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In Praise of the Great Sports-Talk Radio Meltdown

With the help of legendary ranter Mike Francesa, a deep dive into the visceral appeal of a talking head exploding in rage on live radio

Don La Greca ESPN/Ringer illustration

They begin unremarkably enough, just another minute rolling by in another five-hour-plus production of a beloved, or, at the very least, love-hated, sports-talk radio show. They lurk camouflaged within the program’s familiar cadences, like untamed big cats hidden in the weeds. And when the best sports-radio rants finally do strike, it’s with a primal combination of precision and abandon that involves flying spittle, sharp claws, and ferocious growls. Encountering one of these great beasts in the wild, whether via car radio or cubicle internet stream, is an exhilarating feeling, a swift reminder of nature’s unpredictable fury. So it’s fitting that when ESPN Radio’s Don La Greca pounced Wednesday, it was because of a Detroit Lions game.

It wasn’t the Lions that La Greca was after, to be clear: It was their Monday-night opponent, the New York Giants, and specifically the Giants’ sad offensive line, a formation of hulking incompetents whose performance prompted a caller, Ryan from North Haledon, to dial up The Michael Kay Show and air his complaints. With his dog barking in the background (at least it wasn’t a murderous falcon!), Ryan from North Haledon used his platform to rattle off some advanced statistics he found interesting, a jumble of hard-to-parse numbers that might have presented well in a Pro Football Focus column but didn’t quite make for captivating radio.

But what transpired next sure did: an increasingly enraged La Greca response that included phrases like “the Pro Football Index Yo-Yo Bumchuck,” “we’re gonna be like accountants now in baseball,” “you want sabermetrics??” (voiced with the menace of a weaponized father meeting his daughter’s boyfriend for the first time), “people that sit there at their desks that only know the naked body through National Geographic,” and “the Pythagorean Theorem” (said many, many times in a confusing tone that La Greca seemed to think represented four-eyed football nerds but that came off more like Barney Gumble about to topple off a barstool), and concluded with a battle cry: “THE JOE PISARCIK THEOREM! YOU’RE DEAD!”

This was the second time in the past couple of months that a caller caused La Greca to straight-up lose it. In August, he belittled Steve from Brooklyn before banning him from ever calling again on account of Steve from Brooklyn’s opinion that the Yankees should have pinch-hit for Aaron Judge in the ninth inning of a game. But La Greca’s tirade Wednesday was noteworthy for taking place despite him agreeing with the caller’s point.

There’s so much beauty on the airwaves that I feel like I can’t take it. Just as a piece of garbage drifting in the breeze can make Poor Man’s Tobey Maguire think, a fed-up man shouting directly into my primary auditory cortex can make me feel. That’s not to say I’m not easily manipulated by TV’s flashy sorcery or the written word’s ability to sucker-punch. But neither medium routinely stops me in my tracks, frozen with a weirdo half-giggle on my face, the way live sports-talk radio does. How can you listen to this stuff? is the kind of thing the nonbelievers think, and often say, when subjected to the combative droning that so often fills my car. My response is just as incredulous: How can you not?

I love the way the around-the-clock scores and news and traffic updates mark the unrelenting passage of time and the way the callers are so earnest, so annoying, so routinely dumb: such humans. I relish the reliable indulgence in minutiae, the way hours are spent dissecting some split-second decision. And I love knowing that, at any moment, on any subject, a volcano can and will erupt.

“It’s really an art form,” says WFAN’s Mike Francesa, speaking by phone a few days after kicking off the work week with a museum-worthy piece indeed: a crescendoing castigation of Penn State coach James Franklin’s decision to call a timeout and ice a kicker while up 56-0 against Georgia State. The segment began, as these things do, with a riled-up caller; it continued with Francesa trying to get to the bottom of what went down; it peaked with descriptions of Franklin as a horse’s ass, a stooge, and a jerk; and it tied up neatly with a Bay Ridge Honda ad read over the crooning strains of stock radio jazz.

As art, it was more Jackson Pollock than tightly choreographed ballet. Francesa insists, and I believe him, that these sorts of moments in radio are, by and large, mostly unplanned. “I’m not trying to produce a piece of tape that’s going to go viral,” he says. “I just get annoyed, I get carried away, and the next thing I know it’s all over the place.”

In 2012, following a stretch in which the New York Mets had lost 14 of their past 16 home games, Francesa “couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. The result was a nearly 10-minute polemic about the sorry state of the franchise. “They told me they played that one in locker rooms for years,” he says. “It takes on a life of its own.” In 2014, irritated by a press conference held by the 1-7 New York Jets’ general manager John Idzik, he went off on every level of the organization. “Play like a Jet?” he mocked Idzik. “What does that mean? Commit a penalty? Or fumble the ball? Or drop the ball?” I was reminded of that monologue when, in April of this year, he reacted to an unimpressive Phil Jackson press conference (a “stream of consciousness that was rather bizarre”) with the same guttural gist of having had it.

There’s one aspect of a good diatribe that Francesa will admit to being more performative than reactive: those bursts of intermittent silence that can linger louder than even his biggest bellows do. “Giving away a secret,” Francesa says, “the use of silence is one of the great touches of the sports-talk show host, if he understands how to use it. It’s extremely dramatic. I think they call it, in music, the caesura. It’s a pause to punctuate.” (There have been plenty of times I’ve gotten frantic over losing my connection right in the middle of a doozy, only to realize that it was just intentional dead air.)

“I have to be fair, Dog started it all,” Francesa says, referring to his excitable former WFAN cohost Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, with whom he parted professional ways in 2008. “Dog was the leader, and I copied him. He mastered these [rants] even before I did.”

When Russo’s favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, lost in the decisive matchup of a four-game NLDS with the Florida Marlins in 2003, the resulting radio segment was one of the most memorable in the medium’s loud, passionate history. Russo screamed through all the stages of grief: He tried to downplay his emotions; he assigned blame; he sounded like he was crying; he begged and pleaded and bargained with whatever omnipotent entity might be listening. It was an instant classic.

“At 43 years of age and three kids, enough already!” Russo shouted in his high-pitched lisp. “Let them go hurt somebody else! I mean, how am I ever—when am I ever gonna have a chance to win a lousy friggin’ championship? ONE TIME! Not 20! ONE LOUSY GODDAMN TIME! GEE WHIZ!” (Here he paused to acknowledge that the station would probably have to bleep that “goddamn.”) “I don’t care how many books I write, how many kids I have, how many Marconi [Radio Award]s. I don’t care! … I DON’T CARE! Win ONE! I’ll give it all back! I’ll leave now! That’s all I want! ONE! UNO! I’ll leave, I SWEAR I’ll leave! I’ll quit! ... ONE TIME! ONCE! I’ll get out of here forever!”

Since then, the Giants have won three World Series, and Russo has his own SiriusXM empire.

Like I did, Mike Valenti, now the afternoon host on Detroit’s 97.1 The Ticket, grew up sitting in his dad’s car, picking up the WFAN signal as long as the weather wasn’t awful, listening to Mike and the Mad Dog debate Nielsen numbers and Yankees lineups. (Valenti calls Russo and Francesa “still the kings,” and, when I tell Francesa this, he wholeheartedly agrees.) “You’re battling static just to hear about what’s going on,” Valenti recalls of those days back in Troy, New York, speaking by phone as he sits in Detroit traffic on his way home from his Thursday show. “You’re battling static just to hear Bob in Secaucus.”

It’s the Bob in Secaucuses of the world that epitomize how sports radio differs fundamentally from other forms of infotainment. The give and take between the on-air talent and the unwashed masses who alternately fawn over and antagonize them is the sort of thing that doesn’t exist in a meaningful way elsewhere. One of the closest formats I’ve seen on TV is, randomly enough, on C-SPAN, but its Washington Journal call-in show features hosts who operate with decorum and restraint. Twitter maybe gets there, in its own terrible way, but there’s something about numbering one’s ranty tweetstorms that kind of lessens their impact.

But the lines are constantly blurring. The ESPN personalities who sound the most like sports-talk radio hosts tend to have a background in sports-talk radio. And with the proliferation of televised simulcasts of radio programming, the people who have always joked about having a face for the radio now have cameras all up in that face.

This can be a good thing. After all, without those cameras, we never would have seen Francesa struggling to put on Super Bowl earmuffs. And one of the most fun parts about watching Russo’s 2003 explosion about the Giants, rather than just listening to it, is getting to observe a laughing Francesa gnawing on a pen to keep his big mouth occupied. (“The greatest thing I did there,” Francesa says he still tells kids and college students when he talks to them about the industry, “is that I never interrupted.”)

Likewise, even as La Greca contorts his face into an emoji and stabs at the air like he’s participating in a freestyle battle, the real entertainment upon a repeat viewing of the viral video is seeing his cohost, Kay, staring blankly into nothingness as everything happens all around him, and then watching as he dons his spectacles slowly, as if to take care not to spook the wild animal next to him with any sudden movements.

But without these visuals, would that much be lost? There’s something to be said for the way good radio makes you focus while simultaneously letting your mind wander, for the way you’re left to fill in your own blanks. It’s quite meditative, really. “I just think radio is the most personal medium,” says Valenti. “The radio is ritualistic. I’m in my vehicle right now, driving home, and if I wasn’t talking to you I’d be cruising around, listening to radio.”

Valenti left New York to go to Michigan State for college during an era in which Spartans football went from meh to worse; things got no better once he graduated and went into Detroit-area broadcasting. In 2006 his dad came to visit for a Saturday prime-time matchup against Notre Dame. MSU led by 17 points at halftime. It was pouring rain—“just this monsoon,” Valenti says—and the Fighting Irish battled back to win with an interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. That Monday morning, Valenti drove his father to the airport, the seats of his car still soggy from the forlorn ride home the night before, and then went to the 97.1 studio to host his show.

“I didn’t have much of a voice going into work that day,” he says. “I was a 25-year-old kid. I was at a tailgate for hours. My voice was shot even leaving that game. I didn’t have a whole lot left in the tank.” Still, he siphoned out everything he had.

As is the case with La Greca’s searing take on Euclidean mathematics, the only way to properly convey Valenti’s wide-ranging (and far longer, and way voice-crackier) tirade about Spartan football is to offer up a cornucopia bursting with its various delights, from vegetables (“my onions [were] soaked” is how he described the effects of the weather) and fruits (“Michigan State sat there and choked on applesauce”) to even meats (“I got a bunch of old asses off their feet and into the air,” he screamed about the fans who had sat around him). He compared timeouts to cellphone minutes (“they don’t carry over!”) and brought H.R. Pufnstuf, Teddy Ruxpin, and the Salvation Army into the mix. He imitated the sounds of a man choking and an ass puckering.

“The single finest rant I’ve ever heard on sports talk radio,” is how Sports Illustrated’s Austin Murphy would later describe Valenti’s reaction to the game, “a 12-minute, Old Testament philippic in which Valenti takes a flamethrower to the entire roster.”

High praise in spite of the fact that Valenti’s elocution would not be televised. Word of the segment spread quickly among Spartans fans who felt that Valenti had valiantly sacrificed his voice in order to represent their own. Clips of it hit the internet before too long. Last year, the 10th anniversary of the segment, 97.1 The Ticket produced a retrospective documentary about that day. But “if it happened today,” Valenti says, “it would just be crazy. Someone can do something at 3 o’clock, and by 3:10 it’s viral.”

The potential for such rapid, widespread reach is great news for people who don’t have the time or inclination to sit around listening to endless hours of nonstop and often nonsense sports talk, absorbing all sorts of useless ephemera and obnoxious banter, hoping to be rewarded with an absurd exchange or—the golden ticket—a memorable meltdown. (Doing this is the sports-radio version of sitting by the boombox, waiting for a favorite song to come on so you could rush to hit record and get it on a mixtape.) And really, with the possible exception of motorists trapped on the Long Island Expressway, who the heck does?

“We take it all too seriously,” says Francesa, who plans to record his last WFAN show December 15. “That’s just the case, let’s be honest. I know we’re in the toy department, and we’re all just kids.”

But I can’t help but think back to when I was an actual kid, spending long and boring summers listening to WFAN, and how those idle moments led me, quite directly, to develop the enthusiasms and the insights and dumbass references for which I am currently employed today. In a world where consumption of just about anything is increasingly national—even the Mad Dog is a sports generalist now—and even global, the parochial quirks of regional sports-talk radio feel like a lifeline to a long-lost hyperlocal tribe. As I’ve written before, rarely have I felt more known, more rooted, more myself, than when I spent a day at an objectively ridiculous yet completely earnest event called FrancesaCon.

So I love that Detroit-area sports fans have shared and complicated feelings about someone like Valenti that I will never fully grasp and access. But I also love that there’s a video of La Greca being a maniac that is being circulated far and wide for all to see and mock and enjoy, regardless of where they grew up or whether they even care about sports at all.

What I really love, though, is when Francesa tells me that when “network TV” asked him if they could use the audio clip of him calling the Penn State football coach a horse’s ass, he declined. “I thought by the weekend it might be contrived,” he says. “I felt like I had my say. I made my point.” Sometimes, that’s enough.


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