610 WIP vs. 97.5 The Fanatic

 Posted by at 12:19 pm
Jul 082010


Heavyweight 610 WIP and upstart 97.5 The Fanatic are waging a furious battle for the city’s obsessed sports-radio listeners, but the real action is going on off the air. Here, the behind-the-scenes story of how Angelo threatened to walk, what staffers honestly think about Eskin, and, for the first time, what really happened the day Mikey Miss took a swing at his producer

By Richard Rys 
MIKE MISSANELLI had no idea The Punch would change the face of Philadelphia radio forever.

It was St. Paddy’s Day 2006, and it was a Friday — a perfect storm for kicking off a three-day weekend of boozing and degenerate behavior.

Missanelli, a popular host on WIP 610 sports radio, had to broadcast live from Brownie’s 23 East in Ardmore, and he was sure that when his shift started at 10 a.m., most of the people around him would already be half in the bag. Five hours of dealing with drunken idiots, he thought, and steeled himself for a tough day.

The scene at Brownie’s turned out to be worse than he’d imagined: Along with the din of the crowd, technical problems caused some callers to be dropped; others were impossible to hear. Missanelli felt his patience ebbing. An argument with his on-site producer ensued, the details of which are disputed to this day. Some say Missanelli punched the guy; others, including the host himself, swear that while both men grabbed each other, Missanelli didn’t hit anyone. Parent company CBS Radio saw the short-fused Missanelli as a lawsuit waiting to happen. He’d recently been in a scuffle with fellow host Angelo Cataldi, and had a track record of volatility. Three days after the incident, Missanelli was fired.

At the time, the Brownie’s blowup seemed more like a pebble tossed into a pond than an asteroid slamming into the Atlantic. Missanelli went off the grid, flying to St. Martin to get his head straight. He took a self-improvement course. WIP shuffled some shifts, and station ratings stayed strong. Life on AM sports radio in Philadelphia moved on.

What went unnoticed amid all the juicy gossip-column chatter was an innocuous comment by the station manager of SportsTalk 950 AM, WIP’s lowly competitor. He said that despite what had happened, he’d consider hiring Missanelli. No one seemed to care. Why would Missanelli take a job at a station that WIP was pummeling in every time slot? SportsTalk 950’s invitation seemed more like salt in a wound than a comeback plan.

Today, The Punch (or The Punch That Never Was) has become something else — a game-changing moment for both stations. In 2008, the newly named ESPN 950 followed through and hired Missanelli. As word spread that Mikey Miss, as he’s known, was back, the station finally began to draw an audience. Now, Missanelli is winning the afternoon drive-time, marking the first time in WIP’s 23-year history that anyone has beaten it at its own game. Missanelli’s also sticking it to Howard Eskin, his nemesis and former on-air partner.

Missanelli foresaw something bad awaiting him at Brownie’s that day. What no one could have imagined was that his firing would turn a struggling wannabe into a threat, and spark a first for sports-talk radio in this town and for WIP — a bona fide ratings war. “Mike was the perfect hire,” says national radio analyst Bob Snyder. “WIP has a formidable contender. This is a battle.”

TO BE FAIR, the battle between WIP and ESPN Radio, now called The Fanatic, is more David and Goliath than Rumble in the Jungle. As recently as January 2009, The Fanatic was so far down the ratings ladder, it was barely beating a station playing “Spanish tropical.” Over at WIP, audience devotion runs so deep that on one of the first sunny, snow-free Saturdays this past brutal winter, a few hundred fans opted to stay indoors, packing Chickie’s & Pete’s in South Philly to watch the station’s hosts in ’IP’s annual Great Eagles Debate. Like KYW Newsradio 1060, WIP has been so dominant for so long, it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But many of WIP’s hosts have been with the station for at least a decade and are north of 50 years old. And for some listeners, their act has grown stale.

Enter The Fanatic’s younger, hipper brand of sports chatter, simulcast on both 950 AM and, since October, on 97.5 FM. Many of its hosts are under 40, and its FM portal is attracting listeners who probably don’t know AM radio exists. The callers sound like college kids, not guys who swear Norm Van Brocklin is the greatest Iggles quarterback because they saw him play. And the difference between FM and AM is like watching Avatar in IMAX 3D and on a VHS tape on your grandma’s tube television.

After the Great Eagles Debate, I asked WIP program director Andy Bloom about his competition. He spent the next 30 minutes explaining just how meaningless The Fanatic is. Regarding his competitor’s increased ratings among men in the ages-18-to-49 demographic, Bloom said, “Men 25 to 54 is all I care about. That’s what I get a bonus for.”

When I mentioned that Missanelli bested WIP’s Howard Eskin among men 25 to 54 after just one year on the air, Bloom’s voice rose like one of his callers raging against the Dallas Cowboys. “Good for them,” he said. “Crow all you want. You’re not affecting us in the least. Mike Missanelli, God bless you. You have no impact. … Go punch another producer. That’s the most interesting thing he’s done.”

Weeks later, Bloom had second thoughts about cooperating for this story. I’d asked if I could spend a day at the station, hanging out with Cataldi’s crew in the morning and staying through Eskin’s afternoon-drive shift with his new co-host, ex-Eagle Ike Reese. “I think I’ve said enough,” Bloom wrote in an e-mail after canceling my visit. Later that day, I heard from him again. “I’ve explained myself all too well,” he wrote. I never got the chance to ask why he’s so intent on dismissing WIP’s new rival, or so seemingly angry about Missanelli. Bloom joined WIP after the Brownie’s incident, and he and Missanelli have never met. All I’m left with is Bloom’s parting shot from our discussion regarding Mikey Miss, his “meaningless” non-competitor across the dial: “He’s a first-rate scumbag.”

INSIDE THE FANATIC’S studio in Bala Cynwyd, just before airtime, Mike Missanelli sits alone. Dressed in his standard uniform of jeans and a button-down shirt, the 54-year-old looks far more relaxed than when he first returned to Philadelphia sports radio two years ago. Then, he was still fine-tuning his on-air voice, which fell somewhere between Eskin’s volcanic eruptions and Anthony Gargano’s everyman banter. Early on in his new incarnation at The Fanatic, Missanelli often sounded like a guy still figuring out who he was. Now he’s leaning back in his chair, teasing topics for today’s show. Last night, he read the new biography of Harry Kalas that highlights some of the broadcast legend’s off-air indulgences, including women and booze. “I want to talk about something,” he says on the air, with a dramatic pause, “that’s a little bit uncomfortable.”

That might be a good way to describe what happened in January, when Missanelli announced on-air that he’d re-signed with The Fanatic. He didn’t reveal the terms of the deal (said to be for four years and in the mid-six figures), but the bomb he dropped was bigger than numbers. Missanelli boasted that WIP had wanted him back — to replace Eskin. (WIP senior vice president Marc Rayfield admits he exchanged e-mails and had dinner with Missanelli, but insists he never extended an offer. Missanelli’s agent, Steve Mountain, says Rayfield’s memory is failing him: “I had conversations with both stations [last summer], and WIP assured me they would take Mike back. We had a specific conversation about a ballpark [salary] figure.”)

Rayfield, Eskin and Ike Reese all insist the addition of Reese as co-host to Eskin’s program last September had nothing to do with competitive pressure from Missanelli’s show, but Eskin’s ratings have improved since Reese came on board. Multiple sources at WIP agree that’s no coincidence. “It’s the Eskin show where [The Fanatic] really made hay,” says one WIP jock. “He’s our real vulnerability. They’re trying Ike, they’re running 8,000 promotions for Eskin.” When I ask Eskin if his show is better now, with Reese, he says, “If anything, it’s just easier. I never thought about if it’s better.”

For his part, Reese is gracious when asked about the audible on-air tension between him and Eskin, who is often as condescending to his partner (“Let me teach you something about broadcasting,” Eskin recently said to him) as he is to his callers. “It wasn’t smooth sailing,” Reese admits of his first days with Eskin. “That’s how it is with two alpha males.” Eskin says the pairing is a work in progress: “You have a player who has a tendency to be on the players’ side, so we have some clear differences. My whole career has been in this business, so I understand a little more about [radio].” Before Reese was named Eskin’s wingman, Rayfield approached another ex-Eagle-turned-radio-host, Hugh Douglas, about the job. Douglas turned it down cold. “It’s a tough spot to be in,” Douglas says of Reese, a former teammate who he says has confided that the gig is taking its toll. “Everything Eskin despises about athletes, he’s the same way — arrogant, flamboyant. But if you have a different opinion from Eskin’s, you’re wrong. Nobody wants to hear you calling someone an idiot. People want an escape. You feel like you’re being browbeaten.” Even with Reese, Eskin has two fatal flaws — his favorite subject is Howard Eskin, and he isn’t fun to listen to anymore.

At The Fanatic, the game plan is reversed. Missanelli is the station’s only big-name host; the rest of its stable is stocked with established guys like ex-WIP vet Tony Bruno and NBC 10’s Vai Sikahema, or up-and-comers like 33-year-olds Jon Marks and John Gonzalez. As Missanelli’s producer and de facto sidekick, Marks has developed into a sharp, funny on-air presence. In Gonzalez, the Inquirer sports columnist, The Fanatic has a self-deprecating motormouth. Take Cataldi, throw him in the Hot Tub Time Machine, wind the clock back 25 years, and wham! You have Gonzo. The Fanatic’s strategy is a little like the Tampa-2 defense, though — impressive at first, but study it long enough and you’ll find some holes.

The station’s anchor AM drive-time program, Mike & Mike in the Morning, is broadcast from Connecticut and is required programming for the station. While that saves The Fanatic from dumping beauçoup cash into a local morning-show team, Mike & Mike still lags way behind ratings for Cataldi’s competing show over on ’IP. Because when Philadelphia sports fans are talking about Villanova’s early exit from the NCAA tourney, the Mikes are talking about national stories, like LeBron James’s free agency. “It’s pretty tough to think that you’re going to beat WIP’s morning show, because it’s so well established,” Missanelli admits. “And you’re not going to beat it with a national show.”

Something else becomes strangely evident inside The Fanatic studio at noon, when Gonzo and Vai hand off to long-suffering 950 AM alum Harry Mayes and his partner, Tony Bruno. While Bruno bemoans the city’s post-winter potholes and calls his and Mayes’s show “a real Philly show for real Philadelphia sports fans,” he isn’t actually here — he’s speaking from his home studio in Los Angeles. Apart from six contractually obligated weeks spent in the Delaware Valley, Bruno’s only presence at the station is his voice booming through a monitor. “I don’t think we try to deceive the audience,” Bruno says. “I think the days are over when you say, ‘How can you do a Philly show when you’re not in Philly?’”

WIP is betting against that theory. You may think Eskin is a miserable SOB who sucks up to the sources who feed his ego and denigrates everyone else. But when you’re at the Linc for an Eagles game, there he is, strutting the sidelines in his fur coat — and running for cover when fans start chucking snowballs. As Eskin’s ratings slip, he’s not hiding. He’s front and center, enduring the ridicule and venom with a smile, because it means the fans haven’t forgotten him.

Eskin is easy to loathe, but he’s impossible to ignore. One WIP jock warns against counting him out. “Howard needed a kick in the ass,” says this host. “But he’s a survivor. I have a feeling Howard is going to come back. Howard hates to lose, and Mike — he blows himself up.”

BACK TO Brownie’s for a moment, when the fates of these two radio stations were forever altered. Many WIP staffers still regret the day Missanelli was fired, and none question his talent. Still, the question of what exactly happened that day looms. Did management overreact to a heated confrontation? Or did Missanelli really slug his producer? One source who’s seen the security camera video says the truth is exactly in the middle — Missanelli took a swing, but missed. And CBS Radio gambled that WIP was bigger than any one host.

WIP’s suits put that theory to the test again last fall. Angelo Cataldi had been talking to the station since Labor Day in hopes of working out a new contract. The 59-year-old has been with WIP for 22 years, and his show was then the second-highest-rated morning program in all of Philadelphia radio among men 25 to 54. (WMMR’s Preston & Steve was first; in April, Cataldi grabbed the top spot.) But it had become clear that WIP and CBS Radio were sticking to their initial offer, which didn’t include a raise. Cataldi was irate. With his paycheck already over a million, he wasn’t worried about where his next meal was coming from. But this was a matter of respect.

So the host set a plan: If ’IP wouldn’t pony up by Thanksgiving, it was sayonara. On the Friday before, Cataldi sat down with his wife, Gail, to explain the stakes. “My God,” she said, “you’re really doing this.” But there was a twist — Cataldi wouldn’t retire. He’d send his résumé to The Fanatic.

WIP blinked. Cataldi got a new offer, and though his raise was modest, it was enough to save face. Cataldi signed on through 2014, with a station option for a fifth year, and while he’s not carrying any grudges, he insists his hardball wasn’t a bluff. “I came close to not signing that deal, more than anybody knows,” he says. “I would have ended up on bended knee at the other station. I would have begged them to take me.” For the Fanatic, adding Cataldi to its roster with Missanelli would have been the sports-radio equivalent of the Phillies keeping Cliff Lee and signing Roy Halladay — although unlike Lee, who was beloved by his teammates, Missanelli remains a source of friction behind the scenes. “He runs the fucking station,” gripes one insider. “He’s the top dog, and he acts like the top dog. Whenever he has a big name on the show, he barks and tears into them to prove that no one is bigger then Mike Missanelli.”

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