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Tyrone Johnson: The Voice of Philly Sports Radio
A rising voice in Philly sports hails from Pennsauken
By Kate Morgan

For as long as he can remember, Tyrone Johnson has been obsessed with sports. Since his childhood in Pennsauken, the 41-year-old has aspired to a career in sports radio. Now he’s there, and in a big way. Johnson is the full-time producer of (and appears daily on) the popular Mike Missanelli show on 97.5 The Fanatic. He hosts his own Saturday morning show on the Fanatic and co-hosts the TV show “Sixers Outsider” on NBCSPhilly. He’s had a long and winding career, with stops in lots of major cities, but being back in Philly feels like coming full circle: this loud, passionate, eventful sports town is also home. And there’s a lot to talk about.

Q: Do you remember the day you realized you wanted to be in sports radio?

Yes, I remember it exactly. I’m 12 years old, and it’s a snow day. For Christmas my dad bought me and my brother a weight set, and it was in the basement. There was this AM radio that had been left behind by the former owners of the house. We were like let’s plug it in, see if it works. I turn it on, and it’s the Philly sports talk station. I didn’t even know that existed. I was like, you’re kidding me, you can talk about sports as a job? From that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

Q: Your first radio job was in Philadelphia, right?

It was WIP, which was the only sports talk station at the time. I was going to college, and my financial situation made an internship impossible, so I needed a job. I faxed in my resume, something like 7 or 8 consecutive times.

Q: You started out working behind the scenes, but you now have more visibility. Did you always want to be on-air?

I didn’t know I could. I thought Black people couldn’t talk about sports unless they were playing sports. There were no sports talk hosts who were Black who weren’t former professional athletes. Not anywhere in the country. Especially not in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the Caucasian ones – some had won contests, some were just superfans. In 2004, a host told me I’d scare white people. Just flat out told me that.

I got pretty content behind the scenes because I thought that was how it was gonna be. Then, 2 hosts I was working with started using me on the air, because they thought I was funny. And I started thinking…why can’t I be the first? Eventually, I got my own show on 94.5 The Hawk. It was a sports show, but it was like a sports and rock show – a mix. Then the station got sold, and the new management let us all go.

 

“I love what I do, but I’m still not the guy. I still work hard every day, because I want that chance. I think I’m funny, and that helps. So does having strong opinions and being able to back them up.”

Q: You had a string of really impressive jobs after that, but none in sports. How did that happen?

I started working at Wall Street Journal Radio. I’d help the engineer, and I’d help produce the morning show. I got away from sports and thought I was going to stay away. I started to love radio itself more than just sports. Suddenly I’m doing financial reports, and I’m like ok, this might be my lot in life. Then, WSJ radio closes.

Still to this day I don’t know how I got the next job. I get a call from Glenn Beck’s radio network at the time, Blaze Radio. I was working in New York for the first time. Next thing you know, I’m on the air after presidential debates. Then they announce they’re moving operations to Dallas and they ask me to come. But I’m a married man, my family’s all here. I’m not moving to Dallas.

Q: What’s your take on Philly fans?

It’s a passionate city, and Philly gets a bad rap. Take the example with Russell Westbrook. There were multiple days of national headlines because one dumb fan decided to dump popcorn on a player. Sure I think that’s bad, and there needs to be harsh action to prevent stuff like that from happening. But meanwhile at [Madison Square] Garden, a fan spit on a player, and it was barely a footnote. In Boston a fan was charged with assault for throwing a full water bottle, and it’s gotten less press. We have our share of morons, but we’re not alone in having idiotic fans.

Q: How about the state of Philly sports right now?

The Phillies? The Phillies fired their manager in the offseason and ended up hiring someone who’s won a World Series and put 3 teams in the playoffs. But they still have the worst farm system in a long time, and a complete inability to produce any outfielders. There are no exciting prospects. So what can this GM, who hasn’t been here for one offseason, do to create them? I think what Dave Dombrowski can do to the farm system will be the most exciting thing to see.

Q: What about the future of the Flyers?

With the Flyers, they’ve got numerous young prospects. The question is will they be patient enough to watch the team have growing pains? They’ll stay inconsistent until they can get quality goalie play. That’s the spot they haven’t been able to put together for like 30 years. The last real great was Ron Hextall – the first time, before he left – and there’s been none since.

Q: There have been some major changes in the Eagles organization, too. Thoughts on that?

The Eagles fired the only Super Bowl-winning coach in franchise history and replaced him with someone who’s never been a head coach before, and filled a number of positions with other first-time coaches. The quarterback coach has never been a quarterback coach in the NFL. The linebacker coach is in his 30s and has never been a linebacker coach before. New is not always bad, but new is new, and we have no way of knowing, because none of them have a track record. I can’t assume anything. It’s risky, and there will be growing pains. Will the city be patient? That’s not something this area is good at.

Q: And of course, the big question for the Sixers: Will Ben Simmons be on the roster next season?

Clearly, it’s extremely disappointing. And this is a problem no other team in NBA history has had to deal with: there has never been an All Star-caliber guard with a complete and utter disdain for shooting a basketball. And his refusal to shoot – mental, physical, whatever – made it completely impossible to win.

Will another team even want Simmons? His problem is so unique that it’s impossible to project what other teams might think about him. So if you have to keep him, can you fix him? I’m big on never calling for a person to be fired…but in this particular case, at this point, I don’t know if they ever have another chance with him still on the roster.

He’s chosen not to be transparent, and that’s his right. But if we knew what was going on, it’d be a lot easier to forgive these failures. But the only thing we know is Ben Simmons’ body showed up but his brain didn’t and we don’t know why.

Q: What was it like to have this job during the pandemic?

We had to do several months of sports radio with no sports. We were just trying to entertain the people and just stay with them. We had to come up with things to talk about 5 days a week. You still have to fill 4 hours, and that’s not easy to do when there are sports. It was just about trying to get people through it. We’re part of their daily routine, and we felt a responsibility to do a good job and be entertaining.

Q: Now that you’re back in Philly doing the job you’ve always wanted, do you feel you’ve made it?

I’ve almost made it. I love what I do, but I’m still not the guy. I still work hard every day, because I want that chance. I think I’m funny, and that helps. So does having strong opinions and being able to back them up. Many times, people are good until they’re challenged. This job is to be challenged every hour of every day. That’s the difference between the successful sports talk host and the guy at the bar. And because I’m the first Black host who’s not a former athlete or manager, because of the hurdles put in front of me, I can’t be as good as the next person. I have to be better.

Q: Do you feel like you’re setting an example for the next generation?

I hope there’s a young, talented, hardworking person who thinks they’ll have an opportunity because of me. And I hope they go on to have much more success than I’ve had. I’ve mostly just survived. I hope somebody who comes behind me can have success.

July 2021
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