How Angelo Cataldi and WIP came to rule the world
At this point in time, it's almost beside the point to refer to WIP-FM (94.1) as a mere "radio station." Sure, that's what it is, technically speaking. But a quarter-century after it first got involved with sports-related programming (while it was still on the AM dial), the outlet has established itself as something more than just another over-the-air outlet. Instead, it can be argued that WIP has become so embedded in the culture of the Delaware Valley that it has taken on the status of a public utility. Even today, when it is facing real competition from upstart The Fanatic 97.5, which recently landed the broadcast rights to the Flyers and 76ers — both of which had been affiliated with WIP for a generation — the station still has a major say in setting the agenda for the region's sports fans.
And, of course, it is the entity (in the person of veteran morning-drive co-host Al Morganti) that gave us Wing Bowl, a tradition second only to the Mummers Parade as a wintertime civic spectacle. Furthermore, the station — whose roots stretch back 90 years to the very beginning of commercial radio in this nation — continues to be a cash cow for current owner CBS. But it wasn't always thus. WIP's origins as a sports-talk outlet didn't necessarily point to its unprecedented later success. In fact, the sports-oriented format was not, to borrow a sports metaphor, a slam-dunk when it was introduced.
The story of the early days of the station's "flip" from a floundering "middle-of-the-road" music-and-information operation to a sports-talk powerhouse is one of hit-and-miss, not to mention one of irate team owners, prideful and undependable athletes, and the occasional office-trashing by on-air talent.
What follows is the tale of those early days from some of the people who were there when WIP, as we know it, was in its infancy. As can be expected, given the passage of time and individual perception and context, the memories sometimes conflict. But there's no question that the story is as important as it is colorful.
Howard Eskin, on-air host: WIP and WMMR were owned by the same company, Metromedia [in 1986]. The general manager of both was Mike Craven. I had worked with Mike at WFIL [AM] radio in my early days when I was spinning records for Jim O'Brien and George Michaels. So he was there when I had first gone on board to do commentaries in the morning for John DeBella at 'MMR. Mike asked me to do those. Right after I went to Channel 29 I started doing the commentaries with DeBella. I believe the date I started at WIP was Aug. 29, 1986. Mike had told me somewhere in early August, "I want to turn WIP into an all-sports station. Would you do a show in the afternoon? We'll start with an hour, then an hour-and-a- half." I had already done sports talk on WWDB [FM]. So Mike had this idea. He wanted to go 24-hour sports talk. At the time WIP was a music-news-type format — and a very good news organization. I assume it was Mike's vision at this time to say, "Let's do something with this station." I always give Mike Craven [credit] for the vision — this is what the future is, and this is what could happen with this radio station.
Art Camiolo, co-owner: You really can say that I started the thing in motion way before we ever put the station on the air. I had worked with Ed Snider once before. I ran WIOQ [FM] radio and he was one of the investors and we had a very good result: We sold it for the highest amount of money at that time any FM station had ever been sold for; it was the number-one music station in Philadelphia. We left there with him saying, "Gee, if we can ever do this again, come back to me." Years later [in 1986], I saw [WNBC in New York] was going to a sports format. I called Carl Brazell [president of WIP's owner, Metromedia Radio] and said, "What are you going to do with WIP? I have an interest in doing something." He said, "Frankly, we're almost ready to sell the company, but it's not officially for sale. If you'd like to make us an offer, we'll consider it." I sent them a piece of paper, I offered them an amount of money —$6 million — and they accepted it. So now, I have an agreement to purchase; I have no financing whatsoever. My original idea was to go to all four of the team owners and have them all come together with me to purchase the radio station. I thought that would be a very good thing. However, since I had worked for Ed and had so much respect for him, and he was the one I really knew, I went to him first. I said, "Here's what I want to do. I'm thinking about going to everybody so nobody has to put in the entire $6 million. He just put his head back and said, "Before you talk to anybody else, let me look into this a little bit more." Bottom line was, he decided he would put the money up. Before we closed on the deal, Ed talked to another potential investor. All of a sudden it became three of us, and talk about a fortuitous thing. It was [former Eagles star and CBS broadcaster] Tom Brookshier. So now Tom Brookshier and I own 15 percent a piece and Ed Snider owns the rest of it. It was fabulous from day one.
Ed Snider, majority owner: I was looking at it [as] you had all-news stations and then you had all these talk stations, and I said, in sports, in television, ESPN was the first to become a 24-hour sports channel nationally. I was brainstorming with my son Jay and said, "Why don't we have an all-sports radio station?" That was the germ of the idea. Then we were looking for a really good station that might be for sale, and we found WIP.
Jay Snider, then-president, Philadelphia Flyers: We bought the station cheaply because AM radio was struggling and looking for new ideas. We were talking about doing more sports. Tom Brookshier was one of our partners and investors, and he certainly was a sports guy. I remember meeting with my father where, it seems to me, he was the one who said, "Why don't we just go all sports all the time?" We started seriously from that time on and decided to do it.
Jack Williams, then-CEO, WIP: I was actually in Hong Kong when Jay called, doing some work for one of the movie studios over there [Williams had previously run the PRISM sports-and-movies cable channel for the Sniders]. He asked me to come in and take a look at WIP and maybe help them find some new management. One thing led to another and I came in and became the CEO of the operation. My first thought was that it's a good idea and it probably would work, and if it's going to work anywhere it would be in Philadelphia because Philadelphia is as passionate a city about sports as anywhere in the United States.
What seemed to be a no-brainer was hardly an out-of-the-box success. One reason was the morning-drive program — the anchor of any radio format — was not sports-oriented. Another was the staton's all-over-the-map programming.
Marc Rayfield, then-sales rep: It was a trial-and-error period where we had a golf show, a tennis show and a Villanova basketball show. We thought the way to do it was to cover the widest variety of sports that we possibly could. We learned the hard way the first couple of years there weren't a lot of people who wanted to talk about tennis or wanted to talk golf.
Angelo Cataldi, on-air host: They had Steve Martorano doing mornings then. Steve is a great morning guy, but he wasn't really doing sports. They were kind of fudging it in the mornings. He really was not the format. In late '87, early '88 I'm at the Inquirer and at the point where I know I'm not gonna be there too much longer, and I started looking around for another job. [Fellow Inquirer sportswriter] Al Morganti says, "I think we can get a job in radio. They switched the format at WIP. Tom Brookshier is running things over there and he's a great guy, and I think we can sell him on an idea." I said, "What's your idea?" He said, "We'll go in and have different reporters every day and we'll do an hour every day on whatever is the big story in the Inquirer that day."
Al Morganti, on-air co-host: I'm not the most prepared person. I just thought we'd just go on and talk. It didn't seem like rocket science. Remember, the only people doing it then were [the late] Steve Fredericks [on then-WCAU-AM] and Howard [Eskin, on WIP]. I said, "We can do that." It always struck me, they're getting paid to do this and we're coming on free all the time. What the hell is that? Why don't we get paid? I was looking at it as an extra paycheck. [Angelo] looked at it as a way to get his ideas across. It was $75 more a week. It was a way for me to have five more beers five nights a week.
Cataldi: We get brought into [Brookshier's] office. Al's the pitchman, I'm just the passenger in this car. And Al pitches him the idea. Al makes up things as he goes along. He hadn't given this any thought at all. He says, "We'll come in for an hour every day and talk about whatever the big story is." And Brookie said, "I love it. We're gonna do it." This was a Friday. He said, "Come in Monday morning and we'll do it."
Morganti: The Inquirer didn't want us to do anything. I went to the people at the Inquirer and said, "I really wanna do this 'Morning Sports Page.' I think Angelo and I and Glen [Macnow, a WIP co-host] and whoever would be good, and I think it would be good for the paper." They said, "We don't know … conflict of interest." And I said, "I'm gonna tell you about the conflict of interest: Ed Snider is involved in it. But I know Ed, and he's hands-off." I didn't like the fact they were restricting what we could do. It really struck me as wrong [that] we couldn't make any money elsewhere because of some standard they had that I thought was preposterous. Unbelievably they said, "OK." Then they changed their minds and said we couldn't do it. I said, "Why don't you wanna get involved with this?" They basically said, "We're above it." So I left the paper and went to The National [a short-lived national daily sports newspaper] ... and we started to do this "Morning Sports Page." It was Jayson [Stark] and Angelo, and me, and Jim Cohen who was an [Inquirer] assistant sports editor. It's funny, Jim Cohen was supposedly there as a "policeman" to make sure we didn't go [over the line] and he was the one who went nuts. He snapped at [Joe] Paterno [and lost his on-air spot]. I knew Angelo was gonna be good because he did basically what he did in the sports department anyway — bitched and moaned about whatever every morning. It's no act — he's incensed every day. He just took that outrage to the airwaves.
Cataldi: We come in Monday morning. We get there about 8:30 and the show's starting at 9. And he doesn't give us a host. We're doing our own radio show. We had no idea what we were supposed to be doing. We suddenly had an hour to do our own radio show. So we go in, we don't know buttons, we don't know nuthin'. There's a guy on the other side of the glass who's gesturing at us. We have no idea of what we're supposed to be doing. We do an hour, and we screw everything up that we could. If I ever heard the tape today, I would burn it. By the end of the hour, we thought we were dead — one and done. We walked out and Brookie's laughing and he went, "That was all great, fellas." I said, "We screwed it up, that was horrible." And he said: "Ah, you'll pick it up. It's not brain surgery. You'll be great. You guys will do fine." And that's how our radio thing started.
Morganti: The great part of this was, there was nothing before us. It was like, if you never took an airplane ride and it landed with no wheels, you'd think that's the way it was supposed to land. So for everybody listening, it was, "Oh, it's supposed to be a train wreck." There was nothing to measure us against. It's hard to fall short if there is no measuring stick.
Elsewhere on the schedule, the station was fulfilling the plan to have, as Camiolo put it, "anyone who meant anything in Philadelphia sports on the air." That meant coaches like Buddy Ryan and such star athletes as Charles Barkley, Mike Schmidt and Lenny Dykstra. Some worked out better than others.
Camiolo: [Barkley] was more prepared than our [full-time] people. The very first show, he had set up not only some of his teammates to call in, but … he had the coach of the next team they were playing call in and they would go at each other: "I'm gonna kick your…" It was really cool. Mike [Schmidt] and his agent and I had lunch, and we were talking about him being on the air. Mike excused himself and left after lunch was over. His agent said, "Look, I just need to tell you one thing. Obviously, money's not an issue here," he said. "But I need an agreement from you right now. We don't care what he's paid." By the way, we were paying $125 a show. "Just make sure that Mike is never paid less than any other sports person. Please, just make sure. It can't happen." And that was their request. The $125 didn't bother them. They just didn't want to be embarrassed.
Rayfield: Being the "baseball guy" [on the sales staff], I had a relationship with the Phillies, and we were able to get Lenny Dykstra to do a Monday midday show with Bill Campbell. And Dykstra even back then was unbelievably unreliable. [One day] we couldn't reach him; he was nowhere to be found. I called him off the air like 15 minutes after the show had started and he picked up and he was, "Dude, what's the problem? It's not that big of a deal!" I wanted to tear his head off, but I couldn't because we needed him more than he needed us.
Despite a rotating cast of Inquirer sportswriters in the morning (and Daily News scribes in the afternoon), and a stable of athletes and coachers, WIP still despaired of capturing the ears of the public — and the ad dollars of local and national advertisers. Nor did things improve much when in 1990, Cataldi, who was turning into a true broadcast personality, was teamed with Brookshier for the morning-drive show billed as "Brookie & The Rookie." Further help was required.
Camiolo: So we hired Kalish & Rice [an advertising agency] to do a huge study to find out who was really listening to our radio station. The information came back [saying] with our format, we had every single, BMW-driving, college-graduate male in the metropolitan area listening to the station. That is not the general public. We were never gonna grow based on the way we were programming. I had a friend who had helped me with my other radio stations. He was a program consultant and my program director at a previous station. I called him up and said, "Look, I know you haven't done talk [radio], but we need basic ratings help. Would you just give it a listen?" He was supposed to come in and see me on a Wednesday and he never showed up. A couple of days later, he comes into the radio station looking for me. I said, "I thought you were supposed to be here two days ago." He said, "I thought it was more important that I get out and walk around a little bit." It was Tom Bigby. He went to corner bars. He sat during the day with truck drivers that were off at a cafe, delivery guys, like that, to hear what they were talking about and to talk sports. And he came in and he said, "Art, I'll tell you what: They don't know about your radio station, and when they do tune in, you've got the coach of Villanova basketball on and they really don't care." He just beat me up. He said, "Have I not taught you about anything about the ratings? You need the lowest common denominator and you don't have them. You got all the upscale people." I think that was the beginning of when the ownership got uncomfortable. That was not the direction they chose to go. I set up a meeting between Tom Bigby and Jay Snider and [Snider] decided they'd rather not do it Tom's way. So they didn't hire him. Finally, Jay and I agreed to part ways because I don't think I was supporting what he wanted to do.
Williams: Once I came in and decided I would stay and take over the operation, [the Sniders] basically gave me carte blanche to do whatever I felt needed to be done. It was a good idea, and we were kind of doing the programming we wanted to do, but the ratings weren't there. So I started asking questions: Could we try this and could we try that? One of the things that kept coming up in those conversations I had with various people was, they would say something to the effect that, well, we had a consultant in here named Tom Bigby, and he wanted to do that, but we didn't do it. This went on quite a bit. Finally I said, "Who is this Tom Bigby, and where is he?" I tracked him down. He was working for a record company promoting records. I met him in New York. We had a conversation and I hired him to come in as program director. I told him I wanted the station to be the topic of conversation at the water cooler when people came to work the next morning. Bigby said he saw it kind of like running a top-40 radio station except the caller is the record. He put a limit of two minutes a call. He's the guy who really came up with the idea to do it that way.
Howard Eskin: [In the early '90s], WIP got a consultant by the name of Tom Bigby. He was there maybe a couple of weeks out of the month for a few months. And then they stopped with the consulting. Somewhere in the next year, I said [to Jay Snider] "I think Tom Bigby really knew how to do things and program a radio station. He was a very, very difficult — beyond difficult — man to work for. But I suggested that Tom Bigby come in and be the program director. I felt very strongly about it. It became my worst nightmare.
Jay Snider: We were struggling, so we brought in a guy named Tom Bigby as originally a consultant and eventually full-time. He said listen, "It's not about sports, it's about entertainment. It's a sports theme, a sports backdrop, but it has to be entertaining."
Camiolo: After I left they eventually brought him in. I was on the sidelines coaching Tom about what he should do in terms of the radio station. Not so much about the radio station, but with dealing with the people, insider-type stuff. Even to the point when it came time for him to get a new contract, I actually wrote his contract. I don't think anybody to this day knows I wrote Tom's contract.
Cataldi: I wasn't an entertainer then; I was a serious journalist. I went in the first day [with Brookshier, Jan. 20, 1990]. I got out of the very first show I did and Bigby, who was really tough, called me in his office and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "What do you mean, 'What am I doing? I thought I did a really nice job.' " He said, 'I'm gonna tell you right now, the journalism stuff ends. You are an entertainer. Go out there and entertain. I want you to be funny. I want you to be provocative. I want you to let loose.' " And for the next year or two I was under a day-to-day microscope with Bigby. He really helped me find my voice.
Jay Snider: We made a very hard change in that we took Tom Brookshier out of that morning slot. That was very, very difficult because Tom was a partner and an old friend and he didn't agree with the decision. But we felt we had to try Bigby's method. And [Bigby] put together the morning show with Cataldi and Morganti and the rest of it that still exists to this day, and it was a smash hit. From that point on, the ratings soared.
Williams: We didn't make the decision to remove [Brookshier]. He made that decision. We didn't ask him to leave. Tom had been around and done a great job in television. But Angelo brought that brash sense of humor and brash personality, and he was pretty shy and pretty much deferred to Tom in the early days. But as Angelo caught on and as he got more comfortable with being on air and being a personality, he began to take a bigger role on the show. Tom came in and told me, "I think I don't want to do this anymore."
Camiolo: [Bigby's strategy] was absolutely based on top-40 radio and how to get ratings. His rule was there were certain stories that were "hits," and you had to keep going back to that story all day long. You didn't want to have lag time. You needed to be tight. If a caller was getting boring, cut him off. Keep it short. Tom was that top-40 guy who always wanted the mass audience interested. Tom always [insisted] it isn't the caller you're talking to that's important, it's the other 100,000 people out there that are listening. I think this is where [Eskin] had a problem in the beginning. Tom decided the producers would decide what callers get on the air. And he had rules about how many times and how often, but also, the producer would ask them what they wanted to talk about. And if the producer didn't have it on Tom's list of [approved subjects], they got skipped over. What happened was the hosts started finding this out so there were some confrontations about it. So Tom didn't just stop there by putting the rules in. Tom felt that the producers probably had an allegiance to the on-air person they were working with. He really wanted to make sure he knew what was going on. Most program directors have a radio in their office so they can hear what's going out over the air. Tom figured he doesn't really have any control over that, because once it goes out over the air, it's already done. He put a tap on the phone lines that went into the producer's booth, and he put a microphone in there so he could hear what the producers were doing. It wasn't a secret tap. He had a button to push where he could say, "Get that guy off the air." Or the producer would say to a caller, "You're up next," and Tom would hit the button and say, "No he's not!"
Under Bigby's guidance, the station began to forge its voice and identity and to evolve into the WIP we know today. But it didn't come without a price. Giving the hosts and callers free rein when it came to voicing opinions did not find a lot of favor among the owners whose teams were the primary targets of the seemingly nonstop vitriol.
Ed Snider: The people I had hired are criticizing the Phillies like hell, criticizing the Eagles, criticizing the Sixers before we owned them, and here I am the [station owner]. I couldn't change that. I didn't want to tell people what they had to say, but my [fellow] owners know I own it and they're getting the hell kicked out of them. The truth of the matter is I could have taken anything [the hosts and callers] threw at me, if I was the only [team] owner in town. I was a little bit embarrassed that I was the owner of something that was kicking the hell out of [the other teams]. At the time, the Sixers weren't doing well, the Phillies weren't doing well and even though I knew I wasn't responsible [for the criticism], I was also getting a lot of crap. I just didn't feel comfortable in that regard.
Eskin: [Coaches, management and players] were very sensitive to it. It was all new to them. There was no governor, no watchdog. [Phillies manager] Jim Fregosi didn't like WIP, not even a tiny little bit. He said something about [the listeners having sex with their mothers]. It was something he told the writers, not the broadcasters, and two of them told me about. I thought it was kind of funny, and I mentioned it on the air. It created a firestorm and the Phillies had to have a press conference and denied he said it. He just didn't like WIP. [Eagles coach] Buddy Ryan was always annoyed at me because I didn't think he was a good head coach. I thought he was a terrific assistant, but not a good head coach. He was upset with me in those times.
Williams: If you really listened to the conversations, it wasn't so much the [hosts] who were taking the potshots; it was the callers. I felt very strongly, if you're going to let people come in, you have to let them speak their mind. There's going to be some good times; there's going to be some bad times. There's going to be some things they say that you will like and things they'll say you don't like. But you have to take the good with bad.
Jay Snider: It caused problems with us with the Phillies. We were trying to sign the Phillies and [Phillies chairman] Bill Giles was really upset about the way the team was treated by WIP and he wouldn't sign a deal to bring the games to WIP. It's a hazard of the format.
Cataldi: The whole sports-radio thing had become a … phenomenon. We became for a period of time overly loud, outrageously loud and obnoxious. So many people hated us. There was such a deep hatred of us. That sequence in the early years when Ed Snider owned us was amazing. We were out of control in the early '90s. Didn't know where the lines were and went over them every day. And some of it was aimed at his team, the Flyers. But he never one time interfered with what we said. But he developed such a hatred for us. He wouldn't listen to us. At one point, he said, "I can't stand this; this is a horrible part of my legacy." But to his eternal credit, he never, ever stopped us. It was extreme. It was too much. It really was too much. We didn't know yet how to laugh at ourselves. We didn't know how to be human. We were 700-level [at the Vet], fourth beer in the third quarter of the Eagles game. We were nuts. I hope never to listen to the tapes of that stuff myself, because it was nuts. We were crazy. It was over the top. The [Rich] Kotite era [of the Eagles] was so contentious. It was a blood-hatred (between the team and station). We'd play [sound bites] of his [to ridicule him. Impressionist and morning-show staffer] Joe Conklin would do absolute hideous things in the locker room. Things I don't even wanna recall. It was fun to do, and it made a huge connection with the audience — a huge connection. It was all a big lab; we were all testing it. What happened was, '90-91 we started to connect; '92, we didn't know when to stop; '93, we were nuts. This is when we pushed. That was Macho Row, Curt Schilling. The team wouldn't talk to anyone on our station. It was awful. At one point, we were mocking [outfielder] Jim Eisenreich, who had Tourette's. We were crazed. We thought the more outrageous we got, the more we would be embraced by our audience.
The on-air staff wasn't just picking fights with those on the local sports scene. There was plenty of internecine warfare as well, including a particularly high-profile incident.
Rayfield: It was widely reported at the time Howard Eskin had trashed my office, and it was true, but overblown. He had asked me for something specific, and, at that time, my boss [the general sales manager] lived in Connecticut and I would drive him to 30th Street Station and then go back to WIP. Well, that Friday, Howard had asked me for something, and I drove my boss to the train station and during a commercial break, Howard came into my office and thought that I had left for the weekend. He got frustrated and started looking on my desk for (it) and I think the frustration became a little crazy. I was angry because I came back and saw my office in disarray, and the rest is history. He was suspended, but it was probably an overreaction. But it is one of those things in folklore that absolutely did happen. And yet, a great friendship with Howard grew out of a difficult circumstance.
Despite climbing ratings and a seemingly daily current of water-cooler buzz, Ed Snider decided he'd had enough. In 1994, around the time the Flyers began looking at signing hockey mega-star Eric Lindros, Snider sold the station.
Ed Snider: It continually grew and became very profitable. But I looked myself in the mirror and told my son Jay and told Jack "I wanna sell it." I called it my "Frankenstein monster," because it's very critical, it's hard-edged and it turned on its creator. I say that tongue-in-cheek, because, quite frankly, I've got thick skin. I can take the criticism. But it just wasn't something I felt comfortable owning. I probably overreacted because I had no control over it, and I was also catching hell. It just didn't seem to fit anymore. It was tough enough to cause me to sell an asset that was very, very popular and was only going to get more and more valuable, which it did. I sold it anyway.
Morganti: Basically, they sold the station to get Eric Lindros. Ed just couldn't take it anymore. "What did I do?" He was mortified. But he never interfered. He was really good about it. And then he couldn't deal with it anymore, so he made money on [the sale]. That's what he does.
The new owner, Infinity Broadcasting (which ultimately was absorbed by current station owner, CBS), obviously liked what it heard, for it made very few changes in the air staff and format. By the end of the decade, WIP had firmly established itself among the table-setters in the local sports universe — a status it can arguably still claim today.
Jay Snider: It's a good feeling, particularly because … it [the station] went back to 1922, and it was flailing around trying to find its place in the world with all the changes that had taken place and all the formats. That we were able to find [a format] that endures to this day really makes you feel good.
Ed Snider: I'm very proud of starting WIP. Even if it was is my Frankenstein monster.
Contact Chuck Darrow at 215-313-3134 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his CasiNotes casino blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/casinotes/ and follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow.