In collaboration with Sportsecylopedia.com, which would never exist without an 11-year-old who had trouble sleeping and started listening to Steve Somers after midnight.
Sports Radio is born on 1050 AM WHN, which had been playing country music for 14 years and switched to an all-sports format at 3 pm. The first voice heard on the new 1050 WFAN was Suzyn Waldman, who gave a top-of-the-hour sports update ahead of the Jim Lampley show. A year later, WFAN would move over the 660 AM and, with the help of Don Imus, began proving to be a hugely successful format.
While WHN was playing country music, it was also home to the New York Mets, who had taken over the city as no team had before. The Mets of the mid-’80s was a force of personalities fans could not get enough of and wanted to talk about. This led programmers to begin airing extended Mets pregame and postgame shows called “Mets Extra,” hosted by Howie Rose. These were especially popular during the 1986 postseason, as the Mets dramatically won the World Series. At the same time, music on AM radio was fading away, as the stereo fidelity of FM radio was more suitable. Throughout the eighties, all AM stations in major markets like New York switched to a talk format. It only seemed natural that rapid New York sports fans would want to talk about their teams, especially with at least two teams in each of the four major sports. Fans of country music would still be able to listen in New York as an FM station took over the format a few days before the WFAN switch.
The early days at WFAN were hard, as the experts who predicted the sports radio format would never succeed appeared to be suitable as ratings were low. The only thing that kept 1050 WFAN AM alive were the Mets, whose games were critical for the channel’s programming as the only team for which WFAN had broadcast rights. Despite the growing pains, Emmis Communications, run by Jeff Smulyan, remained committed to making all sports work on the radio. In 1988, when NBC announced plans to get out of radio, fortunes for WFAN began to turn. On October 7, 1988, WFAN moved down the dial to 660 AM, taking over the spot held by WNBC. Like WHN, WNBC had been one of the oldest radio stations, but in the changing landscape of AM radio was having trouble staying on the air. With the move to 66AM, WFAN picked up WNBC’s top-rated host Dom Imus to continue doing his morning show. At the same time, WFAN began adding other teams to their lineup, acquiring the rights to New York Knicks and New York Rangers games. At the same time, they began airing national radio coverage of games, giving more legitimacy to the all-sports format.
The addition of Imus in the Morning gave WFAN a big boost, as he was still one of the top-rated radio personalities at the time; At the same time, his show did not stick to the sports format; it was a revenue-generating engine that began to move things in the right direction. Still, WFAN needed an actual sports show to become the go-to show for fans. Overnights helped make Steve Somers popular among a group of loyal listeners, and live events, especially Mets games, continued to help. However, afternoon drive-time lagged as New York sports fans never warmed up to Pete Franklin, a longtime popular host in Cleveland. Franklin feuded with Imus and eventually, after an on-air rant asking to be fired, was. Shortly after that, on September 5, 1989, WFAN began airing the Mike and the Mad Dog show. Hosted by longtime Mike Francesa, who had worked for CBS Sports for several years, and Chris Russo, who had worked as the sports anchor on Imus in the Morning, did a weekend radio show on WFAN. The pairing was instant gold for WFAN as it became the go-to radio show for the pulse of New York Sports. With Mike and the Mad Dog leading the way, WFAN’s ratings exploded as it became America's number one billing station.
With the high ad sales, soon sports radio stations began popping up everywhere, and ESPN would eventually launch its own all-sports radio Network. Proving the format was here to stay. As sports talk exploded, coverage and rights fees exploded. Soon even in the off-season, people wanted to talk about MLB, NBA, NHL, and the NFL. The hot stove was born, all behind sports radio which gave hungry fans news of trades and free-agent signings in the off-season. As the internet grew, sports were sure to tag along, sites dedicated to sports blogging grew, and sports podcasts all tagged along, each owing its existence to that bold move to create a new format that gave fans a voice and launched a new age in sports.