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Imus, Mike and the Mad Dog, & Doris from Rego Park
The Groundbreaking History of WFAN
By Tim Sullivan
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Tim Sullivan
All rights reserved.
New York, New York
We were having fun. The very first day I wrote an opening manifesto, and basically what I said was, this was a medium that was going to change the universe. People were going to quit their jobs to stay home and listen to us. People were going to sit on hold for hours and hours and hours waiting to be put on the air so they can say "The Mets suck." And all of the things that I predicted — facetiously of course — turned out to be true. It was a whimsical look at what might happen with sports radio. And, of course, it all happened. — Jim Lampley
Ed Coleman had heard it all before. This concept of a 24-hours-a-day sports radio station that was going to change the world. Constant talk, constant news, constant interaction about the games people play. A bar without the alcohol, a clubhouse without the lockers, a psychiatrist's office without the couch. Call it what you will. It was to be a place for sports fans to talk, well, sports at any point in the day.
What a novel idea.
But you can excuse Coleman for not jumping for joy when he first caught wind of a New York operation plotting out this move in 1986. After all, he had lived through it already ... and it didn't turn out so well. To steal a New York sports line from the unmistakable, unforgettable Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again for the man known as Eddie C.
Coleman, a radio host and graduate of the famed Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, was busy in the 1980s carving out an identity in a tough business in his native Boston. He was living the dream and hoping for more when a colleague named John Chanin gave him a call that changed his life.
Chanin was a topflight radio executive who had cut his teeth as the sports director and executive producer at ABC Radio Sports and held many trailblazing roles before his death in 2006. He clearly was the right guy to be tasked with making sports radio a reality for an outfit called Enterprise Radio at the turn of the decade.
"It was something of a precursor to ESPN Radio, and John had called me, probably sometime in 1980, and wondered if I would be interested in coming down," Coleman said. "I had a pretty good job at that point at WBZ [AM 1030] in Boston. But my boss really wasn't going anywhere and I had nowhere to go at the station but to do what I had been doing."
Enterprise was a concept driven by Scott Rasmussen of the soon-to-be-famous ESPN Rasmussens. Scott's father, Bill, created the Entertainment Sports and Programming Network, and Scott set out to create the radio version of the television channel with the household name. Along the way, he made no bones about playing a copycat role to the television network that would eventually label itself "The Worldwide Leader in Sports." Enterprise, after all, set up shop in Avon, Connecticut, some 15 miles away from ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, and, like ESPN, wanted to hire names from major markets and install them in a little slice of suburban New England tucked neatly away in Hartford County.
Coleman, for one, was sold. He walked away from Beantown and his post at WBZ in January of 1981, and jumped at the opportunity to lay the foundation for this groundbreaking sports concept.
And who could blame him? It all seemed so perfect, right?
"I thought about it, and eventually I said, 'Sure, I'll come down,'" Coleman said with a reminiscent laugh. "'I'll take the chance.'"
By September, Coleman was out of a job and Enterprise had closed its doors.
"In the end, it was a little bit too early for it to take off," Coleman said. "We went out of business quickly, and long story short, some nine months later, I'm looking for work just like everyone else who went there."
Enterprise didn't attract the advertising dollars it needed to stay afloat. After all, the studio — with all of its equipment — wasn't cheap. And neither were the paychecks it had to sign for the talent that filled those entrepreneurial airwaves. Less than a year after this can't-miss project was launched, it missed.
But Chanin, as all good executives do, kept a file on his skill people. Did he feel bad that Enterprise flopped? Sure. Did he want to make it up to some of the personalities somewhere down the line, talent that dropped everything and moved to the middle of Nowheresville, Connecticut? Absolutely.
For Coleman — and for all of sports radio for that matter — that opportunity came six years later. And that second time, indeed, was a charm.
In 1986, another radio dreamer took a crack at changing the world, and he had the money to back it up. Jeff Smulyan of Emmis Communications, an Indianapolis-based radio enterprise, purchased a dying AM country music station — in New York City of all places — for $10 million, and pledged to turn it into a 24-hour all-sports radio station. WHN 1050 was the New York home of Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton, but it was also the flagship station of the defending-world-champion New York Mets, which Smulyan thought was a decent launching pad, if nothing else.
"It was something I always wanted to do, and I had thought about it years and years before when I was in college in the late 1960s. I was always kind of a radio junkie. That was the very beginning of all-news radio and I really thought about it for sports. I thought it could work," Smulyan said. "It was one of those things I always kept tucked away in the back of my mind. So, I was in New York one night and I started talking about it with others. I wanted to do it simply because we knew — going back to those days, in the mid-1980s — that FM was great for certain types of music — rock 'n' roll, beautiful music, Top 40 — but the thought was country wouldn't make the transition."
Especially in New York, right?
"Right. And the prevailing wisdom was that WHN, at the time, was the largest country music station in America. But in New York, it was probably ranked 20th," Smulyan said. "So, from our standpoint, we didn't think it was that spectacular. We felt we could change it up."
Smulyan didn't rise up the corporate ladder without the ability to make smart decisions. And while the sports concept seemed risky — bordering on crazy, even — he was clearly smart enough to know he needed a seasoned leader to steer the ship. Someone who'd been through it all before, someone who might have learned from past mistakes.
Enter Chanin ... again.
"What we had was a radio station which we thought was going to be an also-ran in the country music world, and we thought New York didn't have a great affinity for country, obviously, anyway," Smulyan said. "And in that same radio station, it was half Major League Baseball because it had the Mets. That was important.
"The theory, for us, was if the AM band is only going to be information, and you had WINS  and WCBS  doing news, and you had WWOR  and WABC  doing talk. It was pretty clear you weren't going to do news or talk and stand out. So, we thought our theory was a great chance to do all sports, and I used to refer to it as the shopping center analogy. You had an anchor tenant in the Mets, and for baseball that means you have 180 days a year where you're going to attract sufficient listeners to the radio station. So, we start from there, we grow out, and we see where that takes us.
"That was the thesis."
But, boy, was it a tough sell. Before Smulyan could even get the concept out of the conference room and onto the airwaves, there were layers upon layers of opposition.
"We had a managers meeting, and I'll never forget it. Steve Crane, one of the founders of Emmis and one of my oldest friends, loved it. I loved the idea, as well, obviously, and [then — sales director of Emmis] Joel Hollander loved the idea, too. But most of our managers thought we were nuts. Nuts," Smulyan said. "You have to know Emmis to know that it is sort of a very collaborative venture. So we had a managers meeting and took a vote on the idea ... and it failed.
"I'll never forget, we walked out of the meeting and Steve asked, 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'You can't lead where no one will follow, so we're not going to do all sports. We're just not.'"
This underdog concept, though, picked itself right up off the mat less than 24 hours later, somehow. And the rest is history.
The Rocky of radio.
"The next day," Smulyan said, as his voice picked up in volume and enthusiasm, "Rick Cummings, who was then and is now the head of programming for this company, came in and said, 'Well, we think it's a stupid idea. Stupid. But we owe you one. So, let's go ahead and do it.'"
And just like that, sports radio — in its second at-bat overall and first in New York — was off and running. A station that would soon change its call letters to WFAN and be known globally as The Fan, was finally more than just a dream on the AM dial.
"The key is that we had to find someone to run the station, because frankly we didn't want to be that involved in it," Smulyan said. "We found a guy named John Chanin who was our first program director, and whose wife gave the station the name, The Fan. John's tenure there wasn't wonderful and John passed away many years ago, but he was the one who got it off the ground."
It wasn't easy, and there were certainly plenty of early errors to go with the hits. Chanin, for starters, was still in that ABC/ESPN/national/international mind-set. He set out to attract national names, and not necessarily New Yorkers, for the on-air positions.
That was Mistake No. 1.
"It was a debatable theory. I think John's original vision was to make it more of a network concept, and we all felt it had to be more local," Smulyan said. "When we hired people, sure, a lot of people thought we were nuts. On the other hand, some people were intrigued."
If nothing else, the names Chanin hired drew headlines. People knew them, and it made for some pre-air buzz, which certainly helped the cause for WFAN.
Greg Gumbel, who would eventually rise to stardom calling NFL games for CBS Sports, was hired as the morning host. He was a part of the New York media at the time, but he was not a New Yorker, and there is a big, big difference. But Gumbel came in with MSG Network and ESPN on his resume, and he fit the early bill for WFAN. He was marketable. He was a name.
"Greg's agent and Greg liked the idea," Smulyan said. "We knew that mornings would be very tough in New York, but Greg did it."
Jim Lampley was next. An icon in the sports broadcasting world who had worked for ABC Sports, would eventually move on to NBC Sports as well as CBS Sports, and now is the ever-present, eloquent, and smiling face of HBO Sports, Lampley, it seemed, could bring experience and knowledge to the table, all with a hint of humor and a real-world charm that would help make the station stand out.
"We entered into contract negotiations, discussions, and I ultimately agreed to do it. The irony was I'm pretty certain the big reason they wanted me was my identity with ABC Sports," Lampley said. "I'd been at ABC Sports for 13 years. I'd been the host for college football for six or seven years and had gotten into the studio for the Olympics and things like that. So I had a national image and reputation. I think that the management of the station thought that, given that it was the New York market, that it would be useful to have people like that. That accounted for me and that accounted for Greg Gumbel at the beginning."
"When he was hired," Smulyan said of Lampley, "he seemed like a perfect fit for what we wanted to do with the midday show."
And to carry the afternoon drive time after Lampley — the most important part of the radio day in New York — Chanin and company tabbed Pete Franklin, a shock jock in Ohio who made headlines for his loud-and-proud opinions and his have-no-fear approach to just about anything he did.
"Ahh yes, Pete," Smulyan said. "He was a name, too, and we brought him to see what he could do."
Other names would follow. Coleman, who came around to the idea of All-Sports Radio, Act 2, despite the failure of Act 1, was one of them. He had trekked back to Boston — proverbial tail between his legs and all — after the Enterprise demise, and regained a position at WBZ. But he had always been intrigued by the idea of New York radio. Burned once by the concept, there was something that kept drawing him back to the possibilities.
"So there I am, back at WBZ, and John called again. I guess it was early 1986," Coleman said. "And he said, 'I'm forming an all-sports station.' All I could say was, 'Okay, this sounds really familiar, John.'
"But the last time, with Enterprise, it was a supposed network. Wasn't going to work. This was a station in New York City, and he said, 'I think I might be able to make this work.' So I took a chance again and went down. The rest is history.
"In the back of my mind, though, there was always the thought that I'd be back in Boston after a couple of years."
Skepticism wasn't Coleman's alone. Everyone on this maiden voyage — where mistakes were plentiful on and off the air — had some doubts about the long-term prospects of the station, even Smulyan.
"There was a lot of thought to kill it off before it took off," he said. "We were fortunate the company had the staying power to stick with it."
And so with names like Gumbel, Lampley, Coleman, Suzyn Waldman, and Howie Rose in tow, WFAN launched on July 1, 1987, at 3:00 pm. After a quick bumper intro, the first voice to be heard that day was Waldman's, who gave a top-of-the-hour sports update leading into Lampley's show.
"Sports Radio 1050. W-F-A-N. New York City," the intro bellowed. "All Sports. All The Time."
"Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the first broadcast of WFAN, All Sports, 1050. You're sharing a part of radio history with us today," Waldman proclaimed. "This is the beginning of the first 24-hour-a-day sports station. I'm Suzyn Waldman. The message board outside Yankee Stadium today reads Vintage Guidry, and last night was indeed a classic Gator performance. Guidry struck out nine and only walked one as the Yanks extended their lead to two games in the AL East."
Like an expansion team feeling its way through its inaugural season, there were plenty of bumps in the road for Waldman and Co. in those early days. And unlike so many expansion teams these days that get to begin life in spanking-new stadiums and ballparks, WFAN did not operate out of a gem of a building. Not even close.
The famed Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens had plenty of charm and history and elegance. How could they not? It was, after all, a movie studio that hosted the first two films made by the Marx brothers — The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — and much later in its esteemed life would add Goodfellas and Carlito's Way to its ledger.
Photos of famous entertainers who passed through the famed establishment line the halls. Clearly, nostalgia oozes out of the joint.
In the bowels of the place, however, other stuff oozes out.
"If you loved history, this was your place," said Don La Greca, an update anchor who later joined The Fan's ranks. "I mean, the Marx brothers worked there! But, keep in mind, WFAN was situated in the basement of the place. The basement."
Indeed, if The Fan was to rattle the radio world and turn it on its ear, it was going to have to do it in a ramshackle box, pushed way below all the glory resonating upstairs. This is a studio that just about everyone who called it home at some point in their careers remembers.
And not for the right reasons.
"What a pit," Coleman said with a laugh. "What an absolute armpit. It was unbelievable. Here you are, in this historic building that used to do Marx brothers movies in there. That was pretty much the soundstage for Hollywood before there was Hollywood! So, you go way back, and it was a great, great building.
"But the basement? Different story. I never saw the rats running around, but I'm sure they were there. There were no windows, no nothing. The newsroom was ... manageable, let's put it that way.
Excerpted from Imus, Mike and the Mad Dog, & Doris from Rego Park by Tim Sullivan. Copyright © 2013 Tim Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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