Tiki Barber did some real damage last Friday.
To his reputation. And to WFAN.
In case you missed it: Barber dropped a report during his afternoon drive shift: The Jets canceled their second joint practice with the Buccaneers because head coach Robert Saleh could not attend. The team did not want Saleh’s absence to become a “Hard Knocks” storyline, so they bagged it.
Only three problems:
1-The Jets still practiced. And Saleh was present.
2-Saleh’s absence would have made the show no matter what.
3-If anyone could confirm their intel before running with it, it would be a borderline Hall of Fame running back who has been a professional broadcaster for almost two decades.
Barber and WFAN were refuted almost immediately. The station’s response so far? They deleted a social media video of Barber spewing the nonsense and wiped the website write-up of his comments. That is the extent of their corrective measures so far.
We assume Barber will apologize on-air Monday. It is the bare minimum he and WFAN can do. But it does not repair how egregious of an eff-up he made (and how disappointing his actions are). And it will not change the trajectory this new weekday lineup is on.
WFAN’s hot take era is here. Which is not a surprise. If anything, it is shocking how long it took the station. Takes can work. They pay the bills in modern sports media. And program director Spike Eskin built a take-powered behemoth at WIP in Philadelphia before getting promoted to New York. Of course the guy who once hosted a podcast titled ‘The Art of the Take” would move WFAN in that direction.
But here’s the thing: Takes only resonate when backed up or surrounded by substance. You need to provide some level of insightful information. Takes are easier to digest when they come from a place of knowledge. Or when the knowledge of others offsets them.
WIP did that. Voices like Angelo Cataldi, Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow had written for newspapers and been in locker rooms. The same goes for Eliot Shorr-Parks — a friend and a former colleague. Yes, ESP says some silly stuff. But he’s in the trenches with the Eagles every day.
We cannot say that about WFAN. No one says the talent should be at the team facilities daily. But the minute Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti’s morning show signs off at 10 a.m., so does the station’s credibility. Which is a massive issue.
You may not agree with everything they say. But with Joe Benigno, Mike Francesa, Evan Roberts, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, even Craig Carton — you know their opinions are educated ones. And if not educated, they are at least entertaining. That is not the case for most of the new lineup. So when Barber — a guy who is supposed to bring more steak than sizzle — flops like this, alarms go off.
Remember, Barber’s banana-in-the-tailpipe Saleh report was preceded by midday host Sal Licata’s shaky allegation that Pete Alonso is toxic in the Mets’ clubhouse. And Licata and co-host Brandon Tierney have spent the past few days zeroing in on the Yankees’ real problem — Aaron Judge. Not to mention Barber and Tierney are clearly struggling after a forced breakup that makes less sense than it did initially.
The afternoon show has been hijacked by Shaun Morash’s overpowering presence. Which is not his fault. While his Dancing Homer act is not really our cup of tea, he is being hurt by WFAN’s half measures. Morash should have been given Carton’s job and allowed to go all in. Especially after Barber — the guy who is supposed to bring authority and gravitas and give everyone else space to be irreverent like Esiason does for his guys — shot himself in the foot while Roberts is trying to make chicken salad out of chicken scratch.
Nothing can be declared with certainty before there are ratings results in hand. But it feels inevitable that Michael Kay and ESPN Radio New York will regain the lead in afternoons. And then what?
ESPN can live as a profitable second-place finisher. WFAN cannot. It is not in the station’s DNA. But it may have no choice. There is no apparent internal fix. And parent company Audacy lacks the financial means to bag a big star. If it did, it would have matched Carton’s FS1 paycheck.
And what happens if ESPN ever shakes loose from Mike Greenberg’s national midday show and goes 100% local? Because we have to believe the Licata and Tierney yelling hours are vulnerable to a real challenge.
We get that the world has changed. What worked in 1993 does not necessarily work in 2023. WFAN is never going to go back to the halcyon days. Francesa and Russo are not walking through that door again. But there is a way to do good sports talk radio. There is even a way to do provocative opinion effectively. And the “we’re not journalists” rebuttal that some are already peddling is bunk. Maybe they’re not in the classical sense. But that does not mean they do not have a responsibility to be responsible. And that means offering credibility and substance. WFAN is falling short on both fronts. Back after this.