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New ‘30 for 30’ shows how ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ gave sports-talk radio its bite

Do you listen to sports-talk radio? Thank these guys. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

New York saturates “Mike and the Mad Dog,” ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” documentary that premieres Thursday night at 8 p.m. EDT. From the jazzy soundtrack to the five-borough accents of nearly everyone who appears on-screen, it’s a thoroughly Big Apple story of two Long Island guys who were haphazardly thrown together in a radio studio nearly 30 years ago and ended up as the template for an entire industry. Without Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, there would likely be no “Goober and the Donk” on 1090 The Zone (or whatever your local sports-talk crew and station are called), no “longtime listener first-time caller” and probably no “First Take” on ESPN.

Whether you think this is a good thing is a matter of personal preference, but the impact of the show is undeniable, even if its reach during its prime was limited mostly to the tri-state area. For much of its run — 1989 to 2008 — “Mike and the Mad Dog” was broadcast only on New York’s WFAN, the nation’s first full-time sports-talk radio station. In its later years it was simulcast in a few other cities (Albany, Tampa) and televised by the Yes cable network (which was available nationally on DirecTV), but compared with the likes of other New York-based radio talkers like Howard Stern — whose show was broadcast in 45 markets in 2004, just months before he announced his impending move to satellite radio — Francesa and Russo’s show was grounded in New York and never much strayed from its idioms, customs, dialects and professional sports teams.

“They are the sound that New York makes when it is talking to itself,” Nick Paumgarten wrote in the definitive “Mike and the Mad Dog” story, a 2004 New Yorker article (Paumgarten appears as one of the documentary’s talking heads).

So why devote an hour to a long-gone show that was basically a provincial phenomenon during its long run? Daniel Forer, the director of the documentary, said in a telephone interview that his point in making “Mike and the Mad Dog” was to show just how big of an impact Francesa and Russo made on a genre that once was foreign to radio listeners but now is a fact of life.

“That was one of the things that I wanted to bring out in the show: To share the story of the start of the first all-sports radio station and give a sense of what the show was like for those who had heard of the show but not heard it,” he said.

“It’s like a little-known rock band from England making waves with a top hit over there and you want to hear them over here,” he continued. “The documentary will give [viewers] a chance to see what the fuss was about.”

The talents of the two hosts cannot be discounted: Francesa haughty and pompous, a know-it-all, Russo at times unhinged and borderline incomprehensible but just as knowledgeable as his partner. Taken together, they gave us something that was seen all the time on the field or court but seldom over the air (at the time, anyway): “Mike and the Mad Dog” gave us conflict, our own arguments over what’s good and what’s bad writ loud.

Russo and Francesa had “authentic, combative personalities that were very different,” Forer said. “Chris a little bit more high-pitched, a little bit more enthusiastic, Mike a little bit more low key and a little bit more bombastic. They both had this passion and this wealth of knowledge and they didn’t want to lose to each other. They were not characters, they were themselves. It really was a clash of personalities. …

“People hated them and people loved them but people had to listen to them.”

And that template soon began to be repeated just about everywhere, in part because “Mike and the Mad Dog” proved that sports talk could be highly rated and comparatively cheap to produce (the golden combination to radio executives). WFAN billed itself as the first radio station devoted entirely to sports talk when it launched in July 1987, and WIP in Philadelphia followed just months later. By 2005 there were 500 such stations in the United States, and six years later that number stood at 677. Today there are 790 sports-talk stations, according to Nielsen’s Inside Radio. Many big-time sports cities now have at least two stations. Some have three.

Francesa, who continued on in the “Mike and the Mad Dog” time slot after the pair split in 2008, still is on one of those stations, for now: He says he’s leaving WFAN when his contract is up at the end of this year. Russo got a satellite-radio channel named after him and hosts his own show in roughly the same afternoon time slot as Francesa. The two were better together than they are apart: Francesa has fallen asleep on the air at least twice over the last few years and otherwise has become renowned for ill-informed analysis and borderline offensive language. Russo spends a lot of on-air time grousing about the quality of the other shows on his Sirius channel. But they were something when sharing a studio, and maybe one day they’ll do it again (as has been rumored ever since they started doing sporadic, one-off reunion shows in March 2016).

“I have no inside information” on whether the two will join forces once again, Forer said. “That said, I’m a fan so I’m hopeful that whether it’s weekly, monthly, quarterly they get together so a younger generation can appreciate the art of sports-talk radio by the men who did it best.”