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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Final Fall of Mike Francesa

Mike Francesa, who used to provide a lead-in to Mets Extra, is leaving the radio station that used to broadcast Mets games. Without that de facto Metsian connection, I doubt I would have listened to him much if at all. He has benefited from prime legacy real estate where my listenership is concerned. Francesa — first with the exponentially more irritating Chris Russo, then without — was on the air before the show that came on before the Mets game. I was waiting for Howie Rose or, to a far lesser extent, Ed Coleman. Mike Francesa talked sports. The Mets are sports. I was a sport for listening to him.

Now and then I’d share a burst of disgust with a friend over something Mike Francesa had just said about the Mets, and the response was inevitably some stripe of, “Why are you torturing yourself by listening to him?” Habit was usually my response. Not an ingrained habit, but a default one. Sometimes I prefer company to silence. Sometimes I prefer talk to music. I almost always prefer sports to everything. The radio is nearby. There’s somebody talking about sports, somebody whose tics I know and, on untouchy days, tolerate. Habit wins another ratings book.

I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic to hear what Francesa has to say about anything, but he is digestible in doses. I’m reminded of what former Mets blogger and lifelong Taco Bell aficionado Ted Berg said when asked how he could be so attached to Taco Bell when New York featured an array of bueno Mexican cuisine. He didn’t adore Taco Bell because it was Mexican food, Ted explained. He adored it because it was Taco Bell.

So is Francesa, so to speak.

As Francesa’s 28 highly rated years in afternoon drive at WFAN have wound down to epic FANfare, I’ve listened a little more frequently and a little more closely than I had in quite a while. When WFAN and the Mets parted ways in 2013, I separated myself from 66 AM (and FM 101.9). If they couldn’t be bothered to keep my team, I didn’t need to be bothered keeping their company. But it’s New York and I like sports and I like radio and it’s the middle of the day and I know what I’m getting, so what the hell?

WFAN as a concept was hatched when the Mets were everything to everybody in New York, in 1986. They won the World Series and loads of listeners. The people who owned country station WHN, flagship of the world champions, decided there was more to be tapped from the passion the Mets engendered beyond pregame, game and postgame. In a matter of months, it was goodbye Ronnie Milsap, hello Ronnie Darling. Sports and sports talk never had to end.

Mike Francesa slipped in when nobody was listening, part-timing and day-parting in the shadows of the original WFAN’s name-recognition lineup. It was the home of Greg Gumbel and Jim Lampley and Pete Franklin. Two were guys known from national TV, one was allegedly killer at what he did on the radio in Cleveland. If you listened to that iteration of WFAN, it was because you knew the Mets game was going to be on at some point…and because it was sports in New York.

Hard to believe now, but Francesa was kind of an underdog story. The old line about having a face for radio was irrelevant. Francesa didn’t have a voice for radio. He sounded like a caller. He sounded like one of us. Information-driven radio stations didn’t normally put guys from Long Island on the air unless they cleansed the Nassau and Suffolk from their dialects.

Francesa didn’t bother. They gave him and Russo late afternoons and, as Francesa reminded his habitual listeners every few minutes since deciding to depart, the rest was history. Mike & The Mad Dog reigned for nineteen years, Mike’s On for the next nine. The Mets receded to the shadows on their own flagship. They didn’t win any more world championships (the Curse of WHN?). Mike talked about them either in unflattering tones or not very much. He harped on the successes of another local team. From a Mets fan perspective, he definitely wasn’t one of us.

But he was on and he was predictable and sort of tolerable, both to me and my father. I’d call my dad in the afternoon in his later years and hear Francesa blaring in the background. I appreciated that he replaced Rush Limbaugh as his default company. “I get a kick out of him,” he’d say, and it gave us another morsel of small talk to chew on. Didja hear Francesa get on the Jets? From such topics would awkward conversational yardage get eaten up. Sports was useful for us that way.

It seems appropriate that Francesa’s farewell comes at the end of fall or, for those of us who picked up on the radio lingo, the fall book. The tic of his I latched onto most was Francesa’s insistence on order. Fall was here, he’d say in September, as if we were all settling in for another semester with him. Everything was going to happen before we knew it. “Before you know it,” it would be Halloween…it would be Thanksgiving…it would be Christmas. Everything was aligning in Francesa’s worldview, all of us traveling the path he set out for us, yet he always expressed surprise that it happened. He couldn’t believe it was already Week Whichever of the NFL season. He couldn’t believe it was almost Thanksgiving. He couldn’t believe Christmas was right around the corner. He warned us of the sequence of these events and their inevitable immediacy; he was amazed nonetheless. Anything slightly askew from the ordinary was “crazy”. Games that went into overtime were crazy. Trades that materialized quickly were crazy. Players expressing an opinion that diverted from the established order were crazy. Mike didn’t seem to care for crazy, even if it got his phone lines lit.

The Francesa New York Sports Pecking Order was as clear as it was intractable. The Yankees were the Yankees. Of course they were signing this free agent or that. Of course they were in first place. Of course they were tuning up for the playoffs. Andy’s gonna start Game Two. The Giants, intermittent lousiness notwithstanding, were generally beyond reproach. They were the Giants like the Yankees were the Yankees, if not quite as much. The Mets and Jets existed for people who couldn’t quite get with the program, a portion of his audience Mike catered to occasionally out of necessity and condescendingly out of personality. He’d treat them like real teams if circumstances absolutely demanded he do so — which wasn’t very often. Everything else depended on how much the host cared about it for the length of a segment. He cared more about horse racing than anybody on the other end of the speakers. The Knicks were the Knicks, but merited attention mostly for playing somebody better. Hockey existed in spurts here and there, and then exclusively at the Garden. The Nets and Devils might as well have been based in Saskatchewan, never mind that their games aired over WFAN.

Sometimes Francesa would tackle the world at large like he tackled the line for Patriots at Steelers. That, as with his deep dives into the Masters and third hours devoted to what made Mickey Mantle his and therefore America’s boyhood idol, was usually a good time to find a nice song on another station. I could tune away for five minutes that would become five hours that would become five weeks. Eventually and habitually tuning back reminded you of the Taco Bell appeal. There were other perfectly good takes to be gotten elsewhere. You could only get Francesa from Francesa. Sometimes you develop a taste.

17 comments to The Final Fall of Mike Francesa

  • Ed Rising

    Thanks for the blog on Francesa. The end of his WFAN career is the end of an era. Like yourself, when WFAN parted ways with the Mets I pretty much stopped listening to WFAN. It was just not fun anymore. I really enjoyed it in the early days – the pre WFAN sports radio and early years. I really felt part of it and enjoyed hearing a revitalized Imus and how the whole crew: Suzyn Waldman, Steve Cohen (and his wife who did traffic), Ian Eagle, and of curse Mike and Chris Russo. Even Pete Franklin was entertaining for a while. I enjoyed hearing about the softball games. And cared about Joel Hollander and his family. FAN itself seemed to be like a family. But success and money changes everything (Thank you Cindi). Change is part of life. I am not one who likes to let go and miss the old FAN.

    I’m more of a Chris Russo fan than Francesa because Chris was so passionate and funny (if not frequently off the rails). Mike seemed so smug and usually dismissed the Mets. It was sad when they parted even though they had a nearly 20 year run. The occasional reunions made for great radio and TV.

    To bring this to a close, I found myself watching Francesa on YES more so than FAN and really will not miss him but hope he continues because too many people from my youth are missing from the airwaves. I can’t listen to WOR because of their politics and I miss sports radio – I will try to listen to FAN more in 2018 especially if Steve Somers is still working.

    Who do you think will be the voice to listen especially concerning Mets baseball in 2018 and beyond?

  • Dave

    My peak WFAN years were when I drove a vintage VW Type 3 Squareback with only an AM radio. To me, the show with Russo was a borderline parody…Francesa was like the obnoxious know-it-all you avoid at bars or parties as he goes on about anything, whether it’s football or Chrysler transmissions or that he taught Jimmy Page how to play guitar. Then I got a newer car, and he was solely limited to waiting for the Mets pregame show. Then WFAN said screw the Mets, I said screw WFAN, haven’t had it on ever since.

    My radio problem now is Sirius giving a show to Steve Bannon (even worse than WOR programming), so might be another radio divorce coming in my life…there are always podcasts if I can figure out the technology.

  • Lenny65

    Meh, congrats to him and all but if I want to hear smug Yankee fans I can go outside, no radio needed. I liked Russo way better anyway.

    Remember when the Mets were on WMCA 570? Of course back then they went with the lowest budget radio station they could find.

  • open the gates

    I was never fond of the guy. He reminded me too much of all the entitled Yankee fans I knew. And like many of the other commenters here, I had no reason to stick with FAN after they ditched the Mets. Other than Steve Somers there, me here, my radio dial doesn’t touch there. Still, Francesa had a long run, and he deserves a decent sendoff. I guess.

  • LeClerc

    With Francesa gone, I predict the letter “R” will make a comeback.

  • DAK442

    Every now and then I would check out Francesa on a long drive, or if Q104.3 played too much schlock in a row. It baffles me that this guy has had a career at all, let alone the most successful sports-talk radio career ever. He is so repetitive I wondered if something was wrong with the wiring in his brain. Most of the time I didn’t care about whatever he was expounding on.

    Good call on Pete Mcarthy, they put on a pretty good show. And that’s all the sports radio I need.

  • chuck

    Kind of a tangent, but I was amused when YES replaced Francesca with Michael Kay. I guess Francesca wasn’t enough of a suck-up to the Yankees.

    Which reminds me of the commercial Kay did for carbon monoxide detectors. I figured Kay has had his head so far up the ass of the Yankee organization it’s a wonder he hasn’t died from asphyxiation.

  • Gil

    Dont forget about the smoothest, velvetiest Mets voice on the radio…. “I’m Wayne Randazzo!”

    As far as the Pope, I would withhold all comments until you listen to his replacements for a week, at which point even those who listened because they hated him, like Phil Mushnick, will be begging for his return. This is a 12 month a year baseball town and the dopes on the way in are going to get eaten alive by the WFAN callers. I’m reminded of Sergio Dipp…. “Just look at Carlin, Gray, and Scott… using their diversity to their advantage… having the tiiiiiiimmmmmeeeeeee of their lives!”

    Back afta dis.

  • APV

    Didn’t mind Mike in the really early days. I think he needed to put Doggie in his place a few times back then and the attitude was required to do so. But by ’93, it felt like the gun was turned on the listeners (or maybe it was PTSD from listening to Russ Salzburg, I don’t know) and I slowly got fed up; in 1996, my days of intently listening were over.

    Strangely, as the years went by, I found myself warming up to Chris and getting far colder to Mike. Not that Russo had gained brain cells, but he felt like a real person and I appreciated that. May be why I don’t mind High Heat on the rare occasions I’m home to see it. Mike, on the other hand, tried to drive David Wright out of town, and never backed down when even media members called him on it. It was the hill he eventually died on as he became a parody of himself the last nine years (the sleeping video while talking to Sweeny Murti, the Demon Reporter of 161st Street, was classic). Truth is, Mike and Chris changed sports talk radio for better AND for worse. They were passionate but, I’m afraid, misguided, and misguided passion is worse than lack thereof.

    Carlin is a Francesa disciple so maybe there will be familiarity for some. And the first time Gray doesn’t pay attention, I can hear him singing, “Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you!” But he’ll never be the funniest Carlin. Not. Even. Close. And his own obnoxiousness will wear thin like it did when he was on SNY. I’m a Giant fan so Bart Scott and his opinions don’t matter to me.

    WOR? A hard pass when the games aren’t on. (No politics, no politics, no politics.) Seen Pete on mlb.tv a few times and he’s fine but isn’t WOR also the radio home of Sal Licata? Another example of misguided passion being worse than no passion at all. It’s like he’s their version of Joe B. A Met fan, sure, but the kind whose opinions get deservedly raked over the coals.

  • 9th

    Good luck to the new drive time team. They have a big ego to fill.

    He and mad dog were a good team as they are unbearable on their own. Russo talks too much and too stupidly without anyone checking him, and Franny is too repetitive and exhausting for more than about 10 minutes in a row. And his pure contempt for listeners always made me wonder why he took calls at all.

    I heard them call a basketball game once – that was quite good. Wish they had done more of that kind of stuff.

    But let someone else It a go already.

  • eric1973

    Some people have a face for radio. Well, Pete McCarthy has a voice for the telegraph. Granted, I do not listen to him much, but his show sounds like WFMU in the 80’s. I half expect a Seton Hall basketball game to break out.

    Francesca was a pain in the rear sometimes, but he took his sports, and himself, very seriously, and I applaud him for that. In our frivolous society, where people care more about End Zone dances, rather than End Zone passes, it was nice to listen to an adult on the radio.

  • sturock

    Who else remembers when the Mets were on WJRZ Radio 97?