For the first time in 10 years, 97.5 The Fanatic has a new program director.

Starting on Dec. 4, veteran programmer Eric Johnson, who has spent the last 19 years in New Jersey running the highly ranked NJ 101.5, will take over at The Fanatic, at a time when sports in Philadelphia are a hot commodity.

"There's no excuse why we can't have two top-five sports stations in Philadelphia, especially right now," Johnson said. "When I take a look at the ratings, I see some great statistics I can work with. I know there's a gap there, and my first goal is to close that gap a bit."

Johnson, who steps in following the 10-year tenure of Matt Nahigian, faces an uphill ratings battle in taking on the rival sports talkers at WIP. In the last quarterly ratings book, WIP finished third overall in the market, nearly three full ratings shares ahead of The Fanatic, which ended the period in 10th place among men 25-54, a key demographic for both stations.

But that doesn't mean The Fanatic doesn't have assets Johnson can work with. The station owns the radio broadcast rights for the Sixers and the Flyers and popular host Mike Missanelli remains dominant in the afternoon (by his count he's outlasted eight competing shows on WIP). The newest challenge the station faces is WIP's duo of Jon Marks and Ike Reese, who start together on Thursday following Chris Carlin's departure to WFAN in New York City.

The Fanatic’s Mike Missanelli remains the station’s most popular personality.
The Fanatic’s Mike Missanelli remains the station’s most popular personality.

Missanelli and Johnson both worked at WIP in the mid-1990s. Both subscribe to former WIP program director Tom Bigby's philosophy of mixing sports talk with guy talk.

"He's obviously really well-versed on sports and sports history, but he also has a great grasp on entertainment and he's got a great barometer on what men find interesting," Johnson said of Missanelli. "Whether it's sports or fashion or movies, he's a really gifted broadcaster."

Johnson also likes the rest of The Fanatic's current line-up, which features Anthony Gargano and former Daily News Sixers reporter Bob Cooney in the morning and Jason Myrtetus and Harry Mayes midday. Johnson hopes some stability will help the two shows make ratings gains, and also thinks he can help behind the scenes.

"My first order of business will be a bit of tightening up, hoping to make the shows a little hotter, a little more fast moving," Johnson said. "I think the station just needs a little more of an in-your-face presence to really reflect the Philadelphia market."

Johnson has spent a large chunk of his career looking at audience research. When it comes to sports radio, he thinks hosts are just part of the equation.

"Listeners listen for the host's personality and their opinions, but just as important is they love listening to the opinions of other fans," Johnson said. "To me, The Fanatic putting more listener calls on the air than WIP is a strength because that's what people listen for.

When Beasley's purchase of Greater Media closed last November, it took over the Fanatic and three other radio stations in Philadelphia, including 93.3 WMMR and 95.7 WBEN. Prior to the purchase, Beasley already owned often-overlooked 610 AM WTEL, with airs syndicated ESPN content and Villanova and Temple football games, with some local content sprinkled in. Johnson said he hasn't had many discussions about the future of 610 yet, but might use it as a farm system to develop talent.

"610 is a heritage frequency for sports radio, so there's value there," Johnson said. "If the Fanatic should lose a major player for one reason or another, it's always good to fill that position with someone the audience is already familiar with."

During his time as program director at NJ 101.5, he's run the station's "Ask the Governor" show, where he's witnessed Gov. Chris Christie behind the microphone engaging with New Jersey residents, sometimes bombastically, amid a ratings decline that matches his sagging popularity in the state. Christie was once under consideration for the WFAN afternoon spot vacated by the retirement of longtime host Mike Francesca, but the station dropped him out of consideration after a two-day guest hosting stint in which he called one listener "a communist" and "a bum." (after which Christie quickly announced he was no longer interested).

So what does Johnson think about Christie as a broadcaster?

"He does have the strong opinions necessary to be a compelling personality. I think he does have a future in media, whether its politics or sports," Johnson said. "But with him being a Cowboys and a Mets fan, the best place for him to be in Philadelphia would be at the dunk tank at a station event."

He added: "So I probably wouldn't be in a hurry to hire him."