Saturday Mornings With the ‘Voice of Problem Gambling,’ Craig Carton

“Hello, my name is Craig Carton, with you for another 30 minutes for a frank, open conversation about gambling addiction.”

Seated alone in the WFAN radio studio in Lower Manhattan where he rose to fame, collapsed in ignominy and later rose again, Mr. Carton began his weekly show the same way he has in the three years since he got out of prison.

On the line this morning in January was Rob D., a 61-year-old recovering gambling addict who got his start flipping cards in school before he went broke betting on basketball as an adult. Within minutes, Rob was weeping.

Tears are not unusual in this quiet enclave within the nation’s most famous sports-talk network. Like most of the rest of the sports industry, WFAN has been subsumed by advertisements and promotional tie-ins related to gambling. But from 9:30 to 10 every Saturday morning, a new guest enters Mr. Carton’s somber confessional to share his or her tale of addiction.

Mr. Carton, 55, whose 2013 autobiography was titled “Loudmouth,” is best known for a high-wire broadcasting style that dances around sports and lingers on mischief, controversy and “locker-room talk.” But on this morning show the gaffes are gone: He listens.

He winced as Rob shared the details of the moment when he confessed to his pregnant wife that he had gambled away all their savings. Similar stories, week after week, have unfolded on the air, and the waiting list of prospective guests is growing.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s been 20 years or two weeks,” Mr. Carton said to Rob. “The emotions are real, because you realize that, while you were doing your thing, you leave this wake of destruction behind you.”

The wake left behind Mr. Carton happened to be splashed across New York’s tabloids. He was a celebrated broadcaster, the manic co-host to the straight-edged Boomer Esiason on WFAN’s top-rated morning show for a decade. But it all came crashing down in September 2017 when federal agents arrested him for his role in a ticket-reselling scheme that a U.S. attorney called an “elaborate fiction.”

The scheme involved soliciting money from victims, including a Manhattan hedge fund, for the stated purpose of buying and selling event tickets. In reality, the money was used in part to pay Mr. Carton’s multimillion-dollar gambling debts.

In 2019, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for conspiracy, wire fraud and securities fraud. He ultimately served a little more than a year at a minimum-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. By October 2020, he was back yakking about sports again on WFAN. He marked his return on the air by chiding other broadcasters for being unable to take his job.

But his return to prime-time radio was packaged with a lesser-known side project inspired by his experience at a gambling addiction rehabilitation facility in Goodyear, Ariz. In January 2021, Mr. Carton and Chris Oliviero, then senior vice president at WFAN’s parent company, Audacy, started a 30-minute show with no commercial sponsors, no callers and no sports talk. It would instead offer a window into the painful stories that Mr. Carton was hearing at his visits to Gamblers Anonymous.

Mr. Carton said he felt the purpose of the show was to combat stigmas around what he calls the “silent” addiction.

“There’s a preconceived notion of the kind of guy or gal that is a gambling addict,” Mr. Carton said. “And now you’re listening to schoolteachers and doctors and lawyers and first responders and librarians — normal people who went down a road never having any expectation of having a problem.”

The show is “therapeutic,” he said, for listeners as well as himself. He made the choice not to hide his struggles in the hope that others will do the same.

“I’ve become the face and voice of problem gambling in this country,” Mr. Carton said.

Tune in to a few episodes and the depth of the problem quickly becomes apparent. Zach Pastor, 19, said he hadn’t needed much convincing to go on the show in January. He shared how his exposure to gambling started with daily fantasy sports at age 9. He later left college to enter rehab after losing his last $800 on a bet involving the New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley on “Sunday Night Football.”

“There’s not a lot of kids my age who are seeking help when they should be,” Mr. Pastor said in a phone interview. (Guests on the show are identified only by first name and the initial of their last name, but those interviewed by The New York Times agreed to be identified by their full name.) “I know there are kids struggling like crazy.”

The show’s arrival coincided with an explosion in gambling as 38 states legalized sports betting. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 1 percent of U.S. adults meet the criteria for a gambling disorder, and that an additional 2 to 3 percent are “experiencing problems” due to “moderate” gambling behavior.

That suggests that most Americans are capable of gambling responsibly, and Mr. Carton believed he could, too. He had gambled his whole life. In middle school, he took bets from classmates in his parents’ living room using a preloaded casino game on an Intellivision video-game console. He later started a gambling website, Vegas Experts, with Marc Lawrence, a handicapper and frequent guest on his radio shows.

The incident that he says “accelerated” his descent into problematic gambling didn’t come until 2014, when Mr. Carton, in his typical bombastic fashion, proclaimed on the air with Mr. Esiason that he could take $10,000 and turn it into $25,000 overnight playing blackjack. To his surprise, Mr. Esiason handed him $10,000 in cash a few weeks later during a special taping at the Borgata, a casino hotel in Atlantic City. Mr. Carton backed up his boast, winning $80,000 playing blackjack.

But the seeds of compulsion were planted. Almost immediately, Mr. Carton began receiving calls from listeners eager to test his magic touch. Soon he was being handed duffel bags of cash and ushered into private parlors at casinos.

“That just gave me access to more money,” Mr. Carton said. “And when you’re already going down a road where you want to gamble all the time anyway, if you’re betting $100 a hand, and now you’re betting $1,000 a hand, you can’t go back to $100. It just became progressive.”

He won a lot, but at the rate he was going, the odds weren’t in his favor. Debts snowballed; then the federal agents arrived. The judge at his sentencing, Colleen McMahon, introduced herself to him as “Colleen from New York — first time, long time,” echoing a common phrase used by callers into WFAN’s shows. She then told Mr. Carton, “You have indeed descended into a hell of your own making.”

Mr. Carton’s public disgrace resonated with Dan Trolaro, a former investment adviser for Prudential who spent four and a half years in state prison in New Jersey for stealing $1.9 million in client money. He had committed the thefts to feed an online gambling addiction.

Mr. Trolaro went on to work for the nonprofit Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, which is the home of the 1-800-GAMBLER addiction hotline. Though he was an avid WFAN listener, he said Mr. Carton’s on-air style “was never my cup of tea.” But he empathized with the host’s disorder and wrote him a letter offering support. About two years later, Mr. Oliviero called to ask if he would work with Mr. Carton on a gambling addiction show.

They met via Zoom, and Mr. Carton told him the name that he was considering for the show was “Hello, My Name Is Craig.”

“That automatically told me, ‘Yeah, this is serious,’” Mr. Trolaro said.

Mr. Trolaro, now vice president of prevention at EPIC Global Solutions, a gambling harm-prevention consultancy, coordinates the guests and joins Mr. Carton via telephone each week with advice and strategies for spotting and preventing problematic gambling habits.

“Everybody has the right to anonymity, but I think it requires some people to set that aside to raise awareness of the harm that can come from this activity,” said Liz Thielen, a guest on the show in January 2023. “To help people see that there’s a pathway out of it, even if it’s a long pathway.”

Mr. Oliviero said there was initial skepticism about installing Mr. Carton to host the show given the gravity of his crimes. Multiple victims have complained that Mr. Carton delayed his court-ordered restitution.

But Mr. Oliviero said Mr. Carton had won back a “consistently strong” audience on Saturday mornings by showcasing the “real person,” as opposed to the “shock jock” persona he developed over three decades in sports-talk radio and as a host on a morning television show for Fox Sports 1. When a guest named Jason recently shared how his gambling addiction had brought him to the brink of suicide, Mr. Carton’s voice hushed almost to a whisper as he coaxed the conversation from despair to Jason’s triumphs in recovery.

“There’s a shared experience we all have,” Mr. Carton said of his guests, “how we process gambling, how we’re trying to recover and do the right thing. We know all the traps along the way and mountains you have to climb and overcome.”

There’s a reason he addresses each guest on his show as a “fellow gambling addict,” something that even rehab couldn’t get him to admit. A week after leaving Arizona, Mr. Carton drove to a Pennsylvania casino carrying $30,000. He left $10,000 in the car as a “test” of his will to resist the urge to keep gambling. After losing the money he had entered with, he went to the car to retrieve the rest and lost that, too.

“That’s the last time I gambled,” Mr. Carton said. Abstinence was his only cure.

On a recent Monday evening, Mr. Carton stood with a microphone in a lecture hall at the LaPenta School of Business at Iona University in New Rochelle, N.Y. For an hour, he implored the 40 or so students in attendance not to follow in his footsteps.

“I’m not here to tell you not to gamble,” he said. “But I am here to tell you that, if you allow it, gambling can ruin your life.”

The event was presented by FanDuel, the largest online sports book in the country. Mr. Carton is on his second contract as the company’s paid ambassador for “responsible gaming,” a relationship that, he admits, carries the appearance of conflict with his efforts to combat addiction. He insists the arrangement allows him to carry his message to a wider audience.

And, specifically, a younger audience. The Iona event was the fifth stop on a “college tour” during which he has shared his experiences and urged students to place deposit and wager limits on their online gambling accounts. He related himself to professional athletes and other high-profile individuals who may feel they are untouchable because of their salary or celebrity stature.

“It’s never acceptable to say, ‘I can afford to lose,’” Mr. Carton said. It will become an excuse, he said, to risk higher and higher sums.

Last year, an N.C.A.A. study found that 58 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds had engaged in at least one sports betting activity, and a similar percentage said they were more likely to bet after seeing an advertisement from a sports book.

These days, one doesn’t have to look far to find those ads. Nearly 60,000 ads for sports betting ran on television last year, or one every nine minutes, according to EDO, a marketing analysis firm.

Mr. Carton remains critical of some of the marketing from the online sports books. “I don’t like pushing the parlays,” he said, referring to small bets that can pay off big for a string of correct predictions. He worries, too, that legalization has increased the peer pressure to join in on betting among an influential demographic.

“A kid said to me: ‘I don’t gamble. I bet on sports,’” Mr. Carton said. “They disassociate the word gambling. That’s scary.”

One thing that Mr. Carton is conscious about not doing is coming across as a scold. It’s an odd position for a man who once ruled New York’s airwaves with a diet of sophomoric jokes and bawdy stunts. But, he said, “no one talks about the possibility that it could go wrong.”

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