June 26, 2012
Also OM, WFAN-A/New York
Mark Chernoff knew he was taking on an awesome responsibility by accepting the programming post of what many consider to be the flagship station of the entire Sports Talk radio format, WFAN-A (The Fan)/New York. The station was already a ratings juggernaut with Don Imus and Mike & The Mad Dog, but Chernoff would eventually have to deal with the tumultuous events of Don Imus' departure and the breakup of the afternoon duo. Not only has the station survived those changes, but it has enjoyed even more success. Here, Chernoff reflects on the station and Sports radio as both have grown over the past 25 years.
What made you decide to leave a rock station WXRK, for Sports Radio at The Fan?
I have always loved music and sports. Joel Hollander was the GM of WFAN shortly after Infinity bought it - and he lived in the same area of New Jersey as I did. He was looking for a PD for WFAN and asked if I would be interested. I wasn't really sure; I had been in the rock field for so long, but I always loved sports, yet when it came down to it, I decided at that time to stay with K-ROCK. A while later, Mel Karmazin, who headed Infinity, also brought up the idea that he thought it'd be a good move for me, so I finally decided to go for it -- and it turned out well. I admit that at first I was worried about going cold turkey from music radio if I ever did go into Sports radio, but once I got into it, I've been very happy.
Was The Fan running smoothly when you took over? Were there things you wanted to do or change?
I came on in 1993, while the station launched in 1987, so by the time I got here there were already two cornerstones with Don Imus in mornings and Mike & Mad Dog in afternoons. We started a midday show with Mike Lupica and Len Berman, but both of them weren't real "radio guys." So while they did it for while, each had other things that were more important for them, so we had to make a change, but outside of that, the station was doing very well.
I felt that before I would add whatever input to what was going on, I would first get to know everybody, to learn more about the format and how to make it grow. The station was beginning to grow as an important station in the market and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to help it grow even more as an essential part of the fabric of New York.
Imus was already an icon, Mike and the Mad Dog were growing by leaps and bounds and the station had broadcast rights to the Mets, Knicks and Rangers -- and we added the Jets my first year here, 1993. In time, we would get broadcast rights to the Giants, Nets and Devils. We have a great mix of games and sports talk. Getting the Dial Global NFL package early on (formerly known as Westwood One and CBS Radio before that) has also helped us become even more of a must-listen-to radio station during the football season.
We have also survived major changes. After Imus left, we were fortunate to bring Boomer & Carton together, who have done wonders in the morning. Chris Russo (Mad Dog) left almost four years ago -- and it was very sad when he did, but Mike Francesca has continued on and has done very well in afternoons.
Were there things you learned programming K-Rock that you could transfer to WFAN?
One thing I learned, not just at K-Rock but at WNEW-FM and other stations, is that whether it's a music, sports or news station, you always play the hits. You stick heavily to the main topics because that's what most people want to talk about. Sure, there are always flavors -- side issues, personal stories and such, but always focus on the big stories. It's just like what Scott Muni told me at WNEW: "A hit is a hit is a hit." The great hosts really get that; the great managers know that, and the great off-air people know that.
And last but not least, the talent has to be entertaining when they're "playing the hits." They also have to be good listeners who can take a lot of calls and react with passion and emotion. Of course, they have to be smart and know the subject matter. It's hard to teach passion and how to be entertaining. Those are the qualities you want your talent to possess before you hire them, and the fact that our talent has that is a big reason we've been successful over the years
Are the success of the Fan's star personalities over the years -- Imus, Pete Franklin, Mike & Mad Dog, Boomer & Carton -- due to those common keys you mentioned, or did each have their own individual and unique characteristics that made them so successful?
They each have their own individual talents, but basically, again it comes down to being passionate about what they're talking about, of having strong opinions and presenting them in an entertaining way. That way, if you educate listeners, it's not like you're lecturing them like a boring teacher. Eric Spitz, who is now the Program Director, came up with his "poke" theory of success -- passion, opinion, knowledge and entertainment. If our on-air hosts have that, they're going to be winners.
Last but not least, they should always be "local, local, local," so most of the time they talk about New York teams. Clearly when there are bigger issues, be it the NBA finals, the recent trials of Roger Clemons, OJ Simpson or Mike Tyson, we will always stay on top of those stories as well.
Where does a PD fit in when it comes to creating and maintaining the right chemistry for a duo like Mike & Mad Dog or Boomer & Carton?
I like to always know what's going on - and we have a great producer, Al Dukes, who works with Boomer and Carton and knows how to put a great show together. We sit down and have occasional meetings, but as long as we're all on the same page as far as knowing what subjects they'll be talking about, I trust their talent and know that the guys know how to do an entertaining show. The same goes for my meetings with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts in middays. Eric Spitz and I come in every morning, shoot the breeze with them, and discuss what topics they'll be discussing, what guests they have lined up ... and they're ready to go. Mike Francesca has been doing it for so long he's in many ways his own producer because at almost 25 years, he just knows what to do and how to do it.
Of course, there have been times when the on-air duo's relationship deteriorates, or in some cases, never takes off. How do you handle those instances ... how long do you try to tweak things and when do you decide to just cut the cord?
It's a really hard decision. Yes, I've had to let some talent go -- not a lot, but some. I just have to hope the talent understands that there sometimes comes a time when for a variety of reasons, usually centering on the ratings, that a change needs to be made. Sometimes it goes beyond the ratings, where hosts have not liked the job as much as they thought they would when they first started. We've had a few occasions when that has happened, but no matter what, the hardest thing to do is to let somebody go. As a manager, you have to do what's best for the station. Those decisions are the least desirable part of my job.
Have you found a better way to oversee and/or handle these situations?
I don't know if there's a playbook on that because every situation is different. The Imus situation took on a life of its own and was a very unpleasant time for all of us. We were fortunate to come up with a solution that worked well for us.
Mike & Mad Dog's split was also very tough. They were together for 19 years. I did what I could to keep them together, but it wasn't to be. They needed time to be apart; whether it's for a short time or forever, it's hard to say. Mad Dog wanted to do something different, but Mike wanted to stay. I miss him, of course, but he has his own thing now, while Mike has done very well by himself.
Did you ever consider getting Mike a new partner?
We talked about it a lot. We interviewed a lot of people, mostly in the business, and a few outside radio and the sports business, but it ultimately came down to what Mike wanted. Although he had a partner for a long time, now he was fearful that whomever we put in to replace Mad Dog, if in three or four months, he decided it wasn't a perfect fit, we'd still be stuck with the person under contract. So we let Mike go it alone and the ratings have not only held up, but Mike's done really well by himself. It's a long day for him -- five-and-a-half hours, more during football season as he also hosts a three-hour Sunday morning show -- but he still has the desire and passion to be successful.
On the other hand, you seem to have struck gold teaming Boomer Esiason with Craig Carton in the morning. Did you ever consider other hosts with Esiason before hiring Carton ... and how long did it take before you knew they were going to work together?
When Boomer heard that Imus was being let go from WFAN, his agent called me and said he wanted that job. Boomer had been on the station before; he was a regular contributor when he was a QB for the Jets, and after football he did fill-in work for us here and there. When I talked to Boomer I told him that as a former QB, I didn't think he would like getting up at 4a every day, but he insisted that he really wanted to do it. We gave him a week on-air and sure enough, he loved it.
The problem was, who should he work with? Boomer was following an icon in Don Imus, so he needed to have a strong and complementary partner. We tried him with several different people. First it was Monica Crowley, but the show was too political. Chris Collinsworth, who was his receiver when they were both on the Bengals, did okay, but he really had no interest in moving permanently to New York.
Our SVP/Programming, Chris Oliviero, who worked for me years ago as a board op at WFAN, talked up Craig Carton, whom we had tried to hire at "Free FM" here in New York in 2006, but he was under contract at the time and not available. Craig's contract was about to end at his New Jersey radio station so Chris suggested we speak to him about the possibility of doing mornings at WFAN. We met at a place called "Harold's" in Central New Jersey and I broached the idea of mornings with a partner -- Boomer Esiason! Craig was up for the idea.
I then mentioned Carton to Boomer, who initially thought Craig did or said all kinds of crazy things and came close to being thrown off the radio. I assured him that wasn't the case, and mentioned that Craig actually interned at The Fan in '87-'88 while he was still in college. So we put 'em in a room together and had them do an off-air audition -- and the chemistry was amazing. Chris and I looked at each other five minutes into their audition and we knew we had a great morning show.
Having said all that, I want to point out that it wasn't a quick and easy, smooth transition from Imus to Boomer. In April, we first tried Mike & the Mad Dog in mornings, and when that didn't work and would have meant moving them out of afternoons, we tried the McEnroes (John and Patrick), Geraldo Rivera, Lou Dobbs, Joe Scarborough, Jim Kramer and others, often pairing them with Imus newsman and sidekick Charles McCord. We started to wonder whether we'd ever find something until Boomer & Carton clicked -- and that was in August ... five months later.
As the flagship station for several New York teams, does a programmer set a tone to his air staff in terms of being a certain degree of a "homer"?
I want our hosts to be honest. Some people root for the teams we have -- and some don't. But everyone's entitled to their own opinion. We expect our hosts to be knowledgeable and entertaining to go along with their opinions. We want our air talent to think about it in terms of how New Yorkers feel about the various teams and topics -- to put themselves in the fans' place. Sure, you can gloat when your team is doing well, or complain about it when things aren't going well, but you shouldn't try to make listeners dislike their own teams, you shouldn't resort to personal attacks -- and you never tell them not to go to the games.
We realize these teams are in the business to sell tickets, yet they understand that we want to maintain a high level of credibility, so while we want to be positive about the teams we cover, we still have to be honest with our listeners. That means our air talent is certainly are entitled to criticize a player or say they're unhappy with a team's management decisions.
Considering you own broadcasts rights to the Mets and Giants - and not the Yankees and Jets -- does that require you to maintain a certain ratio of the talk to be centered on your teams, as opposed to the others?
There's no ratio; we talk about whatever the hot topics are. Again, "a hit is a hit is a hit." Today they're talking about R.A. Dickey, the Yankees' 10-game winning streak and Roger Clemons' acquittal in the "did he lie to Congress about steroids" trial. That's three big stories; I expect my on-air personalities to have a lot of strong opinions -- and I want all of them on the radio.
Considering how WFAN has become the template for Sports radio nationwide, how do you handle the dangers of complacency? How much do you encourage tweaking and changing?
I don't feel any complacency around here, because we talk about it all the time with our hosts. Everyone here wants to win and be #1 in their demos. That's what it takes to be part of the fabric of this city. I make sure there's absolutely no complacency. I've never seen that at the FAN because the people who work here really love it here -- and they're fighters who have the will to win. And that's the only way you can win.
Now that you're streaming, WFAN is reaching out to a considerable number of New York transplants. Has that affected the way you program the station at all?
No. It's true that a lot of displaced New Yorkers live all around the country, and it's great that they can listen to WFAN wherever they are. But it's also great that a lot of people who live or work in the city and want to listen to us on a mobile device or on their computer can pick us up as well. I love the fact that we're able to stream the station and make it available to so many more people including all of the transplanted New Yorkers throughout the country.
Next year, it'll be your 20th anniversary at WFAN. At this point in your career, do you still hold long-term goals and plans, or are you now in a more year-to-year mode?
I still love coming to work every morning. I get up at 4a every day, run for a half-hour and get to the radio station by 5:30-5:45a, and I'm there until the end of the day. I get to see all the talent and their producers; I also get to work on my other duties as CBS Radio VP/Sports Programming, talking to other Sports stations, and helping to sign on new ones.
I am truly grateful for all the additional work CBS has given me through the years. And I have had great support from the likes of Dan Mason, Scott Herman, Don Bouloukos, Chris Oliviero and Greg Strassell, plus the support of my past GMs, including Joel Hollander, Lee Davis and of course, Mel Karmazin. From top to bottom I have worked with wonderful people both on-air and off-air, and they're the reason we're attracting all these listeners.
I always dreamed of being on the radio ... I quickly gave up the idea of playing center field for the Yankees ... and was on-air for many years. However, I felt that management ... being a program director ... was something I'd really love to do and after all these years, I enjoy it as much, if not more, than I ever have! I really do love getting up in the morning and coming to work!