For countless New Yorkers, whether in the big city or on Long Island, the soundtrack to their afternoons throughout the 1990s and 2000s was WFAN’s "Mike and the Mad Dog."
Featuring Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo—a quirky on-air duo who bickered like an old married couple and had their fair share of drama over the years—the sports-talk radio show revolutionized the sports media industry and accrued millions of fans across the country.
On Thursday night, their 19-year run will be immortalized by ESPN’s popular 30-for-30 documentary series in a project simply titled “Mike and the Mad Dog,” which airs at 8 p.m.
“It's a little awe-inspiring,” Russo said. “They did a very good job with it and I know that I'm biased because I’m the subject matter, so I'm not going to hate it.”
Directed by Daniel Forer, the documentary takes an in-depth look at the duo’s run from an unlikely tandem trying to find its footing in the business to radio juggernauts, whose radio show was simulcast across the country and even on television at the height of its power.
Starting in 1989, Mike and the Mad Dog quickly rose to the top of the ratings in New York as they brought something the sports media industry had never seen before.
“Sports radio changed the way towns and teams reacted to day-to-day life. It changed the way teams were covered and obviously changed media in a big way,” Francesa said. “Sports radio was a big change for conventional media. We had an immediacy and we had an ability to be moment-to-moment, whether it was being at big events or breaking stories."
Just by looking at their personalities, it was difficult to think the show would actually work. Francesa was an even-keeled fountain of sports information while Russo provided a loud bravado that wore down his co-host at times.
But it was that dichotomy that made the show such an entertaining experience and so popular among New Yorkers.
“Mike was a lot funnier than people thought and I knew a lot more about sports than what people though. We both are intellectual sports fans,” Russo revealed. “So I think in a lot ways, Mike and I are a lot alike. But the key to a good sports show is to love sports. Mike and I loved sports, loved the big games, loved breaking down the big game and loved the history of sports.”
It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for the two, who had well-documented spats away from the booth. Yet somehow, the on-air product continued to succeed.
“When you work together for 19 years, you're going to have four or five moments that will create issues that last a couple of months,” Russo said. “ We still had plenty of good times here where we were completely into it, liked each other’s company, had a lot to discuss...so the fights were a little overrated and add juice to the documentary...it contributes to the Mike and the Mad Dog mystique.”
There was plenty to talk about during their reign as kings of New York sports radio as metropolitan-area teams combined for seven championships. But the Big Apple presented plenty of challenges.
“New York would be the toughest place for it to survive and that’s what made it so special. New York is a very different town than any other town as anyone knows,” Francesa said. “We have millions of people that don’t pay attention to anything no matter what the subject is...You’re talking about a city eight times the population of what most large cities are, so it’s so different…and that makes it far more challenging. You have more competition.”
The competition though could not touch Mike and the Mad Dog as their show was the undisputed No. 1 for its entire run until Russo left in 2008.
While the two have continued their careers solo, Francesa with WFAN and Russo with Sirius XM, the two will forever be linked as many will see Thursday night on ESPN.
“It’s obviously an honor. I mean they've become the historical reference for this generation,” Francesa said. “So I think if you look back over the last 50 years, I think they’ll do it with the 30-for-30."
Regardless of their success, which has created a cult following, Russo still has a difficult time believing just how far they have come.
“What blew me away was watching [ESPN's "Lakers vs. Celtics" 30-for-30] two weeks ago and Magic [Johnson] is talking about blowing the '84 finals and they cut to a commercial break and there are me and Mike,” Russo said. “So here's Bird and Magic in the '80s, which I grew up with, and there are me and Mike.”
The two have done a handful of reunion shows over the years, but with Francesa’s contract with WFAN up in December, fans are hoping for the two to get back together more often on the airwaves.
What did Mike and the Mad Dog have to say about that?
“The only thing I can say to them is I don’t know what the future is going to hold for me…I’ve been asked a lot about whether Mike and the Mad Dog could work, I don’t know what form that would take," Francesa said. "But what I have said is that I would listen to anything that’s brought my way and I have no qualms working with him.”
“I wouldn't rule anything out,” Russo said. “I think it's going to be up to Mike than it is to me because I’m already at Sirius, I'm contracted to be at Sirius, I won't be able to go out and do something else.”