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The Old Pope

After 30 years dominating New York sports radio, Mike Francesa is moving on. What’s next? Well, he says he knows the future of podcasting … and in his hands, it could be yuuuuge.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Mike Francesa has never listened to a podcast. "Never turned on one," he said in his office last week. But ask any WFAN caller — Scott in Hicksville, say, or Chris in Florham Park — and they’ll tell you this stubborn fact would not prevent Francesa from having a slashing opinion on the subject.

"Problem is, they’re handing out podcasts like they’re Pez, OK?" Francesa said.

"Right now, my producers have a podcast. No offense, but they have a podcast. If you showed up here as an intern, they’d give you a podcast. … They give everybody a podcast. How can that work? Can you give everybody a show? If you can’t give everybody a show, how can you give everybody a podcast?!"

What interests you about podcasting as a medium? I asked.

"Right now, nothing," Francesa said. "It’s a folly. They’re doing it so wrong."

What are they doing wrong?

"I’m not telling you yet because I know how to fix it," he said.

If you’re thinking this much about podcasting, is that a hint about your next professional act?

"Possibly," Francesa said.

Francesa and I were talking about his future because his old gig is nearing an end. On December 15, 2017, Francesa will leave New York’s WFAN after 30 years — the same length of time Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show.

Prior to that, Francesa’s penultimate show, held in front of a live audience at the Paley Center for Media, will be a send-off for a local hero. Francesa will receive tributes from sports figures, politicians — "‘final goodbye’ kind of guests," he said. (The show will be of an artistic piece with Francesa: A Night to Remember, an event taking place in November on Long Island.) It’s a fitting goodbye for the show that Kentucky coach John Calipari, Francesa’s friend of 30 years, said "literally the whole East Coast listened to."

But it’s the December 15 show that will be a pure distillation of Francesa. On that afternoon, he has forbade even his wife and three kids from entering the studio with him. He has also trimmed back the bells and whistles.

"There will be no guests, no updates," he said.

No Minko?

"No anything," Francesa said. "I’m not even sure yet there’s going to be commercials. We’re still working on that. It’s just going to be me and the callers, that’s it."

Asked if he might be sentimental, Francesa allowed, "I might be, yeah." The final hours of Mike’s On, then, will be a man alone with his audience and his feelings. Actually, it already sounds like a podcast.

The end of Francesa’s WFAN show is a lot of things. The closing of a New York landmark. The further cultural depreciation of white-male agita. (Where have you gone, Bill O’Reilly, Jack Cafferty, and Bob Grant?). Most importantly, it’s the disconnection of the two-way sports-talk telephone — as Francesa’s old cohost, Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, used to call it — that joins Francesa with WFAN callers. It’s a strange, mutually beneficial relationship unlikely to be replicated, at least in the same form.

Francesa’s WFAN office has almost no personal effects — it looks like he could walk off the job tomorrow. When we met, two hours before his show started, he sat behind his desk in a pullover and a green golf shirt. Francesa talked like he talks on the radio: in long bursts in which he reeled off data points and repeated lines for emphasis, before finally backing into an ecstatic conclusion ("The bottom line is …").

When Mike and the Mad Dog debuted in 1989, talking this way on the radio seemed like an odd career move. Newspaper columnists were the fans’ ideological and cultural representatives. "Sports talk was a guy at night with a bell and a buzzer," Francesa said.

But Francesa and Russo weeviled away. Where a columnist had to bow out after 800 words, they talked for up to five and a half hours a day. Ian Eagle, who ran the board on Mike and the Mad Dog before becoming a CBS play-by-play man, told me: "What could have been a four-minute segment turned into a 14-minute segment based on Mike’s ability to go through every step of a particular half inning or every play of a particular drive, simply off memory."

Within a decade, the sports-media caste system had been flipped on its head. Dallas was ruled by The Ticket rather than Blackie Sherrod. Seattle belonged to KJR. And Dick Young and his celestial bar mates had handed over the lease on New York City to Mike and the Mad Dog. "It’s become not only reputable, it’s become coveted," Francesa said of sports radio. "That’s what we changed."

What are you going to miss about WFAN callers? I asked him.

"Sometimes nothing," Francesa said, "because they can be tedious."

Take the schmuck who calls on a news-heavy day to reminisce about Yogi Berra. "If I just say, ‘Thank you for that,’ or, ‘Thanks for being a part of my show,’ when they were vapid or dull or brought the show to a halt, man, it just doesn’t play. It’s not real."

"But," Francesa said, "when I go after them or when I really give it to them or make fun of them or yell or whatever it is — that’s natural." He added: "When I emote, I emote realistically."

In a media universe where you get a cable TV slot for emoting unrealistically, this quality gives Francesa a weird kind of gravitas. In March, Rob in Greenlawn, a caller with a young daughter, asked Francesa if he thought he’d ever see a woman as the head coach of a men’s pro sports team. Francesa told the guy it wouldn’t happen — an answer that was roundly denounced as misogynistic. Francesa’s reaction struck many as dismissive. But he told me he was skeptical of the idea rather than the caller. The caller actually kind of intrigued him. He hadn’t thought much about the idea before.

Mike’s On is still fearlessly parochial. One afternoon, I talked to Russo before he hosted his own show on SiriusXM, a tour d’horizon of the sports world that touches on national baseball notes, the NBA playoffs, etc. "Mike can break down Conforto hitting leadoff for Reyes all day," Russo said. "I can’t do that." He sounded a little sad.

Chris Christie is being considered as one of Francesa’s possible WFAN replacements. It’s not hard to imagine the New Jersey governor yelling on the radio. But Francesa noted that this is hardly the extent of the job. To do a show like his correctly, you have to watch every Yankees and Mets and Knicks and Nets and Giants and Jets and Rangers and Islanders game and then allow the audience — who cares far more about the result than you do — to test your oceanic knowledge. It’s less a job than it is a lifestyle.

Over the years the dynamic between Francesa and his callers has changed. "Initially, there was a feeling the show was a safe haven," Eagle said. "That callers were talking to a true New Yorker and they were on the same level. But as the years progressed, he became an authority figure for New York sports. What was once a conversation became more of an ‘Ask Mike’ segment."

"It isn’t about whether they love you," Francesa said. "It isn’t about whether they hate you. It isn’t about any of that. It’s about whether they want to hear you … The city waits to hear what my take is on the story of the day."

Russo said he thinks Francesa gets something out of the exchange, too. Next year, after he leaves WFAN, there will be yuge sports days. Maybe Tiger Woods wins another major, or the Mets just fulfill their historic destiny to be hapless. Francesa will wake up and crave a forum in which to unburden himself. "He’s going to be dying," Russo said.

When I relayed those words to Francesa, he said respectfully, "Dog hit on exactly what is the essence of what we do."

In his final months on WFAN, Francesa finds himself constantly on guard against pranksters — against the possibility of a sneak attack. Before the NFL draft, a caller asked for his take on the pro prospects of Matt Saracen, the quarterback from Friday Night Lights. "I didn’t realize right away that he was pulling a con," Francesa said. "Because he had talked for about five minutes … I didn’t even watch the show. It shows ya. … The bottom line is, it went right over my head."

My favorite recent saboteur was Mike in Valley Cottage, who called last month to pester Francesa about his lack of interest in the World Baseball Classic. He kept calling Francesa "Michael."

Francesa: What team were you excited about?
Caller: What team? The USA. Who else … ?
Francesa: OK, who were you playing against in the final?
Caller: Michael.
Caller: Michael.
Francesa: Don’t say "Michael" again or I’m hangin’ up on ya! Don’t say it again! What team did you play in the final?
Caller: Michael.
Francesa [hanging up]: I warned ya. I warned ya. Because you don’t know who you played in the final.

None of this is surprising. Long before Reddit and the Trump campaign, sports radio was America’s first high-profile forum for trolling. (The trolls were usually the hosts themselves.) What’s surprising is that Francesa now finds himself an object of obsession for both local and national media. Representing the home team: Bob Raissman of the Daily News, who wrote last month that he thinks Francesa isn’t leaving WFAN but is merely jockeying for a new deal. After denouncing Raissman to me, Francesa called the charge "ridiculous."

The internet’s obsession with Francesa is broader: It wants to know about his mid-show nap in 2012 or the fabled September 12 Mike and the Mad Dog tape; it celebrates him with FrancesaCon and parody Twitter accounts. These days, when Francesa goes to Mets games, he’s careful about getting caught eating; he knows the pictures will inevitably wind up online.

Francesa has no theory why social media got interested in him. One idea is that Francesa’s TV simulcasts simply made his show easier to harvest. (In the old days, when confronted by a caller about a bum prediction, Francesa’s ready answer was, "You got a tape?") Another idea is that, in 2017, an uncontrived meltdown is a precious commodity. As Francesa said, "I can’t tell you how many ladies especially have come to me and said, ‘I love when you yell at the callers.’"

At this time last year, Francesa was yelling in support of Donald Trump. He has known Trump casually for years, and, like a lot of sports radio hosts, he was intrigued by Trump’s ability to "ring the bell with the average guy." Francesa was stunned when portions of his audience rebelled. Francesa regarded Hillary Clinton versus Trump not as a contest between good and evil but as a choice about which reasonable people could disagree. "We all know what evil looks like," he said.

After the administration’s first 100 days, Francesa is a typical Trump voter, happy and flabbergasted in equal measure. He said he admired Trump’s foreign policy team: "I’m talking about Mad Dog" — Mattis, not Russo — "and McMaster and guys like that … I think he’s got very solid people there."

What concerns him is Trump’s penchant for the gonzo statement: on the Civil War, on breaking up the banks. "You can’t talk off the cuff as a president," Francesa said. "You just can’t. You move mountains." This is what we’ve come to with Trump: a sports radio host is urging him to choose his words more carefully.

Francesa and Russo split in 2008 under a cloud of recrimination. Since last spring, when the pair formally buried the hatchet at Radio City Music Hall, there has been public momentum for a reunion. Fans want to reboot Mike and the Mad Dog for the same reason they want to reboot summer-movie franchises: It transports them back to happier, simpler times in their lives.

The reunion talk got louder on April 21, when Francesa and Russo went to the Tribeca Film Festival to watch the premiere of a new 30 for 30 documentary about their old show. After the screening, Francesa was asked by an interviewer about Mike and the Mad Dog 2.0. "I am in a building of 1,000 people who are just awash in this nostalgia," he told me. "If I had thrown cold water on it there, it would have been the worst evening of anybody’s life. How could I do that?"

"So I said: ‘Eh, it’s a great idea. I’d love to do it.’ Do I really think it’s going to happen? No, I don’t."

For one thing, Francesa and Russo are now proven solo acts — almost no media company could afford both of them. Another more elemental problem is that both men have mostly conquered the professional insecurity that once had them at each other’s throats. "The bills are paid," Francesa said. He uses "we" when he talks about the triumphs of his career, giving Russo equal credit. What’s sports radio without angst, careerism, and mutual suspicion?

Nobody who works in radio has ever been happy with the direction of the medium, or even their own station. Francesa’s gripe is that in a bid to win the future, sports radio is selling its soul to the internet. He told me, "They all say, ‘Oh, digital, digital, digital. Radio needs digital. You got to be on Facebook, Instagram.’ They don’t know how to make a dime off that. … The bottom line is, they’re destroying their own business."

Francesa noted that after their hosts conduct a big interview, some sports-talk shows post it on Twitter before the show has even gone off the air — more or less telling the audience they don’t need to listen live. Francesa called it "bastardizing your own content."

Which makes it curious that Francesa is hinting that he might take his act to podcasting. Francesa was once content to ignore the digital world. (His producer, Brian Monzo, would bring him the tweets and stories he needed to see.) Now, Francesa finds himself studying the empires of Bill Simmons and Glenn Beck and Adam Carolla. He has some ideas.

"First of all, if you go into the podcast business without a brand, you’re dead," Francesa said. "You have to be a brand … Simmons does that. Carolla does that. Beck does that. I will do that. I’m going to do well in that business as soon as I walk into it because I’m a brand."

As to how podcasting can earn real money without a steady stream of P.C. Richard & Son ads, well, this is where Francesa’s secret plan comes in. "I think I have an idea, I really do," he said. "I’ve given it a lot of thought."

Francesa has long had a hand in the business side of media. He acted as his own agent in contract negotiations with Les Moonves and Mel Karmazin. While we talked, he periodically glanced at his phone to see how the stocks he’d traded that morning were faring.

Would you like to be involved in the business end of whatever you do next? I asked.

"Not with my own money," he said. "Only the way smart people do it. OPM — other people’s money. … I’ll give them my ideas as long as I get paid well first. I don’t give it away."

If Francesa goes into podcasting, he will be attempting to flip the sports-media caste system a second time. But his approach will be different. Thirty years ago, he was in a relatively new medium that was overwhelming an old one. Today, Francesa — like Bill O’Reilly and Tony Kornheiser — is trying to flex old-media muscle in a new domain. The first podcast he listens to will probably be his own.

I asked Francesa: Will you enter the digital world with the intent to dominate it like you did drive-time radio in New York?

In the half-second of silence that followed, I felt like the WFAN caller who asked about Yogi Berra. But Mike Francesa was feeling charitable. He was smiling when he said, "Dumb question."