As headliner of Mad Dog Sports Radio, at Ch. 82 on SiriusXM Radio, and host of the afternoon radio show on that channel called Mad Dog Unleashed, as the television host of High Heat on MLB Network, and with his new gig on First Take as partner to Steven A. Smith on ESPN television, “Mad Dog” is one of the biggest names in sports talk today. …And yet the moniker doesn’t do justice to his radio skills and totally fails to describe Chris Russo. In real life; 62 years old; husband of 27 years to Jeanne; father to 23 year old Tim; 20 year old Colin; 21 year old Kiera, and 17 year old Patrick; decades-long New Canaanite; he’s actually a real pussycat.
To be sure, he’s always animated, his delivery is rat a-tat-tat staccato, a bit excited and comes in bursts, and his nasal sound rings the ear like a Trumpet with a horn, and what George Vescey of The New York Times called “a bizarre mixture of Jerry Lewis, Archie Bunker and Daffy Duck.” But in 1988, shortly after Chris started working at WFAN hosting a solo show, Bob Raissman of the NY Daily News gave Chris the ‘Mad Dog’ nickname. And in 1989, when Chris famously first partnered with Mike Francesa, to start their 19-year run on WFAN Sports Radio NY – ‘The Fan’, the show name ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ cemented the tag. …Thing is, though he’s still known as ‘Mad Dog’, and the voice is definitely distinctive – he’s never really barking.
On rhythm, Chris continues, “I’ve always known I wanted to do sports, but I started out thinking I wanted to do play-by-play – because that’s all there was on radio. Marv Albert was a huge influence. Remember, in 1969 and 1970 you used to listen to Knicks games on the radio – they were not on TV – and Marv was really bringing the games to life, and coming up with distinctive calls like his famous ‘Yyyyesssss!’ when a player sunk a basket. And he called the Islanders hockey games from 1969 to 1974. I’ve told Marv how I feel about him, and I was honored when he sent me a note, when I was on WMCA in the summer of 1988, that said he had been listening to me between 5 and 8 on Saturdays and Sundays and ‘enjoyed the show’. Last year, when he retired, I had him on my SiriusXM show for 45 minutes. He was the play-by-play GOAT.”
He rattles off his career history like he’s calling a game, explaining “I couldn’t have planned the path, but I always knew the direction I was going. In February 1983, a guy named Lou Liapolis gave me a job selling season tickets for the Double-A Jacksonville Suns – Hank Aaron played for the Suns – with the promise of a future doing the play-by-play. I went there in my AMC Gremlin with 92,000 miles on it, sold $1,500 in advertising…and after only 6 weeks, he fired me. I was in Jacksonville, so I knocked on the door at WEXI 1280 AM, a small station that broadcast dawn to dusk. As incredible luck would have it, March 13, 1983, 4 days before St. Patricks, the sports guy at WEXI left the same day, and at age 23, they gave me the job! I stayed at WEXI, with a small audience, for a year. I’d sent some tapes to a friend from Rollins, Larry Kahn, who was a producer at WKIS News Talk 74 AM in Orlando, and in March 1984, I got a Sunday Night show, 2 hours, no calls. Kahn and I are still friends, we went to each other’s weddings.
“Mel Karmazin was the CEO of SiriusXM when they hired me in 2008. Howard Stern had joined SiriusXM in 2006. When I joined in 2008, there were over 100 media people there at the SiriusXM studios to cover it! They gave me my own channel, a 5-year contract, and said ‘do what you want to do’! It was a tremendous opportunity!” Chris says about what is, 14 years later, his ongoing role as headliner of Mad Dog Sports Radio on SiriusXM. “First of all, it’s national instead of local, so you can’t just talk about the home team all the time. 5 hours on SiriusXM is like doing 7 hours on The Fan. And in the beginning I had to put together a channel, and that meant hiring morning and afternoon hosts. When I signed my second contract with them, I gave up a lot of the management duties and moved to doing a 3 hour show. And covid was a game changer. I had a year with no sports, but still had to do a show every weekday 3 to 6. I did covid updates with Dr. Robert Wake from UC San Francisco as a kind of public service announcement. I love the music from the Laurel Canyon days in the 1960s in California, so I did an hour with Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn from the Birds. I had on the film director, Alison Ellwood. These days I can talk about whatever I want – that’s a big responsibility.”
In what seems like a moment when Chris is taking a rare breath, he reflects, “To be a good radio talk show host, you have to be curious. I love to read. I read The New York Times, the Post, USA Today and the Daily News – every day. And I read a ton of biographies, a lot of history, and all the sports books I can find. I just finished Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century. I don’t read too much on the internet, because the info is too overlapped for me. When I do a show, I want to know everything I can about what we’re going to talk about, but I don’t set a script or prepare specific questions. Sometimes being a little unprepared is better, because in the end it’s really all about having a relationship with the fan. I relate to the guy on the street who’s a sports fan. I bond with the fan, so they want me to be the guy who fills them in. The key to my success is my passion – I love what I do. And my likeability – to have a good and long career you have to be likable, with your fans and your guests. I got this golden voice from my father. And I’ve always been a ham. But you can’t really develop into being a talk show host. You’re either a good talk show host or you’re not. I had to clean up the edges, but I was born for it. Ultimately, I get the best out of people because I’m genuinely interested in people.”
Then back to the names, numbers and dates, and again a bit excited, Chris says about now also doing TV, “I started doing television when I got the contract to do High Heat with Major League Baseball Network in 2014. I’d never leave radio, but I like the size of the audience and the extra dimension to your relationship with the fan that television brings you. I was thrilled when Stephen A. Smith called me in late January to do a Hall of Fame announcement and a couple of segments on First Take. Stephen grew up in Queens, and actually once worked with us on Mad Dog Sports Radio. He’s the best in the television sports talk business today. We did the first segment on a Wednesday, after the Packers lost to the 49ers and Brady lost to the Rams. Stephen called me the next morning to say the ratings were hot and later that day I had a deal with ESPN to do 40 appearances, 10 to 12, on Wednesdays. It’s fun, and our TV clips get millions of hits on social media. It’s Stephen’s show, but I’ve trained my whole life to be able to do 2 hours on TV. I think quickly on my feet and I’m good at ad libbing. I don’t always agree with him, but I get a huge kick out of the banter with him…and I try not to be too much of a bully. I have a call with the producer at 7:20 a.m. on Wednesday morning, when we go over the segment for that day for about 30 minutes. When we get on air…it’s whatever happens between Stephen, me, and the fans!”
Of course, Chris’s extraordinary memory and ability to recall names, numbers and dates, is also central to his unique qualities as a sports talk show host. He says, “It’s not like Rain Man or anything, or at least I don’t think so. But I remember games like I’m watching a movie in my head. I remember where I was when I saw the game and the experience of watching. I have that kind of memory for just about everything. …The ‘Ice Bowl’ in 1967. Packers versus Cowboys. 21-17, with 69 yards to go, and 4:38 left on the clock. Greatest mind-over-matter comeback. Or the Giants versus the Bills in 1990, in the midst of the Gulf War, when Norwood misses the field goal to lose 19-20 in Tampa. Or in 1986, after the Red Sox had come from 5 to 2 down late in the game against the Angels to force that playoff series to continue, and went on to lose to the Mets in one of the best World Series ever. Or Game 7, Red Sox versus Yankees in 2003, when Aaron Boone hit the homer. The great Buffalo versus Kansas City game this year. I see them as if they’re playing on the TV now.”
In Jacksonville, I’d been making $120 a week and living in a rented room in a house with no kitchen. At WKIS, I got $13,000 a year, traded up to a Honda Civic, and had a nice enough place that my parents came and visited. I was a talk show host 6 to 8, Monday through Friday; Sports Updates at 3 and 9. It was a huge step! Then, Bob Trumpe got fired doing weekends and they put me in that slot – and that killed the weekday audience I’d developed. So in February 1987, I sent a tape to Rick Sklar, who’d been the Beatles first promotor and who put Howard Cosell on the air, at Sklar Communications, answering an ad in Broadcasting Magazine looking for people who talked like ‘New Yorkahs’.He flew me to New York to do 2 shows, and then 3 weeks later, he called me and offered me $54,000 a year, and to pay for my move! I packed up the Civic and headed to WMCA in New York to do Weekday and 5 to 8 Weekend Sports Talk. Sklar was a marathon runner who wanted to go to the top in Washington, but who had a foot issue and died from a freak occurrence during surgery at St. Roosevelt. He made a real difference in my life, and I will forever be grateful. …And then, in mid-December 1988, my agent at the time, Robert Schauf, got me in at WFAN for an interview with Don Imus. At 660 AM, WFAN had acquired the old 1050 AM and their 50,000 watt clearwater channel, they were broadcasting the Mets, and Imus had taken the helm two months before my interview. The higher-ups intended to establish the first 24-hour sports talk format. I was 29, and they thought I would work well together with Mike Francesca, who had been working as a researcher, and we started together on the Monday after Labor Day in 1989. I had a great run with Francesca from 1989 to 2008. And contrary to a lot of the hullabaloo, and the pressures of working together in the same room for 5 and ½ hours a day for almost 2 decades, and the sparks that flew from our presentation as both partners and adversaries, I have nothing but good feelings about him and our time together. To tell you the truth, I really had no idea how big a phenomenon The Fan had become until I left in 2008. The story got front page in the New York Post and the Daily News, and coverage in The New York Times. I was blown away!”
But, remarkably, beyond his extraordinary memory, and despite his fame and fortune, Chris Russo is a regular guy. He jokes, “Jeanne probably lets me watch more games than most other guys get to. But I try not to sit there for 12 hours – except on Sunday, when I watch a few games at a time and go from 1 p.m. to midnight. I met Jeanne in 1993, seated next to her on a plane coming back from seeing Jordan and the Bulls beat the Knicks in the 4th Game of the Eastern Conference Finals, on Memorial Day weekend in Chicago. We were engaged on a Friday night in 1994, and we were married in May 1995. She’s the love of my life and a real sweetheart, but she wouldn’t know Aaron Judge if she fell on him. She sang in the choir at St. John the Baptist on 125th Street until about a year ago. We moved to New Canaan in September 1996, because we feel it’s one of the best places anywhere to raise a family, and we still feel the same way today. Our first house in New Canaan on Beech Road was built in 1957, we bought it for $685,000 in 1996 and sold with a profit in 2004. New Canaan is always a great investment. We didn’t move to the house we’re in now until after I’d been on The Fan for 15 years. I have a radio studio in the basement and a television studio in the attic, so I can do almost all of my work these days from home – except I have to go into New York City to do First Take on Wednesdays. It’s only a short drive to our country club, Shorehaven, so I can jump over to play golf, but don’t really like being gone for 7 hours. I do play in 5 or 6 club tournaments a year because I really like the competitive environment and enjoy the camaraderie. I like tennis better than golf – mostly doubles – and get to play 3 times-a-week at the Field Club all summer long. I play in regular games with 8 or 10 guys, and I play in an inter-club league.”
Somewhat philosophically, Chris continues, “…Like I said, New Canaan has been a great place to raise our family. I’m proud of my kids – and proud to say they’re normal. It’s a tribute to Jeanne…and to growing up in New Canaan. My youngest daughter, Kiera, isn’t even into sports. My older boy, Colin, is at Wisconsin and is interested in media and is a huge Pelicans fan, and my other son, Timmy, is at UConn and considering coaching. Because I’m ‘Mad Dog’ I can get tickets to just about any sporting event I ever want to see – although I make it a point to pay for tickets – and I’ve probably spoiled my kids taking them to a lot of special games over the years. But other than that they’re making their own way in the world, and none of my kids ever went around New Canaan boasting – or posting – about being ‘Mad Dog’s Pups’.”
New Canaan is used to famous people living here, and I’ve been here so long we’re like part of the furniture. I go into town to pick up coffee every morning. I’ve been to as many of my kids’ games and recitals as possible. I love being able to chat with all the people I know, without ever feeling pressed or uncomfortable. And whenever I can give back to the community, I’m happy to do it. I’ve spoken, or M.C.’ed, or served as auctioneer for New Canaan High School, St. Aloysius, Father/Son Night for Fairfield Prep, Cardinal Spellman in Bridgeport, and lots of others. I try not to ruffle peoples’ feathers. I don’t get involved in politics and try to stay away from anything divisive – other than a good argument about sports!” Chris smiles.
The rare moment when Chris isn’t busy – and if he hasn’t already then picked up a book – his thoughts or conversation will inevitably turn to some ‘Top 10’ list or a discussion of who was the greatest in some sport or at some feat. He’s authored two such tomes: The Mad Dog 100 : The Greatest Sports Arguments of All Time (Doubleday, 2003), and The Mad Dog Hall of Fame: The Ultimate Top-Ten Rankings of the Best in Sports (Doubleday, 2006). He is, of course, fluent in the entire history of baseball, football and basketball. Somewhat surprisingly, he’s encyclopedic with hockey, golf and tennis as well. He does live broadcasts every year at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in Queens. Federer is his favorite tennis player ever, but he loves Nadal, and admired how “Connors played every point like he was broke”. Best Tennis Announcer: “No question, John and Patrick McEnroe”. Best Golf Commentator: “Faldo”. Best Baseball Reporter: “Tom Verducci”. Best Basketball Commentator: “Charles Barkley is a real personality”. Best Football Commentator: “Collinsworth and Aikman. I like when the guy passes along his expertise, but I don’t need commentary on every play”. All-Around Sports Commentator Hall of Fame: “Howard Cosell, Bob Costas, who’s a good friend of mine, Al Michaels, Dick Enberg, Stephen A. Smith, and, as I said before, Marv Albert, the Play-by-Play GOAT.” And as for the people, dead or alive, he would invite to a fantasy dinner party, Chris quickly lists, “Thurmon Munson, Vince Lombardi, Bill Russell, Babe Ruth, Carol O’Connor, and Bob Dylan,” and adds, “…no politicians – they’re a pain in the ass.”