Mike Francesa is coming back to WFAN, news that is so exciting for the pioneering sports radio station that… the morning show on Wednesday featured hosts Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti eviscerating their once and future colleague.
Beyond the clear Jay Leno parallel of a guy – a guy who was innovative and edgy in the 1980s, then blossomed into a megalomaniacal caricature of himself – coming back to his old place of work and bumping his successor to a less desirable timeslot, there is something else rotten about Francesa’s grand return to the airwaves, namely his show itself, and the mindset of WFAN.
Francesa as a solo act never was as good as he was in tandem with Chris Russo on “Mike and the Mad Dog,” a show on which two insufferable blowhards were the perfect foils for one another. It took a long time for any competition to really challenge Francesa, but Michael Kay’s show on ESPN Radio was making inroads by the time Francesa “retired,” and became New York’s top sports talk show as CMB – Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray, and Bart Scott – found their footing.
Surely, Francesa will get some early buzz when he returns, but getting listeners back full time from Kay is a huge challenge for someone with nothing fresh to offer, whose solo show is a one-note act of ego-driven puffery and berating callers. A multi-host show simply has more to offer, but there is still more of a hurdle for Francesa to clear.
That would be politics. Given talk radio’s bent toward serving older white men, it is not a surprise that even in deep blue New York, conservative-leaning sports shows would find a niche – and, conversely, that CMB, with a woman and a black man being put on equal footing to share views, might struggle, especially at first. But the bet with CMB would be on the future, on reshaping the radio landscape into one where hosts of different backgrounds and viewpoints help shape an audience beyond the traditional audience sitting in offices or driving around town.
One way that a radio station can boost its reach in 2018 is to take content that airs live and make it available in podcast form. WFAN does do this, but a comparison between an iTunes search for ESPN New York and WFAN shows just how much better Francesa’s rival station is at this.
Kay is active on Twitter. Francesa is extremely not. While in some ways, that can be seen as an endorsement of Francesa, it’s also a clear signal of his lack of interest in growing or changing with the times, or cultivating a new audience. When you hear about the “media landscape having changed,” that is part of it, and it’s why Francesa’s return can be called “doomed” before it even happens.
WFAN had its plan in place with CMB to move into a new era. They’ll still have a show, and Francesa may be fine at first in his return, but the smarter play would have been to follow the mantra that’s now paying off for the Philadelphia 76ers, and that even Anthony Scaramucci could echo: trust the process.