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.