Talk show producers, hosts reflect on WFAN and sports talk radio

With sports talk station WFAN (660 AM) celebrating its 25th anniversary on Sunday, the Times Herald-Record reached out to a handful of folks with local ties who worked at WFAN or have hosted their own talk shows.
Here are some of the outtakes:

Jason Barrett, former producer and on-air host for “The Athletic Supporters Show” on ESPN 1340/1390 in 2001-02.
Q: When you were growing up, what did you like about WFAN?
A: I just loved that there was an outlet for people to hear about the local sports teams. The biggest thing that started to get me hooked, when Mike (Francesa) and Chris (Russo) really started to become a team, whether you liked one guy or hated the other guy, there was magic in that room. They could fill up the speakers.
When you think about what you’re doing with your friends, talking about sports and debating stuff all day, it was exactly what you’re doing with your friends, except they were doing it for five-and-a-half hours a day and you felt they knew more about it then you did.
Q: Knowing what you know now about sports radio, were you surprised that in 1987 there was no successful or even attempted venture into all-sports radio?
A: When you think back and how effective print was, and part of our society for everybody growing up, and you would run home and watch the TV sports. It seemed radio, at that time, wasn’t convinced that it would work, even though every other outlet was doing it. Once they ventured into it, they had to get through some bumps to get where they are. Now it’s one of the fastest growing (radio) formats.

Carl Garofalo, host of “Hudson Valley Sports Talk” for the past 18 years, currently airing on WHVW (950 AM)
Q: Are you surprised at the success of WFAN over the first 25 years?
A: I am not surprised. … It was a great concept. The fact that it’s only grown over 25 years proves the fact that it’s a major market and people love sports. I am just excited for the next 25 years.

Q: What do you like about having an all-sports radio station?
A: You constantly can get the updates. You can constantly find out what’s going on, and it’s not just baseball, baseball, baseball. There is something for everybody. They talk football, (they talk) NBA draft. It keeps you in the flow of sports all year long, even if your sport isn’t in season. … We always had hot stove baseball, and now we have hot stove everything, and it’s great.
Q: Is sports radio healthy today? Is it good?
A: I think it’s better. I think some people just want to get on the air and they want to do a rant just so they can hear themselves speak. I know I have dealt with callers on my own show that have an agenda, be it racist or political or whatever. I cut them off because I can sense or I can feel it coming. It’s dialogue, and any time you have dialogue on anything is good, and that’s what makes sports fun.

Rick Zolzer, sports talk host mornings on WPDH (101.5 FM) and former host of “Zolz and the Athletic Supporters Show” on ESPN 1340/1390 in 2001-02.
Q: What attracts you to WFAN?
A: People may say Mike (Francesa) is arrogant and mean but I like that. That guy is good at what he does. The guy knows the sports.
I am shocked that they always say that New Yorkers are so sports savvy (so) unless they screen out the smart people and put on the dopes, I am shocked at some of the calls that are on that station, which I guess in itself is that train-wreck mentality, which is why I keep listening because I can’t believe how bad some of those callers are.
Q. Each of the hosts bring different strengths and weaknesses, isn’t that right?
A: Oh yeah. Any time I am in the car when Francesa is on, I listen. I have no use for the guys in the morning (Craig Carton and Boomer Esiason) … I would rather listen to a CD of Bad Company’s Greatest Hits. As for the guy at night (Steve Somers) … if I want to hear that guy’s shtick, I can get the greatest hits of Jackie Mason – at least he’s genuinely funny.
Q: You had your own sports talk show – how hard or how easy it is to do a sports talk show?
A: Oh dude, it’s hard. It ain’t easy. You are expected by your audience to know everything about everything and it’s impossible. I’m still amazed when I do sports on WPDH. … I get to do sports for 45 minutes every single day. If I make a mistake, the phone calls and emails are at times just brutal. They just want to correct me. So I can’t imagine what Mike goes through when he says something that people don’t like or he says something factually not correct. You know there’s dudes out there who are lonely and are eating a bowl of Cheetos in their mother’s basement or just dying to correct Mike Francesa.

John Minko, sports update host at WFAN since 1987; Army football tailgate show host and former play-by-play voice of the Black Knights for 10 years

Q: Why were there skeptics when the station started?

A: We were starting something that no one had ever done, and almost in anything, start-ups don’t make it. … We replaced a country music station, WHN 1050, which had good ratings; it’s not like we replaced a dead horse. Actually, we replaced two legendary stations, We didn’t put one to bed; we put two to bed. WHN and a year later, WNBC. From a formatted standpoint, we didn’t know what the niche was. The following spring, I think we realized that you have to program it just like any other radio station, except you do sports.

Q: Did you find there was an appetite for sports around the clock?

A: Oh, there was an appetite. We found out there was an appetite for it all day and all night. I remember driving into the station for a morning shift, driving across the George Washington Bridge at about 4:15 a.m. So I am listening to the radio station and Bud Harrelson was the manager of the Mets at the time. Somebody calls in and starts complaining about Harrelson, which they did basically all the time. I actually said out loud as I was going across the bridge “It’s 4 oc’lock in the morning… Give the guy a break!”

Q: Do you think sports radio has shaped the future of New York’s pro sports?

A: They can influence things. Can a 24-hour-a-day sports radio station get a manager fired? Ummm, maybe in some cases… That’s a good question. Are the teams aware of what’s being said on the radio? Yeah. I can see that. But whether they have a direct impact, whether a manager or coach gets fired … maybe in some circumstances, yeah, but that’s a good question.

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