Baseball Men - The Talker

Our ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Chris Russo, host for New York's #1 rated ‘Mike and the Mad Dog' radio program.

A young Chris Russo wasn't a likely candidate to become one of the most important and powerful radio hosts in the baseball nation. Actually, for years, the prospect seemed downright unlikely.

 

As Russo would readily admit, he didn't have the obvious makings of a media titan following his Rollins College graduation in 1983. His first few years in the industry, working in the low-profile Jacksonville and Orlando markets, featured low pay, frequent shift changes, and modest ratings. A mid-1980's move to New York's WMCA, doing a relatively unremarkable weekend call-in show for a relatively unremarkable station, hardly seem to indicate any future prominence, either.

 

No, the turning point in Russo's career undoubtedly came in 1989, when he was partnered with Mike Francesa as the latter half of the ‘Mike and the Mad Dog' show on WFAN New York. The Infinity Communications show quickly became a ratings powerhouse on the AM band and, in the process, cemented the two-year old station's pioneering effort to bring all-sports radio to the masses.

 

‘Mike and the Mad Dog' soon proved to be far more than a #1-rated drive time program -  providing a linchpin to WFAN, the show helped validate a format featuring host commentaries, listener call-ins, interviews, news bulletins, and game broadcasts. No one would have predicted it at the time, but within years of Francesa and Russo's debut, sports stations had cropped up in nearly every major market in the nation. Today, 16 years after the duo's start, Boston's WEEI, Philadelphia's WIP, and more than 400 other radio stations beam baseball and all sports, all the time.

 

Imitation is always flattering, but that's especially so when imitators haven't come close to the success of the originals. Estimates have Astoria, Queen's WFAN holding strong as one of the highest-rated radio stations in the country, in large part because ‘Mike and the Mad Dog' pulls in ‘18-54 male' ratings more than four times greater than its all-sports rivals. Since 2003, the most popular talkers on the East Coast have become some of the most noted commentators in America, with a one-of-a-kind television simulcast beamed nationwide on the Yankees' YES Network.

 

As you might guess, the talk hasn't exactly been cheap; one of the most lucrative radio stations in America rewards Francesa and Russo with annual salaries estimated in the seven-figure range.

 

Why has ‘Mike and the Mad Dog' been such an industry landmark and fan addiction over the years? There's a lot to be said for being at the right place at the right time as an established brand, but most the success has to be attributed to the substance behind the show. Francesa's encyclopedic knowledge of sports history finds a counterpoint in ‘Mad Dog's glib, excitable vocal delivery, with the pair's widely varying personalities providing an inherently combustible mix for their market's stories and newsmakers. While other hosts have relied on vitriol, lewd humor, and gimmicks, Francesa and Russo have consistently found entertaining, insightful takes on every sports topic under the sun. More than anything else, the award-winning broadcasters have consistently proven themselves as among the most engaging and energetic conversationalists to be found anywhere. 

 

It was a bit strange meeting 44-year old Chris Russo in person on October 26th, if only because a complete stranger had convinced me I'd already known him as a listener through the past decade. Not far from his suburban Connecticut home, a genuine sports nut discussed one of the most improbable, enviable careers in the game - and talked about all his baseball talk.

 

 

As I understand it, it was pretty tough for you to get started in radio when you graduated college in 1983.

 

Yeah, it was frustrating at first. My father didn't understand the field and he couldn't help me get a job, which was very frustrating to him. Coming out of college, I had a period or four or five months there where I was living at home and I wasn't doing anything. ‘How's your son, doing?' ‘How's your son doing?' ‘Well, . . .' That bothered him.

 

You know, my father, Tony, he would have been a good talk show host because he's quick and funny, but he had no idea how to go about helping me. My mother didn't like the radio idea either, but she gave me more leeway to find my own way of doing things.

 

When you thought about getting into radio, were you necessarily thinking about hosting a sports talk show?

 

No way. I grew up as a big sports fan and there was some sports talk on the radio, but there wasn't any such thing as an all-sports station. Mostly, I just knew I was interested in radio and wanted to see what would happen.

 

How did you get that first job in radio?

 

I basically just fell into it, that's all there is to it.

 

I wanted to be a baseball play-by-play guy when I first got into radio, believe it or not. I went down to Jacksonville, Florida to get a job as a play-by-play guy for the Suns, the Royals' Double-A team at the time. I thought I was going to be Vin Scully, to make a long story short.

 

I didn't get the job but that was a blessing in disguise. God was looking after me, because when you're doing the team, it can't be about your personality as much. Yeah, you can put your opinions into it, here and there, but mostly the listeners, they want to know what's happening on the field with the game and the players. You're in the team's fabric as a play-by-play guy. When I got a talk show, instead, it was better for me because it could be more about my personality. The way I look at it, if you have personality, you can do radio.

 

I was fortunate enough to find something in Jacksonville, a small enough city to get started, but a big enough city where I could get somewhere. I wasn't in the middle of Racine, Wisconsin.

 

Starting off as a radio guy, were you thinking about your Long Island accent and proper pronunciation and grammar, things like that?

 

Proper grammar? Ask my listeners if I've ever worried about that. Never worried about it.

 

I never worried about my voice, either. The thing you need on radio, sports especially, is character, and the thing I've always liked about my voice is that it's memorable. If someone's zipping through the radio dial and he doesn't know who I am and he turns on the station, it's ‘Hey, who's that?' It's memorable. 

 

A radio voice has to register, that's it, and, like it or not, my voice registers. [David] Letterman once said [of me], ‘I thought Elmer Fudd got a show', but that's alright. The voice registers. I register.

 

What did help you last through those early years?

 

It wasn't the knowledge of sports. I do my homework, but I admit it, there are other people who know more.

 

Ehh. (pause) In terms of communicating, I basically just had the gift of gab. I learned certain things in the process of doing it at the station, but mostly I stuck because I had an ability to talk. Things can come quickly to your head or they don't, and, fortunately, I've been able to do it.

 

But, what's good talk radio about, more than anything else? Passion. Passion. I've said it many, many times - I love my job. I loved my job and I still love it. And that comes across - if you love your job on the radio, people are going to listen. You can reach people with enthusiasm; you can draw people to you. ‘You know what? I might not like what he's saying, but he's into it. He gets me into it'.

 

After those first few years in Florida and then New York, you came to WFAN in 1989. What was it like when management paired you with Mike Francesa?

 

It was an adjustment because, up until then, I was always a solo act. You might know, neither of us came up with the idea of working together.

 

Why has partnership turned out so well?

 

Well, he's a great talk show host, there's no getting around it. Mike knows what he's talking about, he's articulate and all that, and people have thought I've added something, too, so there we are, on one level.

 

You can ask, OK, then, but what about, in terms of a partnership, in terms of Mike and Chris? What I've been able to do is manage Mike - make sure he's in the flow, make sure we're talking about his interests - without losing my personality and my interests. I think any good radio team manages to do that, where you respect the other guy but you're maintaining your voice, too.

 

With Mike, I had to learn. Anybody who's a listener knows - Mike's very knowledgeable and commanding. It can be easy to blend in with the furniture instead of making the show work with two people, 50/50. But we've been able to do that. 

 

Are you friends?

 

You can't do this show for this long without a good relationship. For instance - and you know this - we like to call each other and talk about a game as we're watching it on TV at home. I could do that with a close personal friend, but he might not know what I'm talking about. So, often, Mike and I are going over stuff even when we're not on the air.

 

When we call each other, yeah, we're getting ready for the next show, but we have fun with it, too. You can't expect your listeners to have fun with the show if you're not having fun with your broadcasting partner.

 

It's a interesting combination on ‘Mike and the Mad Dog', because you two are so different in terms of your attitudes, opinions, and, more often than not, your rooting interests. Everyone's had that kind of experience in talking sports in everyday life.

 

If you hear me without Mike, or Mike without me, definitely, it's a different kind of show. Maybe there isn't that flair when we're not together. With the give-and-take, it's a different show.

 

When you two started off, it was still in the very early run for WFAN, the first all-sports station in the country. What was that like?

 

Radio's changed. When I started off, 22 years ago now, there was no specialty radio. You had talk radio and sports, most often, were in context of a news show. It wasn't until four or five years later until you had the all-sports concept in certain cities. '86 was a turning point in New York, with the Mets winning the World Series and the Giants on the march to the Super Bowl with Parcells and that team.

 

What was that like? It was exciting. It really, really, really took off.

 

Were you surprised?

 

I was amazed because of the format. I thought all-sports would have big problems because it had no women. Right off the bat, you're eliminating 50% of the population, for the most part. What I didn't know is that we were locking in to the other 50% of the population.

 

Were surprised that there would be so many imitators throughout the major markets?

 

(laughs) I didn't look six months ahead; forget about years ahead and throughout the country.

 

I've tried to look at my career in the same way I look at the show. ‘OK, today's show is over, now we've got another show to do'. I've got to do a good job today, without looking at things I can't control down the road, whether that be money or books or whether this is going to go wrong or that's going to go wrong. If I do a good job today, between 1.00 and 6.30, everything else will take care of itself.

 

As you know, not everyone's been happy with the influence of sports talk shows.

 

No question, no question.

 

You know where I'm going with this. Sports talk show hosts have been blamed for a harsher tone, the heightened ‘What have you done lately?' mentality you might see in the media nowadays.

 

Let's face it, there's something to that. I think sport talk has a tendency to go over the edge.

 

This is what it is - I think there are a lot of guys out there in tough spots. They might not have the teams - you need that - or the historical knowledge - you need that - or the passion - you need that. So, they may not be as competent, and they might need tricks to get their shows going.

 

It can be the market. I mean, look at San Diego. They don't have nine professional teams. They've got the Padres and the Chargers and that's it. Some college, but that's it. Maybe they can't do straight talk on a day-to-day basis, so they might have to be harsh and get something going. And I'm not picking on San Diego; I'm just giving you an example. It could be anyplace. No town has New York's level of sports.

 

Have you ever gone over the line as a critic?

 

After 17 years, I can always give you an isolated incident; I can give you something I'm not in love with. For the most part, I walk out of the station every day satisfied that I didn't burn any bridges.

 

Does anything come to mind as something you regret?

 

I don't necessarily want to go into that much. When I do get way too excited, maybe lose my poise - I don't think it's happened too much - I do my best to get back and patch things up. I think people know that I'm not out there to be a bad guy.

 

Well, that's something about sports, as opposed to conversations on politics or religion. Fans love to argue, but there doesn't seem to be any real bitterness in your show, at least. Even if you pretend to hate your rival teams, it's still about love of sports, more than anything else.

 

We argue and argue and argue, of course, but we're not nasty. For the most part, as you said, it's all about sports. My fans, I think, know they can have a give-and-take, and it's not personal. That helps them get into the show, too.

 

In talking about baseball, do you see yourself as more of a journalist or more of an entertainer?

 

Entertainer. You gotta be a journalist, to keep that in mind, but you're being paid to be an entertainer, because you gotta get listeners. That's the bottom line. I do five interviews a day on nine million topics and I think I have journalistic principles - not jumping to any conclusions and all that - but I'm more of an entertainer.

 

I'd guess that most sports guys would say the same thing, but the fact is that all-sports stations often cover big stories first.

 

Depending on the time a story breaks. The [New York Daily] News and the [New York] Post [tabloids], they have five or six guys on a team, and they're going to get more coverage, but you're right, we tend to get it before they go to press the next day. By the time fans get the paper the next day, they might have heard about a story for a couple hours and what more do they need? For instance, I don't want to read about [recently deceased Giants owner] Wellington Mara today. We talked about that yesterday.

 

WFAN, like most all-sports stations, has multi-million dollar deals with the teams you cover. Do you ever feel compromised by the arrangement?

 

For the most part, I don't feel compromised. It's an unedited show. WFAN does a good job that way. After all these years, they trust us and we can pretty much say whatever we want.

 

Occasionally, it can be tough on a personal level, in certain situations. For instance, I might want [the] ‘Mr. Met' [mascot] to come to my kid's birthday party, and the team helps me out. [Team executive] Jeff Wilpon came to my father-in-law's funeral recently. What are you supposed to say? Are you supposed to knock the Mets the next day? Those are the times I've felt a little compromised, only because of the personal angle.

 

Do the callers add a lot to the show?

 

You can't have the show without callers. Some of them, they can come on too strong or they might go back to something we've already done or get off the subject, but it's a lot of fun. Yeah, generally, they add a lot.

 

You never know what someone will give you, something interesting you've never heard or thought before. That's one of the best parts of the job, when that happens, and it happens a lot. It's great when you're solo, especially, and you don't necessarily have a partner in the studio to bounce off.

 

Well, either you're a very good actor, or you genuinely enjoy talking to FAN callers.

 

You know what? I do. For the most part, I really like sports fans. They care, they're funny; they're good people. I hope that fans think I'm one of them. I am.

 

That [respect for fans] makes it a lot easier. Forget the sports. It's very, very hard to do this job if you're not a people person. You have to like the calls, you have to represent the station at events and remotes and promotional things. There are three or four per month. You have to shake hands, enjoy people, be ‘on'.

 

Do your best listener conversations reinforce baseball fans' opinions, or go against them?

 

I don't think about that - ‘Oh, I've got to agree with them', or ‘I've got to pick a fight, I've got to be controversial'. You know, I'll tell you what I think. Some people will love it, some people will hate it, but the listeners will know I'm not trying to jerk anyone around.

 

Another criticism - and I'm sure you've heard this before - is that sports talk show hosts are rooting for teams to fail.

 

No way. ‘Oh, you're waiting for everyone to fall apart so you can go in and rip ‘em'. Absolutely wrong.

 

Whenever you do sports radio, you want the teams to do well because you need the teams to do well. If the teams don't do well, the interest wanes. Look at the teams' attendance, look at revenues, look at anything. When the teams lose, there isn't as much energy from the fans. Talk ratings go down. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

 

I don't doubt you, but you have to admit, in some of your best shows you're absolutely killing a team or a player.

 

That only lasts for a couple of days. A couple of days, and then you move on. It can be fun to knock a team, and we've done it with the best of them, but there's a limit. The bottom line is - you can't beat a dead horse forever. You need a winner, because a winner's got an ongoing story and drama and energy.

 

What's your favorite sport?

 

Baseball. A - my favorite team, the [San Francisco] Giants, plays in it. B - it's been around the longest; it has the best history to it. And, C - it's got the best season; it's around every day for six months.

 

That last point, especially, makes it the very good fit for talk radio.

 

Yeah, that's it. It's every day. The NFL's good, but it's only a Monday/Friday sport. The NBA's good, but it's only a postseason sport, really. And the NHL might not even be a postseason sport anymore. The other sports are much more manageable, no question about it.

 

Do you mind if I bring up something about sports talk and baseball?

 

No problem.

 

You constantly insist that baseball's the second most popular sport in the country, behind football. Drives me crazy.

 

Hold on now. Looking around the country, how about the ratings for this World Series? Nobody's watching the darn thing. Baseball's definitely not what it used to be in the national ratings.

 

You know what it is? In baseball, when fans' local teams aren't in it, fans aren't going to sit back and watch the Astros and the White Sox for five hours. They aren't going to do it. Game Three of the World Series. Were you watching that? In football, now, you're going to watch a playoff game, no matter what.

 

But times have changed. In the last 10 years, especially, local coverage and ratings have exploded, so the national numbers are down because locals have had their fill from nearly 200 day-to-day games. Overall, there are far more viewers and listeners.

 

That's fair. You can use that argument.

 

Plus, look at attendance. In 2005, Major League teams averaged 2.5 million live fans per season. That was just OK, mediocre by today's standards, but it's what the single most popular teams in the game was drawing in 1975 and it's nearly five times greater than the average NFL team of today.

 

Yeah, but that has a lot to do with the new ballparks, too. Thirty years ago, you had straight-up baseball. Now you have pop-a-shots, you've got slides . . . It's a carnival, half the time, at a ballpark. You go to PacBell, half the time there are more people at the slides than in the stands. My father never did that. He sat in the center field bleachers to watch Joe D.; he didn't go out to the slides in the outfield.

 

Well, the fans don't seem to mind too much.

 

If the NFL isn't the biggest sport, how come the Super Bowl gets 50 ratings?

 

That's just packaging. One very big game doesn't make up for the fact that baseball's schedule gets hundreds of millions of extra viewers over the course of the season.

 

That's the season you're talking about. There are ten times as many games.

 

And, to me, that's the beauty in the game. You can't sustain an interest in football or tennis or golf or any other sport in the world for 162 contests.

 

You can argue that. I have to look at the individual markets, but I think there are more football towns than baseball towns, outside of places like New York, Boston, St. Louis, LA, and some others.

 

There's another thing - football's huge in gambling.

 

Again, to me, Chris, that's a positive. In baseball, you don't have to put money on some bookie's line ‘to make it interesting'.

 

Well, OK. You can argue that gambling is bad for football, but it definitely increases interest.

 

I agree. Without gambling, pro football would be pro wrestling. And that says something about the game right there.

 

In New York and other big cities, baseball's doing great, but in places like Miami and Kansas City, Pittsburgh, I don't know. It's an interesting debate.

 

Getting back to the station, though, I'd like to ask about your influence. Do you think your show's influence pushes the Yankees or Mets to make certain moves, whether to avoid criticism or to goose up interest?

 

You'd have to ask the teams about the impact. I think our show, after 17 years, has had some impact, in certain situations. I think we helped get [Mike] Piazza [traded] over here [in 1998], for instance. I'll let others gauge how much influence is there.

 

Does the media, including your station, make it tougher for baseball teams to rebuild?

 

I think, generally speaking, you have to win now in New York. Not always, but you have to remember, the fans are paying some of the highest ticket prices in the country. Regardless of the media, regardless if we utter one peep about it, the fans aren't going to reward a lot of losing teams.

 

What's the toughest part of your job?

 

I wouldn't say that it's too tough, but there are always ticket requests. It takes time to help out and it's not necessarily the most exciting thing, but it's a responsibility for my acquaintances and contacts. It's part of the job to have that kind of goodwill role. 

 

Now that I have four kids, that's been a big adjustment, with the weekends and late nights. It's not always easy to explain that, as much I enjoy it, watching the games is about work, too. What am I supposed to do? Gotta watch them, even if I'd rather be with my family.

 

Do you still enjoy talking baseball?

 

People say I have a dream job, and that's true. I'll be talking baseball my whole life, one way or another.

 

Now, I think if you ask [40-year old] Craig Biggio now, after how many years in the bigs, ‘Is it more of a job to play 162 games, compared to when you were 26?', he'd say ‘Yes'. There's no getting around it. It's the same for anyone who's been in the same line of work for years.

 

There are going to be days when you're fighting to motivate yourself, but that's the key to doing a talk show - it can't make like a job. Listeners at their workplace - at the office or shop - they have a job and they're bored stiff. They're listening to you for fun. You can't fake that for five-and-a-half hours a day.

 

After thousands of shows, are you more of a baseball fan, less of a fan, or do you have mixed emotions?

 

I'm still a fan, the same as I've always been. It's still a game, a kid's game. That's the important thing. When the game's going on, I'm still excited.

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