Sports Radio Pundit Gets 2nd Chance

Acclaimed Philadelphia sports radio personality Mike Missanelli, known to listeners as “Mikey Miss”, has transformed from an angry radio host to a thoughtful, even mellow pundit. Philadelphia Magazine attributes some of this change to Missanelli taking the Landmark Forum. Excerpts of the magazine article appear below.

The Misadventures of Mikey Miss

Dumped by WIP for being a hothead, sports talker Mike Missanelli is back on the air, challenging his arch nemesis, Howard Eskin – and trying out a brand new Zen persona

by Richard Rys

mikey-miss.jpgLike a grad student in the old rough-and-tumble 700 level of the Vet, Missanelli has always been smarter than he needs to be for sports talk, but he could still connect when Joe from South Philly moaned about the Phillies’ pitching woes. He could also be a jerk, like the time he told a disagreeable caller, “I make five times what you make. Do you want a loan?” That placed him somewhere in between the histrionic Eskins and the learned Ray Didingers of sports radio, but his passion is what’s made him a success in Philadelphia. It’s also where the trouble starts, and where sometimes the intellectual inside him is replaced by the tough guy at the Linc who’s escorted out by security.

On a rain soaked Monday after his shift ended at 7 pm, Mikey Miss, as he’s known to his fans, settles into a Starbucks on City Avenue, less than a mile from both his old station and his new one. He’s the picture of laid back cool—dressed in jeans and a charcoal sweater with his collar up, the athletically handsome 52 year-old looks a decade younger than his age. When he talks about getting canned from WIP, he sounds a lot like a guy reflecting on an ex with the clarity that only time can bring.

“You know, in retrospect, that whole thing at WIP was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Missanelli says between sips of the day’s special house blend. “It got me to look within myself.”

That’s a big admission for Missanelli, who isn’t the most introspective guy. He’d really rather put all that behind him, anyway. He wasn’t always known as a hothead, and he’s no dope; in the early ’80s, he faced a tough decision when he landed a job as a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was accepted to Widener’s law school, all at once. He chose to take on both, putting himself through Widener’s law program at night when his news room shift ended. “I grew up with a certain work ethic,” he says, crediting his parents, neither of whom was college—educated, and his upbringing in working-class Bristol. “We had to battle to achieve.”

Discussing the miserable state of Philly sports for four hours a day can be stressful, but the rookie host was a quick study, says Steve Fredericks, his first partner. He also began to reveal a darker side, which Fredericks first witnessed during a live broadcast on the steps of the Spectrum as a heckler began taunting the pair with relentless shouts of “Eskin!” On a commercial break, Missanelli lost his cool. “He threw his headset down, leaped over the table, chased the kid down Pattison Avenue, caught him by the bushes that spelled ‘Phillies,’ and beat the shit out of him,” says Fredericks. “Then he came back, straightened his shirt, and went back on the air.” (Missanelli insists he simply gave the wise guy a lecture and never touched him.)

Over the next decade, Missanelli became one of the station’s most popular hosts, thanks in part to his ability to engage in a thoughtful, informed conversation one minute, then explode in a hate fueled tirade the next. Bombs were also dropping away from the microphone: First came the loss of his father, followed by a divorce from his wife of nine years, and the collateral damage to his young daughter, Keira. Then, in 1998, the sudden death of his mother hit Missanelli particularly hard. WIP gave him a week off to recover, and he vanished completely, leaving even his siblings to wonder where he’d gone.

One day, as Fredericks hosted their show alone from Eagles training camp, a devastated Missanelli showed up unannounced—not to work, just to talk about the crushing weight of losing both parents and a marriage in short succession. The pair sat in the grandstands of Lehigh University until the summertime heat drove them into Fredericks’s air-conditioned sedan to continue their heart-to-heart. “What I did was listen,” says Fredericks. “He’s a very sensitive guy. He doesn’t like that side of him to come out. Where I grew up in West Philly, you never allowed anyone to see your vulnerability. My guess is that as a blue-collar, working-class town, Bristol is the same.”

Missanelli downplays the impact of his parents’ deaths and his divorce on his anger, but friends say his private turmoil and the pressures of sports radio made for a combustible mix. “You’ve got personal problems, but you try to put them off,” says friend and WIP host Anthony Gargano. “You’ve got to argue on the air, and then you have some joker calling you out in public. You’re supposed to be in a good mood?”

Missanelli’s private unhappiness turned public in 2003. He’d recently walked out on WIP for an ill-fated rock-and-jock experiment at WMMR, and was enjoying a few beers with friends at Chickie’s & Pete’s when a boozed up chucklehead got in his face. Punches were exchanged, and as bouncers separated the two, Missanelli reportedly kept swinging. The buzzed about brawl didn’t help his dismal ratings. Still, when the rock station cut Missanelli loose after 14 months, WIP agreed to take him back.

mikemissanellijpg2.jpgThat’s when he really started to lose it. Security had to pry him away from an instigator at the Wing Bowl after Missanelli issued the old “Why don’t you come down here and say that to my face” challenge. Then that interview with David Akers turned nasty when Missanelli called the Eagles kicker a “girl” and attacked him for not being “a real athlete.” Another day during the transition between Missanelli’s show and Cataldi’s, listeners heard the pair trading barbs—Missanelli said WIP shouldn’t give Eagles mouthpiece Dave Spadaro a platform from which to spew team propaganda, and Cataldi said he wished the station hadn’t rehired Missanelli. When they broke for commercials, Missanelli grabbed Cataldi by the collar, and chaos ensued until Gargano stepped in. “Thankfully Anthony was there,” says Cataldi. “Mike would have kicked my ass.”

Three months later, Gargano would again help separate his pal from a fellow employee, this time at their St. Patrick’s Day show at Brownies. What began as a discussion about technical difficulties escalated when Missanelli’s producer cursed him out. The host would claim that pushing and shoving was the extent of the fracas; others reported that Missanelli threw punches. After watching the incident on the bar’s security tapes, WIP general manager Marc Bayfield couldn’t satisfy his bosses at CBS Radio with a suspension. Missanelli went home that Friday, and by Monday; his relationship with WIP was over for good. The smart guy in the 7OO level had essentially been kicked out of the stadium.

There’s a scene in Swingers where Jon Favreau’s heartsick hipster, Mikey, barricades himself in his apartment to wallow in a post-breakup depression. A buddy stops by to check on him and finds the shades drawn, laundry scattered on the floor, and Mikey low on appetite and looking like he hasn’t showered for days. When asked if that tableau resembles the one Gargano witnessed with his pal in the weeks following Mikey Miss’s public flameout and swift unemployment,

Gargano can’t help but chuckle. “Exactly, cuz,” he says. “Exactly.” Just like when his mother died, Missanelli went off the grid—”laying low” as he’d call it, for a couple months, taking his daughter on a vacation to St. Martin, playing golf at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club, and not doing much else. WIP never encouraged him to seek counseling for his temper, despite rumors to that effect, and Missanelli denies taking any anger management courses on his own.

Eventually, though, he admits that after a few months of wallowing last year, he heeded the advice of a lawyer friend and signed up for a Landmark Education seminar in New York. Based on a program designed in the ’70s, the three-day Landmark session—descended from est—is pure New Age self-help; disrupting the “vicious circle” of behaviors that limit success, ending patterns of self-justification, and achieving “breakthroughs” by reinventing one’s personal philosophy.

That Zen-like release of ego served Missanelli well during a brief stint co-hosting a syndicated ESPN radio show in New York with Stephen A. Smith, whose oversize personality demands a wingman, not an equal.

But the competitive kid from Bristol still wanted another shot at his hometown market, and a chance for redemption. WIP general manager Marc Bayfield says that Missanelli asked him for one more chance, but the station wouldn’t take him back again.

ESPN 950 station manager Bob DeBlois says he’ll be happy with moderate ratings improvement a year from now. Long-term, DeBlois envisions the station catapulting past WIP into the market’s top five. Frankly, if ESPN 950 simply manages to survive, that will be an accomplishment. And if the kinder, gentler Missanelli is the one who shepherds the station to success, well, it will be more than a little ironic.

“I don’t hear the edge,” says one WIP host who listens to Missanelli’s new show and enjoys it (and prefers to remain nameless, so as not to piss off the station by endorsing its competition). “When he criticizes teams, you don’t hear the anger.”

Missanelli insists he’s not worried about breaking under the pressure. “I’ll get angry at a caller,” he says. “But most of the time, I laugh at ’em now” Minutes later, he’s back in his 1980 Fiat Spider convertible and heading home in the rain, looking forward to sunnier days when he can roll the top down, and hoping the road ahead will be smoother than the one in his rearview mirror.

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One thought on “Sports Radio Pundit Gets 2nd Chance

  • September 13, 2008 at 7:32 pm
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    Good for you Mike. I’ve had conversations with Mike Miss and could sense that former presonality that got you fired from WIP. I sensed that ultra competetive edge when playing against him in the MSBL. He was the ONLY pitcher who would challenge hitters with fastballs. I almost snuck one in the gap on him, but a great catch by the center fielder ruined my chance to say I got a hit against Mike Miss.

    As a graduate of the Landmark Forum and Advanced course, I’m pleased to add a testimonial of how immencely it helped me and if can help a hothead like like Mike Miss, that is really saying something.

    VIC

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