Like a grad student in the old rough-and-tumble 700 level of the Vet, Missanelli has always been smarter than he needs to be for sports talk, but he could still connect with Joe from South Philly when he moaned about the Phillies’ pitching woes. He could also be a jerk, like the time he told a disagreeable caller, “I make five times what you make. Do you want a loan?” That placed him somewhere in between the histrionic Eskins and the learned Ray Didingers of sports radio, but his passion is what’s made him a success in Philadelphia. It’s also where the trouble starts, and where sometimes the intellectual inside him is replaced by the tough guy at the Linc who’s escorted out by security.
After a minute or two, Daulton opens up even further, admitting that he wishes the championship ring he won with the Florida Marlins bore a Phillies insignia instead. “I have a totally open mind, and I respect people with different beliefs,” Missanelli says as the interview winds down to a cordial finish. “I just wanted to try to get you to explain it.”
Imagine Eskin — best known for calling his listeners “dopes” and “morons” — saying that. ESPN 950 is betting that Philadelphia fans are ready for a different brand of sports talk, and a new, more relaxed Mike Missanelli. If the station has even the slimmest shot at dethroning WIP, Missanelli is going to have to lead the charge — and keep his cool.
RADIO ANALYSTS ESTIMATE there are 4.5 million sports fans in the Philadelphia area. They also say that no one without an AARP card listens to AM radio for anything but traffic, news or conversation. It was no surprise, then, that WPEN’s previous format of Fats Domino and Frankie Valli wasn’t a ratings gold mine. In October 2005, the station (whose call letters, joked industry watchers, stood for “We Practically Emit Nothing”) switched to the only genre that seemed to have both room for growth and limited competition — sports talk.
Over the next two and a half years, WPEN struggled to balance shows hosted by marginal local talents, like ex-NFL quarterback and Cherry Hill native Glenn Foley, with national programs from the Sporting News and Fox Sports networks. But that strategy failed to make a dent in the ratings of WIP, which isn’t just an 800-pound gorilla of sports talk; it’s Godzilla, breathing fire and stomping on anything in its path. So in March, WPEN announced its new plan of attack: a long-term partnership with cable sports giant ESPN. Even bigger news followed on April 1st — a date, some at WIP snipe, that’s humorously ironic — with the debut of ESPN 950’s would-be savior, Mike Missanelli.
Later that month, on a rain-soaked Monday after his shift ended at 7 p.m., Mikey Miss, as he’s known to his fans, settles into a Starbucks on City Avenue, less than a mile from both his old station and his new one. He’s the picture of laid-back cool — dressed in jeans and a charcoal sweater with his collar up, the athletically handsome 52-year-old looks a decade younger than his age. When he talks about getting canned from WIP, he sounds a lot like a guy reflecting on an ex with the clarity that only time can bring.