New WIP host finding Philly the city that loves you back - or not

Innes has been at home in a radio studio almost as long as he can remember - it was a childhood dream.    STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Innes has been at home in a radio studio almost as long as he can remember - it was a childhood dream.    STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (   STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: February 27, 2014

ONE month. That's all it took for WIP-FM (94.1) nighttime host Josh Innes to receive his first death threat.

It happened via Twitter on Feb. 4, about four weeks after he took over the 6-to-10 weeknight shift. Innes, who came here from Houston, had been defending Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper.

Cooper began the 2013 season in controversy after a video surfaced that caught him using the N-word at a Lincoln Financial FieldĀ concert.

"Somebody said something to me on Twitter, and I [used the phrase] 'I dodged that bullet,' " the 27-year-old sports-gabber said during a recent interview at the station's Old City headquarters. "A guy [tweeted], 'If you keep defending Riley Cooper, you'll have to dodge real bullets.' I probably should have not talked about [the threat] on the air, but it was interesting. That's one of my biggest flaws - I think everything is for broadcast."

That hold-nothing-back attitude is why the guy who brought Innes to town believes that the Poplar Bluff, Mo., native is on his way to being the market's next radio superstar.

"Josh gets an amazing reaction," WIP Operations Director Andy Bloom said. "There are people who strongly dislike him, as they disliked Howard Cosell . . . and Howard Stern. Some will hate him and listen every day, some will [not listen] and others will find he is the most unique and compelling personality that they've heard, and he'll find an audience. And you don't have to have 50 percent of the audience to be No. 1."

A Stern warning

Bloom certainly knows his onions when it comes to bringing lightning-rod broadcasters to town. He launched Stern's national career in 1986. As program director of WIP's predecessor, WYSP-FM, he was the first to syndicate Stern's New York-based morning-drive program. And, while he didn't equate the two, Bloom definitely believes that Stern and Innes have plenty in common.

"The traits and qualities are similar: strong opinions, brash, fearless, prepared, willing to take controversial stands," he said.

Innes has been criticized for not having a technical knowledge of sports.

"I look at sports in a different way," he said. "Not everything is X's and O's. There's another dimension to sports talk. . . . It's how [sports] affects life."

That Innes, whose 6-foot-3, 325-pound frame automatically makes him probably the largest figure in local radio, has hit the big time before his 28th birthday isn't all that surprising.

Innes' dad, Scott, is a veteran radio personality in the South and Midwest. As such, Josh grew up around broadcasting.

But his obsession began when he was 13. His grandfather, a "Dumpster diver" who'd often bring him toys found on his trash-exploring forays, unearthed a Talk Boy toy that had a microphone attached to it.

"So, I started calling the baseball games from the TV - the '99-2000 season. I wanted to be Jack Buck," Josh said, referring to the then-St. Louis Cardinals play-by-play announcer.

He bought a transmitter kit in 2001 and turned his bedroom into a studio - with a broadcast range of about a mile.

He didn't go out much.

"Dude, I did not get laid until I was 19," he unabashedly proclaimed. "All the other kids are out at a bonfire drinking beer and I'm at home [affects radio announcer voice], 'Hey! This is the Josh Innes Show!' I would fake my phone calls with a walkie-talkie."

Behind the mic at 15

"He was not a ladies' man, he didn't have the confidence in that regard," said Walt Lemoine, who was both Innes' basketball coach and principal at Brusly High School, in Brusly, La., a suburb of Baton Rouge, where he is still principal. Lemoine is one of several older men whom Innes describes as "another father" to him.

Innes attended but did not graduate from Louisiana State University. He claimed that he saved the school the trouble of expelling him for poor grades by dropping out. But he was still in high school when he entered broadcasting for real.

In 2002, just 15 years old, he was hired by the local minor-league hockey team, the Baton Rouge Kingfish, to do second-period play-by-play. Team officials thought that the novelty of such a young broadcaster would get the club publicity. After a season, Innes was hired to announce for the Baton Rouge River Bats, in the now-defunct Southeastern League.

An established voice in the Baton Rouge sports scene, he continued to work while in high school. At one point, he landed a daily talk-show job in Baton Rouge that required him to leave school for a couple of hours each day, with Lemoine's blessing.

An uneasy partnership

In 2009, Innes began subscribing to a service that helped people find radio jobs. His demo tape made its way to Houston, where he was hired by CBS-owned KILT-AM in 2010. Oddly enough, the station's dial setting is 610, the same as WIP's AM frequency.

His first job at KILT was as the third member of the station's morning-drive team. Then he became co-host of the afternoon shift, teamed with the much-older Rich Lord.

It was not a match made in radio heaven.

Lord, Innes said, "didn't like me. We really didn't have a good rapport. He always seemed embarrassed by the stuff I would do, but [he] enjoyed the success that eventually came with it."

That success was manifested in the station lapping the ratings field, thanks, in part, to Innes' take-no-prisoners style.

His dislike for Lord, who has remained silent about his former partner, and management changes fueled a desire to leave Houston.

He had offers from stations in several markets, but Philadelphia was where he wanted to be.

"I wanted to go somewhere the sports radio was more relevant," he said. "If you want relevant sports-talk radio, you have to go to New York-Boston-Philly. That's what it comes down to."

Tough love, our town

So far, Innes, who lives with his girlfriend in Manayunk, likes what he sees here, especially among the citizenry.

"One of the things I love is the passion, positive and negative," he said, insisting that our harsh winter weather "breeds tougher people."

"People are leaving work and it's 15 degrees and they're miserable," he said. "These people don't take any s---."

When he was in Houston, Innes was accused of making negative comments about players just to provoke calls. He denies it.

"I hate when people say, 'You're just trying to get phone calls.' No. I'm trying to do something good. I'll give you an opinion and try to do it in a way that will get a response, but I don't contrive opinions just to do that."

Innes said he was warned about Philly listeners' "parochial" nature and how we are not particularly welcoming to interlopers.

He's not buying it.

"I get it," he said. "I get that passion and desire. But a microphone is a microphone, and an audience is an audience. If you're doing something people like and you're good at it, people are going to respond positively or negatively, and you've seen I've gotten a fair share of both."

Indeed, during a recent broadcast with a reporter in the studio, Innes solicited opinions about himself from listeners. The first two were unambiguously negative; of the next 11, nine were favorable.

But even negative reaction counts.

As station chief Bloom pointed out in the film "Private Parts," based on Stern's autobiographical book about his radio career, bosses at a Washington, D.C., station were stunned when a ratings survey revealed that people who hated Stern listened to him more often than those who liked him.

Which is why both Bloom and Innes expect Innes to stick around for a long time.

"I wouldn't have a problem with that," he replied when asked if he saw himself in Philly for the next 20 or 30 years. "That's why I'm here. That's what I want."


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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