One of the things I personally liked best about Mark Chernoff is that he would pick up his phone.
But that’s not the main reason New York radio is going to miss the long-time WFAN program director when he hangs up his radio uniform at the end of this month.
New York radio will miss him because he’s a pure radio guy, a guy who understands that when you want to be informed or entertained or just pass some time, even in the age of TikTok, Instagram, Youtube and a thousand social media platforms, old-fashioned good radio remains an attractive option.
Unfortunately, not all radio is good. Fortunately, Mark Chernoff has overseen or guided a whole lot of radio that is.
He came to New York at the late WNEW-FM in 1985 and since 1993 has been programming WFAN (660 AM, 101.9 FM), the country’s first and defining all-sports station.
His roster at WFAN for years included morning host Don Imus. He also spent time programming WXRK, a rock station, when the morning host was Howard Stern.
Naturally both these hosts put Chernoff on the dunking stool, riffing about how they could really do some good shows if it weren’t for this Paleolithic blockhead of a program director.
Throw in other a few other hosts like former WFAN afternoon guy Mike Francesa and you might think the only way most of us could handle Chernoff’s job would be to drink heavily.
Chernoff, by all indications, did not. Shtik aside, there’s no story here. He got along with all of them.
“Mark didn’t seem to have any ego needs,” says long-time radio trade reporter Tom Taylor. “Even though he was dealing with some of the largest egos in the city. He knew they were the stars, and he wanted them to sound their best.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Chernoff started his own radio career behind a microphone. He hosted a show on WRSU, the Rutgers radio station, when he was a student there. His first paying job was deejaying on tiny WNNJ in Northwest New Jersey.
So it’s a pretty cool full-circle kind of thing that before he retires, he’ll take a final airshift — from 7 p.m. to midnight this Saturday, June 19, on WFAN’s sister station WCBS-FM (101.1).
WCBS-FM is a “classic hits” station, which is a perfect fit. Chernoff was a rock DJ at WNNJ and then at WDHA, a larger New Jersey stations where he eventually became music director.
WDHA was regarded by many rock fans as the best rock station in the New York metropolitan area. (Well, maybe tied with WLIR/WDRE out on the Island.) In any case, Chernoff came to New York as a music programmer and he kept up with music after he moved to WFAN.
He’ll be revisiting some of his own music history on Saturday, and to the credit of WCBS-FM program director Jim Ryan (another guy who always picked up the phone), that could include a few tunes outside the normal WCBS-FM playlist.
He will also, let us hope, talk about his New York radio years. Don’t expect a preview of the tell-all book he most likely will never write, but just the stories that are repeatable should make for great radio.
Few radio moments are better than hearing a host play music that he or she has picked for a reason, and then explain why. Even if the music isn’t the listener’s personal taste, that’s the magic of radio: a voice from somewhere feeling like it’s talking right to you.
It’s a great way for to wrap up a career that one imagines took Chernoff way further than he dreamed when he was a kid who slept with his transistor radio.
At the same time, most listeners never saw or thought about the things Chernoff did to make radio stations better.
“Like a great coach of a sports team, he understood the alchemy of putting the right personalities into the right combinations,” says Taylor. “You can’t teach that. It’s knowing what works, coming out of the speaker.
“He also really seemed to respect and support both his on-air performers and off-air staff. I remember visiting the studios and learning that in the early days of a FAN TV simulcast, Mark had changed something in the studio — because the personality was inadvertently appearing a bit dismissive of callers. Mark knew that wasn’t the personality’s true attitude, so he subtly made the change, without making a fuss.”
A program director spends an enormous amount of time tweaking, which among other things means reassessing things like rules. F’rinstance: Long commercial breaks are said to be death in radio, because listeners tune out. But if Stern got into such a long riff that 18 minutes of commercials had to be stuffed into one break, that was fine. Stern’s listeners, Chernoff noted, weren’t going anywhere.
In the wider picture, though, much of Chernoff’s success came from adhering to a couple of other rules: Stay local and play the hits.
If you’re doing sports radio in Alabama, you talk college football and NASCAR. For New York sports radio, that would be like talking about ballet dancing and puff pastry. New York has a couple of pro teams in every major sport and more than enough fan opinions to fill a broadcast day.
As for playing the hits, that’s what every smart program director does in every format. Top-40, sports talk, political talk, classical music, whatever. On WFAN, a host doesn’t mention a Jake DeGrom, Mariano Rivera or Lawrence Taylor once in a while.
What each host brings that’s fresh, Chernoff often said, is passion. And oh yes, more than one pitch. Many passionate fans, he once explained, could do a good 20 minutes of radio on their favorite sports subject. It’s when they would have to do three hours they would realize a sports talk show is considerably more challenging than it might sound.
In radio as in life, it’s easier to establish guidelines than to always implement them. Radio is also a live medium where things get said, which explains why over the years Chernoff had to hit the dirt himself from more than one unexpected high inside fastball. Like when Imus got himself fired for a comment about Rutgers women’s basketball players.
That moment, lamentable and uncomfortable as it was all around, also takes me back to my original point, which is that Mark Chernoff would pick up the phone.
I was writing about radio for the New York Daily News then, and since WFAN was a major city radio station where things happened, that often meant calling Chernoff.
He was not a publicity hound. He didn’t deal in media gossip and he was careful about what he said. But he would answer the phone, even on bad days. He was honest and cordial.
That probably also explains how he got along with Stern and Imus, and how he helped make a good New York radio age better.