How Craig Carton went from ‘scared to death’ of prison to second WFAN chance

The second chance WFAN is giving Craig Carton is not just any job. It is one of the most sought-after spots in sports radio. Built by the “Mike and the Mad Dog” show, FAN’s afternoon drive is prime radio real estate even in an increasingly digital world.

So, does the 51-year-old Carton, just out of prison for fraud, deserve it?

“I would love to know why I don’t deserve a second chance,” Carton told The Post. “I’ve made terrible mistakes. I’ve paid dearly for those mistakes. I’ve essentially been unemployed for three years. I’m bankrupt. And I went to prison for over a year.

“So, if it is about paying your dues for making mistakes, I believe that I have and I will continue to do so because my mistakes will follow me for the rest of my life.”

Beginning on Monday, Nov. 9, Carton will team with Evan Roberts on a daily sports talk radio marathon that will extend from 2-7 p.m. and create a ratings rivalry with ESPN New York’s “The Michael Kay Show.”

In a wide-ranging interview with The Post prior to the official announcement of his hiring — his first extended sit-down since his release from prison — Carton answered questions about his gambling addiction, the prevalence of betting advertising on the station, his time in prison, why he thinks he and Roberts will work and his gratitude for the loyalty of his friends, especially former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

Most of all, he says he wants to make good with his wife and four kids.

“I recognize not everybody gets a second chance,” Carton said, speaking about family and work.

To understand all that surrounds Carton’s return to the FAN, you first have to go back three years.

‘Hello, my name is Craig, I’m a compulsive gambler’

Carton went to prison after being convicted of wire and securities fraud. He misappropriated funds he had been given to buy concert tickets to pay off his gambling debts. It was not an insignificant sum. He owes $4.8 million in restitution.

Carton said he used gambling, especially Blackjack, as a “cocoon” to hide and escape from the world. As he detailed in the HBO documentary “Wild Card: The Downfall of Radio Documentary,” Carton says he was sexually molested as an 11-year-old at summer camp. The trauma, he says, made him an emotional prisoner to his shame.

Carton never really understood his gambling addiction until, shortly after his arrest three years ago, he checked himself into Algamus, a gambling recovery center, in Prescott, Ariz. In his two weeks at the center, he found out there were people just like him and, in his words, he could finally say to himself, “Hey, you’ve got a problem. You are an addict.”

He also was able to say it out loud.

“It was really one of the most significant, positive life-changing moments for me, when I was able to look at a group, face-to-face, eye-to-eye and say the words, ‘Hello, my name is Craig, I’m a compulsive gambler,’” Carton said. “I”m very proud to say I have not made a wager of any kind in two years now. I’m hoping that continues.”

‘Scared to death’

While Carton was always the fast-talking tough guy on morning radio, he feared going to prison in June 2019.

“I was scared to death, obviously,” Carton said. “The only thing I knew about prison was what I’ve seen on TV, like most people. I was worried to death that I was going to a place like ‘Shawshank’ or ‘Oz.’ I didn’t. While there is nothing glamorous or fun or good about the place that I went, I also did not go to a maximum security prison, and I’m very well aware of the difference.”

Carton was sentenced to 42 months at a minimum security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He ended up serving a little more than a year.

He qualified for RDAP, a nine-month, 500-hour behavioral program that helped him identify why he made bad decisions. It allowed him to reduce his sentence by a year.

“I value that certificate more than I value the diploma from Syracuse because that certificate was well-earned because I really wanted to figure out my problems and become a better person,” Carton said.

When an inmate goes to prison, he receives 15 percent of good time credits that you can only lose for bad behavior. After Carton had served a year, those credits, combined with the RDAP reduction, left him with less than 11 months on his original 42-month sentence, making him eligible to be released.

Carton also helped other inmates work toward receiving their GEDs. All of this allowed him to walk out of the prison a little more than a year after he entered.

“It was unmatched other than getting married and having my children,” Carton said. “It is the next best feeling I’ve ever had in my life. It represented a future. It was very emotional.”

Not three months, three years

The fact Carton is back on the FAN took some faith from executives at WFAN’s parent company, Entercom, especially from the station’s leaders, Chris Oliviero and Mark Chernoff.

Oliviero has been vital in Carton’s career and vice versa. In 2000, Oliviero was a 23-year-old producer of Carton and Sid Rosenberg’s WNEW show. In 2007, Oliviero was the head of CBS Sports Radio Network, and he, along with Chernoff, put Carton with Boomer Esiason on FAN.

This May, Oliviero returned to oversee FAN — after leaving on his own accord. That made the idea of a Carton comeback even more plausible.

It didn’t start there, though. Before Carton went to prison, Chernoff planted some seeds with Entercom executives.

“I even said to people at Entercom, upper management, before Craig actually went, ‘I don’t know when Craig will be out, but I think we should certainly think about him as a person to come back to the radio station,’” Chernoff said.

“At least, I even got the answer back then that it is not ruled out.”

Though many in the industry felt as if Carton’s FAN return was a forgone conclusion when Oliviero returned — and perhaps it was — FAN went pretty slow, eventually deciding Carton was worth the risk.

“It wasn’t a three-month conversation, as some people think, it was a three-year conversation,” Oliviero said.

From prison, Carton emailed almost daily with Oliviero, which allowed Oliviero to evaluate whether Carton was truly contrite.

“That gave us confidence to make the decision,” Oliviero said.

The betting dilemma on the FAN

It’s not ideal having a gambling addict, who went to prison for fraud, on a radio station that is inundated in betting ads.

“In 2020, gambling is a significant part of the everyday sports fan conversations,” Oliviero said. “We will never put Craig in a position that is not respectful to the life that he is living and what he has been through, nor would Craig do that.”

Carton added, “I’m not going to be talking or promoting gambling, other than the promoting of responsible gambling and using the platform to make people aware that there is potentially a dark side to it as well.”

After Carton’s return was announced Thursday morning, Entercom sent out a press release in the afternoon, touting a six-year partnership with the sports book FanDuel.

It is all a bit awkward, though Roberts is expected to handle all the in-show gambling advertisement reads.

A new Evan Roberts

Roberts first appeared on FAN when he was 10 years old, in the early 1990s, wise-cracking on Don Imus’ show. He and Benigno have been together for 14 years, but apparently no one really knows him.

From Carton to Oliviero to Chernoff, the common theme in discussing the new pairing is the idea there is an untapped, broader, looser side of the 37-year-old Roberts.

Maybe they are right.

As The Post previously reported, FAN tried to recruit Bart Scott back from ESPN.

“Evan and Bart were always the two lead candidates,” said Oliviero, who added his search was limited by the pandemic. “Both are very different. Both stars. And no doubt could be winning partners for Craig.

“Honestly, I think Evan was surprised the first time we floated it to him.”

Carton thinks Roberts is the perfect straight man.

“He’ll play off of my type of radio, much like Boomer did,” Carton said.

Chernoff added, “I think there are a little bit different sides of Evan than they hear now. He is a sports geek, which is a good thing. He is a history buff. He knows a lot about a lot of things, but he also can be very funny, very caustic, very entertaining.”

One of the goals is for Carton and Roberts to regain the top spot in the afternoon sports radio ratings that Mike Francesa relinquished to Kay.

“I respect Michael’s career,” Carton said. “My job, along with Evan, is to beat him and everyone else on every station in the market that is on from 2-7. I intend to do just that.”

Carton had choices

So why is Carton receiving another chance? Because you have read this far.

In a world with a million media choices, he is interesting. Maybe more so now than ever.

He does sound sincere when he speaks about how someone like Governor Christie, who visited him in prison, stood by him throughout his downfall, which helped him to to get to this point. Still, no one can judge yet whether Carton will truly throw some empathy into his style.

He was always getting a job, though. If WFAN hadn’t hired Carton, he had a morning gig waiting for him on Philadelphia’s 97.5 The Fanatic.

“The ability to go back to FAN a second time was too powerful to pass up,” Carton said. “It was important to me career-wise, personally and some ego, as well, to be able to return to WFAN and show that I still have it.”

FAN executives are giving him a second chance because they believe in Carton’s radio talent to draw ratings, which leads to more revenue. There are friendships here, but this is business.

“It is going to take time to re-earn the trust and respect of the audience, advertisers and co- workers,” Carton said. “I’m aware of that. I’m not expecting everyone to roll out some red carpet for me: ‘Ooh, Craig Carton is back.’ I don’t expect that, nor do I deserve that. I’m overwhelmed with joy that Entercom, who I’ve never worked for, is giving me this opportunity. I don’t take it lightly.”

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