Mike Francesa on Mad Dog, his future and why the critics don't bother him
Chemistry, as any married person or sports-talk show host knows, is hard to explain—and even harder to maintain. But for 19 years, from 1989 to 2008, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo partnered on an immensely popular and polarizing radio show on WFAN-AM Radio in New York. The hosts, famously dubbed as Mike and the Mad Dog, became famous, rich and, as most bands do, eventually broke up. Their time on the air together has been chronicled by a million chroniclers, including a Grantland oral history on WFAN that appeared in 2012 on the now-defunct site.
Today, Francesa pilots his own daily afternoon show on WFAN-AM and remains No. 1 in the New York City market among sports-talk shows. Russo solo hosts an afternoon show for SiruisXM Radio. There have been a couple of small on-air reunions, including a famous show in October 2009, 14 months after the split, and this March brings the most anticipated reunion since the pair broke up: Last week the duo said in a joint live announcement that they will reunite on March 30 at Radio City Music Hall for a one-time only live show to benefit the Garden of Dreams Foundation.
On Tuesday, Francesa spoke on the phone with SI.com for a long interview about the upcoming Radio City show, how he views a longer-term reunion with Russo, and his own future in medium.
Richard Deitsch: Have you and Chris spoken with any substance about partnering for anything beyond March 30 at Radio City?
Mike Francesa: No, not one word. It has never been brought up in any way, not one discussion.
RD: Do you expect that conversation to happen if you have a really good experience at Radio City?
MF: No, I do not. I think we are both at very different places, and we are also at very different places in our careers. I think the business is at a place economically where it does not lend itself to this kind of [radio] program. It really does not. If anything, the business is moving away from having big ticket items as part of their schedule. The business is moving away from the stuff that we kind of fostered and put on the map, which is radio talent being paid very, very well. The business is going in the opposite direction.
RD: How would you feel about doing another one-off with Chris or a weekly gig, or does your answer above indicate that it is unlikely to happen?
MF: I think it’s unlikely. I think right now, and I don’t know what the future will hold, but from my understanding Dog will make another contract move before I will. I know my recent years with CBS have been an open book but I have a couple of years left on my contract and I have made it pretty clear in recent weeks that I will complete that contract. After that, I am not making any statements about anything and I have no plans to. I have not given that one minute of consideration. And that is how I want it to go. I just want to finish this the right way. But I expect him to re-up where he is or do something else beforehand. As far as I know, he is on schedule to begin contract negotiations or get a new deal before my deal expires so I think we are on different timetables. I do think what you are saying is true: There will be people asking for some more one-night things and special events but right now we have no plans, nor have we had any discussions. I think it is a real leap for anyone to think that because there is going to be a one night reunion, that it is going to be anything more than that.
RD: Why was this the right time to do something with Chris on this kind of scale?
MF: The timing, I think, as well as the who and the where. First, there was who asked, which was The Garden people. They asked and I knew they would do a great event and I am familiar with the Garden of Dreams charity. Number two, the idea of doing this at Radio City Music Hall was a big part of this. It was just a tremendous opportunity and a distinct honor. I think it’s one of the greatest venues in the world. So a chance to be at a place like that, a unique, one-of-a-kind building was a big part. Also, a lot of years have gone by and we have never done anything like this. There were a couple of things—we have been on the air together—but I just think it was the right time for someone to ask. They asked us independently. I think they asked Dog first but I am not positive. But they asked us independently and when it was broached to me, I just thought it was a good idea and the right time to do something. It was also the right charity, the right venue. So I just think it was just the right time and place and everything.
RD: How much of a surprise was it when The Garden called?
MF: Yeah, it was a big surprise. Dog did an interview [on the YES Network’s CenterStage show] about six months ago and I guess he was asked about the idea of us getting back together, which led to a couple of headlines and led to some people calling me and asking, “Could it ever happen?” But nobody brought up a single night reunion thing as a possibility. Frankly, a couple of times, I had been asked by promoters would you consider a one night Mike and The Mad Dog for profit and I had said no. There was a lot of logistics to work out, plus we do not own the name to the show (CBS does). So that was an issue. We told The Garden that right from the start: You have to get permission from [CBS Chairman] Les Moonves to use the name. Well, [Executive Chairman of The Madison Square Garden Company and Knicks and Rangers owner] Jim Dolan did that in one phone call. That was a big key because I thought that the name Mike and The Mad Dog was important to this. We could have used “Francesa and Russo” but I thought having the Mike and The Mad Dog name was pivotal to this because it just lends itself to the whole idea of the reunion. We knew we would rekindle a lot of people’s emotions with this and I thought it had to be Mike and The Mad Dog and CBS owned the name.
RD: How much of the night at this point has been planned out?
MF: We had one meeting last week—Dog and I, and [Garden executive vice president of communication and administration] Barry Watkins—for a couple of hours and discussed guests, format and all that stuff. The way Dog and I work, I’d say we are very far down the line after one meeting. We went over some things, we brought some ideas to meeting, and I brought some formatted ideas to the meeting. Dog was fine with a lot of that stuff and he added some wrinkles he wanted. The three of us all brainstormed on guests, which we will not announce until we get much closer to the event. The early response was overwhelming. It looks like the tickets will go very fast when they go on sale. So I would say as far as the show structure itself, we don’t have all the guests approved and we are still asking certain people, but as far as the formatting of the show, we did that in one meeting.
RD: How would you classify how you and Chris have interacted on the planning of this? What was the off-air chemistry like?
MF: It was very easy. Dog was very accommodating to anything I put forth and I was the same way for anything he put forth. I think we both knew what we were looking to do. We have tweaked it a little and as a matter of fact, Jim Dolan tweaked it a little and I thought his impact was very good. He came back with some recommendations that I thought were positive and so did Dog, I’m sure we will tweak it a couple of times but it is going to be Classic Mike and The Mad Dog, which means a lot of Mike and the Mag Dog. There will be guests who have a history with New York and our show and we will also interact with the audience at Radio City that night. We are still debating whether music will be a part of the show. I’m not sure.
"IF THE DAY COMES EVEN BEFORE THE END OF 2017 THAT I DON'T ENJOY THE SHOW ANYMORE, I WON'T GO IN AND DO IT."
RD: Where is your current enjoyment level regarding doing the radio show?
MF: I love doing the show. If I did not enjoy doing the show, I would not do it now. If the day comes even before the end of 2017 that I don't enjoy it anymore, I won’t go in and do it. The first day I have a hard time going in there, I am done. I won’t do the show under that situation. There are two things that would chase me out: If the show collapsed in the ratings, I would not tolerate that. I would leave. I have done it too long and have been too successful to watch that dissipate. I would not live with that. That has not happened but as soon as it happened, I would be gone.
Number two, if it was no longer enjoyable, I would be gone. But I love doing it. I love doing the show as much as I ever have. It’s what I do. I get a big kick out of it. I love going in there and being feisty and fighting with the audience and having fun. To me, that is enjoyable. If it wasn’t, I would not do it. Now there have been things that have come in recent years that have not been pleasant and enjoyable and that I was not happy with the company about. A lot of that has been resolved. Right now I do have not have any issues. They have made it clear they want me to complete my time there and complete my contract and I have made it clear that I will. I made it clear to [CBS Radio president] Andre Fernandez, the new boss, that I will do that. He and I met and we discussed it and we said let’s either get this over with or go forward. There was nothing there that lent itself to anything other than finishing the contract. It has two years left on it. I will complete it. I want to go out the right way.
Past that, I have zero plans. I have not talked to anybody, nor am I allowed to talk to anyone. Number two, I would not talk to anybody until I completed this. But I do not know what will happen. My only goal is to complete that contract. But I think this [he and Chris] is going to be a ball. This one night in March in Radio City, we want this to be a rousing success and I think it will be. We will put a lot of effort into this and a lot of it is there is no effort. That is the fun part. We can go in there as ourselves and make it work, because that is what has always been part of our deal. We have really good chemistry, we know how to work off each other, the audience likes us working off each other. So a lot of it comes natural.
RD: In an interview last year with Newsday’s Neil Best, you said you thought having a TV simulcast gave the show an edge. Why?
MF: I thought it brought a different element to the show but I have to tell you, I really have had a different opinion about that now. It is interesting and has been eye-opening. This is the first time since the FOX thing went away this year—and everyone knew the way that went down and we are still in the time period where we are without TV—that in 14 years we have just been a radio show. I don’t think it impacts the ratings. We have had a very good fall but some of that can be attributed to the Mets having a big run and really energizing the town. A lot of times our really big ratings numbers happen when a team captivates the city and the Mets really did own the city for a good seven or eight weeks. But having just the radio show gives the show a couple of things that I really like right now. One of them is maneuverability. One of the things that became a big hassle with the simulcast was you could not be fluid and you could not move the show around without a lot of planning. Now you can. You can now move it on a day’s notice. I can say I want to do this or this or do this remote or go here and do it. A lot of things I could not do before because economically the remotes were expensive and that was a big issue.
One of the big things that happened with the program is how expensive it became and whomever carried it started to make a big issue about the fact that for the first time in all these years the show became very expensive to produce on a daily basis. The cost of doing 5.5 hours a day and doing that type of show was escalating dramatically in costs and we are in business where—especially on the TV end—people are cost-conscious. That is what has changed with the simulcast. For our simulcast we were getting paid a tremendous amount of money for the program, a very substantial amount. I would not do it without that [money] because we have been producing that money for a long time. So that is a consideration for our simulcast because other shows have not generated that kind of income for their partners, which is myself and CBS. So if it is not there, I will leave the show as it is now only because I understand the changing climate. But I have to tell you, I also like the idea of being able to maneuver the show around as much as I can. It has worked out much better than I thought it would.
RD: When you are in a major media town such as New York City with multiple media outlets, someone like you is going to get coverage and also get criticized. For a couple of decades, the New York Post sports television writer Phil Mushnick has been very critical of your on-air work. How much of that have you specifically read, and given it is human nature to be somewhat bothered by criticism, how much of the criticism bothers you?
MF: Zero. I pay no attention to it. Here is what I learned a long time ago: You know what? People are going to react the way they are going to react and unless it affects my business, my ratings, a sponsor, or in some way affected my economic position, then I would have to deal with it. It has never affected me in any way now going on 30 years. I am telling you, zero.
"HAS CRITICISM EVER BOTHERED ME? YES. HAS IT BOTHERED ME IN THE LAST DECADE? NOT EVEN A LITTLE."
RD: How would you classify the media coverage of you: fair or unfair and why?
MF: It’s coverage. I would not even classify it. You know what? People have written wonderful things, people have written terrible things. I understand that. For some reason, people are lightning rods. I am a lightning rod. I get covered like A-Rod gets covered, like a star player gets covered. I don’t know why that it is. It has just been that way, especially in the last 10-15 years and even more after Dog left. Some people are lightning rods—personality, presence, I don’t know what it is. Listen, like I said, some people have written terrible things, many I’m sure unfair. Some people have written things that are critical that have been fair. I have no problem with that. It is part of being a public person and you have to deal with it. If you let it eat you up and a lot of guys in our business do, you know what, it doesn’t affect what you do. Don’t get too high on the praise and don’t get too low on the criticism. It’s part of the business. That is all there is to it. I am being as honest as I can be: I don’t let it bother me at all and in recent years, I don’t even read a lot of it or acknowledge it. At this stage, it is just part of doing business. Has it ever bothered me? Yes. Has it bothered me in the last decade? Not even a little.
"I HAVE NO INTEREST IN TWITTER, NO INTEREST IN THE DIALOGUE, NO INTEREST IN THE CONSTANT STREAM OF NONSENSE THAT IS ON THERE."
RD: You know how much attention you get on social media. Would you ever consider joining Twitter?
RD: Why is that?
MF: Here is my theory about this: If you notice this about me, I am on the air more than anybody with a show. I am on the air live over 30 hours a week. That is a long time to be on the air. That is a very long time to ask people to care about what you say and what you do. To ask them to care more, and to present every thought and every whim and every moment of my day, I don’t want to spend my time doing that. I cannot understand how people think people want to know what they had for dinner or what they are doing tonight. I think that is tedious. I have no interest in that, nor do I ever look at Twitter. I do know about all the fake accounts. My producers and my guys who work for me are on Twitter all the time. I understand that. If you are working in this business and are 30 years old, you have to be on Twitter. It’s part of your life and there is no way to get where you want to get to without engaging it and using it. I understand again that I am a big person as far as coverage but I have no interest in it, no interest in the dialogue, and no interest in the constant stream of nonsense that is on there. Who cares about someone’s constant stream of thought and their daily day? I mean, who cares? I mean, people are on there all day and night (laughs). What is the purpose of being on there? It is a wonderful news source when something is relevant but all the nonsense on there is utterly ridiculous and nobody has monetized Twitter including Twitter. That is criminal that they have the usage and the presence that they have. They have, in our business, the financial business, the media business, the sports business, they have become a 24-hour information conveyer belt. They have become absolutely pivotal in what everybody does and they do not make a cent, which is insane. If I ran that business, I would fire everyone in the place because they should have monetized that a lot better a long time ago.
RD: In the last 10 years, we have seen many 20- and 30-somethings show their passion for your show on social media, from sharing clips on Twitter to attending Francesa Con to reveling in your many idiosyncrasies. What is your theory as to why, at this late stage in your career, you have a loyal audience that is much younger than you?
MF: I have a theory but again it might not be accurate. What you said is true and it has really changed the dynamic of my career because I have had a lot of offers to do all different things in the digital world, from podcasts to apps and I have done none of it. I have not ventured into any of it. I know I have a very strong following [with younger people] and it would be impossible not to be familiar with Mongo Nation. They are incredibly loyal. They are at every event and Francesa Con is long sold out for this year in January. I think part of it is that a lot of them grew up in the back seat of a car with their parents listening to me and Dog. Then later when I was by myself, they were at a certain stage when they were still committed.
"THAT HAS BEEN ONE OF MY GREATEST GIFTS: THAT EVERYONE PAYS ATTENTION TO WHAT I SAY."
I have just become, for whatever reason, that personality who is a lightning rod. I think the show can be from a sports standpoint—and I am not in any way controversial from anything outside of a sports standpoint—can be provocative and controversial. I think the show is entertaining and I think they latch on to it and some of it is parody and some of it is different parts of my personality and the way I present the show. I just think for whatever reason, the public just latches on to someone and that’s it. That has been one of my greatest gifts: that everyone pays attention to what I say. If anything, the gift of my career is that people always care about what I am going to say and what my take is for whatever reason, whether they like it or don’t like it. The bottom line is they pay attention to it and that has been the gift I have because it has allowed me to have the career I have. The thing that I am proudest about is Dog and I were No. 1 in 1989 and I’m going to be No. 1 again in 2016. In our city, the most competitive city, to be on the same show for that long and to be No. 1 for that long is to me what I am most proud of. That is a heck of a run of consistency and that is what my job is. That’s what I am most proud of, to be here in the fall of 2015 and still be No. 1.
"I DON'T THINK I WOULD HAVE EVER BEEN AS GOOD ANYWHERE ELSE AS I AM IN NEW YORK."
RD: You can stream your show anywhere globally and given that you have appeared on some regional networks, there are people familiar with the show across the country. But I wonder: In your opinion, would you have had the same success if you originated in a different city, whether Los Angeles, Miami or Raleigh or elsewhere? Or is New York a significant factor in your success?
MF: It’s a good question. I am a New Yorker so New York made sense for me. A long time ago, in 1987, I was on national TV on CBS Sports and there was a point in my career when I made a decision that I wanted to have my career in this town and to try to be the No. 1 guy in this town rather than try to take on the country. I think I made the right decision because I don’t think I would have had the same success nationally as I have had in New York. That would be presumptuous to suggest. I think I made the right decision and it was a conscious decision in the late ‘80s. I had an opportunity to leave and go do stuff nationally and give up the radio. I had a big offer to do that but I turned it down and stayed [in New York]. This has always been the job I wanted, and the job I hope to make my whole career. I think I made the right decision. I don’t think personally, me being where I am from and being who I am, I don’t think I would have ever been as good anywhere else as I am in New York.
RD: In October you announced on your show that ESPN is doing a 30 For 30 on Mike and the Mad Dog. Where does that documentary stand right now?
MF: They are going to start shooting in the spring. I know ESPN is going through budgetary stuff now but my understanding is that it has been approved and it’s scheduled to air next January . It will begin shooting next spring.
RD: What is the current relationship of ESPN staffers being allowed to appear on your show?
MF: There are no ESPN guests. ESPN guests are not allowed on our show. That was really directed a long time ago at me. I don’t know if they are as adamant about it with other shows as they are with mine. But as far as I am concerned and my show, it is not allowed. I have not had an ESPN guest in I would say 10 years. A couple of those guys are close friends of mine and they have been warned—they have been threatened—if they were going to come on the show. It is something ESPN takes very seriously but you would too if you were a competitor. I understand it but it has hurt their television in some regards with promoting their TV events. But they are competitors, they do have a radio presence in the city, and if they were getting beat up by me as long as I have been beating them up, I would probably be the same way.
RD: Do your kids [Francesa has three children under 12 including twins] listen to the show on a regular basis?
Francesa: Absolutely. My kids are huge sports fans and they absolutely listen to it in the car. My show is a show you can listen to as a kid. I have never done “guy talk.” Dog and I were always against guy talk. There is never any T&A, never any sexual stuff, never anything dirty on my show. We do sports so you can listen to the show if you are 10 or 12 years old. So yes, they do listen.