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November 10, 2018

The rise of Marc Farzetta — from Angelo Cataldi's heir apparent to his morning rival

Now at 97.5 The Fanatic, there's apparently no love lost between the two sports talk hosts

Sports Radio 97.5 The Fanatic
1109_Farzetta_2 Joe Santoliquito/for PhillyVoice

Fanatic morning show host Marc Farzetta.

The only light came from a flickering black-and-white portable TV resting on a stand in his parents’ bedroom. The booming noise he provided himself, broadcasting into a hand-held tape recorder transporting his imaginary audience with his words to where he was—courtside at the Sixers, nestled in the press box with Harry and Whitey behind home plate at the Vet, or at Oriole Park at Camden Yards with Jon Miller.

Joe and Eleanor Farzetta didn’t think anything of it. Sitting downstairs in the living room, their eyes would invariably rise to the ceiling, then sideways at each other, and they shrugged. It was merely their youngest son, Marc, doing what he always liked to do — talk.

“My parents didn’t think I was nuts, they just thought I really liked sports and the sound of my own voice,” Marc Farzetta recalls, laughing at the memory.

Today, you can’t miss him. Marc Farzetta is omnipresent, light years from the kid who used to talk at a TV screen.

Over the next few months, if you’re a Philadelphia sports fan, you’re either going to hear or see the 36-year-old, if you haven’t already.

The Ambler native who was once describing Darren Daulton home runs into a cassette player finds himself the latest tone of Philadelphia sports media, as the new weekday morning drive host of 97.5 The Fanatic, on “Farzetta & Tra in the Morning,” from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and the afternoon co-host with Amy Fadool on Philly Sports Talk Mondays through Fridays from 5 p.m. until 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia.

It’s a pair of dream jobs spawned from the dream world of a little kid whose idea was always to do exactly what he’s doing now.

How many aspire to that?

Michael Barkann once hosted mid-days on 94.1 WIP with Ike Reese and hosted Daily News Live for Comcast SportsNet. Howard Eskin held the prime rush hour slot for decades on WIP and did 11 p.m. newscasts for Channel 29, now Fox.

Nothing, though, like Farzetta, who finds himself in the rare terrain of being a morning show radio host during prime time and sharing a prime local TV platform.

This is even beyond what the 2001 Archbishop Wood and 2005 Temple grad envisioned.

“It really has exceeded my wildest dreams,” Farzetta admitted. “I always thought I would be a radio guy who would do some TV. But when this opportunity came with 97.5, I couldn’t pass it up.”

Eric Johnson, The Fanatic’s program director since November 2017, taking over for Matt Nahigian, is an alum of WIP, where he was from 1994-99, and is from the area, born in Atlantic City and raised in Mays Landing.

Johnson knows the pulse of the Philadelphia fanbase and feels Farzetta connects well with it.

“I always enjoyed listening to Marc on WIP and you hear certain things, his personality really cuts through,” said Johnson, who has over 40 years of experience in the radio industry. “Marc’s a talent. I didn’t know where he was in his career at WIP and he has such a great grasp of Philadelphia sports. Between radio and NBC Sports Philadelphia, he radiates all of the qualities a morning talk show anchor needs in 2018.

“Between the two mediums, what people don’t know or see is all of the preparation that Marc puts in. When the opportunity came, we thought it was a great move to get Marc. He’s meeting with his crew at 3:30 every morning. They have a plan for the show. He hits on all of the right topics at the right times. The guy is just a natural-born leader with a morning show that has multiple people on it. It needs a leader.”

Perhaps no one works harder or applies himself in the Philadelphia market more than Farzetta.

He graduated Temple on a Friday in May 2005 and the following Monday was in the WIP studios when it was at 2 Bala Plaza, in Bala Cynwyd. Farzetta’s career arc began when he competed and won WIP’s intern contest in the spring of 2005. It got him a station promotional gig that paid $50 a job. A task would come, Farzetta would load up the station van, do the promotion and not see the $50 check for about three months.

But Farzetta did something about that.

“I kept showing up,” he said. “I was always around. If something became open, I just did it. I remember my first couple of days at WIP when the promotional director told me that I can only show up when they call me. I told him I was sorry, and then I showed up the next day because I knew the morning show would use me. I knew the morning show would put me on air. I knew if I worked my ass off and did whatever they needed me to do, there would be an opportunity.

“I’m not going to be on the air sitting at home. I’m only going to increase my chances of being on the air by being in and around the studio. So, I just hung out all of the time, and that made me available to produce.”

When Tom Lee, then-WIP program director, called Farzetta to produce the overnight show, he called at 11 that morning. There was just one problem.

“I was actually driving home to Doylestown from the morning show, when Tom Lee, a great guy and a great guy to work for, says, ‘Hey, Marc, do you think you can learn how to produce?’ I said, ‘Sure, when do you need me?’ He says, ‘Tonight,’” Farzetta remembers. “I literally got off 76, went back to Bala Cynwyd, learned how to produce and did the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift.

“The station was still standing in the morning.”

Producing wasn’t paying much more than the promotional side work. Some weeks Farzetta might take home $100. Other weeks maybe $400. He took a job covering high school sports for the Trenton Times, which paid more than WIP’s afternoon drive producer. He further supplemented his income by landscaping, working as a high school basketball ref, and every once in a while installing filing cabinet systems with his cousin.

“I produced three nights a week, which only paid $8 per hour ($240 per week), so if you’re lucky, you can get the overnight and a six-hour shift, as opposed to a regular four-hour shift,” he recalls. “I remember regularly getting a $180 a week check. I would take any shift that they gave me, while still doing promotions.

“My first December (2005) out of college, it’s when I got my first update shift on the air. Tom Lee had an opening. He knew that I’d work my ass off for it and after that, I did updates sporadically. For some reason then, the Saturday night update was a revolving door. I was passed over twice for it. I was still working the morning show when I got the Saturday night updates.”

While juggling all of that, he was doing assistant side work for NBC, a job he started the second semester of his senior year at Temple. It was a connection that blossomed from 2004-2018, before landing full-time at NBC Sports Philadelphia. He went from production assistant, doing the most mundane tasks like fetching soft drinks for the on-air talent to becoming part of the actual production crew the last 11 years doing everything from replays to graphics as part of an eight-time Emmy-winning Sunday Night Football team.

But the job didn’t come, or at least start, without its pratfalls.

“I was still at Temple when NBC asked me to do a hockey game at the Wachovia Center (now the Wells Fargo Center),” Farzetta said. “They asked me to go get (color analyst) John Davidson some Diet Pepsi. The Wachovia Center was a Coke arena, so I ran to a local CVS, grabbed a 12-pack of Diet Pepsi with Splenda, which I thought was the way they made Diet Pepsi then.

“I ran back, put the 12-pack on ice so it would be chilled 30 minutes later when Davidson (currently the Columbus Blue Jackets’ president of hockey operations) arrived. Then I get a call from the production manager that Davidson had a problem. They told me to go back up to the booth. I’ll never forget it. I go back up to the booth, and John Davidson’s back is to the door.

“I get there and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Davidson, what’s up?’ He half-turned to the door; he didn’t even look at me, while holding up the Diet Pepsi with Splenda. He raised his pinky like he was sipping tea and said, ‘This has Splenda in it; I don’t drink Splenda.’ I had to run back out and grab another pack of Diet Pepsi — without Splenda in it. I remember thinking this is what they’re talking about when guys big-time you a little bit. I look back at that and I laugh my ass off. The thing that’s interesting is I’ve heard John Davidson is one of the nicest guys in the world, too.”

The work ethic is easy to decipher. It’s deeply embedded in Farzetta’s DNA. He never knew his paternal grandparents, Tomaso and Katie Farzetta, who came from Maida, Italy, because his grandfather died 10 days before his father, Joe, turned one. His paternal grandmother raised four boys, Joe being the youngest, by herself with considerable help from her two eldest sons, Lou (or Sonny) and John. The two older boys took in Tommy and Joe, who the three older boys vowed to their mother that “Joey receive a college education.”

Eleanor Chesnavage, Marc’s mother, was one of 12. His maternal grandmother, who passed away in February, put up the wood paneling in their home and had no trouble getting her hands greasy under the hood installing a carburetor. His maternal grandfather, Al, who’s 97, is a former member of the Coast Guard who worked into his 80s at Camden Yards as an usher behind home plate with his orange hat and black bill.

In his early years at WIP, Farzetta would do the morning show, produce Howard Eskin’s afternoon show, do a station promotional event from 7 to 9 p.m. Be back at the station by 10, unfold the back seat of his silver 2000 Honda Civic on the basement level of the Bala Plaza garage and he would sleep there for an hour, with his feet sticking out of the backdoor windows. Then he would wake up in time to produce the overnight show until 6 a.m., sticking around for the morning show the next day.

And then go home.

1109_Farzetta_1Joe Santoliquito/For PhillyVoice

Marc Farzetta and his team.


So there’s no mystery why Farzetta is able to operate on four hours sleep to be at 97.5 by 3 a.m. to prep with producer Jamie Lynch and his morning team of Tra Thomas and Bob Cooney. He gets home for a nap around 11, before his day continues at the NBC studios at the Wells Fargo Center at 2 p.m. for more prep work for the 5 p.m. Philly Sports Talk broadcast. Then, depending on whether any of the Philadelphia teams are playing that night, he won’t get to bed until around 10:30 or 11 p.m. and begin the process again the next day.

“I look back at where I was and where I am, and there is a choice for a lot of people that I graduated college with: Either stay here and grind it out, or go somewhere else to another market and work your way back,” said Farzetta, who bounced around as a child from Rochester, N.Y., to Baltimore with his father’s pharmaceutical sales job before returning to the Philadelphia area when he was 10. “I didn’t want to leave Philly. I love the city and I felt I missed out on a lot in my younger years. I didn’t want to leave Philly again, even though I was 4 or 5 when we moved. I just always had a connection to Philadelphia and I didn’t want to miss out on more time here. I wanted to get more immersed in Philadelphia.

“As soon as I made a livable wage, it’s why I moved into the city. As far as looking back on those days, I have zero pity for myself. I don’t look back on it with sadness or anything like that. The more I learn about my own family, it’s incredible; it makes what I’ve achieved more gratifying. I’m fascinated by people’s family history in general.

“Am I going to complain about a business that I wanted to work in since I was 11 years old? Am I going to complain because I had to sleep in my car a couple of times and wasn’t making enough money, when all of my life I’ve been hearing stories of my mother’s family immigrating to this country from Eastern Europe working in the coal mines and dying from black lung? Am I going to complain to those people about my hard day? Am I going to look at my dad, who lost his father before he was 1, because he had to work in an asbestos factory, and complain about my day talking about sports because I didn’t get enough sleep?

“You’re trying to accomplish a goal — don’t complain about the ride along the way. Stop bitching. For me it’s simple: When you grow up with the stories I have, you learn to put your head down, shut up and work your ass off. If you lose because you’re lazy, you deserve every ounce of being a loser. That’s the bottom line. There are people in the world that are better at things than you are, but don’t let anyone ever outwork you.

“That’s the perspective that you have to have — that I have. Just because you work hard doesn’t make you special. It makes you appreciate everything that you’re able to earn in your life.”

Farzetta recalled the last conversation he had with his Uncle Sonny, who was more a grandfather than an uncle.

“For all of the work my grandparents did, especially my grandfather working in an asbestos factory, I asked my Uncle Sonny if my grandparents would be okay with me just being an idiot on the radio,” Marc said. “My Uncle Sonny laughed and said that they would have liked it. But he also said something that struck me. They would have liked seeing the name ‘Farzetta’ up on TV and stuff like that. That was the last time I spoke with him.”

THE PRICE

The $150 paychecks are gone. Farzetta is making a healthy six-figure sum between the two jobs — though it’s come at a price. For over a decade, his face and name were synonymous with WIP. Anytime there was a WIP event, whether it was recruiting wingettes at a local bar for Wing Bowl, or a 94 promotional stop at a cell phone store, or running to a location for a “Farzy in the Field” bit, chances are, Farzetta was there.

For 13 years, he learned at the foot of the master — Angelo Cataldi.

Eskin made sports talk radio popular in Philadelphia. Cataldi took it to a whole new strata. Generations of Philly sports fans grew up on his New England accent.

Family is important to Farzetta. And WIP was family. Some still are. There is, however, one major missing piece.

When contacted about this story, Cataldi admitted something he never thought he would say in a million years.

“No comment.”

Cataldi, who’s 67, took it upon himself to champion Farzetta’s cause at WIP. Both admitted that. Cataldi used his considerable influence to keep Farzetta there. Cataldi welcomed Farzetta back to the morning show after the Josh Innes fiasco. According to those close to Cataldi, what triggered his original source of anger was Farzetta’s refusal to remain part time at WIP so that Farzetta could serve as a vacation replacement for Cataldi in July and August. At the time, Farzetta said he wanted to dedicate all of his efforts to TV. Three months later, he committed full time to work morning radio at The Fanatic.

According to those close to the situation, Cataldi had been grooming Farzetta to take over his role when he eventually retired.

It was something, according to sources close to both, Cataldi was thinking about doing within the next few years. Now, those affiliated with both also said, verbatim, “Angelo plans to stick around quite a bit longer.”

Words like “betrayed” and “livid” were applied to how Cataldi feels. It was like a son parting ways with a father, discontinuing a legacy that Cataldi began.

“Angelo has renewed inspiration,” multiple sources said. “It’s a shame how this happened, but to Angelo, Marc’s dead.”

According to those close to Farzetta, what triggered the schism was the move to NBC and not filling in for Cataldi in July.

The two spoke over the phone twice before the move to NBC was made.

The second call was terse.

“We’ve had better conversations,” Farzetta said.

That galvanized Farzetta’s path to 97.5.

“When it comes to Angelo, anything I have to say about him comes with nothing but respect and admiration for the 13 years we worked together,” Farzetta said. “I have nothing bad to say about anyone at WIP.

“Angelo did go to bat for me, but I had to work for that, too. I would get promised something, like a number of shifts hosting shows, and that lasted maybe a month before I was pushed aside again. Angelo’s relationship with me may be severed in his mind, but my relationship with him isn’t. I’m an open door. He said some things that weren’t nice, like I betrayed him, but I never did anything behind his back. He was the first one I called when I got the news about NBC.

“He had to know first, and it was one of the toughest things I ever had to do in my life. Remember, I was an 11-year-old kid listening to Angelo’s tent show before an Eagles’ game on the way home from church one Sunday. I remember the fans chanting, ‘Dallas sucks, Dallas sucks!’ It’s when I made the decision to go into radio. We had just moved back to the area from Baltimore. I thought, at 11, I wanted to be in the middle of that.

“My goal was to be the host of a morning radio show. He knew my goal from the get-go. You can take another job and still be loyal. It’s why I called him. I’m not going to try to do that other kind of radio that others have tried in the past where you slam the person you’re competing against. I called Angelo out of loyalty and out of friendship to apologize, and to let him know that this wasn’t an easy decision. But, hey, I wasn’t getting the call from WIP. I saw my ceiling there.

“Someone asks you, ‘Here’s your dream job, do you want it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I called to let him know that I wasn’t going to betray our friendship. Professionally, I have a thousand-times better job than what I had. As far as leaving WIP and competing against a guy who I’ve respected my whole life and have been close with the last 13 years, there’s no other way to put it — it sucks. But nothing will change the fact that I had to close the chapter on a big part of my life both personally and professionally.

“I owe Angelo my respect and loyalty as a friend. Professionally, this was something that I couldn’t say no to. You won’t catch me saying anything negative about Angelo.

“He is a legend. In boxing, it’s like a cruiserweight stepping up to face a heavyweight. You have to take your shots. Patrick Mahomes doesn’t come to New England and say, ‘I don’t want to play Tom Brady today.’ You go in and do your best and see what happens. That’s all I can worry about. Angelo is the best to do it. You have to up your game. You have to be your best. Anything less than your best is terrible. I can only be the best me.

“He’s the best to do it and it only makes me want to be better.”

TOPPLING A LEGEND

Cataldi has dominated the mornings for over two decades. Challenge after challenge arose, and he’s knocked them down. When Eskin was hosting something called “Sports Rock” on WMMR late in 1992, it didn’t last long. It was off the air by the spring of 1993. In 2003, Mike Missanelli tried and failed on WMMR. Cataldi made ESPN’s syndicated Mike and Mike show, which was carried by The Fanatic, nonexistent. And when Anthony Gargano took a chunk out of Cataldi’s audience when The Fanatic transitioned to local morning sports talk in April 2015, Cataldi scratched back to more than double Gargano in the July 2018 ratings book and finish second in the precious listening demographic of men aged 25 to 54.

Cataldi is the Muhammad Ali of local sports talk radio.

Can Farzetta be the Larry Holmes?

The storyline is certainly there. Holmes trained and worked for years under Ali, like Farzetta worked under the tutelage of Cataldi. Even when they fought, “The Easton Assassin” had great empathy for the aging Ali. Farzetta, on and off the record, didn’t have an ill word to say about Cataldi.

Friday, June 8 was Farzetta’s official last day at WIP. On Saturday, June 9, he was on a plane to Siena, Italy, to marry his wife Celeste on June 15. When he got home, June 25, Farzetta wanted a few months to get himself situated at NBC Sports Philadelphia. That was his priority. WIP still offered part-time opportunities; one was to fill in for Cataldi in early July and again in August when he was on vacation.

When Farzetta told Cataldi he couldn’t spell him in July because he was still grasping the landscape at NBC, but would be okay for August, Cataldi was enraged, according to many sources. Farzetta never received a call back from WIP for August.

In mid-July, Farzetta did receive a call from The Fanatic asking why he wasn’t on the air. Marc told them he had to commit more time to NBC, but was tinkering with the thought of eventually returning to radio. The Fanatic told him they would think about opening a dialogue.

“I had an open dialogue with The Fanatic for five years with the previous management, so it wasn’t abnormal to get a call or a text from someone over there,” said Farzetta, who credits early influences like coaches Al Maio and Mike Carty for part of his determination. “If I had done something at WIP, someone from The Fanatic might say, ‘Hey, that sounded great,’ or if I had done something on NBC, ‘Hey, that was a great bit.’ Jamie Lynch is one of my best friends. We talk all of the time. He introduced me to my wife. Eric Johnson and I have a lot of mutual friends and we’ve had brief conversations in the past.

“In August, I was getting my feet under me and WIP never called me back to fill in for Angelo in August. In September, nothing was agreed to with The Fanatic, but we started talking. Nothing was really finalized until late September. Radio is my first love, and to be the fourth man on a morning show, and still put in those same hours, that’s insane. To be the lead guy of a morning show, and being ‘the guy’ was different.

“I took this job, because I knew I would have Jamie Lynch as my producer, and I would have Tra Thomas and Bob Cooney. It wouldn’t be ‘The Marc Farzetta Show.’ We have a team here and the staff made it possible. There is shared responsibility here. I don’t have to provide all of the paint to paint the picture. I just love radio and the fact that I had a team of people helped me make the decision.”

On Sept. 27, Farzetta made the choice and received 243 text messages congratulating him on his 97.5 debut on Monday, Oct. 8.

“This is an educated gamble and we have data that says Marc is embraced well by sports radio fans of Philadelphia and he has the sound of a winner,” Johnson said. “We know what we’re going up against. Angelo is a legend and the best in the business at what he does. I have a lot of respect for Angelo in the years that I worked for him there.

“But we know we have something good here. Marc, Tra and Bob are so comfortable and great with people. They’re naturals in public. We’re just getting started and we’re excited. Marc also learned a lot from Angelo. Marc and I went to that school. We all learned from Tom Bigby. All of the stuff Angelo employs, everything Marc employs, anything from anyone who’s any good in radio locally employs, that originated with Tom Bigby.

“With Marc, we’re certainly in a good position to grow.”

Whereas Cataldi is the king in the morning, 97.5 certainly has its in-house icon in afternoon host Mike Missanelli.

“We have a young team; we have a good concept of social media and a good representative of the Philly sports fan,” said Lynch, a 2000 La Salle High School grad who, along with WIP’s Joe Weachter, is probably the best sports radio producer in the city. “We try not to have ‘hot take’ radio and not be as negative, frankly. We’re pushing social media and to be in touch with the younger fans, and give fans every option we can. The first four weeks, everyone has been really coming together. We’re not going to get out-prepped — I know that.

“Plus, we have Marc. I was lucky I went from friend to friend, producing for Anthony (Gargano) and now Marc. I had two people in the industry at my wedding, Marc and Anthony. Marc is a grinder and it’s nice someone like that gets awarded in the industry. Angelo is a hall of famer and it’s no easy task. But in the first four weeks, everyone has been really coming together. Marc really knows how to drive a show. He has a unique ability to perform on not much sleep, which is a good characteristic, but it speaks of his work ethic. Marc may be a cyborg. I’m not sure. We have a strong lineup throughout, with Marc and now with Anthony at mid-days.”

Cooney, however, has a problem.

“One of my pet peeves are people that wear sunglasses indoors. But there are times when the light hits Marc’s head right, it’s like you’re being questioned by police or something. That thing does give off a shine,” said Cooney, laughing. “In all seriousness, it’s amazing that in the short time we’ve been together how easy it’s all come, and that comes from all of us working together.

“Marc came right in and took charge, but he made sure to include all of us, and right away it went so smoothly. We have four good personalities, and we’re not the same at all. We’ve mustered a good friendship in a short amount of time. I got great advice from someone long before I began in radio. If you’re going to start a job that early in the morning, you better be working with people that you like. I’ve been fortunate that in the short time I’ve been in the radio business that I’ve been with people I liked.”

Where this can go is anyone’s guess.

One certainty is that Farzetta isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I remember one time when Marc tried out for a youth basketball team and got cut,” Joe Farzetta, Marc’s dad, recalled. “Marc came back to the coach and said, ‘That’s okay, coach. I’ll be back next year and I’ll make the team.’ And he did. Marc was always determined like that. I can’t say how proud I am of where he is and what he’s done to get there. He’s going to keep on fighting and keep on working. That’s just the way he’s always been.

“As a parent, all you really care about is that your kids are happy. And as long as Marc’s talking, he’s happy.”


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