Craig Carton could battle Michael Kay in complicated WFAN return scenario

It is easy to imagine a new afternoon sports radio ratings war pitting the current champ Michael Kay versus Craig Carton.

It would be a worthy sequel to Kay-Mike Francesa. Entertaining verbal shots would surely be fired and, to borrow an old friend’s phrase, there would be no pea shooters.

Upon Carton’s early release from prison, everything could align for a second act at WFAN, but it remains complicated and not a sure thing.

Though Carton was a skilled sports-talk host on WFAN and he does have a prior relationship with his former producer, Entercom’s New York radio boss Chris Oliverio, Carton is still going to need to earn trust to return to the marquee.

When Carton was at his FAN peak in the morning with Boomer Esiason, he was always talented, but he played dirty. If the old Carton spoke about a convicted felon who duped people out of $7 million in a ticket scam, he would pull nary a punch — and throw a few low blows after the bell.

When Carton eventually returns to the air, he is going to have to alter his delivery a little. He may need to show more empathy and self-deprecation without losing his humor. He’s talented enough to do it, but a transformation is in store.

If there is going to be a second marriage on the FAN, he and the station will also have to wade through the advertising question. When sports are on the air again, FAN will once again be deluged with betting ads. Carton has said his gambling addiction led to his scam. He has shot a PSA about the issue.

It is addressable, but there will need some finesse for it to work. The contradiction of sports betting becoming so incessant on sports radio and Carton’s problem will need to be correctly addressed.

But in this scrambled media environment, Carton’s ability to entertain has real value.

It is not hard to figure out how the puzzle could come together.

Esiason and Carton’s replacement, Gregg Giannotti, will stay intact in the mornings. They are at or near the top of every ratings book. So cross Carton replacing Gio on mornings off the list.

Later in the day is where Carton could end up. During the pandemic, the afternoons have been the elephant in the Zoom.

Carton has what Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts lack — Carton is an entertainer, first and foremost.

Joe and Evan are sports-talk hosts, and Benigno, with his incessant retirement talk, doesn’t seem particularly interested in even being that. “Joe & Evan” is a 10 a.m. show that begins at 2.

Though it is unfair to fully judge them without sports, the limits of their program have been exposed. Carton or no Carton, winter is coming.

A scenario in which Benigno does hang up his mic and Roberts shifts back to team with Maggie Gray in middays, does not seem farfetched.

This would leave Marc Malusis without a chair, but, if this happened, FAN/Entercom could — and should — find a spot for him somewhere in the company because he has been a good team guy.

Entercom should learn from how it dismantled CMB, which ended up with Chris Carlin and Bart Scott migrating to ESPN and Gray stranded. Entercom would be far stronger if it treated people right.

If it all happened, Carton would need the right partner. The industry trend would point to an ex-athlete. It worked for Carton with Esiason.

At 51 and after a year in a minimum-security prison, Carton figures to be hungry. He was ordered by the court to repay nearly $5 million. He was able to reduce his 3 ¹/₂ -year sentence by seizing on positive programs that allowed him to leave after a year.

He paid his debt, but to be a talk-show star again, he is going to need to have learned something along the way. It should be in him.

Local talk radio is about buzz. Nowhere more than the big city. FAN versus ESPN New York. Kay versus Francesa. Mix in some Chris Russo to say something funny. Love him or hate him, Carton belongs in that company.

It is not hard to see the sparks of a Carton versus Kay matchup. It feels big. You can argue about second chances and whether Carton deserves one on such a big stage, but he is a heavyweight sports-talker.

That is why there is a bottom line upon Carton’s release: If it makes business sense, it will happen.

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