thought he would be great. And he wasn’t.

You had to make a change. Eventually, you paired Francesa with Russo. How did that come about?

Francesa was a producer who knew everything. Mike’s persistence got him that job.

Imus had Russo on his show. Imus said, ‘This guy sounds like Donald Duck on steroids.’

Imus then said, ‘This guy is a talent. You’ve got to put him on.’

Somebody had the idea to put him together with Francesa and they meshed.

What made their pairing so successful?

There was a good chemistry. Chris was every man, and Mike was this incredibly knowledgeable sports guy.

At its heart (for a sports talk radio host) is the ability to connect with people. Everyone has an opinion about sports. People who love sports love to give their opinions and hear the opinions of other people. They can spot a guy who doesn’t know. The worst thing you can do is put somebody on the air who has no idea.

What did Imus in the morning and Mike and the Mad Dog mean for the station?

The ratings got better. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this thing is going to make it.’ By that time, I was as surprised as anybody.

In 1992, you sold WFAN to Mel Karmazin of Infinity Broadcasting. Why did you sell?

Selling WFAN was the hardest thing I ever did. Mel made an offer we couldn’t refuse ($75 million).

Mel was the master of understanding Wall Street. Mel realized if he could go public with FAN and reach all the people who traded stocks on Wall Street, it would be a good launching pad for Infinity. He was exactly right.

There’s no question it was tough to sell. But when you run a business long enough, you do what you’ve got to do.

What has been the impact of sports talk radio?

What sports radio did is open up the 24-hour talk portals. Before, a guy got ripped in the paper. Now he walks out of the ballpark, turns on the radio and he gets ripped.

Sports radio heightens everything. When fans say (a coach) has got to go, an owner would be deaf not to listen to it.

You were an owner of the Seattle Mariners during the 1990s. How did it feel to be on the receiving end when it came to sports talk radio?

There was a guy in Seattle who hated me. I was getting ripped.

I was with an owner who shall remain nameless who said, ‘I’ve always wondered if there’s a God. Now knowing the guy who invented this horseshit format is getting ripped, I know there’s a God.’

How do you see the future of sports talk radio?

As long as people love sports, I think it will do very well.

It’s 25 years and there are more than 600 sports talk stations. Looking back, did you ever imagine it would get this big?

I had trouble imagining our station making it. I’m proud with the way it finally turned out. The line between moron and genius is very fine. I’ve been on both sides many times. So when I crossed over the line from moron to genius, I was very proud.