Your insomnia's buzzing. It's June 30, 1987. 3 a.m. No shot at sleep, no shot at sex. You're up, awake, obsessing over the sudden dip in Wally Backman's batting average or what the Yankees are going to do about their third starter. Normal, nightly stuff for a New York sports fan. Then you get pensive. About why the Knicks suck; and why the Rangers suck; and why the Jets and the Giants suck even if it's the wrong season to think about their suckitude. You want to talk it all out. No, you need to talk it all out. But there's no one there to listen. You can fix this. HoJo's stroke, Rasmussen's slider — well, OK, maybe not the Knicks. You're alone in the world with all this knowledge until, suddenly, you are not.
On July 1, 1987, WFAN, a 24-hour sports talk radio station, broadcasting out of a sub-basement in Queens, hit the air. It didn't come out of nowhere, exactly. The format had been evolving. Marty Glickman, long-ago voice of the Knicks and Giants, first took questions on air in the 1940s at New York's WHN. He listened to calls and relayed them to his audience since the technology didn't yet exist to patch in a caller. Howard Cosell advanced the genre in the '50s by openly chastising coaches during broadcasts. In the '60s, Bill Mazer pioneered the current sports talk template, bantering with callers, letting their voices be heard, and then, in the '70s, John Sterling crystallized it by lambasting them. Enterprise Radio attempted all-sports programming in 1981. They went out of business after nine months.
Half a decade later, an Indianapolis-based media mogul in the making named Jeff Smulyan purchased WHN for 10 million bucks, turning a failing country music station — 1050 on your AM dial, the same place where Glickman first answered caller questions on air — into a mess of a 24-hour sports station. At first WFAN bombed. The hosts, for the most part, were the wrong hosts; the business couldn't sustain itself. The callers, though — they were there from the beginning. In a couple years' time, WFAN changed its management, its programming (one word: Imus), and eventually its owner. Smulyan sold WFAN to Mel Karmazin's Infinity Broadcasting in 1992 for $70 million. And it's all legacy from there.
On July 1, 1987, there was one all-sports station in this country. Today, there are nearly 700. CBS, which already owns WFAN, just announced it will launch CBS Sports Radio in January. They'll be tapping into a market where 27.5 million people tune in every week.1 Talking and talking and talking about last night's game, next Tuesday's lineup, Kobe's postseason surgery schedule for 2015, the potential host city for the Super Bowl in 2056, a possible stigmata sighting on Mariano Rivera's pitching hand, and, sometimes, hockey. Point blank: This is our most enduring national debate. And it's voiceless without the FAN.
I. "This Is an Incredibly Stupid Idea. Let's Try It."
Howie Rose (host, "Mets Extra"): From the moment Jeff Smulyan got hold of WHN in New York, 1050 AM, it was rumored he might be going all sports.
Jeff Smulyan (founder and CEO, Emmis Broadcasting): Emmis was a company that was betting on the rise of FM.
Phil Mushnick (columnist, New York Post): Emmis means "the truth" in Yiddish.
Smulyan: In 1986, the theory was that AM was only going to survive for information. When we bought the Doubleday stations in 1986, we did it to buy their FM position in New York. Along with it came WHN, which was on the AM dial. We agreed to launch what became Hot 97 FM and figured we'd deal with the AM later.
Joel Hollander (sales director, Emmis Broadcasting): We didn't know what to do with WHN; it was a dying AM country station.
Smulyan: We weren't going all news because you had WINS. We weren't going to do all talk because you had WWOR and WABC. And WHN seemed like the best place to do it because you start with an anchor tenant: the [world-champion] Mets. They were perfect because they were on-air 180 nights a year.
Rick Cummings (vice-president of programming, Emmis Communications): Jeff's proposal was, "We'll build it around constant updates. Every 15 minutes we'll be updating the sports scores. Look at how much business Sports Phone does in New York City." At the time Sports Phone was a big deal for gamblers, for people who wanted to get up-to-the-minute sports scores, and they made a lot of money.
Howie Rose: What makes New York totally unique is that we have two of everything: two baseball teams, two football teams, two basketball teams, and three hockey teams. If you're a Rangers fan, you're not only rooting for the Rangers, you're fending off friends and neighbors who are rooting for the Islanders and the Devils. If you're a Mets fan, you've got your strong constituency but just as strong is that group of Yankee fans who want to give you the business. You can never really feel that you're in total control of your own city. That's what sets it apart from Boston and Pittsburgh and every other place. The intramural squabbles that we have are enough to fuel a radio station all by itself.
Hollander: Seventy percent of us were against the idea. We wanted to sell the station.
Smulyan: Joel Hollander and Steve Crane were the only two who wanted to do it. Steve asked me what I wanted to do and I said, "You can never lead where others won't follow. The deal is dead." The next day, Rick Cummings and Doyle Rose came up to me and said, "We feel bad. We feel like we owe you one and even though this is an incredibly stupid idea, let's try it." We don't have hostility at Emmis, we have needling rights.
Cummings: We weren't convinced that constant updates would make all the difference. So we went out and did a research study and the study said, "Yes, this is what people want. You deliver it and they will come." So that's what we built. It was a very expensive proposition.
Doyle Rose (President, Emmis Communications Group): We were used to running radio stations where you pay your music rights, you hire some disc jockeys, you play songs. The cost to run those was one-third [the cost of running WFAN] because we didn't have to staff it 24 hours. We knew that stations like WINS in New York did well, but they didn't make anywhere near the kind of profit that FM stations made.
Cummings: We hired this guy named John Chanin2 to head this thing up.
Howie Rose: They had a press conference at Toots Shor's Restaurant down by Penn Station in May of 1987. Chanin stood up and announced, "We're launching a nationwide talent search." Once I heard the word nationwide, I knew we were screwed. We [had to] sound like New York.
Scott Meier (general manager, WFAN): Chanin didn't know how to do local radio. He came from ABC. He was taking a car service back and forth to Queens. And I'm like, "Take the subway." He wanted to have a chef at the facility. And I'm like, "That's not going to happen." He hired a guy to train the kids in our newsroom on how to cut tape. He wanted to pay the guy, like, $100,000 a year. I said, "Why do we want to hire somebody to teach these kids how to do something that [everyone] in radio knows how to do?"
Doyle Rose: It was hard to find people who were sports guys who could carry a show. There weren't many of them around. We found sports reporters who were doing it for the news stations or sports guys who we converted into radio guys. Even newspaper people — anybody who focused on sports.
Smulyan: When we went on the air, I was on vacation with my family for Fourth of July weekend and I spent five days listening to the radio. The lead-in was a replay of Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951 — "The Giants win the pennant!" — and then we had the tagline, "For all the great moments in sports, then and now, WFAN New York City." I remember writing that and loving it. The first time I heard it on-air, I got chills.
Eric Spitz (desk assistant): This is at Kaufman Astoria Studios, in Queens.
Bob Gelb (executive producer, "The Pete Franklin Show"): It's been around for a gazillion years. The Marx Brothers did The Cocoanuts there. We were in the sub-basement; we actually had to walk upstairs to get to the basement. That's how far underground we were.
Smulyan: Then Suzyn came on.
Suzyn Waldman (update anchor): It was 3 p.m. on July 1, 1987. We were in this tiny studio and the station was about to change hands. I knew as soon as I opened my mouth all those people would be gone — WHN would cease to exist. I remember looking through the glass from the studio, out into the newsroom. All these people were holding hands and crying.
Smulyan: Waldman was our first update person; I remember listening and thinking, Oh my god is she horrible. What is she doing on the air?
Jim Lampley (host, "The Jim Lampley Show," 10 a.m.-1 p.m.): I picked it up from there.
Spitz: Lampley was filling in for Pete Franklin.
Howie Rose: The karma was bad from the beginning. Pete had a heart attack before he even left Cleveland to come to New York. When the station signed on, the guy they were supposedly building the station around was fighting for his life in Ohio. There was no guarantee he was ever going to come to us.
Lampley: I scripted an introductory segment, which was completely and totally facetious in intent. It was a litany of things that I foresaw changing in the culture, and in the sports world, as a result of the genesis of the 24-hour-a-day sport-talk radio station. I forecast a variety of absurdities: People would bend their schedules and neglect their work and their marriages and their children to sit on the phone and wait to be involved in discussions about nothing.
Russ Mollohan (producer, "The Jim Lampley Show"): I think it was Mike Lupica at the Daily News who wrote in one of his columns that warranties lasted less time than the open to Lampley's show.
Gelb: I told Lampley one thing: "Let's make sure the first call is a good one, maybe something about the format, not a basic question like, 'How are the Mets gonna do this year?'" The first call was a kid saying, "Hey, Jim, how are the Mets gonna do this year?"
Mike Breen (updates, "Imus in the Morning"): I was working at WNBC radio when FAN came on. We turned it on and listened for a while, like, "Oh, we got nothing to worry about, this thing will never last."
II. "We've Got the No. 22 Tennis Player in the World Here This Morning"
Hollander: In the beginning we tried to be everything to everybody. We had the horse racing report and the auto racing report and the Islanders report.
Bruce Murray (overnight desk assistant): We did a fishing segment on the morning show. I think it was called "Ken Kephart's Focus on Fishing."
Howie Rose: The unfortunate reality was that John Chanin's background was in network radio. His mind-set was creating something that would have national relevance, not local relevance. I was really scared this was going to be a very short-term proposition.
Cummings: John was an out-of-the-box thinker, an imaginer of possibilities, which is great, but you also need somebody who can get a damn program on every day that sounds good. Somebody who can come in and say, "OK, here's the weekend lineup — by the way, I want to sit down with the afternoon guy because he went way too long on this topic. And why did we even discuss ice skating? Nobody gives a shit."
Doyle Rose: I'll give John Chanin credit — his wife came up with the call letters WFAN.
Meier: Three months in we fired, I want to say, 25 to 30 people.
Doyle Rose: We were trying to get names. We weren't as successful as we'd hoped.
Smulyan: Our first morning guy was Greg Gumbel. Greg is one of my favorite people, one of the most talented people, but there were probably fewer people in his audience than there are on this call right now.
Mark Boyle (updates, weekend host): Greg Gumbel might have been the worst morning man I ever heard in my life.
Lampley: My producer was a kid named Russ Mollohan. He never produced anything. He was brand-new in radio. On my third day I showed up to go on the air and he gave me a handwritten list of all the things that we were going to talk about, including a note that says, "Mikael Pernfors. 10:20 a.m. He is the no. 22 tennis player in the world." Upon seeing this I instantly tell the audience, "We've got the no. 22 tennis player in the world here this morning. I have to assume that Russ called each of the other 21 before we wound up booking Mikael Pernfors. Russ, what was it like trying to get to the other 21?"
Mollohan: We just thought it would be kind of funny to have, like, an official tennis player for the show. He became the official tennis player of "The Jim Lampley Show." It wouldn't have been any fun to pick Stefan Edberg or Jim Courier, any of the big names. We had to find somebody unique.
Lampley: I start making up stories about trying to book John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Eventually, Pernfors comes on the air, and now, of course, I have trashed him to the audience with all of this stuff about, "How does Russ keep a job if he can't get any of the top 21 players in the world?" And then we start talking to Mikael and he was terrific. He went to the University of Georgia and I'm thinking about a Swede in Georgia and off the cuff I say to him, "Can you translate for us? What would 'How 'bout them Dogs' sound like in Swedish?" And it was something like, Hur bout de hundar? That became the official slogan of the show, and then 30 times a day we would play Mikael Pernfors teaching us all how to say "How 'bout them Dogs?" in Swedish. Now all sports talk radio shows have that stuff.
Ed Coleman (host, "Coleman and the Soul Man"): I did updates for Lampley. He had to go on the air at 1:05 and he'd get to the studio at 1 after having lunch somewhere. Jim had a lot of things going on in his life, probably a lot of liquid lunches. Sometimes he'd be a little bit late. Anyway, once Lampley had to go on the air at 1:05, or whatever, and he raced into the studio with no time to go to the bathroom. He's signaling to give him a cup. And we give him a large cup and he proceeds to take a leak right there while he's doing the monologue. I thought it was one of the greatest broadcasting feats I've ever seen.
Steve Somers (host, "Captain Midnight," midnight-6 a.m.): Gumbel and Lampley were TV people looking for TV gigs. I'm sure radio was a port in the storm.
Lampley: The callers carried me. If I missed the Knicks game, the callers would tell me about it in my first 20 minutes on the show. Same with the Rangers and Yankees. Anything I missed, a caller would call up and give me a version of it, "Here's what happened," and then the next guy would call and say, "No, no, no. He's all wrong. This is what happened." We were not yet in the period of SportsCenter and YouTube. There was still a fair amount of oral history that was going into this.
III. "Fire Me! Fire Me! Fire Me!"
Howie Rose: I don't even remember who the hell did our afternoon drive show on day one because they were rotating people in and out weekly.
Gelb: New York got 25 different talk show hosts or sports celebrities to fill in for Pete Franklin.
Spitz: There were a lot of ESPN people. Chris Berman would do a day. Bob Ley would do a day. Tom Mees. Pete eventually started in September.
Smulyan: When we got Pete, everybody said, "These guys are serious." He was Mr. Cleveland.
Cummings: He was very caustic, very argumentative, very confrontational. We said, "He fits New York perfectly; everybody in New York's like this, so he ought to be great on a New York sports station." Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was universally rejected by New York sports fans.
Gelb: Bob Raissman called Pete "Old Acid Breath."
Bob Raissman (columnist, New York Daily News): I think FAN management thought Franklin could succeed because he was a big name.
Gelb: Pete would have said he sounded like either Patton or Churchill. He really reminded me of a mix of Howard Caine — who played Major Hochstetter in Hogan's Heroes — and Don Rickles.
Howie Rose: There were really two Pete Franklins. There was the maniac on the air, but off the air he was unassuming. He wore old-fashioned checkered shirts and cheap mail-order pants pulled up to his midsection.
Gelb: He was a kitten. His wife controlled his life. He was a very kind, nice guy, who would never, ever want anyone to know that because his on-air persona was so, so mean and anti-everything.
Howie Rose: Pete had all this pent-up adrenaline. He was going to come on and make a splash right away, and he called George Steinbrenner a scumbag on the air — there it was. The first shot had been fired.
Somers: He had that attitude toward New Yorkers that a lot of outsiders do. He started getting on the Yankees right off. I mean, when you go into somebody's house for the first time, I think you want to pay a little respect before you start saying the place looks like a dump and you're a jerk for living in it.
Mark Mason (program director): He was full of anger. One of his favorite words was schmuck. You guys are schmucks for this, and you're a schmuck, and if you go to the Mets games you're a schmuck, and if you're not a schmuck you're a schmuck.
Boyle: Management put too much stock in Pete. In New York you better know what you are talking about when it comes to the local teams. You can't fool the New York fan about the Knicks or the Mets or the Rangers because they most likely know more than you do.
Gelb: Pete was known for his tirades. One of them involved Chris Russo and a bell. Pete liked a lot of elements on his program. So I gave him a bell that he started to ring for first-time callers. He loved that. So Russo brought the bell into the studio and started to ring it, just to goof around with Pete. Pete didn't take kindly to that and told Christopher, "Ring that bell and I'll stick that bell up your ass." Little did Pete know that Mike and Dog would become the best talk show in the history of the freakin' medium.
Chris "Mad Dog" Russo (co-host, "Mike and the Mad Dog"): Pete was a bitter guy at that point. He made believe he was kidding at the conclusion of his little rant, but I didn't take it that way.
Gelb: He had this dinky little office right across from the bathroom. The bathroom used to overflow and the water would run into his office. He had one of the funniest tirades of all time when he started screaming about, "Last week there was urine outside my office, now it's leaking under my office, fix the place." And then he goes into this thing about, "Fire me, fire me."
Pete "Old Acid Breath" Franklin: [Screaming.] Do I offend anyone? I'm not here to offend you, damn it! You suckas out there, I ain't there to offend ya! Screw you! Screw you all! What the hell are you calling for? WHY are you calling for? If you don't like what the hell you hear, dammit, don't call! DON'T CALL! DOOOOON'T CALL!! HAAAAAAAAA HAAAAA! [No longer screaming.] Unbelievable. Unbelievable. In fact, I'm not mad at anyone today. I'm not. Even the people who put this building together, two weeks ago they had a flood in the bathroom and it flooded my room. You think I'm kidding. Today they got holes in the building where it's leaking because there was rain and they took my ash can out of the office [screaming again, but from the toes] and I GOT A FLOOD OUTSIDE THE DOOR! WHAT ARE THEY DOING TO ME HERE!? GIVE ME AN OFFICE THAT DON'T LEAK! THAT DOESN'T HAVE URINE IN IT! GIVE ME SOMETHING DECENT! Crying out loud. STOP APOLOGIZING FOR ME! SET ME FREE IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT! FIRE ME! FIRE ME! FIRE ME! FIRE ME! FIRE ME! FIRE ME! FIRE ME!
Howie Rose: Pete was supposed to be the savior, but wound up taking us even deeper into the morass.
Spitz: We had bizarre people coming in from all different places. You had John Minko coming in from Indianapolis; John
Klosse Cloghessy from Iowa; John O'Reilly from Houston; a guy named Lou Palmer came in from Florida to do weekend shows. This was not a great formula. They were spending a lot of money, flying them in and putting them up in hotels.
Cummings: The whole premise was wrong. Even if they'd been the right hosts, this constant interruption for updated scores totally screwed up the continuity. You'd just be listening to something interesting that one of the hosts was getting into with a guest or with a caller and you had to stop and go do another goddamn sports update.
Howie Rose: We were making it up as we went along. I went to P.S. 205 in Bayside, Queens, and at any hour of the day or night you could go down to 205 and there were guys there and everything revolved around sports. That's kind of what I wanted to bring to the air. I wanted to bring the schoolyard to life on the radio. But I'm not sure anybody who worked at that station even knew what a schoolyard was in New York, and it sounded brutal.
Hollander: It was a huge failure the first year. Nine months in, everybody was ready to throw in the towel.
Spitz: You didn't know if this thing was going to last another week, another month. You had people coming in from all over the country that were wondering, Did I just make the biggest mistake of my career?
Joel Hollander: We lost $8 million in the first year of operation.
Randy Bongarten (president, NBC Radio; senior regional VP, WFAN): They could never have sustained $8 million. I think it was about a million and a half.
Smulyan: It was a big loss. ... We did some research and discovered that nine months into it, 85 percent of sports fans in New York were still going to WINS or WCBS for their sports news. It was like we didn't exist.
Doyle Rose: We brought in a consultant, a guy named Jack Trout — he and his partner, Al Ries, wrote what was at the time the most definitive marketing book ever: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. I used that book in almost everything I did. We had an all-day brainstorming session where we explored our level of commitment to being a news station that only presented sports scores and stories. That meeting, for me, crystallized the idea that sports is not news — it's entertainment. You don't have to listen to the radio to find out scores. What really makes it work are the stories behind the stories, the characters, the discontent from fans, and contracts that haven't been negotiated properly. All the kinds of things people sit around and bullshit about at the bar.