And Starring Michael Smerconish, as Himself

Can a man succeed in the rabidly partisan world of talk radio by reaching out to moderates and channeling his inner Larry David? With a new national audience (and a new book), Philly’s most powerful radio personality is putting his ass on the line to find out

For several years, Smerconish has answered the siren song of television. Breezy appearances on everything from The View to The Today Show proved him a natural: striking, self-assured, articulate, knowledgeable. But each time it looked like his own TV gig was coming — on CNN, on MSNBC, on HLN — the cheerleader waving the pompoms for him got cut from the squad. “The worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a television producer is to look kindly on me,” Smerconish says with a rueful laugh. “’Cause chances are, you’re leaving.”

“People don’t know all of the rejections and dejections he’s had across his business life,” says Pat Croce, who lives next door to him in Villanova and has become both a mentor and a friend. The two often take long, head-clearing walks together during which Smerconish brain-dumps, seeking advice. “There have been times when he’s wanted to kill something,” says Croce. “Everything happened on CNN, then the head guy leaves. He fills in when [Don] Imus is gone, and something else politically happens. It wasn’t fair, but then, business isn’t fair. So I said, ‘Stay at it, stay at it. You’re in the hunt. You’re always in the hunt.’”

And so the hunting ground became national radio, as Smerconish focused his efforts on syndicating his show. In Philadelphia, only the first six minutes at the top of each hour of The Michael Smerconish Program are now local, which is why you hear him chatting up Sid Mark or the Phillies ball girls in that slot. The rest of the morning version beams out to a dozen other affiliates (most notably Washington, D.C.) as Michael Smerconish attempts, one station at a time, to burnish an identity as The Other in talk radio.

He’s currently ranked 35th in Talkers magazine’s annual list of the “Heavy Hundred,” the most influential talk-radio hosts in the nation (predictably, Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage are the top three); he was recently named best news/talk/sports local personality in the nation by the trade publication Radio & Records. But it will still be several months before the awards committee that counts — in the form of the national Arbitron ratings — decides whether Smerconish and his hard-to-pin-down anti-ideology are winners or not. Six months ago, at the height of election fever, Smerconish was averaging some 238,000 weekly listeners in Philly; by February, that number was 136,800, a tumble of 43 percent. How much of that is attributable to talk-radio fatigue, how much is people temporarily tuning out a torrent of daily, awful economic news, and how much is an actual judgment on Smerconish himself is as yet unknown. But when I told my brother, a staunch but hardly intolerant suburban Republican, that I was doing a story on Smerconish, his response was swift. “Oh yeah, he was good, I used to listen to him all the time,” he said. “But then he got all … liberal.”