Pick one voice to hear repeatedly for 30 years, you’ll probably select a sound more soothing than Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo.
But here we are after 30 years, and there aren’t many voices I’ve listened to more than his. And if you’re reading this interview, it either means you similarly spent thousands of hours listening to Russo, or he helped pave a career path for you in some way.
His show intro takes close to two minutes, his greeting alone takes about eight seconds, “Annnndddd good afternoon everybody!” Sports radio and its program directors are built to demand instant content, Russo opens his show doing the exact opposite, but that’s the benefit a host has when he IS the format.
With Mike Francesa, Russo helped build the concept of sports radio. Creating a successful format that suits your talent is enough of a career success, but Russo still had a Part Two left.
Taking a character from one successful show and attempting to build something new doesn’t always work. Following Cheers with Frasier is rare. But after nearly two decades with Francesa, Russo is still going strong with his own show, his own channel and his own audience 13 years later.
Brandon Contes: You’ve been with SiriusXM for 12 and a half years now, it’s going on almost 13 years since you last hosted an afternoon show with Mike Francesa on WFAN. Is that jarring?
Chris Russo: It sure is. It’s almost like you forget you did Mike and The Mad Dog for such a long period of time. 19 years for Mike and the Mad Dog and around 13 with Sirius. It’s hard to believe. I knew I would be at Sirius a long time and I wasn’t going back to FAN, but it’s definitely surprising. And Mike retiring while I’m still working is odd too. You do your talk show every day, but when you think about it – yes, strange.
BC: Has one portion of your career been more fulfilling than the other? Helping to create the sports radio format with Mike, or launching your own brand and channel with Sirius?
CR: It would be hard to ever top 19 years of Mike and the Mad Dog, especially considering we were the first to do a two-person, five-hour afternoon show in the format. There were individual shows in different cities, but there weren’t 24-hour sports stations. The fact that Mike and I started afternoon drive on an all-sports station, hard to top that.
SiriusXM is a different accomplishment, but when you’re the first to do something in a genre, that’s hard to beat. It was New York City, it was the first radio station to do all sports, it was 1:00 – 6:30pm, 50,000 watts. That sticks. Going to Sirius was more about me trying to do a national show, find a new audience, and put a station on the map. But with Mike, we created the format.
BC: Was there a point during the summer of 2008, that Mike, Chernoff or anyone at WFAN could have said something to get you to stay?
CR: [Long Pause] I don’t know. I think I was probably looking for a break after 19 years at the same place. SiriusXM gave me a channel, I wanted something different, I liked the flexibility of getting away from the New York teams. Probably not. I think Mike and I wore each other out a bit. Money wasn’t going to do it, there was a limited number of that. It was time to make a change, Mel Karmazin wanted me and he offered me my own channel with Sirius. At 48-years-old, I wasn’t getting that offer again.
They already had Howard and he set the precedent for a person to leave a big New York station for Sirius. You had confidence in the company, and we had a lot of trouble those first six or eight months during the economic crisis, but I trusted Mel that we would figure out a way and he did. So I don’t know if there’s anything Mark or Mike could have said in June of 2008. I think I was going to go.
BC: When Imus left in 2007, how serious were you about wanting the morning show?
CR: It was something I thought about. It was a new challenge, I liked the idea of getting home at 11 in the morning. I don’t know if I would consider it serious but thank God it didn’t happen because I would have done mostly all sports talk and that might not have fit morning radio. There was a thought about putting both of us in mornings, although I don’t think Mike wanted to get up. And there was a thought about splitting us up, but it never got that serious. It’s nice to get home at 11am, especially in the summer, having nice weather and the whole day, and I think I liked it from that aspect more than the actual dynamic of hosting a morning sports show. As it turns out, it was the best thing for me not to get that show.
BC: Do you miss the competition of terrestrial radio and the ratings battle? Did it ever bother you to see Francesa and Michael Kay on the back page of the newspaper?
CR: No. What I do miss is the give and take I had with Mike. The discourse between the two of us couldn’t be topped because Mike knew every sport. Most hosts know one or two, but Mike and I knew something about all of them.
I also miss the hometown teams. On a slow day, you could always rely on the local teams to get through a show. On Sirius, from February through August, there are days where you might not have a topic to grab everyone. A local station can always turn to the home teams, I don’t have that with Sirius. I can’t break down Julius Randle for 45 minutes because a listener in Phoenix might not even know who he is. You have to find something that grabs everyone.
BC: How long did you do your Saturday show on FAN?
CR: For about 19 years. I did Saturdays and Sundays in the late-80s before they put me and Mike together. I gravitated to Saturdays around ’90 and did it for about nine months every year. I loved it. Just like Mike loved his Sunday NFL show, it was a break in the routine for us.
BC: That show was my introduction to sports radio. I would sometimes go to work with my dad on Saturday mornings and FAN would play on the way home. And as a seven- or eight-year-old, the voice and laugh caught my attention and once I realized you were talking about the Knicks and Mets, I was hooked. Did you feel a different connection with the Saturday audience?
CR: Definitely. The Saturday audience is different. Even if it’s the same group of people, it had a different feel. There was more give and take with the calls because you have more time as a solo host, and it had more of a wide-open tableau. You could talk about anything because Friday night isn’t a big sports night so I was able to keep it different from the topics during the week or from Mike on Sunday.
BC: Were you a Stern listener at any point before going to Sirius?
CR: No, I definitely was not. I drove to work about 10:30, 11:00 o’clock so he was already off-air. And if I was focused on anything in the morning, it would have been Imus. I usually don’t listen to the radio too much. I always wanted my own fresh opinions, I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else. But based on my life at that point, it just didn’t fit into my schedule. So I really didn’t listen to Stern until I got to Sirius.
BC: Have you enjoyed your interactions with him and going on his show occasionally?
CR: Absolutely. Five times total. I’ve been totally into it. But it’s almost like when he gets Mike from Mahopac (Sour Shoes), he feels like he had Chris Russo on, so it’s been awhile, but I love going in there. He makes a sanitation worker sound interesting, a jewelry salesman sound interesting, he could make my father sound interesting! No matter who he’s talking to, he has the ability to be engaged. He used to like talking about anything going on with Mike and me, I also loved talking about Imus with him. I haven’t been on in a couple years, but I really enjoy it.
BC: What about going on Letterman? How many times did you do that?
CR: I think it was 37 times. The first was February of ’91 and the last time was about two weeks before he retired in 2015. I loved doing that show. And I’ll give you one story. They used to put me on in the third segment, 12:20am. Twice within a month in 2003, I was bumped. Once for Demi Moore and the other for Courtney Love. A week later, I’m driving into work and he calls my cell to apologize. I said, ‘Dave what are you doing calling me? This is ridiculous, don’t worry about it.’ He told me ‘it won’t happen again, if you’ll give us a break we’ll have you on again.’ Since then, every time I was on, I was the second guest and they gave me two segments.
BC: Did you enjoy the live audience aspect with Letterman? Because you were always good at feeding off the energy at remotes.
CR: I did, absolutely. There’s more pressure. You have to make them laugh, you have to be funny. The reason Dave liked having me on is because he knew I could carry the segment for nine or ten minutes. He could set me up and I could talk, it wasn’t pulling teeth. He put me on the first time because he heard me on-air and was making fun of the way I spoke, but it ended up being a long-lasting relationship.
BC: Francesa was complimentary of Pat McAfee when he got started in radio, it’s interesting now to see him on your channel. He’s very different from your brand of radio, but he generates interest.
CR: The sports talk genre has changed. Most hosts, anywhere you look, TV or radio, it’s 80% football even in the offseason and then they sprinkle in other topics. I never did football 12 months a year and in New York you don’t have to, but hosts today don’t do baseball, golf or tennis, they’re not even breaking down the NCAA Tournament. They spend most of their time on the NFL and they’ll mix in the NBA.
Pat is the new breed. He’s a big personality, but he uses the NFL to get his point across, a little wrestling too of course because he’s a wrestler. Now do I love the cursing? Probably not. But I appreciate that the genre has changed from what it was in 1989 when Mike and I started. The NFL is bigger and baseball is not as big. A lot of the younger people on-air didn’t grow up on baseball. It’s really an NFL dominated genre right now and Pat does a superb job of appealing to the younger audience who are into fantasy football and DraftKings, while that’s not where I grew up. There’s going to be a time where my show won’t be able to survive, but for the moment, I can still hang in there without doing 12 months of football.
BC: What about Morning Men, you’re an old school sports historian and then you have a polar opposite in Mike Babchik on your channel, but the rabid following of FALs he and Evan Cohen built is incredible.
CR: Babchik does a wonderful job. I love Babchik, and Evan’s a great sports talk host. Morning Men I look at a little differently because you can’t do a ton of sports in the morning and they have to compete with Stern on the same platform, that’s not easy. It’s a tricky spot, but they’ve done a tremendous job of finding a niche for themselves, and that’s not easy to do on Sirius where you can get lost with a million shows and channels. But Babchik and Evan haven’t, and they deserve a lot of credit for that.
BC: Why do you think you’re okay with Morning Men bits and more willing to play along, be the butt of a joke, but you weren’t as forgiving when it was Craig Carton doing it at WFAN back in 2007?
CR: That’s a good point. I think it has something to do with Imus because we were loyal to him and Craig was his replacement. I know the Carton and Mike relationship never warmed up, Carton and I have warmed up some. But you’re right. I don’t know what the reason was, we gave Carton a much harder time than I’ve ever given Babchik. Maybe in hindsight, I regret that.
Maybe I should’ve let it go, not say anything, just let them do their show and get established. I don’t think it was as bad as everybody makes it out to be. But there is a feeling that Mike and I didn’t give Boomer and Carton any support when they started. If they feel that strongly about it, there must be some truth to it, and I have to own that.
BC: Last year you were very critical of WFAN and what the station became, what about today with Craig and Evan Roberts in afternoons, is it more stable?
CR: I don’t listen much, but they’ve done pretty well in the ratings and now they have a simulcast with SNY coming, so give them credit for that. But I’m not up to date with what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Evan’s had to change his role and I think he’s done that, and Carton’s had to change a little because there’s more sports in afternoons than mornings. Gio has done a good job with Boomer in mornings. Give Malusis and Maggie credit for hanging in there. I just don’t know exactly where FAN is as a channel and a station if I’m being honest. I don’t know enough. One thing I will say is, Evan’s done a good job of letting Craig get his feet wet and reestablished.
BC: Are you surprised Mark Chernoff is retiring?
CR: Yea, he loves to work, radio is his life and he’s a routine guy. He gets up in the morning, goes on a run, has a catch with his kid when he gets to see him. But coming into the radio station at 6am, he’s always had that routine and he doesn’t have a ton of hobbies. He doesn’t play golf or tennis, so I am a little surprised to see him leave.
BC: Did you program Mad Dog Radio at the beginning?
CR: I did. I had a lot of help, but I programmed it. With Sirius, there’s a big chain of command, so I couldn’t just pick anyone I wanted and hire them. We’ve evolved a million different ways over the last 13 years. They still try to run things by me, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but I’m busy with the TV show, my radio show and now podcasts, there’s a lot going on. I know what’s happening with the channel, but I’m not involved in the decision-making process.
BC: Did you enjoy being part of the decision-making process?
CR: I did, but I learned I’m better on-air than off-air. It’s not easy to hire people, fire people, get approval, listen to tapes. There was a period in ’08 and ’09, I was doing a five-hour show, with no commercials. To juggle all that work was very tricky. They kind of put me out of my misery five years in and it’s been a plus.
BC: 61 years old and you’re not subtracting at all from your career, you have a daily TV show, a daily radio show and now you’ve even recently added a podcast series, Digging Up The Past. Why enter that medium?
CR: SiriusXM owns some podcast companies and they need content, that’s the biggest reason. In my last deal I said I would do it and I didn’t quite realize the involvement with it. I did one in the fall about Thanksgiving Day football, and now I have a four-part NCAA podcast that we did 22 interviews for. It’s the kind of stuff I like, it’s historical and most of the young talk-show hosts today, they’re grasp of history goes back to the mid ‘90s. They don’t go back to 1961, they don’t know who Jerry Lucas is. You can’t give me a normal podcast to do with an interview that I already do on the radio, so that’s where this idea came from where we have long-form episodes and it’s fun. It’s time consuming, 22 interviews plus narration takes time, but it’s good quality and I’ll always make sure my audience knows it’s worth the time to listen.
BC: What does the podcast allow you to do that your radio show doesn’t?
CR: I can get any one of these guests on my radio show, but you can’t get 22 of them together on one show because their schedules will never line up. But for a podcast, you can schedule it around them and piece it together, so it helps to complete a story.
BC: I think Francesa was 62 when he announced his first retirement, when does Chris Russo start to think about it?
CR: Not until my youngest gets out of high school and he’s a sophomore. What am I going to do if I retire and he’s still in school in Connecticut? I can’t go anywhere, I can’t move to Florida and play golf, so until he finishes high school there’s nothing to think about. When he goes off to college and it’s just my wife and I left in the house, then I could see taking a step back, but not for another couple years, minimum.
BC: Would you cut TV or radio first?
CR: I think I’ll always do radio in some capacity. Some sort of radio format.
BC: Is the flexible schedule that podcasting offers enticing as a post-retirement option?
CR: Yea, that’s appealing, it gets you out of the daily grind. Doing a show everyday for 49 or 50 weeks a year, it’s a lot. There will be a time that I won’t want to do that, but we’re not there yet.
BC: Last thing, because this made the rounds on social media in the last couple weeks. Were you made aware that there is a Tom Izzo who works at WFAN? It was not the basketball coach commenting on you blowing your nose.
CR: What happened was, my son who’s a senior at Tampa texted me and said, ‘look at this dad, Tom Izzo’s wondering if you farted.’ He thought it was the Michigan State Tom Izzo, so I did too. He wasn’t aware there was a Tom Izzo at WFAN, nor was I. And after I said it on-air, that’s when we found out it was a different Tom Izzo at FAN.
But that day I was just blowing my nose all day for whatever reason. That’s another adjustment we’ve had to make in the last year, TV at home, radio at home, you don’t get a break in-between where you’re in the city and feel the energy. I’m doing one show in the basement, the other on the third floor. It’s strange.
BC: Are you going back to the studio?
CR: Undetermined, but I would think so. It depends on SiriusXM and MLB opening their studios. Maybe by the summertime, but who knows.
BC: Is the ability to work from home a benefit to prolonging your career?
CR: You hit it right on the head. I do like the city, but it’s 17 hours a week that I spend commuting on a train, walking and driving. It’s a lot. Especially in the summer when you want to be home by six every night. You work harder at home, 17 hours of commuting is now 17 hours working, but overall, not commuting is a big plus.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.