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Mad About Mad Dog

With his own SiriusXM sports channel and scores of hard-core fans, New Canaan’s Chris Russo has got plenty of game

Is there a more distinct voice in sports talk radio than that of Chris Russo? Dubbed “Mad Dog” by the New York media for his voluble, rapid-fire delivery, the New Canaan resident is known for his caffeinated opinions, uncanny grasp of sports history, and loathing of both NASCAR and the New York Yankees. Russo has been a speed-talking fixture on the sports media scene for more than two decades. He and his former on-air partner, Mike Francesa, cohosted the wildly popular Mike and the Mad Dog on New York’s WFAN for nineteen years. In 2008 Russo went solo at SiriusXM. Since then he’s been the master of his own satellite universe. At Mad Dog Radio, his dedicated channel, Russo is responsible for twenty-four hours of daily programming and is also the host of Mad Dog Unleashed. We recently called in to Russo’s studio to talk about life on and off the air.

Should I call you Chris or Dog?
Call me Chris. Work people call me Dog.

I feel compelled to tell you my son’s first sequential words were “Mad Dog.” He screamed it in the backseat of the car when your WFAN show came on. A lot of young kids like me. That could be because they hear me in the car, but I’m also loud, I’m noisy and I’m a character. My poor kid gets called “Mad Puppy.”

Do you miss anything about WFAN or terrestrial radio? Obviously, there are days; days you’d like to get on a topic and center on a New York theme, but there’s a negative in that scenario, too, because no one can beat a dead horse like a New York sports fan. In New York I could spend five days on CC Sabathia’s contract and it was like eating pizza. Do you want boxes and boxes of it? You could latch onto a New York topic and never let go. You could get all worked up on the Yankees and their spending for hours. You can’t do that on satellite. It’s a different format. I’m speaking to a national audience.

Do you ever talk to Mike Francesa? I was with Mike for nineteen years, so there was a bond there. We made our careers with each other. I see him at all the events now, but I don’t e-mail. Mike doesn’t e-mail. When we do see each other, we’re aware of what the other one has been doing.

At Mad Dog Radio, you’re the top dog. How does someone pass your guest-worthy sniff test? We put guests on if they’re interesting. They don’t have to be local and they don’t really have to have anything to do with sports. On Sirius I have a lot of freedom to experiment with the format. I can do Laura Hillenbrand or Hampton Sides.

When Howard Stern went to Sirius he finally got to curse all he wanted and keep the FCC off his back. Do you swear now, too? Nah. Not really me. But I swear when I go on Stern. I do it to get him off my back about other things, and I end up saying stuff you wouldn’t want your son to hear. But I’ll tell you that Stern thing is crazy. He must have 10 million listeners. I don’t think Letterman has that. I know Leno doesn’t. When I go on his show, I’m one of the top Google searches for the day. Stern’s been very good for Chris Russo.

You’ve said Serena Williams was your worst interview because she was so boring. What makes for a good guest? Newsmakers. Someone you’re surprised about. I put Art Howe on in Houston. He’s the guy who’s played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Moneyball. In the film he comes across as not very bright; he seems greedy, worried about his job more than anything else. I had Howe on the day the movie came out and he hadn’t seen it, but he heard he was depicted negatively. We had a good talk and he came off very differently than the guy in the film. I did Lenny Wilkins, too. He was part of the old St. Louis Hawks. He was a very good black player in the sixties. One summer he got married. The day after he bought a house, and the next day everyone in the neighborhood had a For Sale sign up because he was black. Quite a story; incredible, really.

Yankees Manager Joe Girardi snubbed your show at 2011 spring training. Are you still mad about that? The answer is no, but he didn’t handle it right. I probably won’t go see the Yankees in spring training this year. I can’t go to the ballpark if I can’t get their manager on the air for ten minutes. I’m not going to go there and kiss their rear ends.

You’re from New York and your dad, Tony, loves the Yankees. Your team is the San Francisco Giants. If you really wanted to rebel, why didn’t you become a Red Sox fan? Well, if you’re talking about the Red Sox in 1967, I could have been a fan, but here’s the story: My father was a jewelry salesman, and I went to a convention with him and my mother. The Giants were playing in town and staying in the same hotel we were. I got all of their autographs— except for Willie Mays. It made a huge impression on an eight-year-old kid. They’ve been my team ever since.

How did you end up in New Canaan? My wife, Jeanne, and I fell in love with a house. That simple. Had all four of my kids here. Lived in two houses here. Loved them both.

Is there a good sports bar in town? I don’t like watching sports in bars. To me sports are more personal. I’d rather watch them alone.

What’s your idea of a perfect day at home? For me it’s a round of golf at the Shorehaven Club in Norwalk and then tennis at the New Canaan Field Club.

Is it really that simple? Well, New Canaan is a really great town for kids. I like that it’s a great sports town, too. I love watching my three boys play sports and my daughter dance. It’s all good. More than anything, I really love to watch my twelve-year-old son Timmy play basketball. When my younger kids get older and start to play at the same level, I’m going to enjoy that, too.

Do you make play-by-play commentary at your children’s games? When I watch my kids I can be really noisy. I can get on the referees and I can be hard. If you ask the fans of the opponents, they may think that I’m a little over the top or they may say, “Man, he’s too into it.” Sometimes you’ve got to bite your lip. Sports like soccer, I don’t make as much noise. The basketball? I’m really into the basketball.

You usually take Metro-North to work. Do fans ever sit down to talk sports? Most of the guys who get on the train are businessmen. They just want to stick their nose in their New York Post or their iPad and be left alone. In New Canaan, though, it’s different. People know who I am because I’ve been here since 1996. They’re comfortable and they will ask me things. They do it all the time and I don’t mind. If you’re going to live in a big sports town—and that’s New Canaan to a T—you’ve got to be open to that.

Is it true Bruce Springsteen is your man-crush? You could say that. Jackson Browne, too. It’s been thirty or forty years with Springsteen, although I got a little bored with him toward the end of the last tour. I’m waiting to see what he does next, especially now that Clarence Clemons has died. The guy I’m really big into right now is Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi. I’ve been trying to get him to come on the show, but so far, no Steve Buscemi.

What’s the appeal of Steve Buscemi? I like him. I like his character. I like the time period. I like the way he can sit on both sides of the fence. I like Atlantic City 1922. I felt the same way about James Gandolfini from The Sopranos, but there’s another guy I can’t get on the radio. He won’t do it.  And he loves sports, so we would have had a lot to talk about.

What’s something that might surprise people about you? That I’m a loner. I’m an only child and I went to boarding school. I don’t really need to have people around. My wife would be the first to tell you I like to be left alone.

Your Facebook fan page says your character attribute is passion. I’m passionate about my work. A lot of guys choose to do this because it’s a good career. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love sports. People are drawn to passionate people, in radio especially. I’ve got to get people to call me. As a result of that, I almost need more passion. When they do buy in, I want to make sure they enjoy the experience.

Are your kids following in the Giants tradition? It’s very, very difficult to be a Giants fan on the East Coast. You can’t go to the games and you can’t watch them, unless you want to stay up until four o’clock in the morning. The boys don’t have a team yet, but when they do, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the Red Sox. I can tell you one thing: It won’t be the Yankees. That’s for sure.