Column: Marking the end of the greatest sports talk radio program

Like so many other sports fans across Long Island, the launch of WFAN on July 1, 1987, was a life-changing event. 

If that sounds dramatic, consider this: Many of us loyal sports talk radio listeners have spent more days of our lives, for better or worse, listening to hosts of this station field calls from listeners than we’ve known our spouses or children. Also keep in mind that WFAN was the first to do what it does and remains the best at it.

Even in this day and age of satellite radio and podcasts, hardly a day goes by I don’t spend some time listening to 660 AM (I’m a traditionalist and refuse to acknowledge the FM signal).

The vast majority of my time listening to WFAN has been spent with two men: Mike and the Mad Dog, and though their program ended more than nine years ago, it’s lived on through Mike Francesa’s solo show on the station.

That will end on Dec. 15, when Mike leaves the station, like Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo did in 2008. While Francesa has repeatedly stated he’s not retiring, it still feels as if I’m losing an uncle I’d listen to babble on and on about sports for hours every day in between his sips of Diet Coke.

My love for Mike — and let’s not forget the Dog — dates back to the launch of their original show in 1989, when I was a sports-obsessed 10-year-old who’d immediately change the dial to 660 every time I got into my parents’ cars.

From the time I bought my first vehicle, WFAN has been preset station No. 1 on my AM band. It drives my wife a bit mad when I use her car and she’s treated to a 20/20 flash the moment she starts her engine the following day.

Even as I’ve grown older and sports have taken a back seat to other interests, my one-way relationship with Mike and the FAN has persisted. I own not one but two uncomfortably tight T-shirts with Francesa’s face screen-printed onto them. Although I’d never care to wear them in public, those shirts are prized members of my interior collection, a group that includes a shirt from a 2010 race I didn’t even participate in, several tees with armpit holes and a pair of baggy, checkered pajama pants that scream “I give up” if worn past 11 a.m. on a weekday.

Over the years I’ve heard from plenty of people who don’t get the appeal of the show. “Mike’s arrogant,” they’d tell me. “What do you care what these guys think?” is another one I’d hear. To that I say, “Name one other sports talk radio show you’d rather listen to?” I’m yet to hear a sufficient answer.

At its funniest — Russo’s legendary 2003 “one time” San Francisco Giants rant comes to mind — Mike and the Mad Dog was on par with any comedy. And even as the duo grew apart and the on-air disputes began to feel like two parents divorcing, it remained a vital listen for any sports fan. I began to dial in not just to hear what they’d say about my teams but about each other. How many radio programs do you develop that type of relationship with?

Even as Mike’s been off his fastball at times in recent years — he’s become particularly ornery and has even fallen asleep on the air — he’s continued to produce remarkably riveting radio for five and a half hours, five days per week. As someone whose made occasional appearances on radio shows, it’s incredibly challenging to be interesting for even one segment.

When I moved to the West Coast for several years in 2002, one of the main reasons I signed up for DirecTV was to watch the simulcast of Mike and the Mad Dog on YES Network. Out there, I only had to wait until 10 a.m. to tune in. It was that experience of living across the country and struggling to listen to more than five minutes of any other sports talk radio station that solidified by admiration of WFAN. It’s a station that, even at its weakest, I’ve always believed does a better job than the competition.

That’s why I’m certain I’ll continue to tune in long past Dec. 15, but it won’t be the same without Mike, just as it hasn’t been the same since the Dog departed for Sirius radio.

I’m sure I’ll also continue to listen to both Mike and the Mad Dog in their future roles, and like so many others, I’ll hold out hope for a reunion, knowing full well that day will never come.

In the meantime, there’s two weeks left in the final iteration of the greatest sports talk radio show there will ever be. The Dec. 15 show will be an absolute must-listen.

Until then, consider this my “first time, long time.”

The author is the content director for Times Review Partners, a division of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected]