It’s been said that when a couple breaks up, the split always has a clear winner and a clear loser. And so, a little less than a year since longtime co-hosts Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo went their separate ways, we think it’s safe to declare Francesa the winner in this breakup. In a video that surfaced on Friday and spread around the Internet this weekend, a defeated Russo ranted on the air about his struggling satellite radio channel, while Francesa continues to hold down WFAN's drive-time slot.
Among the highlights from the rant: He referred to the staff he assembled as “incompetent” and said that the young hosts he hired were not “little Mad Dogs” but instead were “little bow wows.” He compared the staff to the comically bad Washington Generals, cited terrible ratings (“we went through the bottom”), and revealed that program director Steve Torre had been “eliminated.” It’s actually a pretty classic Mad Dog clip, with randomly emphasized words, that builds and builds as the music (“Coming to America,” for some reason) swells in the background.
Which raises the question of how exactly it came to this. Longtime Russo antagonist Phil Mushnick argues that the whole thing was a “bogus, transparent, desperate, designed-for-suckers publicity ploy,” but even if it’s true, it’s almost beside the point, because the station’s ratings were at a point where such a stunt was necessary. The argument that neither host could make it on his own doesn’t hold up; Francesa’s ratings have been strong, and more important, he’s still relevant enough to rile up listeners — and occasionally us — when his opinions don’t jibe with theirs. (By comparison, it took two days for Russo’s epic rant to get widespread attention; if not for the devotees over at thechrisrusso.com, who knows how long it would have taken.)
It could be that satellite radio is a different animal and that Russo is having a hard time adjusting to a national show, but Russo was never a cheerleader for the local teams even when he was on WFAN. And it’s not necessarily his show that’s in trouble, but the station it’s on (which he programs as part of his contract with Sirius-XM). Perhaps the real problem is this: By the sound of Russo’s rant, it seems his strategy for running a successful station is to fill it with Mad Dog clones — not just in terms of passion, as he states, but in terms of interests. He promises to find hosts who can “talk about the cast of Gone With the Wind,” “discuss the ’62 Giants,” and who “know a little something about Federer-Nadal.”
Of course, this sounds like terrible radio. Russo can get away with it because he’s built up a relationship with his listeners over the years, and his tendency to talk about these things became part of his charm. (It’s the same reason that Bill Simmons can get away with devoting thousands of words to the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, but a writer starting at ESPN.com tomorrow cannot.) Listeners outside of New York who’ve never heard of “Mike and the Mad Dog” might not want to hear a host read Springsteen set lists for half an hour — especially if they’re not Russo himself. For all we know, eventually they will. But for now, Francesa’s shtick is holding up far better solo.