Angelo Cataldi’s Long Farewell
The firebrand host once slashed-and-burned his way through Philly’s sports landscape. What happened to that machete on his road to retirement?
It’s a friend of mine — let’s call him Billy from Broomall — who captures something important about the arc of Angelo Cataldi’s long run as the most prominent sports talker on Philadelphia radio. Angelo is retiring at the end of this year — or the end of an Eagles playoff run in the new year, if they happen to make it that far. Billy told me he’d started listening to Angelo again after a long hiatus, and now I ask him why.
“I’ve come full circle,” Billy emails me. “I was a fan in the early days because he was bold and funny and refreshing, and it made Philly sports more fun.
“But somewhere along the way, listening to him stopped being fun for me. Partly it was the Wing Bowl ogling women crap” — we’ll get to that — “like he was trying to be Howard Stern, only a worse version. And partly it was the knee-jerk negativity. Actually, it wasn’t just negativity — it seemed like meanness. And very, very personal. That guy’s not a bad player, he’s a bad guy. He just came across to me as your embarrassing old-guy uncle who wouldn’t shut up.”
But then it turned for Billy: He tuned back in a couple years ago, giving Angelo another shot. And he seemed to discover a different guy, one who wasn’t nearly so mean or bombastic.
I’m leaning on Billy here for a moment because I was always put off by that foghorn of a voice that still seems to blast from Providence, which Angelo left 40 years ago. And I, too, was put off by Angelo’s meanness — we’ll get to that as well.
But Billy’s third take on Angelo, where he’s back on board listening to and enjoying the guy who’s done more than anyone to shape how we talk about — and even think about — sports in this city? That’s the take that got me rethinking both who Angelo is and what he’s delivered, and how the sports conversation here — which a lot of the time really hasn’t got that much to do with sports — could be quite different without him.
And now, I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing.
Early on, The Morning Show, Angelo’s 5:30 to 10 a.m. weekday potpourri of attitude with sidekicks Al Morganti and Rhea Hughes, broke new ground.
Pre-internet, he would beat the newspapers with his takes, immediate and damning: A Phillies doubleheader allowed to go on till 4:40 in the morning because of rain delays was “a disgrace.” Then-Eagles owner Norman Braman was “a complete idiot.” It wasn’t just harsh opinions, but gambits: When the Eagles were pursuing running back Herschel Walker in 1992, Angelo organized listeners around the Vet in a “Honk for Herschel” campaign that drew national attention (even if the on-air honking was actually created in the studio); Walker signed here. Angelo held a “Rally for Reggie” at 15th and JFK that drew 2,000-plus fans to entice Eagles defender Reggie White to stay in Philadelphia; alas, he went off to Green Bay. Meanwhile, Braman, reacting to the on-air abuse Angelo heaped on him, attacked his listeners for falling for it: “It’s the follow-the-ignorant-leader psychology, really, which is also the saga of the Hitlers and Mussolinis.” And Daily News columnist Bill Conlin whined that “WIP has totally changed us because it has become the author of what we write about. They’re not interested in reality or facts. They’re interested in excitement and entertainment.”
You think? A highlight — depending on your taste for this sort of thing — was Angelo busing the Dirty 30, a collection of his most rabid Eagles-loving listeners, to the NFL draft in New York in 1999 to celebrate the selection of running back Ricky Williams. When the choice was quarterback Donovan McNabb instead, the Dirty 30 let out a drunken chorus of boos, further cementing this city’s national reputation for ad hominem nastiness. McNabb never got over his introduction to Philadelphia. But hey, it was fun.
Let it rip, make things happen, move the needle. And as his first program director said at the beginning, one of Angelo’s strengths had to be interacting with callers, not pontificating from on high. Though “interacting” is a broad concept, as captured by this magazine in 1993:
One July morning, Tony from Cherry Hill calls in to reveal that he’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan and starts talking a little smack.
Angelo launches: “Let me tell you something, you stinkin’ loser — ”
“Go home and drown,” Al Morganti, his partner, interrupts.
Angelo lights up — the Midwest is having horrific floods. “Why don’t you move to St. Louis?” he shouts at Tony. “You’ll get halfway there and have to swim the rest of the way, all right?”
Then there was Date Night at the Vet, a contest to find babes for guys at Phillies games. Angelo, married with two young kids, sounded like a pubescent boy as he reveled in judging how hot the women were.
This isn’t exactly where Angelo started. He got a master’s in journalism from Columbia in 1977, then worked as a general-assignment reporter at his hometown paper, the Providence Journal. But Angelo hated the smallness of Providence; he leaped to the Inquirer in ’83, finding a perfect blend of sports — his passion — and journalism. The highlight was covering Buddy Ryan’s first year as Eagles coach, in 1986: “I got to mid-season, and I held him accountable for his promises,” Angelo remembers fondly. “And I wrote a really skewering analysis, basically how much he had lied to the people of Philadelphia.” Ryan stopped talking to him — all the better. Angelo was nominated for a Pulitzer for his Eagles coverage.
He dug into the fixing of horse races and corruption in sports memorabilia and other meaty investigative stories. But he began to chafe under the careful legal vetting and editing of his stories; he’d wait months to see the final product in the Inquirer. “The one that finally made me snap,” Angelo says, “was a story that came out on sports doctors” — how their medical decisions are undermined by working for the teams. “We had vetted this for months, and when it came out, the lead was totally not what I wrote. And I went nuts.”
Angelo jumped to WIP in 1988 as ex-Eagle Tom Brookshier’s sidekick before getting his own show a year later. The late Tom Bigby, then the program director, had a brutal early assessment. “I thought I was going to be the smart-ass Inquirer football authority who would now show my brilliance in all the sports,” Angelo remembers. “Bigby said, ‘You’re not a journalist anymore. This isn’t journalism — you have to perform. You have to entertain people. It’s not going to work if you don’t.’”
Angelo Cataldi seems blasé in saying that he sold out: WIP was paying him $75,000 to start, $20,000 more than the Inquirer. “I must not have a lot of moral fiber,” he offers. “I never second-guessed my decision. If I’m going to do this, I have to do it the way it’s most likely to succeed. And so I’m going to do whatever it takes.”
Angelo made his bed, though in his telling, it doesn’t come across as capitulation so much as a golden opportunity: “When the words were coming out of my mouth, nobody was editing. And that was important to me.”
The Morning Show did well from the get-go, and its market dominance has held to today: In its time slot, among men 25 to 54, it’s been ranked number two behind only WMMR the past three years.
Billy from Broomall, though, stopped listening long ago. And Angelo never drew me in, because I couldn’t get past the early high jinks and nastiness, or that voice.
In fact, the tone would get worse. Angelo would see something in a game or a misstep by team owners and zero in on-air the next morning: “It’s kind of like a drug after a while,” he says. He had a long-running feud with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and former team president Joe Banner — especially Banner. They’re both from Boston, and Angelo saw them as tone-deaf when it came to relating to Philly fans. In the summer of 2003, he got wind that the Eagles would be restricting the size of bags and packages fans could bring into the Linc, ostensibly for reasons of security in the wake of 9/11. It was an opening.
“Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner are telling me I can’t bring my hoagie to the game?” he shouted repeatedly to his audience. “I have to eat my hoagie at 12:45?” He said it over and over — that Lurie and Banner were taking hoagies out of our mouths in order to sell overpriced cheesesteaks inside the Linc. And thus Hoagiegate was born.
Banner went public with a rebuttal: “It is patently irresponsible in this day and age to question the motives behind a policy driven by and recommended by security experts.”
“If the Eagles are given the opportunity to choose the security,” Angelo responded on-air, “I totally expect them to wear swastikas on their arms.” Both Lurie and Banner are Jewish, and the Eagles railed at WIP management.
It happened to be Marc Rayfield’s first day as GM of the station when he got word from WIP’s lawyer that he had to suspend Angelo Cataldi for two days. Breaking that news to Angelo did not, you might say, go well.
Rayfield says he had many conversations with Angelo challenging him on going over the top or simply being cruel. “He would never take ownership,” Rayfield says. “He would never agree. Never. I mean, one of the things is how these guys stand firm on their beliefs. They don’t waffle. I learned that the more I tried to rein him in, the more he might go in the opposite direction.”
At Angelo’s beachfront home in Sea Isle, with a wide view of the Atlantic, I share Rayfield’s assessment with him and ask if it’s fair.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” says Angelo, whose off-air persona is much more restrained and reasonable than his on-air tone. “When Marc was there, that was probably the place where my ego was most uncontainable. I really thought, man, I can do whatever I want now. Yeah. And I went way over the line a lot.” Given his ratings — and the Howard Stern-led reign of shock jocks — who would stop him?
But then Angelo rises up all over again as we talk, and it’s clear that righteous indignation comes naturally to him. In 2009, he hammered the Eagles — Banner specifically — for lowballing beloved safety Brian Dawkins in contract negotiations. (Dawkins would end up signing with Denver, where he would fade after one good season, though that was beside the point: He was Brian Dawkins.) The word “cheap” came up a lot on-air, even though the Eagles had one of the highest payrolls in the league.
“And then one of the Eagles’ security people went on social media and ripped [team management], and Banner fired him,” Angelo says, sounding pissed all over again. “And the guy was just a little guy who loved Brian Dawkins, and Banner was so swept up in his power that he was going to step on this little bug. That kind of stuff just dug into me. I never went harder at anyone than I went at Banner in that period of time.” (The Eagles did indeed fire a security guy over online comments regarding Dawkins, though there’s no evidence it was actually Banner who pulled the trigger.)
Angelo’s passion in Sea Isle makes the point that’s corroborated by everyone I talk to — his old bosses and Al Morganti and on-air colleagues Glen Macnow and Ray Didinger and even ex-Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, whom Angelo ripped often. They all contend that he believes what he says on-air — that he doesn’t go beyond how he really feels to pander to some lowest common denominator of his listeners, though he may ramp it up a little for entertainment’s sake. You couldn’t fake that level of annoyance for 30 years. “I’ve tried acting a couple of times,” Angelo says. “I’m not that good of an actor.” I believe him: He really can’t stand Joe Banner.
Which is a window, too, into what sports mean to us. It’s not just winners and losers, but how you play the game. Banishing our hoagies was greedy. How our heroes are treated is paramount. Joe Banner vs. Brian Dawkins was no contest but great radio. Let the rage at Banner begin.
And then there was Wing Bowl, ostensibly an eating contest conceived by Al Morganti in 1993, first held at the Wyndham Franklin Hotel downtown. It would keep rolling for 25 years, becoming an extravaganza of excess at the Wells Fargo Center, a day of drunkenness, gluttony, and nearly naked strippers parading around as Angelo played the grand pooh-bah. I went to one, reporting on a story that I don’t remember, though this is etched in my memory: It was 9 a.m. in South Philly, a weekday, and several thousand drunk people — white men, overwhelmingly — stared, open-mouthed, at bare-assed women parading around while “competitors” gobbled scores of chicken wings as fast as humanly possible. The feeling I got looking up at the crowd was that virtually nothing was keeping them from vaulting down to the main floor to have their way, whatever that might have meant. It was so strange that it was beyond scary.
Angelo isn’t exactly contrite about overseeing Wing Bowl: “You know what? I don’t feel that bad about it. I feel like we were a product of the times and we reflected what was acceptable. We pushed it a little, but we kind of knew where the line was. Or at least not to go too far over.”
Consider: Wing Bowl died a necessary death, finally, in 2018. That was only four years ago.
Even Angelo knew he had to change: “I cut my teeth at a time when the whole format was new and everybody was trying to figure out how far we could go and what we could do,” he says. “But if we don’t react to the culture, if we don’t respond to what people are finding acceptable and unacceptable, then they’re going to discard us.” Including Angelo, even given his ratings.
I go back to my friend Billy and what he heard when he started listening to Angelo again in the last couple of years. The sexist stuff is gone now, and so is the meanness — or at least most of it. And there’s this, backing up Angelo’s own view of what he’s about: “The other thing I hear now is a real sense that he sees himself as speaking on behalf of the regular guy or woman who lives and dies with Philly sports. And those are the same people, no coincidence, who’ve made Angelo a wealthy guy. [Angelo’s salary is a state secret, but it’s safe to assume that it’s well north of $1 million a year.] The fact that he gives out his email on the air and actually seems to respond to every message he gets strikes me as a display of humility.”
Those emails from listeners — sometimes 300 a day — now serve as a sort of focus group for Angelo, the only demand he listens to for where to go with his show, what line to hold. Management still doesn’t have any impact on his tone on-air — “Angelo would never tolerate that,” Rhea Hughes says. And she and Morganti are still just along for the ride. “I plan the show,” Angelo says. “I write a script for every show, every segment, a plan. They don’t know any of it.” Rhea says she can count on one hand the number of times she’s gone to Angelo in 25 years to try to rein him in after a line-crossing moment. He still rules.
One morning in early September, I tune in to Angelo’s show at 8 a.m., just to gauge the vibe now, see if Billy is right. In partnership with the Eagles, Angelo is auctioning off Jeffrey Lurie’s Tesla to raise money for autism research, and a team rep challenges him to take the bidding to $50,000 himself. Angelo considers the sweet implications of getting Lurie’s car: “He hates me. He hates me! Part of this is he has to hand the keys to the new owner. He will not do it — he will outbid me himself.” The conversation moves to Phillies star pitcher Aaron Nola’s struggles late in seasons: “Mr. September,” Angelo calls him. “I got numbers here. They’re appalling. He’s really not good.” Then, keeping things brisk, he asks a guest, baseball analyst Todd Zolecki, to rank his three favorite NFC teams. Zolecki picks the Eagles second, ahead of Green Bay — his first pick is the Bucs — even though he’s from Wisconsin, which pleases Angelo: “I gotta be honest with you, Todd. I think you’re stronger in football than baseball. But keep trying, you’ll get better.”
Angelo hasn’t lost that nasal New England foghorn, but I too — even if it’s too late to get on board as a regular listener — hear something different from the old days. The edge is still there, yet it’s been filed down. It pokes but doesn’t cut. Those 300 emails a day no doubt serve as an echo chamber that still fuels his method — You rule, Angelo, telling that stinkin’ Ben Simmons to pack his bag for Brooklyn. But in this era, it’s also a safe bet that some of those listeners have helped reel him in. Even current Eagles GM Howie Roseman, a frequent punching bag for Angelo in the years post-Banner, seems to have come around. “I enjoy sparring with Angelo,” he says. Winning a Super Bowl will do that. Which, of course, hasn’t stopped Angelo from continuing to rip Roseman on-air for dubious decisions. Listeners still want that, too, which has become, in this late phase of Angelo’s career, a sort of moral guidepost — he believes he speaks for us.
There’s no way the next early-morning host on WIP will be like Angelo, especially early Angelo; he’d be jettisoned in the first groundswell of complaints. If you listen to other hosts on the station, there’s a decidedly next-generation feel. They’re mostly pleasant guys — and yeah, it’s all guys in the lead roles. They have opinions, but they don’t speak as if they’re delivering threats. They aren’t picking fights. They aren’t outraged. Of course, media in general has changed, unless you’re playing, like Alex Jones or Dan Bongino, to a lunatic fringe. Even Howard Stern isn’t Howard Stern any longer.
In many ways, that’s good. But I wonder now if the next version of Angelo in the mornings, given the increasing pressure to play nice, will be pleasant to the point of boring, the place to tune for comfort instead of challenge. And with that, something would be lost, as he heads off into retirement. The risk is that WIP caves in — as so much of media has — to being careful instead of honest, a sure path to irrelevancy.
And that suggests another possibility of Angelo’s effect, also based on his bare-knuckle style: that he has created a forum for a public airing of the way we feel, as we peer through the looking glass into the make-believe world of our big-time gladiators. That his style and tone, especially with the nastiness largely gone, allow us to get to what’s real in the metaphor of sports, a place where we gather to deal with rage and blame and loss and, sometimes, victory. That Angelo’s connection to his listeners really does help us connect to each other.
That reading of him might seem, at this late date, a little rich for the Angelo make-fun-of-everything-in-front-of-me style. So how about this: He finally — in his last incarnation — offers a release. A way to vent at a time when we’re all desperate for some sort of escape.
And we can certainly give Angelo this: He’s worked his ass off. To bed at 6:30 in the evening, up at 2:30 prepping for that 5:30 start to his show five days a week, to nail the sports story everyone’s thinking about, or should be. For more than 30 years! “It’s not a job, it’s a life,” he says. He’s on marriage number two, with a big blended family and eight grandchildren; he freely admits he’s a much better grandfather than father — the work came first. And now, with that life about to end, 71 years old, he’s nervous about the next phase, given that he has no hobbies, no friends, really, and no real plan. He was determined to walk utterly away, to go silent — then he signed up to join a podcast on comedian Jay Black’s website about TV (no sports!). And he’ll take a stab at writing a memoir.
But when he contemplates what it will be like to finally move on from his daily soapbox, Angelo Cataldi comes to a feeling that, for him, is brand-new: “I don’t know.”
Published as “The End of Angelo” in the November 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.