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How They Became Mike and the Mad Dog: An Oral History

From 1989-2008, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo dominated the New York sports talk radio scene. They are reuniting for one night to benefit the Garden of Dreams Foundation. We tell the story of how the duo came to be.

by Benjamin Block
Mar 29 2016, 3:48pm

Photo courtesy MSG

Mike Francesa and Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo of the now defunct, but historic Mike and the Mad Dog radio program will reunite on March 30 at Radio City Music Hall for a one-night only edition of their old show to benefit the Garden of Dreams Foundation — a charitable organization of MSG.

Separated in 2008 after dominating the New York market for almost two decades—they spent roughly 27,000 hours together—the duo, according to Francesa, have already raised more than $1 million for Garden of Dreams because of the event, a testament to their enduring popularity.

Relatively unknown in 1989, the two radio personalities forcibly lodged themselves in the New York sports fans' consciousness, as only two boys from Long Island could. Francesa, with an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and a baritone Long Island dialect, and Russo, a raspy and excitable fast-talking sports fanatic, unkempt in appearance and sometimes behavior, would appear on the radio dial every weekday at 1:04 p.m.

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And nobody — before or since — could kick off a show like Russo. Physically coiling his body just like Luis Tiant used to do on the mound before hurling a pitch, Russo would yell into the microphone: "Ahhhhhhhhhhhh...Good afternoon everybodyyyyyyyy, how are you today?!"

And New Yorkers ate it up for 19 years.

They invaded car radios, homes and workplaces with reckless abandon. They interviewed players and coaches. They prophesied. They took calls from fans. The program oozed a two-guys-walk-into-a-bar format. Sports talk radio would never be the same again.

It's widely considered that Francesa and Russo are the most successful team in sports radio history. But who exactly were Mike and Chris before that? And how did their paths intertwine?

Well, that story is as different as it is untold — until now.

Mark Mason (Former WFAN Program Director, Mike and the Mad Dog architect, current VP of Digital Media at CBS, nicknamed "Gumby" by Don Imus): Francesa's the guy that you hear a couple bar stools down, and you go, holy crap. He had a commanding voice, and a New York accent, and I thought okay, we have the makings here of something. I have no idea what it is, but this guy — "he's a playuh. He's a playuh." I was really in awe of his knowledge and his accent and his voice. He's a guy who knows as much as anybody; more than anybody I've ever met. There are guys that earn stuff, there are guys that don't earn stuff — this is a guy that earned everything he's come to have, everything he's come to be.

Chris, in his own way, and in a different way, he accomplished something that he never should have accomplished — on the surface. Thinking back to it now, it's like, what the hell is going on here? And I thought, how did this guy get on the radio? His diction is terrible, he doesn't exactly have a speech impediment, but it's hard for him to put two sentences together, but I was fascinated and I listened. This was long before I thought I was going to end up at WFAN, and I thought, holy cow, who put this guy on the air? And I don't really remember who that was, but that was my first exposure to Chris.

In WFAN's inaugural year, 1987, moderators Greg Gumble, Jim Lampley and Pete Franklin had been tasked with giving the first ever 24-hour sports radio station — a concept that most industry types shunned — instant credibility. The biggest problem was that they didn't resemble your typical New Yorker. They didn't sound like a fan. WFAN needed personalities that were relatable to the average fan. They needed actual sports fans.

Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo: I think in a lot of ways, sports was like my big brother, because I was an only child. When I was six, seven, or five, I was looking for an outlet because I didn't have a sibling, and maybe sports was it. I think probably that has something to do with why I got attached to it.

Mike Francesa: Ever since I was a little kid, I was always into sports. It's been there my whole life. I don't really have any moment or genesis to it. You know, I went through all the regular paths like every other kid. I played ball like every other kid. I just was always fascinated by it. I played everything. Baseball was my best sport, but I played everything. I played basketball, I played football until I got hurt, I played everything, yeah.

Russo: It was the pro sports. You have to remember that the Mets won a World Series in '69 and Ron Swoboda lived in my hometown, in Syosset, which is where I grew up. You have to remember, I was a big Packers fan. So the "Ice Bowl" in '67 on New Years Eve, Cowboys and Packers, I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just turned eight. And the Knicks won a championship in '69, I remember that, but I loved the Lakers. I was always the rebel because I never liked the Knicks, I like the Lakers and Jerry West...And I never rooted for the Yankees, so you put all those things together; I was almost like the rebel. And I became a [San Francisco] Giants fan in the summer of '68.

Francesa: I always followed the teams. I followed the football teams. I followed Joe Namath. I followed Mickey Mantle — who was my only idol. He was my favorite player, the only player I ever cared about. I never cared about another player. I had a fascination with him. I loved watching him play, ever since I saw him play the first time.

Russo: Marv Albert had something to do with it. Marv was so omnipresent in the '70s in New York. He had something to do with it. John Sterling had something to do with it, because he did sports talk at WMCA beginning in 1970. He had something to do with it too. I looked for an avenue. I knew when I went to college that I wanted to be a sportscaster. Oh, yes I did. I thought I wanted to be a play-by-play man, and not a talk show host. I fell into being a talk show host. I graduated from Rollins in 1982 and my first initial thought was to be a play-by-play announcer — Knicks, baseball, what have you. It only became happenstance that I fell into talk radio — '83.

Francesa: It was always a career interest of mine. It never wasn't a career interest of mine. I didn't know what exact role it was going to be. I didn't grow up wanting to be a broadcaster. I'm not a play-by-play guy. I never had aspirations. I didn't grow up idolizing any announcers. I didn't know what role it would take to be honest with you, but I just happened to gravitate towards this in college, realized I was good at it, and decided to make a living out of it.

Russo: If you look back at the early part of my career, my first job or two, looking back on it now, you know, 30 years ago, well 34 years ago, I can see where I was pretty close to running into an abutment and that was the end of it. Three or four times. But I was too young to realize that at the time, so as a result, I hung in there, and I got lucky and I put myself in the right situation. But I never really gave it too much thought of a plan-B. If I was going to do something different, I probably would have been a teacher — a history teacher somewhere. But I never got to that point.

Francesa: No, there was never a plan-B. I never really had one. I mean, some people might have had one for me. There was talk of me going to law school — I never had any interest in that.

Russo began his radio career in Jacksonville and then worked in Orlando from February of '84 to March of '87. He arrived in New York in March of 1987 to work at WMCA. He left WMCA after only one year to join WFAN. In September 1989, he was asked to partner with Francesa, who had his own unique path to radio.

Francesa: I interned for the New York Jets for a couple of years. You had to pick your internship, so with luck of the draw, I got the New York Jets. [From there] I became fairly close with Billy Jean King and her husband — they wanted to hire me full time. I had no interest I told them. I had no interest in tennis. I had none. I did the tennis for two years. I picked Martina Navratilova up at the airport when she was on the Cleveland [World Team Tennis] team. I picked Evonne Goolagong up at the airport when I was a kid. I took the general manager's car and picked them up at the airport. Stuff like that. I spent time with Billy Jean King, who I had a great deal of respect for. I used to talk sports with her and she had a great sports mind. I had no interest in tennis though. I was much more into general sports. Her dream was that we'd talk about team tennis the way we talk about other sports. I never thought it was possible, though. I never really believed in it. I was never part of soccer. I was never part of the soccer craze. I never thought soccer would take a grip on this country, even when the Cosmos were around when we were young. I've always been a nuts and bolts guy — baseball, basketball, football.

Russo: I had a GM in Orlando, after my original GM left and then passed away, who hired me originally. Bob Poe basically tried to refine me. And one of the ways he tried to do it, and the station paid for it, was to give me speech lessons. And so I don't know how long it was over a period of time, but it was probably about twice a week for I'd say at least three, four months. I would go to Orange County hospital to go see a speech therapist. I didn't think anything of it at the time. She taught me some useful techniques, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that I had a general manager there who didn't quite understand the attractiveness of how to do a sports talk program. So as a result, he was a little different. Now, I think he meant well. But he eventually took me off the air, and put somebody else on, who was not a sports person. So he didn't do a good job from that perspective. Never fired me, but he made a change on drive time Monday-Friday and put someone else on. In essence, he did try and change my personality a little bit, so I was very grateful when I was able to get a job at WMCA, which was in the winter of '87.

Francesa: I have done a lot in college sports because that was my entrée into CBS. So I did a lot of work and became someone who had a big reputation in college basketball and college football. I spent a lot of time in that, and that was a very good foundation for me. I've always been involved in the NFL, for 45 years, and the other sports based on when I was in and out of them. I did NBA for CBS also. I didn't do baseball. I never did baseball, except locally. I've never done baseball nationally. I did any other sport. I did all of them for CBS — NFL, basketball, college football, college basketball, NBA, NFL.

Russo: I was in trouble [in Orlando] because he took me off the air — gave me weekend sports talk. It got a lot of attention in Orlando, you know. I was doing it for three years — sports talk 6pm-8pm, Monday-Friday. For that town, for that time, it was a good show. People wrote about it. Columnists wrote about it when they took me off the air. Fans threw me a roast when they took me off the air. They gave me a weekend spot, so obviously nobody is going to find you in the weekends. And that was probably in the spring of '86. So for about an eight-month period, I was in a very tricky spot. I had a little level of success, I had gotten out of Jacksonville, I had a fan base, a good station, WKIS-AM 740, and the GM decided to put a host on from Miami, named Beverly Smith. And she did 7-11, and he took me off. And that was a big hit for me. But I had eight months to get over it, and eventually I got a job at WMCA. It was a test for me. I could have quit right then, but I didn't and I got lucky and ended up at MCA. It was a big turning point because I was doing Monday-Friday, I was doing updates in the afternoon, all of sudden I'm off the air, and I'm doing sports talk on weekends.

Francesa: When someone offers you an opportunity, you do it, no matter what it is. The first time they asked me to go to the Final Four for CBS, I went down there. I didn't know how I was going to get there, I didn't know when I got there what I was going to do, I didn't even have a hotel when I got there. The first night I slept in the lobby. I didn't even have a hotel room. They didn't get me one, so I didn't complain to anybody, I didn't say anything, I slept in the lobby. That's the way it goes — you just rough it. You get by the way you have to get by. So when people look at me now and say "you're spoiled, you have this and you have that," I laugh because I remember when I didn't.

My first job at CBS was going to be one month long, that was it, one month. In 1981. That's how long I had to prove myself. They were hiring me for basically a month, and after that I ended up getting the job. They created a full time position for me. Basically, that's the way it works. You're not guaranteed anything. You turn it into something. That's the bottom line.

Russo: All of this was before Mike and the Mad Dog... I knew of him — we had run into each other. I knew he was very encyclopedic. I knew he knew a lot about sports, but I didn't know that much about him. It's not a situation where I had a book on Mike. You're talking about the spring/summer of '89. I had gotten to FAN in '88, so I was only there for five, six months, so I didn't know a lot about him. I knew of him because he did Imus — I was doing some Imus. I knew he traveled with CBS, I knew he was there, and I knew he was knowledgeable. That's what I knew about Mike more than anything else. But it wasn't like I socialized — "hello, how are you" — we talked, but I didn't know him that well.

Meanwhile, Francesa, along with his CBS duties, had been co-authoring a football book with the author Pete Axthelm called Inside Football. Axthelm would write about the NFL and Francesa would write about college football. It usually fell on Francesa to promote the book by doing radio interviews.

Francesa: They couldn't get Pete to do that many interviews, so I had to do a lot of the interviews. So, first time I did a show that I went in the studio, I showed up, the producer said to me, "Where are your notes? We're going to ask you questions." I said, "I don't need any notes." So I sat down, and they were amazed that I didn't have any notes. I was like, "what do I need notes for?" So, I sat down, and said if I don't have the answers, I shouldn't be here. When I got up and walked out, the producer said to me, "You're really good at this." And I said to the guy, "I'm better than the guy you got in there right now. I can tell you that right now." And that was typical me to say something like that. But I did say it to him.

Fast-forward to — I was on a plane with Brent Musberger and I was looking through something and I said, look at this, they're going to start this sports talk station in New York — all sports. He goes, "Wow, you know, you would be great doing one of those shows. I think you were made to do one of those shows." And I said, I never really thought about doing one of those shows — I got a good job, I got this, and he goes, "I'm telling you, you could do one of those shows — it could lead to anything." So the guy who actually put it in my ear to do that was actually Brent Musberger.

Both Francesa's and Russo's paths eventually converged at WFAN, and notwithstanding the help and guidance each received along the way, the most influential person for their future success together was Imus.

Mason: Nothing happened [with Imus] by accident. He knew. He was masterful that way. Mike and Chris may well have excelled, but he propelled them in the demographic. They were endorsed by a guy that everybody my age really thought at the time was a big a name. It's Imus!

But it was "Gumby's" decision, one that his career reputation was staked upon, to make the widely unpopular choice to replace veteran Pete Franklin with the two young upstarts — ignoring Francesa's and Russo's initial defiance about doing a show together.

As Mason's memory serves him, the duo just needed to get past the idea that teaming up did not mean that they'd be hitching their wagon to one another. And now, who knows where they would be without one another. There were bumps along the way, but the Mike and the Mad Dog show personified sports talk radio, and defined a genre.

Steve 'The Schmoozer' Somers (A WFAN original talk show host and likely the first radio star that the station ever had): By far and away, in my lifetime, they [Mike and Chris] were the two best, and to this moment, the two best radio sports talk people I've ever heard. They were a must listen, and that's with a capital M. If Mike and Chris were shortstops, we'd say they had range.

Francesa: We were obviously the first — and they said it wouldn't work, and it has basically saved the AM dial.

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