Angelo Cataldi, a 94WIP Morning Show host, talks at Wing Bowl 23 last year.

Angelo Cataldi, a 94WIP Morning Show host, talks at Wing Bowl 23 last year.

Via wingbowl.cbslocal.com

The mouth of Wing Bowl: How Angelo Cataldi went from Pulitzer finalist to sports radio barker

Meet the biggest voice of 94WIP’s Morning Show, a once serious journalist who converted to the Dark Side of sports talk radio.

It’s well before breakfast time, and Angelo Cataldi is asking a caller named Gigi what her ass looks like. The radio host has just announced on 94WIP Sports Radio that Dennis Rodman will make an appearance at Wing Bowl, the annual morning of wing eating, scantily-clad women and drunken debauchery, and Gigi — who described herself as a “tall glass of dark chocolate sexy” — wants to be there.

“I have a perfect little booty,” Gigi breathes into her phone. Meanwhile, four strippers from Cheerleaders in South Philly are standing outside the studio where Cataldi and eight other men are putting on a show. The women are waiting to be interviewed live on the air. A producer notes that they’re hammered. One can hardly open her eyes.

Somehow, the Cheerleaders crew makes it through an interview about piercings and buffalo wings and pleasuring Dennis Rodman without addressing the one gal among them who’s maybe too drunk to speak.

“You saw a lot of weird stuff today,” Cataldi tells me after his daily sports talk show had wrapped up at 10 a.m. “Wing Bowl is almost every day like that. Every day is weird that way.”

If anyone is the voice of sports talk radio in this city, it’s Cataldi. The tall 64-year-old who lives in South Jersey and is best known for bloviating about sports from 5:30 to 10 a.m. every day is the hands-down chief of WIP’s long-running Morning Show that’s led the city in sports radio ratings for the last 25 years.

He’s also the loudmouth of Wing Bowl, the now-controversial annual event in its 24th year that packs more than 20,000 into the Wells Fargo Center at an ungodly hour to watch two dozen (nearly all) guys inhale chicken wings. The eating competition that started out with two eaters in a hotel lobby has grown to become one of the most recognized events in Philadelphia every year and, along with that, has come criticism for the entire ordeal: A defiant, drunken horror show of beer bellies, misogyny and gluttony.

And though Cataldi will get up on stage at Wing Bowl 24 on Friday and yell into a microphone to thousands of wasted spectators, he readily admits that side of him is a performance. It’s an act, and it’s also a form of entertainment that a younger version of Cataldi — the serious reporter, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist — would not have recognized.

You know Angelo Cataldi. He’s the shouter who had beef with Chip Kelly, who keeps a long-running feud with Fox 29’s Howard Eskin. Who publicly wanted Andy Reid fired for seven years, and kept a running drumbeat of criticism going for Donovan McNabb. He’s the guy who’s been called every name in the book by some of Philadelphia’s most powerful sports figures.

But somehow, for Cataldi — a self-described socially awkward “loner” who, off-air, could easily be mistaken for a quiet grandfather from Medford — being the guy Philly loves to hate just stuck.

‘I couldn’t have compromised my credibility any more’

Angelo Cataldi was thrilled when he got a job feeler from the Philadelphia Inquirer in his 20s. He’d always hated his hometown of Providence where he was covering the Celtics after running his own weekly paper in the small town of Narragansett, Rhode Island. He felt he was meant for a place like Philly.

“When I heard it was The Inquirer, I went ‘oh my God, that’s perfect ‘cause they’re real vicious there,’” he said of the city and its headline-making sports fans. “They’re nasty. They’re mean.”

He got the job in Philly covering the Eagles at The Inquirer and quickly became known around the newsroom for some serious investigative chops. After covering the Eagles’ 1986 season under new head coach Buddy Ryan, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in specialized reporting.

In 1988, Cataldi’s coworker Al Morganti, who covered the Flyers at the time, came up with a bright idea: The two should host a sports talk show a couple times a week with some of The Inquirer beat reporters.

They both enjoyed it, but treated the show as an extension of the journalism they were doing at the newspaper. After two years, Cataldi says he grew sick of the bureaucracy at the Inky and had a job offer to cover the Chargers for the Los Angeles Times during an era that was the paper’s heyday. It had a newsroom twice the Inquirer’s size, with national ambition and a staff that flew first-class everywhere it went, and the bosses wanted Cataldi to cover a southern California NFL franchise. This was a dream job in capital-J Journalism.

But he was worried about moving his family 3,000 miles away to the West Coast. And then an offer from WIP came along to join the station full-time. Cataldi figured it was the perfect move for him — he’d get out of the Inky newsroom and avoid uprooting his wife and kids.

His editor at The Inquirer told him he’d lose credibility and would have to start shilling for products on the radio. Cataldi responded that he’d always be a writer. This was just to be a brief respite from journalism.

“Twenty-six years later, I’m still doing this,” Cataldi, who now reportedly makes seven figures, said with a chuckle. “And I couldn’t have compromised my credibility any more.”

Ruling the Philly airwaves

Angelo Cataldi, left, talks with Rain, a stripper from Cheerleaders, about the upcoming Wing Bowl event.

Angelo Cataldi, left, talks with Rain, a stripper from Cheerleaders, about the upcoming Wing Bowl event.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

The first time I walked into the WIP offices on the ninth floor of 400 Market Street, Cataldi’s voice live on the air was blaring over a loudspeaker. Behind the main desk are the six studios that house the action, the talkers, their guests. Cataldi, Morganti and the people they’re bringing on the air post up in the main studio while Rhea Hughes, the admitted voice of reason on the Morning Show, sits in a side studio — “because someone’s got to get some work done.” The common area is covered in a large Eagles carpet, and four clothed strippers who are “Wingettes” at Wing Bowl are sitting on stadium seats. There’s a guy riding a Razor scooter past a tower of TastyKakes.

The Morning Show gang’s all here. Cataldi, the host, is sitting in the corner of the studio wearing a tan button-down shirt tucked into blue jeans. He’s got a deep, clear, kind of breathless voice with a slight twang in his accent. Morganti’s an almost anonymous-looking unkempt guy perched atop a tall chair. And Hughes is the put-together one — the adult in the room who brushes her hair, wears a blazer and graciously welcomes everyone who comes in.

Nine men in total are inside the main studio. Cataldi is screaming on-air to an NJ.com reporter about how he’d pay for a limo to send Mark Sanchez back to New York. Morganti is scrolling through Twitter, the window of which is covering up his desktop background: A female volleyball player from behind. In between Cataldi and Morganti is Jon Runyan, a former Eagle and New Jersey congressman who joined WIP last fall, who’s scrolling through the Wikipedia page of Dennis Rodman.

WIP cuts to commercial after Cataldi gives away some tickets to Wing Bowl after getting people excited that Rodman, the former NBA star, would be at the event and its subsequent after-party at SugarHouse Casino, the primary sponsor. Morganti says WIP is taking flak on social media for inviting Rodman, who fans said didn’t represent the soul of Wing Bowl. Cataldi says that’s the reason he’s not on Twitter.

“Do we even know he’s coming?” Runyan asked Cataldi. He was sort of joking. Mostly not.

“No, that’s the thing,” Cataldi shot back, laughing. “I’m going to introduce early next week the possibility that he might not come.” Rodman later tweeted that he’d show up to Wing Bowl.

It’s this brand of hyperbole that’s kept 94WIP, once on 610 AM, at or near the top of the sports radio ratings in Philly for 25 years. Cataldi has a loud, commanding presence in the studio that took years to develop. His first day on the job, Cataldi remembers that he thought he’d killed it, but program director Tom Bigby pulled him into his office and told him he didn’t — to stop worrying about what he was saying like a journalist would. Focus more on entertaining.

And Angelo Cataldi, The Entertainer was born.

His show has become somewhat of a cross-section of sports, culture and politics. Most crucially, it gained influence. In 2003, Philly public relations and political expert Larry Ceisler said if he can land a client on Cataldi’s show, “it’s a home run. It’s even better than being quoted in the dailies. Opinion leaders pay attention to Angelo.”

Rendell and the late Arlen Specter were known to frequent the show. Then-candidate Barack Obama was on with him twice in 2008, a Senator who wanted to win over Pennsylvania voters in the presidential primary. The first time Obama called into the show in March, Cataldi asked him questions about his politics: Why should we elect you president? How will you approach being the first African American president? Are we empowering our enemies by ending the war in Iraq the way you want to?

Throughout the interview, Obama sounded a little off, quieter than usual. Seems taken back by Cataldi’s line of questioning. After the six-minute interview wrapped, a WIP producer got a call from Obama’s campaign:

“What the hell was that? Senator Obama was on to give his NCAA basketball picks. He wasn’t prepared to talk politics.”

But no one had told Cataldi that. So two weeks later, they brought him on again. This time, Obama talked about how he’d really rather be Dr. J in his prime than be president of the United States.

“When I have to lapse back into journalist-doing-an-interview,” Cataldi says, “that’s a whole different persona than the guy that’s on most of the time.”

Somehow, Wing Bowl is born

Like most big ideas in the WIP studio, this one was all on Al Morganti.

Much like today, 24 years ago, the Eagles were not in the Super Bowl. Coach Rich Kotite was attempting to rebuild the team, and it didn’t seem like the Eagles would contend for a championship the next year, either. In January 1993, Morganti, probably because he was bored with the down month, rambled on-air about how WIP should sponsor a party involving eating buffalo wings to stick it to the Bills, who’d been in the Super Bowl four times in the late ‘80s through the mid-’90s.

A listener volunteered to pay for the grub. The show already was being broadcast from the former Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel lobby the Friday before the Super Bowl, and so the first Wing Bowl was born, but it was a quiet birth; the guys from WIP didn’t even tell the hotel because they figured no one would show up.

Nearly 200 people came to watch. Two men volunteered to compete, and the winner who realized he’d eaten 100 wings and was well ahead of his opponent leaned back and lit a cigarette in the middle of the showdown. He won a hibachi grill that the deejays found in the back of the station’s prize closet.

Cataldi and Morganti figured that, hell, people were into this. So Wing Bowl 2 was a little bit bigger. More than 800 people showed up this time at Mike Schmidt’s sports bar that was at 8th and Walnut. Over the years, the venues — Club Egypt, the Electric Factory, the Spectrum — got bigger to accommodate the crowds that grew every year.

“It kept getting bigger and we kept not believing that it was,” Cataldi said. “And we kept saying ‘where’s the limit? It’s a bunch of fat guys eating chicken wings.’ And it didn’t matter… we know adding the women had a big effect.”

By Wing Bowl 4, Morganti and Cataldi realized that with more competitors, it was getting harder to serve wings to the eaters. And then a light bulb went on: The servers would be women. “It wasn’t like ‘oh, good we’ll dress ‘em real provocatively,” he said. But if you’ve followed anything about Wing Bowl or have seen a picture of a Wingette, you know how that turned out — it’s now dozens of women who arrive by the busload every year without actually earning a cent from the Wing Bowl organizers. The Wingettes, mostly strippers, exotic dancers and go-go dancers, say it’s the best marketing they could ask for.

In 2005 when the Eagles were in the Super Bowl, thousands of people showed up to what was then the Wachovia Center by 4 a.m. for Wing Bowl and Cataldi had to crowd surf just to get in the door. Regulations were put in place. A nominal fee was set that would go to charity. And tickets began being sold.

Maybe the hosts aren’t sure why more people are attending Wing Bowl every year, but they surely know why it’s gotten bigger: It’s a moneymaker. SugarHouse Casino sponsors the event, regional restaurant group P.J. Whelihans does the wings, and every strip joint and gentleman’s club and go-go dancing group in southeastern Pennsylvania gets a cut from the free marketing, several of which offer specials at their clubs as soon as the WIP broadcast ends. And 94WIP Morning Show hosts have fodder for the show from Thanksgiving to Groundhog Day.

Some years they hooked up with Major League Eating, an umbrella organization that oversees eating competitions throughout the country, which would provide well-known professional eaters like Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas and Takeru Kobayashi. Some years, including this year, they didn’t.

George Shea, chairman of the MLE, said the relationship with WIP was contentious, largely because of the unscientific nature of Wing Bowl. Wings aren’t weighed and they’re counted quickly. If Shea ran his MLE events like WIP ran Wing Bowl, his eaters wouldn’t participate.

“They have created tension. I think Al told me I could kiss his ass on the air,” said George Shea, chairman of the MLE. But he said he respects Wing Bowl, and said Cataldi has “a way of managing things that I think is second to none.”

Now in its 24th year, Wing Bowl takes place at the Wells Fargo Center on Philadelphia’s largest stage, save for maybe the Linc itself. It’s the most nerve-wracking day of the year for the guys at WIP. They’re waiting for the year that someone dies in the stands or a fire starts in the Wells Fargo Center or the building collapses under the weight of all those dudes.

Each year when Cataldi takes the stage to look out upon a sea of drunk guys, he always says to himself, “I don’t believe this is actually happening.”

“Because I’m positive going in that we don’t know what we’re doing,” he says. “Every other day, I feel like I can control it. Wing Bowl? Not a chance.”

More than a radio host?

Angelo Cataldi (in the red) stands in the WIP studios with Rhea Hughes and Ed Rendell.

Angelo Cataldi (in the red) stands in the WIP studios with Rhea Hughes and Ed Rendell.

Via @jordanlea02 on Twitter

Once Cataldi got into sports radio, he stopped watching live sports.

The Morning Show starts at 5:30 a.m., Cataldi’s usually awake by 2 a.m. and rolls into the office at 3 a.m. or shortly thereafter. That means a 6 p.m. bedtime that’s only broken if the Eagles are playing. That, he’ll stay up for. Everything else he’ll catch up on from highlights or tapings. It’s an odd part of this corner of sports journalism and entertainment: The fact that the guys who are supposed to be experts in local sports rarely watch them live.

Still, the show’s hosts wish fans knew the hours it takes to put together a show of screaming sports personalities for four hours every day. They also wish they knew the end goal.

“You know I never put this into words,” he says, “but honestly we want a person that puts our show on to hear himself — the fan base — speaking.”

It’s why he sometimes feels bad about calling people idiots live on the air. The personal attacks are probably unnecessary. But he’s gotten plenty himself. Cataldi’s been publicly called a jackass and a moron and a blowhard more times than he can count.

He says he well knows his time is almost up. There can only be a few more years of this before retirement truly beckons. He’s exhausted.

Outside the studio between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 a.m., Cataldi is quieter. He has two kids in their thirties, and two step-kids. Five grandchildren run circles around him. And though he and Al Morganti spent so many years together, they’re not close outside the studio. Cataldi calls himself a loner and says he’s socially awkward when he’s not in front of a microphone.

And while this guy who is known across Philadelphia as being the radio host who asks women like Gigi what their ass looks like before breakfast time, none of those moments compare to the best caller he ever received on WIP. It was seven years ago when his son called in and told him he’d be a grandfather to twin boys.

“It was one of the greatest highlights,” Cataldi said, pausing. “Of my whole life.”

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