IV. "How Do You Feel, Fuckhead? I Just Doubled Your Revenue."
Hollander: One of the big issues at the beginning was that the signal on 1050 was really inferior.
Don Imus (host, "Imus in the Morning"): It's the worst signal on the dial. You have to park next to the transmitter to hear the station.3
Raissman: It's like two Dixie cups and a string.
Bongarten: Jeff considered dumping the experiment; 1050, where they were, and 660, where we were at WNBC, could have both been sold to religious broadcasters.
Smulyan: In February of '88, instead of selling, we bought five stations from NBC, including 660 AM, because the signal was better.
Hollander: 660 is one of the best non-directional signals in the United States. I'm at my home in Florida right now and on a clear night, you can hear 660 down here. It's crackly, but you can hear it.
Bongarten: WNBC was not performing very well. It was a station that had been built not only around Imus, but around Howard Stern. And when Howard left, the fortunes of the station fell rapidly.
Smulyan: When you're in business, you can't be irrational. We said, "Look, let's see how it goes. If it doesn't go any better, then we'll dump it."
Bongarten: Emmis paid NBC around $120 million. It might have been higher. The value attributed to 660 alone was between 20 and 25 million [dollars]. When we put the two stations together — the old FAN and the old WNBC — they each had $350,000 in ads booked on it a month. And the advertisers didn't cancel; they said, "What the hell? We'll just keep it together." So it became $700,000 worth of advertising at the station. I thought that'd be fine for a month or two and then it would go down. It never went down; it only went up. It was the most amazing thing I ever saw.
Hollander: The station did not take off until October 9 of '88. There was a Dodgers-Mets playoff game and we switched the signal that night at 5:30 in the Mets parking lot. Imus went on the next morning.
Smulyan: When we purchased the station we also got the contracts for all of the talent at the station. That's how we got Imus.
Imus: I don't know if there was any discussion at all. We just continued to do the same show we were doing.
Smulyan: Imus was the perfect guy because he had a male 35-to-54 audience. He could talk about sports, but he talked about a lot of stuff. In those days, the theory in the morning was you didn't want to rehash sports that much. If there was any research at all, it was, look, they know the score of the game last night, they've already talked about it, they don't want to hear any more about it.
Doyle Rose: His contract was up with NBC, so we had to make a decision. Do we keep Don Imus? Do we renew his contract? At the time, for a radio contract, it was huge: $2 million a year.
Bongarten: He's still a fairly popular and influential guy, but at the time, he was an icon.
Smulyan: Imus was just getting out of rehab when we bought the station. His agent was a friend of mine; we laughed because we had a bad radio station and a bad personality who's probably going to be a drug addict for the rest of his life and a baseball team [the Mets] with rumors about drugs. It was kind of like the grand slam.
Breen: He was a bad drunk and a drug addict. You didn't know what you were gonna get. The first day I started working with Imus at NBC, I asked the program director to bring me back to meet him; it was two o'clock in the afternoon and he was drunk. So the program director says, "Can this kid fill in on sports for Don Criqui tomorrow?" And Imus was like, "Sure, now get out of my office." He didn't even look up. When I went in the next day, I sat down and he had no idea who I was. So he shuts his mic off and he looks at me and he says, "Who the f--- are you?" I said, "I'm filling in for Criqui." He turns his mic back on and he says to Charles McCord, "Charles, do you know this kid? He claims he's fillin' in for Criqui." Now this is on the air, this part. So he spent the next 10 minutes interviewing me, asking me how I got to work on his show.
Bongarten: I had a wonderful office at 30 Rock; I was the president of NBC Radio; I had my private bathroom; I had the office next to Grant Tinker. If I needed to go to the airport, I got a limousine ride. It was terrific. At WFAN I was in this basement of this pit; it was awful. Horrible. I hated it. I remember standing at FAN thinking, What the hell happened to my career?
Ian Eagle (producer, 7-11 p.m. shift; board operator, "Mike and the Mad Dog"; host): The place was a complete shithole. There were urine stains on the ceiling. I'm still convinced there was asbestos in there. It wasn't until I stopped working at FAN that I started feeling better physically. I always felt like I was on the verge of getting the flu. I teetered on flu-like symptoms for 12 years.
Bernard McGuirk (producer, "Imus in the Morning"): You would think that going from these beautiful, plush studios at 30 Rock to this roach-infested, dirty, filthy basement would demoralize you. But it seemed to energize Mr. Imus.
Hollander: I met him the day before we switched the signal. He was in the radio station commissary, wearing his bicycle shorts, and the first thing he ever said to me was, "How do you feel, fuckhead? I just doubled your revenue."
Meier: My children hated him because he used to call me Pizza Face on the air, "that pizza-faced general manager." I'd had some acne when I was younger. He could make fun of me on-air all he wanted. He was making me a lot of money.
Smulyan: He used to refer to me as the hillbilly with the Rolex. I used to have people come up to me in Seattle4 and say, "I know more about your life than you do. I know who you're dating."
Breen: Imus was tough to be around. He used to kid — and it was half-kidding — that you weren't allowed to make eye contact with him if you saw him in the hallway.
McGuirk: I've been the target of his wrath many, many times, as a lot of people have. But I still work for him; I don't want to be that target any longer, or as little as possible in the future. Let's put it that way.
Breen: I had a tough time with the Marv Albert story.5 Marv Albert has probably influenced what I do on the air more than anybody else. Then I became his backup and got to know him really well. I considered him a friend. Then this whole thing goes off — and it was horrible, obviously — and Imus and the crew just went nuts on him. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't take part in it because he was somebody I was friends with and admired. Imus told me if I couldn't do it with him then I couldn't be on the show. He says, "You can't pick and choose who we make fun of, it's all for one." He actually fired me. Fortunately, Joel Hollander, who was the general manager at the time, went to Imus and said, "What are you doing? Do you expect the kid to make fun of his broadcasting idol? Come on. You love him otherwise." I can't remember if it was a day or two days that I was out of work, but Imus brought me back in.
Coleman: The worst thing that can happen with Imus is if he ignores you. If he pays no attention to you whatsoever he either doesn't like you or doesn't consider you worthy of anything. If he kills you, that means you're at least worth something.
Breen: As much as he could be hard on the people he worked with, he wanted the station to succeed.
Howie Rose: He began to weave sports into the format of his show, and in doing so would talk about all of us. He would rip the shit out of any given one of us on any given day, and it was great because he was creating an awareness. He knew what he was doing.
McGuirk: FAN had Ed Coleman with Dave Sims in the middays — Dave Sims, an African American, and Ed Coleman, an Irish guy who liked to drink a lot. So Imus called them "Funk and the Drunk." And in the afternoons, for Francesa and Russo, it was "Jerk and the Fat Man." But he was the one that had the ratings, so he had the ability to shine a light on them and give them a little publicity, and it was those types of exchanges that made the station sound like one big dysfunctional family.
Len Berman (sports anchor): I agreed to do a show for the station with Mike Lupica, but I immediately had remorse and I called up the general manager and said, "I just don't know if I can do this." And, of course, news was — and still is — a leaky sieve coming out of WFAN, so Bob Raissman broke the story in the New York Daily News. Raissman started calling me Achy-Breaky Contract in the paper and Imus, on his morning show, had one of his characters in a German accent calling me Lenny the Jew. Afterward, when I was on with Lupica, I said on the air — on Imus's radio station — that I thought it was anti-Semitic, and then it just blew up. It became the front and back page of the Daily News and Imus claimed he wanted to punch me, and, you know, Lupica hardly talks to me now to this day, and on and on it goes.
Hollander: He called Len a "boner-nosed Jew."
Smulyan: I'm obviously a pretty well-identified Jew and I never felt that Don was ever anti-Semitic or anti-anything. He just liked to poke fun at everybody.
McGuirk: We had regular guests, a priest-and-rabbi comedy team: the God Squad.
Rabbi Marc Gellman: We were catastrophologists. Whenever there was some catastrophe, Imus would have us on and say, "How could this all happen with God around?"
McGuirk: We granted them a window of purity during which they gave us the Jeep-Eagle Prayer of the Week. The prayer was sponsored.
Rabbi Gellman: We quit several times during our tenure when he would introduce us with some vulgar piece about stuffing a turkey, for example. I think it reflected a deep uncertainty, I wouldn't say anxiety, but uncertainty in him. He had made his reputation as a shock jock, and I think when he felt we were getting too intellectual or too mainstream, he would go back to that — to his high hard one.
McGuirk: We used to have a Nixon and a Ted Kennedy and an Andy Rooney and a George Patton and a Mike Tyson and all kinds of characters. The Cardinal was something I came up with. I used to do an Irish voice, as a priest, an angry Irish priest. And at some point the New York State Lottery was advertising and they wanted Imus to read the lottery numbers on the radio, which was fairly tedious. So he came up with the brilliant idea of having the Cardinal do it the way priests read bingo numbers at a bingo game. Eventually the lottery numbers went by the wayside and the Cardinal remained.
Hollander: Imus's ratings were very good, but they were nowhere near Howard Stern's. But Imus had the most influential people listening. He had the Fortune 500 CEOs. When we wouldn't get ad buys we would go straight to the clients, because he was talking about the heads of Merrill Lynch, NBC, Poland Spring, or North Fork Bank. We had a relationship with Dick Grasso at the stock exchange. We used to get a lot of advertising dollars from blue-chip accounts like that.
Rabbi Gellman: Imus was curious, extremely curious about things, big issues.
Hollander: When the first Iraq war happened, he covered it and he started getting on these politicians and journalists, and you heard them laugh at themselves. You name 'em and they were all on it. Tim Russert, Anna Quindlen, Jeff Greenfield, Dan Rather.
McGuirk: During the New York State Democratic primary, 1992, Bill Clinton was running against Jerry Brown and some other people and he was struggling.
Imus: I think that was either Paul Begala or Carville that called and said [Clinton] was coming into New York. He had some controversy surrounding him. He had finished second in New Hampshire and he called himself the Comeback Kid. And he had the Gennifer Flowers controversy surrounding him. And this is before he did the Arsenio Hall saxophone deal. So I just simply thought they needed to humanize him a little bit. So we arranged this interview and it just happened.
IMUS: Well, here now on a phone with us, the governor of Arkansas who, as you probably know, is running for the presidency of the United States. Good morning, Governor Clinton.
CLINTON: Good morning, Don.
IMUS: How are you?
CLINTON: Well, I'm all right. I'm disappointed you didn't call me "Bubba."
IMUS: [Laughing vigorously.] Well —
CLINTON: It's an honorable term where I come from. It's just Southern for mensch.
IMUS: I'd actually read in the New York Times that that was a derisive term, but then, that was the New York Times . So how are you? Do you want to go back to Arkansas? It's like you've been mugged here in New York, isn't it?
CLINTON: Well, I'm having a good time, you know. I'm trying to mug back.
IMUS: At what point yesterday when you were on that simple-minded, nitwit Donahue Show6 did you realize that this might not be the right thing to do?
CLINTON: Oh, I think it was all right.
IMUS: Have you had a chance to read the papers this morning?
IMUS: I've got some good news: There's nothing awful in them. At least you haven't been accused of having any kind of relationship with unattractive women. I mean, what if Roseanne Arnold were calling Ted Koppel, saying, "Yeah, I been sleeping with Governor Clinton"? I mean, that would be a problem.
CLINTON: Listen, if she did that, I'd file a palimony suit against her. She's got the no. 1 TV show in America, and I could finance the rest of this presidential campaign. It'd be better than Jerry Brown's 800 number.
McGuirk: Everybody was laughing. And this guy, this Southern governor, was actually human with a sense of humor. Clinton eventually won New York State even though he'd been down in the polls before the interview. Imus was credited with turning around his fortunes in the primary, which turned around his fortunes in the general primary itself. ... But [the Clinton interview] impressed in people's minds that the I-Man was a kingmaker and that he had some juice. After that, everybody wanted on the show — Giuliani, David Dinkins, you name it. Imus has a great BS antenna. He gets right to the heart of things and gets people to say things that they would otherwise not say. The hope always was that we have somebody say something that they end up apologizing for the rest of the week.
Don Criqui (updates, "Imus in the Morning"): The guy is very smart. He can read people as well as anybody you'll meet. He makes an awful lot of calls about people in the news that might seem a little outrageous at first, but he tends to be right about them.
Imus: I remember telling Charles the day John Edwards came into the studio, "That's the phoniest son of a bitch I've ever met in my life." Edwards is even a bigger piece of shit than Newt Gingrich, if you can even fathom that.
Meier: We went down to Nashville to shoot some commercials featuring Don and Pete. It was tongue-in-cheek: Don would poke fun at Pete, Pete would poke fun at Don. But it would try to create celebrity with both of them. And Don's the greatest guy in the world to work with. He honest to god is. His ego on the air is nothing like his ego in person. Pete, on the other hand, wasn't easy. Pete was an ass. And he was nervous and couldn't get the shot down. He didn't understand the concept. He was incredibly difficult. And I think that shoot was very telling. That was really the beginning of the end.
V. "Fatso and Froot Loops"
Spitz: Mike Francesa and Chris Russo replaced Franklin.
Sean Grande (sports director, WEEI, Boston in the 1990s; native New Yorker):7 The problem with Pete Franklin or Jim Lampley was you didn't get the feeling they'd lived through the Ranger-Islander series of 1984. They didn't have that experience. They weren't there when the Knicks won the lottery and Patrick Ewing was drafted. They weren't there for the World Series when Reggie Jackson was hitting those home runs in '77. They hadn't been through all of the horrendous years with the Mets that a lot of us suffered through in the '70s. That special kind of torture is a huge part of the FAN culture.
Meier: We had a meeting with Jeff Smulyan and we said, "We don't want Pete anymore." At the end of the day, we said we could make more money with these two guys than we'll ever make with Pete.
Raissman: Before FAN, Chris was working at a station called WMCA, way down the dial, doing sports on their morning drive, basically doing scores. He also did a Saturday show where he would cut it loose and go crazy. So I coined the name "Mad Dog" for him.
Hollander: Mike was working at CBS doing stats and research for Brent Musburger.
Raissman: I remember meeting Chris. I went to the studio over at WMCA. It was about the size of a closet. I figured with his gruff voice he'd be older. It was almost like when the guy in American Graffiti went to see Wolfman Jack. I walked in there and there's this little, skinny kid with an Izod shirt on, very preppy-looking, with his crazy voice. I remember him telling me that he couldn't get guests. The Mets, the Yankees wouldn't give him anybody.
Smulyan: I don't know how many times Mike called. I know the perception was that he was over at CBS sort of languishing.
Meier: Mike sounded like a truck driver from Brooklyn. We liked that sound because most of the hosts they'd hired initially sounded very sterile. They were network guys. This is local radio. You ought to sound like the city.
Imus: We liked Mike Francesa, I thought he was great, and I liked Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, I thought he was fabulous. Notice I said fabulous for Mad Dog and great for Francesa, but I like them equally, I should say.
Russo: I had nicknames my whole life. My nickname in high school was "Gucci," 'cause I used to wear black patent leather shoes. Raissman giving me "Mad Dog" was very significant. But the nickname wouldn't have meant anything unless Imus got ahold of it.
Smulyan: Imus said, you've got to listen to this guy Russo, he sounds like Donald Duck on steroids.
Russo: I think Imus had a lot to do with putting me and Mike together. Imus got there in October '88. I started doing updates with Imus in April of '89. Then Mike and I started in September of '89, right after Labor Day. So, you do the math.
Mason: I was a big fan of duos. The difficulty with any kind of talk radio is getting that dynamic working right. I wanted to build more ensembles because there are plenty of slow days — plenty of slow weeks — and just having one guy sitting there taking calls in a slow period can make for a tough listen.
Mushnick: Mark Mason is a good guy, but he wouldn't know a baseball from a dingleberry. I was the advocate for putting those guys together. And he'd say, "Nah, split 'em up." Other times he'd say, "Nah, put 'em together." I kept those guys alive. I did. I know it sounds self-absorbed.
Mike Francesca (co-host, "Mike and the Mad Dog," in an interview with Mediabistro's FishbowlNY): It was a shotgun marriage. They call me in on a Friday and said, "You're going to get your wish. But it's not a one-man show." I fought it like crazy.8
Imus, from an "Imus in the Morning" broadcast: Francesa's such a jerk. He is. He has this attitude. This know-it-all attitude. This is a guy, by the way, who, in five years, will not be in this business. Guaranteed. Take that to the bank. This is a guy who couldn't get arrested at another radio station in this country The thing about Francesa is he cops an attitude with me. So, you know, that fat bastard can drop dead as far as I'm concerned. I've had it with both of them. We're sick of 'em. And by the way, where's Chernoff? Get Chernoff in here What is he? Afraid to sit down with these two fat loads? I was talking to Russo and Francesa independently yesterday and I was saying their show had the potential to be terrific except they both talk at once. Don't you think that's the case?
Russo: I think Brandon Steiner brought us both sweaters on our opening day as gifts. It may have been the second or third day. Nice sweaters — like cashmere.
Mason: You don't want to pair two guys who are just like each other. You want lightning. You want the sparks, you want friction.
Nick Paumgarten (from a 2004 New Yorker story): Though their faces may be made for radio, their voices, by most measures, are not. Francesa, who is from East Atlantic Beach, on Long Island, speaks with a thick Long Island accent, in a deep-timbred head-cold tone that makes words like "Giambi" and "Isiah" sound as though they'd been dunked in onion dip. His is the voice of authority, of donnish pronouncement. Russo, the Mad Dog, is also from Long Island — Syosset — but his voice is otherworldly: loud, shrill, high-pitched, a little hoarse, suggestive of after-school tutoring sessions and Benzedrine. He talks fast and has a savant's memory for pitching sequences, third-down conversions, and obscure statistics from seasons long past. Russo is the ranter.
Raissman: Here were two guys who thought they should be alone in that seat from the get-go. I remember their first show. Mike went out of his way, almost, to ignore Russo. They weren't clicking. It was uncomfortable to listen to. They were doing a two-man show, but with a one-man mentality.
Russo: We were doing 3 to 7 at that time. You put us in that situation, afternoon drive, it's gonna take a little time to develop chemistry. It's not gonna happen overnight.
Raissman: They hit their stride when they realized they needed each other. At first, it was almost like Francesa didn't take Russo seriously. Francesa thinks he knows more than everybody. So it was like, "What the fuck do you know, Chris?"
Gelb: I would call Mike every night and call Chris. I'd talk to Mike for 30 minutes and Chris for 30 minutes and then I would call Mike back and pretty much lie to Mike about what Chris was saying about him and then I'd call Chris back and lie to him about what Mike was saying about him.
Eddie Scozzare (producer, "Captain Midnight"): It was like being a kid and just knowing that your mom and dad hated each other.
Russo: I think the first big thing that broke the ice was "Dog Date Afternoon." We had people send in postcards about why they wanted to have a date with me and then we'd see the play Cats on Broadway. The gag was we read the postcards on the air. What made "Dog Date Afternoon" special is it evolved our roles. Mike is a lot wittier than people think. That Mike could make a bit by using my personality and that I was smart enough to realize what he was doing and to play along was very, very significant for the show. Mike realized, I can use Dog in certain scenarios here which will add to the fun element. And I realized that I could play that role.
Francesa (from FishbowlNY interview): I always felt he was more pliable than I was. Maybe because I was older, maybe because it's just my personality. He gave more than I did, probably. We had different things that we were each in charge of. I was really in charge of the business of the program. That was my job. The decisions were usually made by me. And he usually was OK with that . I think there would have been success for Mike Francesa and there would have been success for Chris Russo. I just don't think it would have been the same kind of meteoric success that we had together.
Mason: Imus's promotion of the show was so visceral and so funny and so constant. You couldn't have bought that kind of advertising. That really got the word of mouth going.
Russo: Imus called us "Fatso" and "Froot Loops." I was Froot Loops. He was being endearing with that phrase.
Mason: You couldn't buy that kind of publicity. Nobody told Don to do that, nobody needed to tell Don to do that, and nor could you have told Don to do that. If he didn't wanna do it, he wouldn't have done it.
Russo: It really took seven to eight months before we kinda felt that we were good for each other. It took some time for me to realize that Mike just wasn't a sports encyclopedia and it took Mike a little time to realize that I knew a lot about sports.
Doyle Rose: They basically argued about who's right, what should have been done, and what should have happened in a game. To me, that's what turned sports radio into a huge success.
Russo: There can't be two Mike Wallaces on the air five hours a day — nobody's gonna listen. They'd be bored stiff. And you can't be two laughing hyenas on the air every day for five hours, either, because you've gotta have some sports credibility.
Spitz: It was true raw emotion about their feelings about sports, nothing personal, just Mike having a certain opinion on something and Chris having a completely opposite take on it, and they would go at it on the air. Then they would go to a commercial break and then they would go back on the air and pick it up again.
Russo: I remember the first rating books.
Mason: Back then we got quarterly ratings. They were winter, spring, summer, and fall. So you don't get instant gratification. You don't get to see those metrics right away the way you do now.
Russo: I believe it was spring of '90. I'm sure we had ratings in the fall, but that was too soon. We had just started. I do remember a spring of '90 rating book that was really unbelievable.
Spitz: Mike and Chris were no. 1 with men 25-54 in afternoon drive.
Russo: Mike and I very rarely would ever, ever have a half-hour discussion of what we're gonna do on any given day. Never. We go in there and just do it. We might discuss a lead. What do you think we lead with? The Giants and Jets both won. Which team? If the Jets and Giants both lost, which team? We might do a little of that just so we knew where we were going first, but as far as the actual daily day-in, day-out discussion of how we were going to approach a particular topic, never ever did we do that. Never. Because we kinda both knew where each other was coming from. We both just knew how to do it.
Scozzare: Mike and Chris were firmly entrenched at no. 1 very quickly.
Francesa (from FishbowlNY interview): They knew they had something right away. They knew probably before we knew, because the public just grabbed onto the show like crazy. We became celebrities overnight.
Gelb: We did something like an 8.4, which was unheard of at the time. It made the sales department very, very happy.
Cummings: We stopped interrupting them all the time, doing sports updates, and just let them go.
George Vecsey (sports columnist, New York Times): They were both so unusual as individuals. I once did a column about Mad Dog's dirty little secret, that he was a preppy. I wrote more about Chris. Mike was cut from more of the traditional cloth of being an expert. Chris was the new thing — the goofball persona. The squawking, the ranting at the top of his lungs. But both had instincts to call someone — "Let's get Wilpon on the phone," "Let's get David Stern on the phone," whomever. On radio, you'd never heard that before. We'd grown used to these guys who put no effort into it. These guys had all of the shtick in the world. They had shtick overflowing out over the sides, but they also spent the time needed to track down the person that they wanted to get — somebody had made a controversial call or a great play or something extraordinary. They could get these guys.
Grande: When Mike and the Mad Dog got going, you felt bonded with them. In addition to the radio fundamentals, they were one of us. When the Rangers were in the playoffs in '94, and they were arguing about it, you knew they remembered the playoff series from '84; that they had the same experiences that you had. That was the critical element that made New York audiences bond to them. The first time you heard Mike and the Mad Dog together, you were like, "OK. Now this sounds like when my friends and I talk about sports. This sounds like what it's supposed to sound like."
Eagle: They used breath and silence as tools. When you're doing five hours a day, five hours a week, which is what they were doing, even for your own sanity there has to be some dead air, some breaths, some pauses — just to get through the day, just to get through the week. Week after week. I think that's where it initially started. Ultimately it became a really good tool in their show. It told you that one of the hosts might be exasperated a bit. It told you that they might be really thinking hard about something. Also, this was a time of transition in radio. Before Mike and Chris there was still a mentality in our business that you had to be polished, you had to have an incredible vocabulary, you had to have a deep, rich voice, and these guys were being themselves — and that included pauses and verbal tics and a lot of things that people had never really heard on the radio.
Mark Chernoff (operations manager): Listeners just couldn't get enough of them. You have to realize this was the first two-person sports talk show of any note. I mean, the two of them really made radio history.