Feature: Media: Game On

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

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.