While sports radio is an institution in today's world, it almost never got off the ground. Like early 1990s Apple or Peyton Manning's rookie season, greatness was far from guaranteed. New Yorkers can't imagine a world without a place to debate the Yankees' trade deadline deals or what the Jets must do to improve at the quarterback position. Once upon a time, this was a reality. But that void created the perfect petri dish, and also sparked a crazy idea by Jeff Smulyan.
"People have a greater affinity for sports in New York," the longtime radio exec recently told the "New York Accent" podcast. "They care more passionately... I'm on the West Coast now -- it's just not the same affinity for sports. And we used to say, 'If there's ever a place where people talk about sports and argue sports 24 hours a day, it's New York City.'"
In 1987, buoyed by success in buying and running stations as the head of the Emmis corporation, Smulyan wanted to try the new format. He was met with massive resistance from his partners. Today, WFAN in New York is one of the highest billing stations in the country, and it continues to generate dominant ratings. But WFAN's origin was far more grim. No businesses in the Big Apple were bullish on the idea of sportstalk radio -- so, the sales department came up short. In fact, one of their early advertisers was a discount funeral home. Smulyan listened to the commercial in horror during WFAN's first weekend.
"Well, I came back [on Monday]," Smulyan recalled, "and I said, 'I don't know how much they're paying us for those advertisements. But you're hearing it every 15 minutes, and we're trying to launch a station... It can't be helping.'
"They didn't tell me the business was owned by the brother-in-law of one of our salespeople. He just basically gave him the spots on the periphery basis. Which means, unless you sell a funeral, the station didn't get paid. So, I don't know how many people died that week, but I don't think the station got any money for it. They said, 'If we told you, you would've killed all of us.' There's so many crazy things that happened."
Smulyan inherited the Mets' radio rights during the late 1980s, but the teams' stars had fallen victim to the decade's culture of excess. "I remember saying, 'Let me see if I get this right. We have a radio station losing records amounts of money. We have a team with a litany of drug problems,'" Smulyan said. "'We have a morning guy [Don Imus] who's been in rehab more than he's been out of rehab in the last five years. What could possibly go wrong putting all of that together?'"
While WFAN was losing millions of dollars in its first year -- and many assumed it'd never survive -- it started to turn a corner. The station replaced many of its original polished voices with locals who sounded like loyal New York fans. The afternoon show featured Mike Francesa and Chris Russo behind microphones and the city started going to the station for its sports fix. Then, WFAN's ratings started trending up, which meant advertising dollars followed.
"[Imus] stayed sober the rest of his life," Smulyan said. "The Mets worked out their problems and WFAN became one of the great success stories in history. So, I went from idiot to genius."
You can listen to the entire conversation about WFAN's origin story, according to Smulyan, everywhere you get your podcasts and on YouTube. You can also find tales in Smulyan's new book, "Never Ride a Rollercoaster Upside Down."