PHILADELPHIA — Jon Marks leans into a yellow-tipped, 94WIP-flagged microphone, takes a deep breath and watches for his producer's hand to switch from the finger countdown — five, four, three, two, one — to the index finger point, the universal radio-producer signal for go-time.
"Good afternoon, everybody — and welcome!" Marks screams, his words exploding across the expanse of Chickie's and Pete's sports bar in South Philadelphia, a Hail Mary pass from Lincoln Financial Field. "It's the Monday of Super Bowl week! Did those words just come out of my mouth?!"
The excitement in the voice and on the face of 94WIP Sports Radio's afternoon-drive co-host stems from the Philadelphia Eagles playing in the Super Bowl for the first time in 13 years.
"It's the Marks and Reese show!" Marks shouts, his words flowing through his microphone's orange cord, to a control board, out of a satellite truck parked in front, back to the station's downtown headquarters, out to a broadcast tower in Roxborough, into the radios of cars all across the freeways of the Delaware Valley and — through the wonders of modern radio technology — to laptops in far-flung offices and ear buds in iPhones and into the anxious ears of some of the most passionate, devoted and opinionated Eagles fans across this fair land.
If the Eagles' fan base is like a body — burly, beer-filled, title-starved and clad in a Nick Foles No. 9 jersey that hasn't been washed in a month, because that's how long the Eagles have been unbeaten — WIP, the team's flagship station since 1992, is its throbbing, red heart. And at this moment, that heart, worn down and taxed by the passage of so many years without a title and the disappointment of having come so close so many times, is full of life, full of hope and full of confidence.
"It's the barometer for how the city is feeling about the team," Marks says before his 2-6 p.m. show Monday, when asked about the culture of sports-talk radio in this sports-mad market. "The Eagles are such a part of our everyday lives, there's probably not another singular event that could happen in this city that would have the impact of the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. As crazy as that sounds, it's the truth."
A few minutes into the show, Marks and Ike Reese — the latter a former linebacker and Pro Bowl special teams player for the Eagles from 1998 to 2004 and a sports-talk veteran of 10 years — get down to the business at hand: Can the Eagles beat the mighty, star-studded, dynastic New England Patriots six days hence?
"Would you be surprised if the Eagles won?" Marks asks Reese.
"No," Reese replies.
"Would you be surprised if the Eagles won by double digits?" Marks follows up.
"I wouldn't," Marks says firmly. "I'm not saying it's probable. But I just look at how the Eagles are playing right now. I feel really good about the matchup and the team."
And then it's time to take callers, their names already filling the queue and glowing from the screen of Marks's laptop. First up: Dave in Maple Shade.
Right about that moment, out on the city's western edge, a man is making a sandwich, his radio tuned as always to 94.1 FM, WIP's frequency. Over the air, Dave in Maple Shade is saying he's certain — certain! — the Eagles are going to win. "We've got this game," he says. "I've never been more sure of something."
Dave's extreme confidence seems to be a shared trait among Eagles fans. During one stretch later Monday, three straight callers predict the team to win by scores of 38-27, 35-3 and 42-20.
"It takes a special talent to go from 'season's over with' a few weeks ago to 'No problem; we're going to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick,' " Reese muses on the air, alluding to the nihilistic angst that gripped the fan base after starting quarterback Carson Wentz's late-season injury and the ugly regular season finish that followed. "That's a special mentality, man."
The man with the sandwich, 55-year-old Darren Levi Cephas, gets ready to reach for his phone.
"I'm about to eat this lunch," says the man known across the vast landscape of Philadelphia sports-talk radio as Levi in Overbrook Park, "and go get myself on hold."
Wait times for callers to WIP's midweek shows can run over an hour, even on a slow day. This week, with Eagles fever at its peak, they are approaching two hours. And nobody, not even the notorious Levi in Overbrook Park — who probably leads all WIP callers in minutes on the air, this year and every year — gets a pass to the front of the line.
WIP's history in this town is such — and the Eagles' penetration in this media market is such — that many of the most frequent and most colorful callers to WIP's shows become mini-celebrities, at least within the subculture of this singular and insular ecosystem.
There's Linda in Mayfair, who kept calling in even as she was fighting — and beating — breast cancer. There's Arson Arnie, one of the so-called "Dirty Thirty" who, at the instigation of longtime WIP morning host Angelo Cataldi, amassed at the 1999 NFL draft in New York and famously booed the Eagles' selection of quarterback Donovan McNabb with the second pick.
There's Cowboy Dave and Mitchie Tools and Eagles Shirley. There's Charles in Northeast Philadelphia, Chuck in Lansdale, Gus in Allentown and Angel in Olney.
There's Phil in Mount Airy, who was so good on the air with WIP's hosts that the rival station, WPEN-97.5 the Fanatic, gave him his own show.
"Having WIP on," says Alan Techner, a regular caller who goes by the handle Alan in Central Jersey, summing up the sense of community, "is like having a friend in the car."
Levi in Overbrook Park is perhaps the most well-known of the callers — if by "well-known," you mean ubiquitous, notorious and polarizing. Radio hosts know him well, to the extent you can know a disembodied voice that is in your ear on an almost daily basis. The very mention of Levi's name brings wry smiles on the faces of Marks and Reese, followed by something very close to an eye-roll.
"He would call in to every show, every day, if you let him," Marks says.
In fact, Levi tries to do exactly that. Most weekdays, he calls at least one WIP show and sometimes all of them, plus Howard Eskin's Saturday morning show and Sonny Hill's Sunday morning show. He doesn't always make it on to each show each time, but he figures he gets on the air an average of nine times per week.
But he's looking for something even bigger, something like what Phil in Mount Airy once pulled off.
"I'm trying to get into the industry," he tells this reporter. "I am an aspiring radio host, and with your help, that just might happen."
This is Levi's scouting report on himself as a caller: "Levi is analytical. He gets right straight to the point. He can also joke from time to time. But he's serious about sports, and he has his own opinion, and the hosts don't sway him one way or the other."
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Late in this Eagles season, a petition appeared online — posted by "Anonymous" — seeking to ban Levi from calling into WIP shows. "Most of Philly is tired of hearing Levi call into every WIP show, almost daily," the petition reads. "He flip-flops on his point of view and denies it, he attempts to hijack each show by not letting hosts get a word in . . . [and] his negativity . . . infects those who hear him complain."
But is it good news for Levi — or bad news — that as of Wednesday evening, it had only four signatures?
On the day in 2005 when Reese left the Eagles and signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons, he went on the air with the WIP midday crew and agreed to take calls from fans. It was a risky deal. While most callers simply would be grateful for the chance to say goodbye and to thank Reese for his seven years with the Eagles (a period that included four straight trips to the NFC title game), it was live radio, and you could never be sure. Spurned fans have a way of turning passion into anger.
But the caller Reese always will remember from that day is the heartbroken guy who broke down crying — full-on sobbing, right there, live, on the air.
"That was awkward," Reese recalls.
When Reese, after retiring as a player, returned to Philadelphia in 2008 and went to work for WIP, that crying caller from years earlier stayed with him.
"It gave me a sort of appreciation for how much sports means to the people of this city," he says. "As a person who is a conduit or a vessel for fans, you'd better know that and appreciate that. You'd better get a clear understanding of what it means to them. It may never get to that point for you — and hopefully it will — but you'd better know what it means to them because that's what every call is about — what it means to them. That's our bloodline. That's what we rely on: people caring about sports as if life and death depended on it."
Much of the rest of the country views Philadelphia sports fans as the species' lowest form — drunken, boorish, confrontational and sometimes violent. The reputation was forged from incidents both real (the rude treatment of McNabb by the "Dirty Thirty") and embellished (the time fans booed Santa Claus), and it was reinforced by a handful of viral videos, media reports and rumors from the Eagles' win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game Jan. 21.
There was the fan who punched the police horse, the one who shouted expletives on live TV, the ones who doused Vikings fans with beer, the ones who pelted the Vikings' team bus with bottles.
"The view from the inside is we have this rep, and it's somewhat deserved because there have been fans who have done dumb things," said Kyle Scott, founder of the influential Philadelphia sports blog CrossingBroad.com. "When we see this stuff, we acknowledge there are dumb [people] within the ranks, but this kind of sports-fan behavior happens everywhere. When [the Eagles] won the other night, everyone from the content farms like Bleacher Report — their narrative was already crafted: What dumb stuff can we find Eagles fans doing? And some of it was over the top."
In the digital age, sports-talk radio has healthy competition as the gathering place for fans. But even the 34-year-old Scott, the blogfather of Philadelphia's online sports community, acknowledges the enduring sway of radio.
"Philly is known for sports-talk radio. WIP is one of the canonical examples of sports talk in the country," he says. "Sports-talk radio is still huge, [but] there's a new generation of people who get their information through Twitter and from bloggers and podcasts. There's a vibrant community of fans under 40 or under 30. So the mainstream outlets are becoming less relevant but still more so than in other cities."
The brain and the soul of the Eagles' fan base may lie in some other sphere, but radio remains its heart. Only on the radio can you hear, taste and feel the sort of emotion shown the morning of Dec. 12 — the day after Wentz's injury was diagnosed as a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear — by a WIP caller named Chris, who broke down in tears on the air with Cataldi.
"I'm just tired," Chris sobbed. "Why do we get hurt all the time? It's not fair."
And only on radio can a character such as Levi in Overbrook Park become notorious, his unmistakable voice grating on nerves or bringing a knowing smile to the faces of his fellow fans. Love him or hate him, you can't ignore him.
"You can quote me on this," Levi says over the phone Monday, just before dialing in to the Marks and Reese show and spending the next couple of hours on hold. "The Eagles are going to win by at least two touchdowns, and it's going to be the party to end all parties in this city. It's going to last at least a year.
"Remember: You heard it here first."