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WFAN Starts Its Next Chapter

“The good news about FAN is the brand is so strong. It has proven that it can survive any loss.”

Derek Futterman

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WFAN New Programming Lineup 2023
WFAN Logo - Courtesy: Audacy

When Craig Carton began hosting his morning show on FOX Sports 1 last September, it opened the door to the possibility of his departure from WFAN. Carton had served a federal prison sentence for wire and securities fraud, and upon being released from imprisonment, returned to his former radio station, teaming up with Evan Roberts in afternoons. The duo quickly propelled their show to the top of the ratings, retaining a strong position throughout the lifespan of the Carton & Roberts show.

Carton, however, was not working under a contract for nine months as he ruminated on his broadcast future. On one hand, he had to worry about making restitution to those he previously afflicted, but he also wanted to make amends with his family, friends and colleagues. 

Although the ratings for his television show were low out of the gate, FOX Sports 1 ostensibly sees potential for growth – especially as Undisputed continues its two-month hiatus. Because of these factors, the network reportedly made Carton a more lucrative contract offer in exchange for media exclusivity. Outside of his podcast on gambling addiction titled Hello, My Name is Craig, Carton no longer works with Audacy and is now dedicated to his FOX Sports 1 show on a full-time basis.

“‘I was always a loyal watcher of his show, but now that we’re not doing the radio show anymore, do I still have to watch the show?,’” Roberts remembers asking Carton. “I find myself watching it less, but I still check in with him. What I love about him is that I think he knows so much about radio [and he] taught me not just working together, but even when he was doing mornings.”

Upon coming to the decision to leave WFAN last month, Carton made sure to thank everyone involved in helping to restore his career. The person, however, that he credits most for his comeback was Audacy New York Market President Chris Oliviero. A fixture at WFAN since the early 2000s, Oliviero visited Carton while he was incarcerated and promised that he would be there for him if he got everything back in order. The visit did not guarantee a job offer, but rather represented an assurance that his congeniality would always be there.

“To me, when people you know who become friends have problems or issues, you don’t abandon them; you don’t run from them,” Oliviero said. “It’s well-documented what he did, [and] it’s well-documented that he did his penance. Just like hopefully any good friend would do, you stay in touch with people, even when they’re down.”

Changes had to be made to maintain the quality of programming without Carton, widely considered an elite-level talent. Audacy’s Vice President of Programming at WFAN and CBS Sports Radio, Spike Eskin, knows these changes, which he instituted without advice from others, are something he will need to stand behind and justify to listeners if necessary. While dividing former midday tandem Brandon Tierney and Tiki Barber in different dayparts did not represent the station’s first choice, management ultimately came to a conclusion that it was the best path forward.

Spike Eskin

“I didn’t want to break up any shows, but ultimately we have to have the best shows,” Eskin said, admitting he was hesitant to separate Tierney and Barber, who were having success in middays. “If that means some uncomfortable moments now for us to win long term, that’s what we’ll do.”

Both Oliviero and Eskin affirm that the goal was not to replace Carton. Doing so is impossible. Instead, the station recognized that Roberts had significantly grown as a host to lead a new program and cultivate an organic, local sound.

“The good news about FAN is the brand is so strong. It has proven that it can survive any loss,” Oliviero said. “There’s been a lot of losses at this station over its history… but the station has always continued to succeed.”

Roberts’s new partner is Tiki Barber, giving WFAN the traditional broadcaster and ex-jock dynamic in afternoons. Evan & Tiki continues to be simulcast on SNY for its final two hours, an aspect of the day that Roberts says changes nothing except the branded microphone windscreens.

Evan Roberts

“The biggest adjustment I had – more so than even working with Tiki because I think it’s easy [since] we’re talking [and] we’re having fun – was [that] I switched seats,” Roberts said. “I went from a seat where I never saw the TV, never saw the camera [and] forgot we were on TV.

“Now, I’m going to sit where I can kind of see it in the corner of my eye, and I always try not to look because we’re not doing a TV show – we’re doing a radio show – and I think that’s what the people want.”

Tiki Barber

“I look at the camera,” Barber said, leading the show’s cast to erupt in laughter.

Barber, along with on-air contributor Shaun Morash and executive producer Tommy Lugauer gather in Roberts’ office before each show to review the rundown and determine the best approach. Adorned on the walls of the room, which was formerly Carton’s office, are photos of the Brooklyn Nets former “Big Three” of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant, along with a blown-up X profile photo of New York Mets owner Steve Cohen. Surrounded by sports memorabilia, familiar mementos and a massage chair, the afternoon crew holds a daily pre-show meeting as the clock inches closer to 2 p.m.

“It was an opportunity that was presented to me,” Barber said of moving to afternoon drive. “I know that opportunities aren’t always perfect because I’ve been with [Brandon Tierney] for a decade-plus, but you better take them because they don’t come around often. It was a no-brainer for me.”

Evan Roberts and Tiki Barber
Evan Roberts and Tiki Barber form WFANs new weekday afternoon drive duo

The Major League Baseball trade deadline dominated the local sports discussion on the day of my visit to WFAN’s studios. The Mets and Yankees were under the microscope for what they would or wouldn’t do. Before Tuesday, the most notable move of the deadline was the Mets opting to trade three-time Cy Young Award-winner Max Scherzer to the Texas Rangers.

When the trade of Mets pitcher Justin Verlander was reported, the sound of glass breaking disrupted the conversation and effectively tore the show rundown to shreds. All eyes were on Roberts, an avid Mets fan known for his impassioned reactions and shrewd intellect, to see how he would feel about an inconspicuous shift in the direction of the organization. Upon finding out that the Mets were sending the Houston Astros $54.5 million in the deal, and in turn expediting the growth of its minor league system, it became obvious what the Mets had decided to do.

“It’s exciting to get young players – there is something exciting about that – but it’s depressing,” Roberts said, seconds after details of the trade were made public. “You don’t get the immediate satisfaction.”

Shaun Morash and Tommy Lugauer are situated in the control room during the show

After about three minutes passed, Roberts signaled to the control room to cut the commercials and return live on the air. He had just discovered that the Mets were receiving the Houston Astros’ top prospect, outfielder Drew Gilbert, as a part of the deal and wanted to divulge the news to the listeners. Several minutes later after conflicting reports, it was confirmed that another prized young prospect, outfielder Ryan Clifford, was also heading to Queens, something Roberts learned and reacted to in the moment.

“You never want to be gone too long,” Roberts said. “I know we have commercials, and I respect that, but then there’s also the trade just went down; we need to get back.”

The already-strong chemistry of the brand new show was evident, looking like a well-oiled machine that had worked together for years rather than mere weeks. 

“It’s hard to plan for a day like this because you simply don’t know what’s going to happen,” Barber added, “but it leads to organic reaction, which is, I think, the fun part about it.”

Even though the new afternoon show was facing its first genuine test of adapting to a fluid situation on the air, it did not phase anyone involved. Roberts and Barber are both engrossed in the New York sports scene and are adept to keenly ascertain the future implications these transactions may have. Morash and Lugauer also adequately pick their spots, providing their voices to the program and balancing it with their production responsibilities.

“I really believe that this is the first show that WFAN has had, and correct me if I’m wrong, where essentially every single fanbase is going to have a voice,” Morash said.

“….There is a voice in this room for every single fanbase, which is so unique and different, and you would think should be so common – but hasn’t been in the history of WFAN.”

Lugauer has also been involved in radio for over a decade, and is now hosting the “Bridge” program on nights where the station is not broadcasting a sporting event. When Carton returned to WFAN, it was Lugauer who was tabbed as the afternoon show’s producer. He gained extensive repetitions in overseeing a program with an effervescent, unpredictable talent.

“Working with Craig is like riding Space Mountain for the first time – you never know what’s coming next – so there’s a little bit more structure and I have a little more feel,” Lugauer expressed. “I always say [that] you can tell right away if a show has chemistry, and I knew from our first hour I was like, ‘We had that chemistry.’”

As Evan & Tiki prepared to take the air, Brandon Tierney and Sal Licata were in the final hour of their new midday show which, for now, is going by The Brandon Tierney and Sal Licata Show. The title, Tierney feels, is especially long-winded for a radio program and will, at some point, likely be shortened to BT & Sal.

“I get it [with] name recognition and I understand why we’re doing this from a management point of view,” Tierney said. “When you think BT & Sal, to me those are guys you want to hang out with.”

The volume of the midday show may, perhaps, be the greatest on the station and is a deviation from the sound of Tierney’s old program with Barber. Both hosts bring a joy and passion for more than New York sports to the air every weekday, cognizant of the honor it is to be featured hosts on a broadcast outlet with the cache and reputation of WFAN.

“Any spot on the FAN, to me, is a dream; to have your own show, but to be on in the middays in particular during the day – honestly, I can’t even describe it,” Licata said. “It’s something that I’ve always dreamt of, but I can’t even believe it’s actually become a reality.”

Licata enters middays after a stint hosting overnights on the station, a role he balanced with his on-air obligations at SNY. He could be seen regularly on Baseball Night in New York and frequently made contributions on Honda SportsNite. From there, he would traverse to WFAN and return home to go to bed between 5:30 or 6 a.m. Today, those hours are when he wakes up. Now his workday starts with radio and concludes with television.

“I’m still doing SNY, but most nights I’m home with my wife and I get to see my daughter before she goes to sleep,” Licata said. “It’s totally different – opposite hours – but I love it so far.”

Neither host is focused on individual accolades, instead collaborating and ensuring that the show finishes at the top of the ratings and has a legacy as the No. 1 program in the history of New York sports radio. While many people would say these goals are lofty, Tierney and Licata believe they have the rapport and the chemistry to realize their desired sublimity.

Brandon Tierney

“I offer no concessions and I put no boundaries and parameters on what we can be,” Tierney said. “I want people to, when they talk about us – when they talk about me and Sal and our union and our dynamic – I want them to say, ‘That is the show that I can’t miss. That is the show that I need to listen to.’”

While Tierney and Licata were not the ones on the air when Verlander was dealt from the Mets back to the Astros, there was plenty of conversation of rumblings beforehand – and a surfeit of people looking to chime in. Staffers were screening various audience members looking to make their voices heard about the topics at hand. In fact, the phones were illuminating behind the glass as the duo interacted with both first-time and frequent callers.

“Even if we do yell at them or disagree, I would treat them the same way that I would want to be treated as a caller too,” Licata said. “We talk about sports, no different.”

Brandon Tierney and Sal Licata bring fireworks to WFAN in middays from 10 am to 2 pm

The first episode of the midday show commenced with a roaring start despite the shortcomings of the local baseball teams, and the on-air chemistry of the duo was immediately palpable. Tierney and Licata trust one another and share the same goal of ascending the summit and setting the bar higher each day. They never take time on the air for granted or eschew the truth, even if it means they need to refine a previous opinion.

“I think Sal is that way where he’s not afraid to be wrong,” Tierney said. “It took me a while to learn, ‘Don’t be afraid to be wrong.’ What you say on Monday could change on Thursday – that’s the way of the world; it’s evolving, certainly as it pertains to sports.”

While the lineup has received positive feedback from listeners and management, having an established morning program before new midday and afternoon shows alleviates some of the pressure to immediately succeed. Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti provide a sense of stability at the start of the day and continue to dominate in the ratings books, a combination the station expects to permeate among the other programming.

“If people build habits and they continue those habits, it leads to success,” Oliviero said. “Having that known quantity with Boomer & Gio to start the day is an advantage.”

“From a leadership standpoint, it’s an opportunity for them as the big show; the successful show to help elevate everyone else, which they’ve done a good job of, and help shine a light on our new shows,” Eskin added. “They’ve been great – Boomer; Gio; Al; Jerry; Eddie have [all] been awesome.”

WFAN Entrance
The entrance to WFAN features a collage of iconic figures in New York sports history

WFAN first launched in 1987 under the leadership of Emmis Communications founder and chief executive officer Jeff Smulyan. There are odes to the past throughout the outlet’s broadcast facility in lower Manhattan – including the notorious afternoon program Mike and the Mad Dog – and everyone in the building recognizes how fortunate they are to be working at such a venerated outlet. The station was previously located in the sub-basement of the Kaufman Astoria Studios before moving to the Hudson Square neighborhood in late 2009. Its location is a prime destination within a sprawling metropolis featuring fans of nearly every sports team.

When Eskin walked in for the first time, he tried not to think about the magnitude of the outlet. Growing up, he knew of WFAN but did not have much of an impression of it, instead remaining focused on sports in the Philadelphia area. As he opened the glass doors to enter the station for the first time in July of 2021, Eskin was implicitly marking the start of a new era of WFAN. Two years later, marking the start of a new era at WFAN is becoming a habit for him.

As Oliviero and Eskin oversee the revamped programming lineup, they are judging success based on a litany of quantitative and qualitative key performance indicators. They span beyond traditional measurements radio stations look at, including listenership, advertising volume and overall reach. Instead, these objectives are amalgamated with other factors and are all within a greater barometer of success.

“You’ve probably heard the two ‘Rs’ – it’s ratings and revenue – I try to add a third ‘R,’ which is ‘relevancy,’” Oliviero said. “For me, FAN’s success is those three ‘Rs’… and I would challenge anyone to name a sports media platform in market No. 1 in New York City that is more relevant than FAN. You won’t find one.”

“As long as we are proud of what is coming out of the speakers and we said that we worked as hard as we could and as smart as we could to make it good, then that’s all that matters to me,” Eskin added. “I am proud of that regardless of the result otherwise.”

WFAN Mic Arm
WFAN is the broadcast home of the New York Yankees New York Giants and Brooklyn Nets

While Eskin is positioning the station for sustained success, he vows not to lose sight of the station’s storied past. From Pete Franklin to Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo; Suzyn Waldman to Ed Coleman; Don Imus to Steve Somers and many more, the call letters carry weight. 

“WFAN has had a very successful 35 years, and my goal is to set it up for the next 35,” Eskin said. “I likely won’t be here as long as Mark [Chernoff] was – I’ve never seen anybody put in more hours than Chernoff…. The goal is to respect our heritage [and] respect what the radio station means to people, but evolve it in a way that makes it successful moving forward.”

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Ryan Clark is Ready for ‘The Pivot’ to Grow with Channing Crowder, Fred Taylor and Fanatics

“We want to be a place where you can just be yourself and you can love yourself and truly tell your story and show people who you are.”

Derek Futterman

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Ryan Clark
Courtesy: The Pivot

Answering a call from Emmy Award-winning producer Alicia Zubikowsi, Ryan Clark learned of a potential new media venture in a niche space. Zubikowski had produced the I Am Athlete podcast for nearly two years, which rapidly proliferated in size, scope and prominence. A financial dispute among the colleagues, however, led to the departures of Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor from the roster, along with Zubikowski, and they branched out on their own to actualize a new vision. After speaking with Zubikowski, Clark met with Crowder virtually and evinced compatibility that compelled him to become involved in the project.

Less than two years later, The Pivot Podcast has quickly amassed notoriety and prestige within sports media. The athlete-driven podcast contains weekly conversations with contemporaries and luminaries alike, to talk sports, music and entertainment. Clark, Crowder and Taylor possess an evident rapport and retains the audience while encouraging prospective listeners to hear the genuine endeavor.

“We felt like there was some synergy there, we thought we could do some good things and we decided to give it a try,” Clark said. “I had already been doing my own podcast that I was funding myself, editing myself and cutting promos myself just because I understood what the space was and I knew that that’s where a lot of media was going, and at the time I didn’t have a partnership or anyone kind of showing me the way, but I was like, ‘These people have already been successful.’”

Since its launch in the winter of 2022, The Pivot Podcast has amassed over 158 million views and 870,000 subscribers on YouTube alone. The show has welcomed guests across a variety of professions, some of whom have included Caleb Williams, Snoop Dogg, Gayle King and Travis Kelce. During its time in circulation, it has made an indelible impact on the landscape and recently agreed to a multi-year partnership with Fanatics.

Through the deal, The Pivot Podcast will feature Fanatics’ verticals surrounding commerce, betting, collectibles and events, and the Fanatics Sportsbook garnering the title of the “official sportsbook” of the show. Additionally, the program will be part of company events such as Fanatics Fest NYC and its annual Super Bowl party.

“Luckily for us, it’s been such a blessing,” Clark said. “Some of the stories we’ve been able to tell, the people we’ve been able to work with and have as guests on the show, and then obviously now having an opportunity to partner with Fanatics and be a part of Michael Rubin’s team and sort of head their media division, especially when you’re speaking of Alicia and what she’ll be able to do, it just makes so much sense.”

Fanatics itself had inked some deals in the sports media space over the last year, including agreements with Bleacher Report and Overtime, but they were largely under the aegis of merchandising and/or live events. The company also hired Ed Hartman as its chief strategy officer in media, trying to discover content that fits various key business sectors. For The Pivot, retaining creative control and autonomy over the content was essential and being involved in other ventures added more value to the proposition.

“To be a part of those things and bringing those things to the world, but also an opportunity to showcase the athletes and entertainers that are part of the Fanatics family – and I think that’s a different and a bigger opportunity than any podcast has ever had with any partnership, and that is why it was important for us to find the right partnership,” Clark said. “And if I’m being honest, our producer has turned down multiple deals saying that she believed that this was the one before this was ever even a thing that Michael Rubin was talking about.”

Reaching this point required hard work, consistency and confidence that The Pivot would ultimately resonate with audiences and establish a rapport in the space. Luckily for Clark, he had a viable fallback plan in that he was working at ESPN as an NFL analyst, a role he had positioned himself to attain while he was still an active player.

During his career, he had worked on 93.7 The Fan hosting a radio show from a hibachi restaurant in Pittsburgh and also appeared on local television. Clark played 13 years in the NFL as a safety and won a Super Bowl championship as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 season.

Although Clark had been told as a player that he had a chance to thrive in sports media, his formative years in the business broadened his understanding of the landscape and how to achieve success. Upon retiring from the NFL, he signed a multi-year agreement with ESPN to appear on NFL Live, SportsCenter, ESPN Radio shows and additional network programming.

Over the last several years, he has been a consistent part of NFL Live. Clark explained that the show contains underdogs who have crafted chemistry that has coalesced into an on-air product and meaningful friendships. Laura Rutledge, Dan Orlovsky, Marcus Spears, Mina Kimes and Adam Schefter work with Clark and blend their football knowledge and expertise with entertainment.

“I could see how much work they all put into their craft, and I respected that, and then once you get that respect and you start to work together, now you get to know the people,” Clark said. “You get to know about their kids, you get to know about their home life, you get to know about what makes them tick and what makes them themselves, and then we care about each other.”

As members of the show watch NFL games every week, they remain in constant communication through a group chat. Additionally, Clark ensures that he is actively listening to what his colleagues say on the air so he can disseminate informed, substantive opinions that play a part in the overall product.

“The smartest of analysts understand what they have to be on each show based on who they’re working with,” Clark said. “I think you just also have to be versatile enough to do that. You have to know when you’re on NFL Live, that show is so heavy X and O; that show is so heavy, ‘Let’s educate – let’s talk about the things that are important in ball, even if they aren’t the most popular things.’”

Starting last season, Clark was added to Monday Night Countdown as a studio analyst as part of a revamped iteration of the program hosted by Scott Van Pelt. Joining Clark as analysts on the show were his NFL Live colleague Marcus Spears and incumbent analyst Robert Griffin III. While there were some memorable moments both in studio and on site throughout the year though, Clark felt that the show struggled to capture an essence on the air.

“I think the show is just hard because it’s sort of like rolled over the entire infrastructure and changed the people, and it happened so late that I don’t think we ever got an opportunity to find our voices on that show, and we tried to work through that throughout the season,” Clark said. “….I think last year was a learning experience where if I’m being really honest, we did bad TV sometimes, which was new for me because I felt like I haven’t done bad TV in a very long time, and it was embarrassing for me because I put so much time into it.”

Former Philadelphia Eagles center and Super Bowl champion Jason Kelce is joining the show and was formally introduced this week. During a charity golf outing this offseason, Clark had a chance to meet Kelce and learn more about him as a person while also answering questions about ESPN and the sports media business.

“I told him to be himself because being himself is what got him here,” Clark said. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my opinion, so he has so much knowledge, experience and wisdom that people will crave, and he can give it to them uniquely with his personality, with his honesty [and] with the openness and vulnerability about who he is. Other than that, he’s going to have to learn.”

Akin to Clark hosting The Pivot and working at ESPN, Kelce hosts the New Heights podcast with his brother, and will now be joining Monday Night Countdown on ESPN. Clark anticipates that Kelce will be a huge addition, referring to him as the “hottest free agent ever,” and hopes to grant him longform chances to express himself on the air. Being on the show for a second season, however, nearly was not a reality for Clark amid an expiring contract at ESPN.

“I was gone,” Clark said. “I wasn’t considering – I was done. Normally they extend your contract until it gets done most times. I was out – my contract had ended.”

Clark took part in discussions with other people in the business, some of which included having his own show and organizations starting networks around him. Throughout the process, he was cognizant about the relationships and memories he had built at ESPN and was appreciative for various personalities speaking up for him, including Mike Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith. In the end, Clark signed a multi-year extension with the network that implemented a raise and additional responsibility while also continuing his other projects.

“Obviously my family is the NFL Live crew,” Clark said. “Scott Van Pelt and I probably share one of the most memorable nights in television when Damar Hamlin went down. And so those relationships were things that I didn’t want to leave unless there was a good enough reason to leave, and I don’t think that’s just money.”

Clark started hosting Inside the NFL last season on The CW, a storied sports franchise that presents highlights, analysis and interviews every week during the NFL season. After spending approximately four decades on HBO and subsequent years on Showtime and Paramount+, the program moved to broadcast television for the first time. Clark conceptualizes his role as a point guard who is able to score when necessary and successfully facilitate his colleagues Jay Cutler, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, Chris Long and The Pivot co-host Channing Crowder.

“I think that was the hardest adjustment with Inside the NFL initially was like, ‘Okay, how do I set these guys up for success while still doing something I’m really good at, which is analyzing football?,’” Clark said, “and it’s taken some time to really sort of find a space for it, but I think I did find that on Inside the NFL.”

In working on The Pivot, Clark built relationships organically through conversations surrounding strategy, content creation and lifestyle. One episode in particular that stands out to him is when the show interviewed former NBA forward Michael Beasley where he opened up about his mental health struggles and hardships he has endured throughout his life. Furthermore, he talked about struggling to find the right people and explained that everyone stole from him except his kids. Clark, Crowder and Taylor sympathized with Beasley and offered him assistance, underscoring the unscripted, genuine nature of the show.

“Everybody wants The Rock to be able to come on their show and talk about his battles with depression, but we also want Kevin Hart to be able to come on the show and invite him to nudist camp too,” Clark said. “We want to be a place where you can just be yourself and you can love yourself and truly tell your story and show people who you are. And I don’t necessarily know if it’s distinctive in effort or goal; I think it’s been distinctive in execution, which, in the end, is what we deliver to people.”

Through the new partnership with Fanatics, Clark looks forward to continuing to take part in candid conversations and storytelling on The Pivot while continuing to thrive in his work with ESPN and The CW. As someone who attained a successful NFL career after signing as an undrafted free agent, he maintains a mentality built on an indefatigable work ethic and resolute dedication towards his professional endeavors. Once the show signed the partnership with Fanatics, it had an opportunity to interview Tom Brady, who discussed topics including his experience being the subject of a Netflix roast and the lessons he learned playing in the NFL.

“Not everybody understands Tom Brady, right?,” Clark said. “Who knows that story? Who has ever lived that, ‘I’m the greatest to ever do something’? But everybody has understood what it’s like to struggle; what it’s like to doubt yourself, right? And so we bring them that story, and in bringing them that story, we talk about the things that Fanatics is doing and the ways that they are now moving in the sports world.”

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Christopher ‘Mad Dog’ Russo Making the Most of His Resurgence with the Help of ESPN

Far from a close-minded fuddy-duddy. He is an open-minded observer of sports, one of the greatest of all time.

John Molori

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Screengrab of First Take on ESPN with Chris Russo
Screengrab from ESPN/First Take

The true essence of Christopher ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, Version 2024 can be found in the open to the May 15 edition of First Take on ESPN.

In the aftermath of the Knicks defeating the Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, superstar showstopper Stephen A. Smith opened the program with an emotionally joyous soliloquy lauding his favorite New York basketball team. Smith was jubilant, ebullient, and thrilled.

The segment ended with Smith walking over to panelists Russo and Kendrick Perkins and hugging them in glee. After the show’s open, the Knick rapture continued, that is, until “Mad Dog” was let out of the kennel.

Russo brought things back down to earth, predicting that Indiana would win Game 6 of the series. He then went through a mental historical timeline of the Knicks choking in playoff games at home. This level of historic context is largely lost on modern sports fans, many of whom believe that nothing existed before LeBron James or Tom Brady.

Russo’s beautiful dose of reality ticked off the jovial Smith but set the discourse on a more levelheaded road. Russo is a talking history book, and let’s face it, not everybody likes history class. The difference, however, is that Christopher Russo lived this history, and indeed, made history himself. A 2022 National Radio Hall of Fame inductee, he has uniquely entertained sports fans for more than four decades, becoming one of the most memorable and imitated personalities ever.

He created Mad Dog Sports Radio on SiriusXM in 2008 and headlines the channel with his popular Mad Dog Unleashed show. In addition, he hosts the daily High Heat program on MLB Network. Still, it is one of Russo’s earliest and most recent gigs that set him apart.

Beginning in 1989 and for the next 19 years, Russo and Mike Francesa hosted the landmark Mike and the Mad Dog afternoon driveshow on WFAN radio in New York. It was a ratings mammoth and ensconced Russo as a stone-cold sports media legend.

I am going to make the case that Russo’s latest incarnation as a First Take Wednesday regular is just as significant. It has exposed a whole new audience to the Russo experience. On a more basic level, it is just really special to see a classic radio guy like Russo welcomed into the most progressive and popular sports talk show on the air right now.

Kudos to Stephen A. Smith for making Russo a regular on his program. You can tell that Smith, author of an historically significant media career himself, truly respects those who came before him and blazed the trail. In fact, to a certain extent, Smith is a media offspring of Russo. They both possess riveting personalities, unquestioned bravery, and on-air dominance. Like or dislike, agree or disagree, these are two men who must be listened to and respected.

With Max Kellerman’s 2021 exit from First Take, I was doubtful as to what would happen to the program. My worst thought was that Smith would bring in a bevy of co-hosts who would bow to his greatness – like Jerry Jones’ Cowboys’ coaching hires since Jimmy Johnson. Thankfully, Smith went in the other direction. Russo has the same cache as Smith, so there is no hero worship. He says what he feels and talks straight – real talk in a colorful and exciting manner.

As the Knicks discussion continued, Smith wanted to tap into Russo’s New York sports sensibilities and emotion asking Russo if he felt Madison Square Garden shaking during the Knicks’ Game 5 win. It didn’t work. Russo responded that at 65 years-old, he has been in the Garden for many big games and then cautioned Smith to take it easy with the Knicks.

He again harkened back to New York’s less than sparkling history in big games and menacingly joked that it is his job to “spoil Stephen A’s fun.” Russo then spectacularly took the air out of the building with an ominous What If asking what the Knicks would do if it came down to a Game 7 and the game was tied with the clock winding down.

Russo is also self-deprecating. When host Molly Qerim asked him for a prediction on the Nuggets-Timberwolves series, Russo said that he predicted that the Bills would blow out the Giants in Super Bowl XXV – the famed Scott Norwood missed field goal game. Qerim, who does an excellent job in controlling Hurricane Christopher, acknowledged the obscure reference.

While Russo has a database of past stats and stars, he is not lost in history. In fact, on this edition of First Take, he made a bold statement that the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić has the greatest offensive skill set of any center in the history of the NBA. These are not the words of a stodgy curmudgeon whose mind cannot be changed.

Russo is an astute observer of our games. He sees greatness and gives that greatness credit. Far from a close-minded fuddy-duddy. He is an open-minded observer of sports, one of the greatest of all time. His opinions are not to be chided. They are to be listened to and appreciated.

During First Take’s Quick Takes segment, Russo ably put his encyclopedic knowledge to use. The question posed was whether the Celtics or Lakers are the greatest franchise in NBA history. Russo’s analysis was spot on and long overdue. First, he discounted the Minneapolis Lakers’ five titles as part of the pro-Lakers argument. He also cited the Celtics’ overall dominance when the two franchises have met in the NBA Finals over the decades.

Lastly, he remarked that the Celtics have had four eras of greatness: Russell in the 1960s, Havlicek-Cowens in the 1970s, Bird in the 1980s, and Pierce-Garnett in the late 2000s, while the Lakers have only two: Magic-Abdul-Jabbar in the ‘80s and Shaq-Kobe in the 2000s. It was the best analysis of a longtime debate.

In a debate about Bronny James and his NBA hopes, Russo again was the voice of reason giving a very realistic analysis of why he is not a top pro prospect. It is clear that Russo has nothing to prove, nobody to impress, and no apple to polish. He made his bones years ago, and his takes are refreshing and objective.

The cherry on top of Russo’s First Take sundae was his What Are You Mad About? segment. Viewers tuning into this part of the program are no doubt wondering who the hell, and at times, what the hell they are watching. Russo pushes the limits of his angst, heart rate, blood pressure, and decibel level picking apart several news items from the week in sports. At times, he closes his blurbs screaming to the heavens, “May God strike me down!”

In this particular segment, he went off on late NBA playoff start times, the intrigue surrounding the 2024 NFL schedule release, and his distaste towards the vulgar humor in the Tom Brady roast. Russo gets up close to the camera and goes off in a boisterous way. It is simultaneously fantastic and frightening.

In his last piece on the roast, Russo looked into the camera and yelled to Brady, “How stupid can you be!” This is the same question I will pose to anyone who dismisses Russo as an out of touch old guy. This cat is no curmudgeon. He is a killer. Elderly? No, epic. Bygone? How about straight up bad ass. That is Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, Version 2024.

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How to Renegotiate Your Annual Sports Radio Advertising Contract

Reducing expenses within an annual radio agreement takes a strategic negotiation and budget management approach.

Jeff Caves

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Graphic that shows two people negotiating
Graphic Courtesy: Soject.com

If you are a small to medium-sized business, there is no doubt you are facing rising costs, and making ends meet is a top priority. Sometimes, that means cutting expenses on things you have committed to via contract, like a 2024 annual radio advertising agreement with level monthly payments. You are on the air each month and appreciate the value of advertising consistently. You understand the necessity to maintain a market presence within the budget you laid out last year. You negotiated a win-win contract and are happy with it. However, with your costs spiraling to deliver your services, cost-cutting measures have become critical for financial viability in the long term and better cash flow in the short term. You are now tasked with the need to reduce expenses wherever you can, and your sports radio advertising is next on the list. The station doesn’t want to lessen your committed budget. It’s time for strategic negotiation and decision-making. Here are some effective strategies to accomplish this objective while keeping your annual budget intact:

Pricing and Rates

Initiate negotiations on pricing and rates for ad spots with the radio station. They know where they have more demand than supply and could even make more money by freeing up some of your commercials to be sold to other clients, sometimes at higher rates. This is typically during the weekday drive time periods; you probably got an annual rate for your commitment. If the station is willing, you could move into off-peak nighttime buys or weekends. Off-peak hours typically come at a lower cost and can still reach a substantial audience, enabling you to stretch your budget further. Give the station 30 days to see if they can accomplish this, and if not, go to plan ‘B.’

Longer Commitments

Consider committing to a longer-term contract, like a multi-year agreement, to potentially lower your monthly cash commitment. Maybe you could move off $2,000 per month from July to December and move it to the first six months of 2025. Emphasize your dedication to maintaining a consistent advertising presence over time, which can incentivize the radio station to continue the partnership.

Frequency and Unit Length

If the station allows you to reduce the monthly budget, focus on maximizing frequency by strategically choosing the length of ad units. Instead of running only thirty and sixty-second ads, opt for :15 slots to increase frequency without exceeding your budget. Shorter units are more cost-effective per spot and can deliver well-known messages repeatedly.

Budget Reallocation and Trade

Explore avenues for reallocating funds within your annual budget to optimize expenses. For instance, negotiate a reduction in the monthly budget and allocate the saved funds to months where your cash flow is strongest. Having a payment schedule that matches your cash flow will give you the best chance to meet expenses. Furthermore, explore opportunities for service or trade to offset your monthly bill, leveraging resources you have already paid for that may match up well with what the station needs.

Reducing expenses within an annual radio agreement takes a strategic negotiation and budget management approach. Concentrating on pricing, rates, contract length, frequency, and budget reallocation can keep your station relationship intact, honor your contract, and increase cash flow.

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