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July 02, 2017

The Q&A ... with 97.5 The Fanatic host Mike Missanelli

The Q&A Sports Radio
070117_Mike-Miss-1 Joseph Santoliquito/for PhillyVoice

Mike Missanelli during his 97.5 The Fanatic afternoon drive show.

Mike Missanelli is polarizing. Some of his compatriots on the local sports talk radio scene definitely say he’s provocative. But there is one thing that can’t be disputed about him: When he talks, people listen.

He’s been talking in the Philadelphia sports market for over 20 years, and like him or not, is on that Philadelphia sports talk radio Mount Rushmore, sharing the pantheon with Angelo Cataldi, Steve Fredericks and Howard Eskin. 

Missanelli’s been knocked down; he's been questioned; sparked controversies – and been at the eye of some of those controversies. And, as one must to survive for two decades in his industry, he also has an uncanny ability to come out standing.

Over the last seven years, Missanelli has been the standard of the coveted afternoon drive-time listening audience. Like Cataldi drives the ship at his rival station, SportsRadio 94 WIP, Missanelli is the face of 97.5 The Fanatic, an opinion-shaper not afraid to speak his mind. He toppled a legend in Eskin and then squelched an electric-rod upstart in Josh Innes. 

Some call him arrogant. Many close to him say he’s misunderstood, and paint him as a “good guy who likes playing the role of a snarky wise-ass.” 

Like him, hate him. Trust him, don’t trust him. It doesn’t matter. Philadelphia sports fans pay credence to him every afternoon coming home from work between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on The Fanatic, compelled to hear what he has to say.

Spend any length of time with Missanelli and what you learn is that he’s a smart, perceptive guy. He wouldn’t have lasted as long as he has if he wasn’t.

As he joined PhillyVoice for our latest installment of The Q&A, Missanelli was in the process of receiving a gift from “The Process" – the 76ers just had announced their trade with the Boston Celtics to move up and eventually take Markelle Fultz with the first-overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. But he also addressed what led to him leaving WIP and a number of other topics germane to him professionally – and the Philly sports scene as a whole.

How do you explain your successful longevity?

Mike Missanelli: That’s a good question. You know the only appeal that I think I can have with people, and this is what I did when I got into this business, is being as honest as possible. That kind of defines what I’m about. I looked at this job as I’m an advocate for fans, so I try and be as honest as possible—and call out the organizations if I feel they’re not doing right by the fan and the listening audience.

That’s really been the whole underlying principle of me in sports talk radio.

Sports talk radio just happened to me by accident. It wasn’t like I was planning to be a sports talk radio host. I just kind of fell into it. When I fell into it, I felt my role was to be honest, and also to be entertaining to listen to. 

Those are the two things that I focused on. 

My first passion was writing. When I got out of college, I was a journalism major who obviously got a job right away at a newspaper, and my goal was to get to The [Philadelphia] Inquirer. The Inquirer didn’t happen within five years, so I applied to law school and got accepted to law school. I got a job at The Inquirer and I had law school. Now, I had two opportunities and I didn’t want to pass up either one. So I worked fulltime for The Inquirer as I was going to law school at night. 

It was a heavy load. I didn’t have a social life for four years. At the end, though, I thought legitimately I was going to practice law. The Inquirer offered me the college basketball beat job. They asked me if I would stay on for a year. My first assignment was in Hawaii, covering the Maui Classic.

I thought, what did I have to lose? I had all of these buddies coming out of law school getting these entry-level jobs, and this was when there were more law students than jobs. The starting jobs weren’t paying as much as I was making at The Inquirer.   

I thought I would do it for a year and the more I did it, the more I liked it. I was flying around the country covering college basketball, which was a passion of mine. It sucked me back into the business when radio happened. I got a couple of TV jobs out of it and I stayed in media. The more lawyers I spoke to the more I heard how unhappy they were. I was always told the goal in life is to always have a job that you’re happy going to, and a job that didn’t feel like work.

I continued with this [radio].

Do you miss writing? 

I miss it a little bit. I miss the deadline pressure. That was fun for me. At The Inquirer the deadlines were very strict. When you were covering a game, you were on the gun all of the time, especially at Final Fours.

There was one particular Final Four in Seattle. The paper was literally holding up publication waiting for my story. That was the last story that had to come in that night. It was the [1989] National Championship game between Seton Hall and Michigan. Seton Hall had taken the lead by a point with four seconds left in overtime. 

It was the best story I ever wrote in my life, and I was already six paragraphs in of how Seton Hall captured this National Championship, and how they never did it before. How they stayed on the West Coast for three weeks, and so on … and all of a sudden, on the last possession of the game, Rumeal Robinson gets fouled.

Robinson is going to the line with seconds left in the game and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ I looked at his stats and it said he was a 44 percent foul shooter. I thought he was going to miss the first one. Well, he makes the first one — and he makes the second one. I had to erase everything, and my desk is calling me to get the story in.

I had to rewrite the whole thing, but that was fun. [Laughs]

The fun part about was the deadline pressure you were under because you like you were in a game.

I’m as miserable as the fans when these teams don’t achieve. I really don’t think that there is any excuse for it. ... It sickens me.

As you look across the Philadelphia sports landscape is this the worst it’s ever been that you can recall?

Yes, definitely. I’ve been around now for 20 years and this is the lowest ebb. There is very little to talk about, because all of the teams are faring so poorly. There’s no energy to go to a next level that you can talk about. The Sixers are bringing that back with what they’re doing. The Eagles have a shot to bring it back. 

The thing about sports talk radio around here, at least in my tenure, is we always had a compelling athlete to talk about. When I first started, it was Randall Cunningham. Then it was Eric Lindros. And then it was Allen Iverson. Then Donovan McNabb. There were always these guys that lit it up for you. 

Now there isn’t a compelling athlete in the city, except for Joel Embiid, but of course he has to play to be that compelling athlete.

And then there’s no success, so that combination has made really difficult to generate enthusiasm for the audience.

Where do you think the blame lies for the overall futility of the city’s sports teams?

I think these teams have been mismanaged for a really long time. Because of that, they’re at rock bottom. That’s the only thing that I can point to. The Phillies are trusting people that will hang along with their plan. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, because you’re talking about a sport that doesn’t have a salary cap. They’re not spending any money right now. But fans are going to realize you better start spending money, you’re a big-market team. We’re used to having this payroll up around $200 million — like the Yankees. Now they’re around $93, so I expect that patience is running thinner on the Phillies than any other team in the city.

I’m from Bristol, I grew up in this area rooting for these teams, but I try not to be as much of a fan and that’s because of my newspaper training. I dropped all of that fandom. I’m used to that. I don’t want to be the pennant-waving guy, because I won’t see things objectively.

I always want to take it a notch below the fan. The fan is who I talk to and I’m trying to advocate for them. That’s the way I look at it, without waving pennants or anything. I want to be the analyst who sees what’s going on and communicates that to the people who really invest their emotional and financial resources in these teams. 

Sometimes it’s a battle, especially when a team teases you that they’re going to be good. You’re looking to talk about it at a higher level, and they drop off the face of the earth. Like the Eagles starting well and they fall off.

I’m as miserable as the fans when these teams don’t achieve. I really don’t think that there is any excuse for it. I keep thinking that we’re in a large market, and I look around the country and all of these small markets win because they’ve had better management.

It sickens me. 

What’s the reaction you’ve been receiving from fans over the losing? 

They have been miserable along with everybody else. It’s hard to be a fan these days. You know how the city lifts up when somebody achieves. I mean when the Eagles win on Sunday the whole city is different for people. They’re invested. Now, it doesn’t seem as if they’re invested as they were because no team is giving them a chance to be invested.

Are what the Sixers currently doing enough to steal the Eagles’ thunder?

No, I don’t think they’ll ever do as much to steal the Eagles’ thunder. This is an “Eagles’ town.” When the Eagles get good again, the Eagles will be the talked-about team. It just goes that way. Sixers’ fans are plentiful, but they’re not as plentiful as the Eagle fan.

Now when the Sixers were led by A.I., the town went crazy, because they were building towards a championship. So the Sixers may get a little of that, if they show progress towards building toward a championship. I actually think the Eagles have a better chance to be a champion than the Sixers do. 

It will take a longer period of time for these younger players to grow together with the Sixers. The Eagles can sign a free agent or two and they draft seven players a year. I think they can improve quicker than the Sixers can get to a championship level. 

Are you a “Process” guy?

I’m absolutely a process guy. The NBA is different than any other sport. The process doesn’t work in most other sports, but in the NBA it works, except for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have managed to screw it up even drafting great players. I think the Sixers did it the right way. I think we owe a debt of gratitude to Sam Hinkie, because he saw the future. 

He realized the only way you get good is by stacking up good players, and the only way you get good players is to get them with the first five, six, seven picks.

It means losing. They put together a team that didn’t intentionally lose, they didn’t intentionally “tank,” but they put out a team that they knew was going to lose, which is different than intentionally tanking. 

Those guys were playing their best, they just weren’t good enough. You lose naturally that way [laughs]. 

The Philadelphia in me, however, comes out and despite getting Fultz, who had a knee injury, and I can still foresee something bad happening down the line. Can’t you? 

I don’t. I’m totally optimistic with the Sixers. I’m totally optimistic with Embiid, because that’s the way I have to think. You get caught up in that old Philadelphia that everything bad is going to happen, than everything bad is going to happen. I choose to look at it the other way; that this is going to be a level playing field. 

Embiid is going to be healthy and all of these things are going to come together. I can’t waste my energy on the other part of it. If it doesn’t happen that way, now you have to deal with it. We’re used to dealing with this kind of thing. It’s not going to be devastating, because we’ve had devastations before. 

Joseph Santoliquito/for PhillyVoice

Mike Missanelli standing outside the 97.5 The Fanatic studio where he hosts his daily afternoon drive show.

Do you consider yourself a survivor, considering how often you’ve been knocked down? 

I’ve had a couple of things happen to me. That thing at the other station that knocked me out of work for a couple of years made me get a different perspective of things. I think it calmed me down a little bit, and fortunately I was able to get an opportunity in New York where it got me back. 

At the same time, I still had some options. I still could have practiced law. I wrote a book during that time called “The Perfect Season,” about Penn State’s 1986 national championship. I used the time wisely. I don’t think I would have been able to do that had I not had the idle time of not working in radio.

Once I was ready to go back, I got the opportunity to go to New York, and then WPEN started up and that provided me the chance to come back here.

Was that rock bottom?  

No, I had plenty of options. I had enough money stored where I could hang out and play golf and wait for another opportunity. It was a little embarrassing, because I felt how my daughter would feel about it. It happened, I had to deal with it, and I had to change a little bit. I think it all came out for the best.

In your long career, what would you like to take back?

I would have taken back that moment where I had the physical confrontation with the producer. When I look at it, it’s like Allen Iverson says – he wouldn’t take back anything in his life because it made him who he was. So that little episode, while it was hurtful and embarrassed me, it actually strengthened me in another way.

Was it one of those moments where you stepped outside yourself and wondered what you were doing?

I thought it was righteous at the time [laughs], because what was said to me was totally out of bounds, which made me react. It wasn’t like I woke up that day and was looking for a physical confrontation with somebody. It was precipitated as much by the other person and I reacted to it.

I’m a Sicilian Scorpio, which I can’t change. [Laughs]

In your long career, what are you most proud of?

That’s a great question. When it comes to sports talk radio, it’s hard to define one moment where I really felt good about, because I try to do the same show every day. I think it’s for the people to decide what I’ve done well, because I really don’t take inventory of it. I just try to do it. 

The funniest thing I ever did was forge a practical joke on April Fool’s Day with Steve Fredericks, who was my partner at the time and a great mentor to me. I was going to break this story that I had Curt Schilling traded to the Cleveland Indians, and arranged it through Curt Schilling. We broke the faux story on the air and I had Schilling call to verify the trade. He called to thank the city of Philadelphia for all of their support, and Fredericks was outraged. [Laughs]

I remember Steve saying, “Schill, I can’t believe they would trade you!” 

A little later we let the audience and Fredericks in on the joke. I think this was around 1996. Steve laughed once he found out. I got him good though. [Laughs] I got the audience good. We had a stack of calls from the audience expressing their outrage. I was into the whole thing. We turned the town upside down for a little bit. [Laughs]

Personally, I feel most proud about graduating law school, because I was doing that fulltime and working fulltime. That really tested my multi-tasking skills and achievement level. 

I was taking 18 credits a term, going to school three nights a week and Saturdays. Plus, I was working fulltime. I’ve always done good staying busy. I played sports in high school, and it was sports and academics blended together. I was always busy that way and I learned to multi-task.

I was fine. It was just a night time activity. Some people go home and work on their yard or whatever. I went to law school for three hours a night [laughs]. It occupied me and the next day I was ready for the next day. I took the bar exam and passed. I’m an active lawyer. I still keep my license active. I take the 12 legal education credits every year. I can practice law and have done some family things. 

Your parents had to be incredibly proud.

They were. My older brother is a doctor and I have a younger sister. I’m the middle. Middle-child syndrome. [Laughs] My parents weren’t college educated, but growing up, the mindset was we were all going to go to college. That was their thing.

They stayed on us that we would achieve academically. 

My father was a self-made man who worked for the RCA Corporation, after starting off as a TV repairman. He built himself to where he got a job with the RCA space program with their satellites. He was a quality-control guy and represent RCA with various contracts with companies out west that were making satellites parts.

My parents both passed in the 1990s, but they got a chance to see a little of the sports talk radio thing. They got a kick out of me being on the air and I was some kind of a semi-personality.

My dad didn’t throw the compliments around a lot, but I used to hear from other people how proud he was. Typical Italian father. [Laughs]

The longer he went on with this nonsense, the more people turned off. You can’t do nonsense radio in this city. This is a real city where people really care about their sports.

Is there genuine animosity between you and Howard Eskin and you and Josh Innes?

I don’t care about either of them, to be honest with you. [Laughs] Howard was a tough guy to work with, because he didn’t understand teamwork. We worked together for a couple of years. I think the listening audience decided about him.

The other guy, I never listened to him. People would tell me what he would do. I actually thought it was a pretty desperate way to do radio. I mean if you’re going to bring up the competition every day, all that does is give publicity to the competition. So I’m not sure what [Innes] was trying to do. It wreaked of desperation. It probably wasn’t good sports talk radio.

People want to hear good sports talk radio, they don’t want to hear about personal grudges or animosity radio.

But here are two guys, one a legend in this city, and the other was a pretty talented, younger guy and you beat them both.

[Smiles and doesn’t respond]

Who in your opinion posed the greater challenge? 

I knocked one guy [Eskin] off within one year. The other guy [Innes] was because people want to hear good sports talk radio. They want to hear honesty. The longer he went on with this nonsense, the more people turned off.

You can’t do nonsense radio in this city. This is a real city where people really care about their sports. I don’t know where his kind of radio fit in.

Innes started well, but eventually, people tuned back to you. Do you think it says something about you? 

Maybe. People always sample something new. I think that’s what they did with [Innes]. The longer it went on, the longer it went back to the way I think you should do sports talk radio. 

Neither of them affected my life. I just tried to do the best radio I could, and I thought the way I did it would resonate with the listener. 

Joseph Santoliquito/for PhillyVoice

Missanelli takes a break during a recent show.

Do you listen to sports talk radio when you’re not on the air? 

I listen to our station. I really don’t listen to the other station, because I really don’t care what they do. It won’t shape the way I do my show. I concentrate on my show and not anyone else. 

I’ll listen to music to relieve myself, since talking about sports for four hours grinds you up a little bit. You don’t want to hear more sports, so I decompress with music and “Seinfeld” reruns. [Laughs]

Sports talk radio to me is like a conversation at a family picnic, where friends and relatives are sitting around debating an issue. Everybody has a different opinion and everybody thinks that they’re right.

Do you still get angry over the national guys and their depiction of Philadelphia?

I resent what they do, because they really don’t understand and don’t live in this town. They don’t understand the emotion of the fan here. I’ve ripped into a couple of guys, [Michael] Wilbon and Skip Bayless for lazy journalism. That’s what it is. 

It’s like taking an old perception and running with it, without checking into what’s really happening. I resent that part of it. Bayless I think triggered the fan in me. I think this fanbase gets a really bad wrap, and it’s because of people like Skip Bayless and Wilbon, who don’t understand what this town and these fans have gone through. 

I just resent it. If you know the facts, if you spend some time in Philadelphia, talk to some people in Philadelphia, and listen to sports talk radio in Philadelphia, that’s another thing. But when you take shots from outside this area, when you really don’t know anything that’s going on on the inside here, that, I think, is unfair.

Do you think you’re misunderstood by the Philly sports fan?

I don’t know what that question means. I’m going to have a hard opinion and some people may not agree with it. I don’t know if there is any misunderstanding there. It happens to be my opinion and you don’t have to agree with it. Sometimes I do try to convince people that they should agree with me—and that’s the lawyer in me.

All I want is a free-flowing conversation. I’ll present the devil’s advocate side, just because I want them to think about that side. I want both sides of the argument. Sports talk radio to me is like a conversation at a family picnic, where friends and relatives are sitting around debating an issue.

Everybody has a different opinion and everybody thinks that they’re right. That’s what I want to stimulate, that kind of conversation.    

You’re not a gray area guy. People either like you or they don’t like you — and they still listen. Do you care what they think?

It matters less to me that they like me, as long as they’re listening. If people are listening to me because they don’t like me, it’s the same thing as people liking me. My idea is to maximize my audience. People that don’t like me listen to me, because they don’t like me, and I’m fine with that.

Overall, I do care what people think. Everyone wants to be liked 100 percent. I know in this business that’s impossible, if you have a strong opinion. If you have a strong opinion, someone else is going to have the opposite opinion. If I’m going to be milk-toast, lukewarm and have everyone agree with me, and be a nice guy, I think that would be boring radio.

People wouldn’t listen to it.

I want to put my strong opinion out there so people will react to it, either positively or negatively.

Favorite golf course? 

I play at Whitemarsh Valley, which is a great golf course. My favorite golf course is probably Muirfield in Scotland. I took a trip years ago with a bunch of guys going on a Scottish golf tour, and it was fascinating. I’m a 15 handicap, but I’m worse than that because of my back, which is good, because my handicap is going to go up. I might be able to win a lot of money with that number. [Laughs]

Favorite restaurant?

Probably Osteria, or Le Virtu, those are two Italian restaurants that I go to. I like fresh, homemade pasta, and they do a tremendous job at both of those places.

Favorite music?

I listen to Alt Nation [on Sirius XM Radio]. I’m a complete alternative music fan. My musical tastes go way back, and I carry those tastes over the years. I haven’t neglected the stuff that I used to like, but right now, the current music they play on Alt Nation has a ton of really talented bands that are out now.

At the end of the day, it’s still sports. It’s not real life. People come to listen, because they want to get away from real life. I want to keep that in perspective.

Funniest thing that’s ever happened to you on the air?

It probably wasn’t funny, but we were on a remote once at a family restaurant. We had the live broadcast going in this restaurant, where they had their families and their kids and somebody on the air cursed. We can bleep out all of the curse words at the station, so it won’t go on the air, but it’s heard live inside the restaurant.

This big F-bomb comes flying across the restaurant and people literally dropped their forks. [Laughs] It was really loud. It was kind of embarrassing, but you can’t do anything about it.

The funniest thing that happened here [at The Fanatic], which also really wasn’t that funny was when I cursed out a producer. I used to do this live hit on FOX 29 and there was something wrong with the connection. Everytime I spoke there was an echo. It was hard to speak with the echo, and concentrate on the next thought. After the spot was over, I thought the microphones were cut, and I cursed at my producer. It went live on their news. As they were reading their news, all of sudden this big curse word from me came flying out live [laughs], which I hate to say, was another embarrassing moment.

That happened about five years ago. Sometimes those things happen.

You seem to be able to laugh at yourself more these days.

I do. At the end of the day, it’s still sports. It’s not real life. People come to listen, because they want to get away from real life. I want to keep that in perspective. I want to make my audience laugh, too.

How is your health?

I had back surgery in December and it’s been slow to come along. I had a herniated, calcified disk removed off a nerve root, which had to be done, because the nerve pain was paralyzing my left leg. I couldn’t walk. It’s been a long healing process. I came back three weeks after the surgery, which was foolish, I had to take some more time off to let it heal. 

But I like to play golf, and I used to like to play baseball. I had to give up playing in these age-group baseball leagues, and now when I play golf I’m stiff for three or four days afterwards. I have to keep active, so I’m willing to take the risk. I lost 20 pounds. 

How long do you see yourself doing this? 

It’s a good question. I don’t know. I have thought about doing other things. That may come sooner or that may come later. I don’t know. I’m trying to take it day-by-day at this point. I’ve been doing this for a really long time and people get the itch after they’ve been doing something for a really long time to do something else. I don’t know what that is yet, but as long as I don’t have that on my mind I’ll still do sports talk radio.

Follow Joe on Twitter: @JSantoliquito

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