The workforce is filled with people who have a job from following the footsteps of a parent, but those that find a career in radio rarely do it because they stumbled on the position. A career in radio is built on passion, and although Spike Eskin grew up in the business, it’s not his father’s legendary status in Philadelphia sports radio that sees Spike with the position he’s in now, but Spike’s own passion and love for the industry that has him programming the station he grew up listening to.
The current program director for WIP in Philadelphia has filled more jobs than you could find at one radio station. First, building a 15-year career in music radio, transitioning to sports talk, hosting afternoons on the same station that his father helped build and now he’s putting his stamp on Philly’s beloved WIP from the PD chair. Mix in website work, social media among other responsibilities and the 42-year old Spike Eskin is as well-rounded as anyone in radio.
Spike grew up in Philly, he understands what makes WIP tick, but also offers a modern perspective of how to maintain the station’s future success. Eskin began hosting podcasts before most people ever heard of the platform and uses his creative drive to program the station.
I recently had the opportunity to meet up with Spike in Philly to discuss his career and ideas on the industry as a programmer.
BC: We’ll skip when did you first become interested in radio since you grew up around it, but at what point did you decide to make a career in radio…and not sports radio, but radio in general.
SE: I think like a lot of radio people, once you discover you like it there are very few options besides doing this. I remember my freshman year, I went to Southern Cal and I took a communications class in my third trimester and realized I enjoyed journalism as a career so I transferred to Syracuse and started working at their college station, Z89 and it was really then.
Instead of having a fraternity or parties, I had the radio station and for us at the station, that was our obsession. Back then it was music radio that I became really passionate about, but once it clicked in college I don’t think I ever thought about doing anything else.
BC: When you were in music radio did you look at the talk format as a possibility?
SE: No, I worked in music radio until 2011 so that was 15 years and it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I started to get a little bored because music radio went to a place where creativity wasn’t important anymore, so I started doing podcasts while I was at WYSP about 10 or 11 years ago.
BC: Which is pretty early on, not many people had a podcast 10 years ago.
SE: Yea, it’s funny. I found a bunch of the old pods on a drive I have…they’re not good (laughs) but they were reps. The talk aspect seemed fun and I started writing about sports for the WYSP website and my former boss, Andy Bloom, let me do a show on 610 WIP while I was still a music DJ. I realized how hard it was, but I would say my last few years in music radio, I started to find sports talk interesting, I don’t know that I thought it was something I expected to do forever, but I was interested.
BC: You were doing podcasts before probably 95% of the people that have a podcast today, how important are they to a radio station and to piggyback off that question…you’re offering podcasts as content to listeners, but you also don’t want to drive them away from listening terrestrially because that’s what generates ratings, so how do you balance that?
SE: I think of our podcasts as an extension of the brand. I don’t want another version of a show that’s on the air terrestrially to also be on as a podcast, I want it to deliver in a different way. For some of our younger hosts that don’t get a lot of air time, it’s a great opportunity to get reps, extend their brand and build a fan base.
Sports radio is a very specific type of content. I think podcasts should fill different desires. I don’t think you can be scared of driving people away from listening terrestrially because if that’s the case then you shouldn’t stream, don’t produce podcasts at all, don’t acknowledge that there’s television or music because everything can drive people away from listening on the radio. You have to think about the brand of your radio station in a bigger more holistic sense. The more I can get people to know about WIP the brand, ratings are great, but I want to reach everyone. If a person stops listening to the radio station because they’re listening to our podcasts so intently, I will find a way to measure and monetize that person.
BC: There are a lot of people that would like if you figured out how to monetize that person.
SE: The whole world is trying to figure it out, but I want to be in the business of having a brand that people care about and getting audience share, not just in the Nielsen sense, but in the overall headspace. When they think about sports in Philadelphia, I just want them to think about us and there are different approaches.
Our voice on Twitter cannot be like our voice on Facebook. They’re different audiences. Our voice on the air will not be like our voice on Twitter. Twitter is younger. They love the NBA all the time. Our radio listeners are a little bit older than the standard Twitter user. They like football more.
These are all extensions of our brand and I don’t think we can be scared of them. Thankfully, Entercom has the same view, they believe in live and local content, they believe in sports and radio, but they’re also the second biggest podcast creator in the country.
BC: I always loved talk radio because of its intimacy, it took me awhile to get into podcasts because I didn’t think you could connect with the host the same way, but they’re relaxed and allow the host to experiment and try different things and it does build that connection. How many podcasts do you have affiliated with WIP?
SE: We probably have 15 that are done regularly and we have a relationship with BGN Radio where they have their own podcast and they have a show on WIP which is really big, but we really believe in podcasting.
BC: How often do you do your podcast, Right’s to Ricky Sanchez?
SE: Twice a week, depending on the Sixers schedule we might do three or four if there’s a lot going on and we’ve been going for five years on July 10th.
BC: That’s a great name, (laughs) not as good as Me and Giglio Down by the Schoolyard. (WIP host Joe Giglio’s podcast)
SE: (laughs) It’s the greatest name ever, he couldn’t think of a name so I told him to ask on Twitter. He came back with the list and I said Joe…it’s not even close, it’s Me and Giglio Down by the Schoolyard…a lot of your Twitter followers might be too young to get it, but it’s so funny you have to go with it.
Joe is a great example, he’s our evening host, but half the year the Phillies are on so he’s doing pre and post, but the podcast was his idea because all these things are happening in sports that he doesn’t get to talk about and he’s losing out on reps. Now he’s getting reps and has a way to build more of a following and connect his social media fans with fans that would listen to him on-air.
BC: Was it ever frustrating when you were getting started in sports radio, especially since you already had a 15-year radio career that you built on your own, but I’m sure you still had people saying you were only on-air because of your father?
SE: (laughs) I’m almost 42 and I still get some of that. There was a point after I got the job in Chicago at a big station in a big market, that wasn’t at all attached to Philly, the Howard Eskin stuff stopped bothering me and I started to be proud of what he accomplished instead of being intimidated by it. I’ll never forget, a listener told me…if people are bringing that up then it means they can’t find anything else that you’re doing wrong. Right around then, maybe when I turned 30 it stopped bothering me.
When I started here, I started doing web and social media and a little bit on-air, one show a week. I had some relationships with people at WIP already and I think I was established just enough to where they knew how different I was from my dad. If you’re opinionated enough in sports radio, they’d rather fight about those opinions, I thought Michael Vick should start over Nick Foles, most people focused on that instead (laughs), if you’re doing it right they weren’t worried about who my father was.
BC: It’s similar to a professional athlete, you have Ike Reese and Jon Ritchie on-air, retired football players, I’m sure they had to deal with building credibility and listeners saying what do you know about the Phillies you’re a football player! As ridiculous as that sounds, I never played a professional sport yet I know more about the Phillies because you played professional football not baseball.
SE: (Laughs) Right, if anything he should know more just because he played a professional sport.
BC: Of course, but they still have to earn trust from the listeners, so being Howard Eskin’s son, did you ever feel pressured to be extra opinionated or throw out a crazy hot take to build credibility?
SE: No, I think one of the good things about starting when I did is that I was pretty comfortable with who I was. I started in sports radio when I was 34 or 35 and been on the radio for 15 years and even though it wasn’t sports, I was really comfortable in my own skin. I’m wildly different from my father in terms of personality type and views on things.
I actually think one of the things that made me not the best sports talk host was that I was probably a little too reasonable on the air. “Well you know the truth is really in the middle”…(laughs). That doesn’t really work for sports radio. So no, I never really felt pressure about it, I think we were so different and our differences were easily highlighted.
BC: Do you think it’s more important for a sports radio host to be passionate about sports or passionate about radio?
SE: I’ve always said that what we do is about radio and not sports. I think I learned that when I started music and it was Top 40. I didn’t like Top 40 music at the time, but I worked in it for a month and at the time it was Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and I loved it…then I went to active rock, then I went to alternative and then classic rock, I realized my job was to connect with who was listening and while the music was important to me personally, it wasn’t really important to my job.
I think our best hosts are the ones that are opinionated communicators and love radio. You can’t do this job without knowing sports, but give me a guy that is passionate about radio and knows sports and I can probably turn him into a sports talk host better than the other way around.
BC: Right, if Howard Stern had a casual interest in sports he could’ve been the best sports talk host ever, but the biggest sports fan that doesn’t know about radio might not be successful.
SE: Our listeners love us, which is awesome, but some of them will say “I think I’d be a great host on WIP” and I’ll ask them why? “Because I know everything about sports”…and in the back of my mind I know that’s just a base, this isn’t a quiz show. Everyone has a smartphone with every answer to every sports question ever, knowing the answer is not the most important thing.
BC: Which is also why many sports radio hosts can switch markets and be successful without knowing everything about the market they’re going into.
SE: I’m always amazed by that. I remember when Josh Innes started here from Houston and then with Chris Carlin where I got to see it up close, but I never thought about someone moving here and having to be on our radio station without having lived all of this.
I’m amazed by sports hosts that can do that, especially Philly which is a specific type of place, but that’s hard. I can take a local host and make them a national host a lot easier than I could take a national host and put them in a local market.
BC: Who were some radio guys you looked up to when you were younger other than your dad?
SE: I was an enormous Howard Stern fan, I would tape the show when I would go to school, I’d sit in the parking lot and listen, I’d buy the pay-per-views and had Crucified By The FCC at home. I was obsessed with Stern.
There was a jock on Power 99 in Philly called Golden Boy and I loved him, he was the first DJ that I really liked. When I was an intern at YSP there was a guy called Cousin Ed that I really liked, but Stern was really the guy for me.
I also listened to so much WIP when I was younger and I loved Mac and Mac, Glen Macnow and Jody McDonald who were on before my dad, Craig Carton was also great on IP.
BC: I’m always interested with people in radio, whether or not they’re Stern fans because I can’t see how someone in this industry doesn’t think he’s at the top. And I wasn’t even a listener before he went to Sirius, but even if you don’t like all of the jokes and different things he did, just from an interview standpoint he’s fascinating to listen to.
SE: The most important thing I took from Stern was…and podcasts do a great job of this. The thing about Stern is if you’re not a regular listener and you turn it on and everyone is laughing at something, you might not be able to figure out for 25 minutes what was funny, but they formed a community that made it if you did think it was funny you felt like you were part of a club joking around with your friends. Forming that community aspect of the show…was the best thing Howard did. I’ll even see it now if I’m listening to Howard and my wife is with me. I’m laughing and she’s just staring at me because she can’t figure out what’s funny.
BC: How was the transition of being on-air and then going into programming?
SE: I think it got to a point where I was doing web-work, on-air, KYW Newsradio, TV, social media…and I hit a crossroads where I had to pick what I really wanted to do. I honestly remember, when Innes got here at night and after 20 minutes of listening to him, I thought…this guy’s our night host? And I’m not even close to as good as he is…
I always loved programming, when I was on the air in music and got into music programming, the goal was to get off the air. I think the reason is, I love the process of creating it, but four or five hours a day, five days a week, I don’t know how they do it. It’s tedious to me. When Jeff Sottolano left and the opportunity as program director came up, I felt like I had put some time in here and really understood the radio station. Obviously my time in Philly, my history with the radio station made me a unique guy so it happened at the perfect time for me.
BC: It was a pretty different route to go from a large market on-air personality into management.
SE: Well I was an APD at WYSP and at Q101 in Chicago I was left in charge. The thing I love about programming is I love helping people to get better and it gives me the ability to be creative on a more macro level without the tediousness of having to do it for four hours a day.
BC: That’s interesting, I would think one of the things you loved about being on-air was the creative aspect because it’s a great outlet, and you would usually think of the program director as someone who doesn’t have that creative passion.
SE: What I love doing is sitting in with the shows and they’ll be trying to figure out what the topic is and I could come up with the take and they’ll get excited and say yea that’s it! I’ll say great…now you have to do it because I can’t do it for four hours (laughs).
It’s easy to come up with the take that the Eagles made a mistake not trading Nick Foles, but to execute it, make it compelling and make people want to argue and agree and feel passionately…that’s where the host’s talent comes in. I have just enough in the on-air and creation part of the show to fulfill that desire.
BC: Do you think you differ from most sports radio program directors in large markets? Are they as creative in developing topics for shows?
SE: I don’t know. I have never been much of an industry person. I respect that we have some great PD’s at Entercom right now, and I have had some good dialogue with them, but my dialogue has never been what’s your day like? So I don’t know how they do it. I do know that now as a PD you have to be more versatile than you ever had to be in the past, so I don’t know if I’m different, but it works for me here.
BC: What about in terms of developing topics, the balance of leaving the sports realm?
SE: I think WIP has always been a station that does that, but I don’t think we can ever forget what we are. I use the analogy of there being a road that you’re set on. There are cars and turns that get in your way, but you think of your show as that road and the road is Philadelphia sports. That doesn’t mean you don’t pull off the road and get gas.
I think that texture is really necessary, the listeners need to know who the hosts are as people and what TV shows and food they like, but I don’t think you can ever forget why we’re here in the first place.
BC: Andy Bloom was still here when you were hired as PD?
SE: Yea, he hired me as program director and then I took over as the sole programming guy for WIP in January 2016 when he left.
BC: So how did your role change from being program director while he was still here to program director without him here?
SE: It was all my responsibility. We were a radio station in flux. We had some challenges. There’s a big difference between having a bunch of ideas for how to get better and then actually being the one to say we’re making this change, or this is not the right host, this is not the right promo, this is not the right clock.
I was more like an APD even when I was hired as PD. The great thing about being an APD is you can say I think we should play this, I think we should hire that host, and it’s somebody else’s ass whether you do it or not. It’s their call. They’ll get the credit if it works, but they also get the blame if it doesn’t. When you’re that person, you need to be certain about everything. It was a lot more responsibility, but it was also a lot more exciting for me to make the station sound how I felt it should sound.
BC: Obviously the goal is to not have to make lineup changes often, but you’ve had to make quite a few changes in the relatively short amount of time that you’ve been in charge. Getting rid of someone might not be easy, but how about the excitement level of building a show and especially seeing it pay off with a show being successful.
SE: It’s great. It’s like being the general manager of a sports team. The challenges of putting players together who have never played together before is very scary, but also very exciting. If you’re putting a team together, most times they’ve never worked together before. You can do all the practice shows you want, but you don’t really know if they can work together until they’ve done it for six months.
When I was growing up listening to WIP, everyone had their favorite show, but you could put WIP on at any time and even if it wasn’t your favorite host, you’d still listen to the station. That’s the goal, to have different shows with different personalities, but have a cohesive feel within the station so even if it isn’t your favorite show, it’s still WIP.
BC: How helpful has it been to have Angelo Cataldi there throughout all the changes as the anchor of the station.
SE: It’s impossible to…impossible impossible impossible to state the importance of being able to have an anchor like Angelo.
THE BEST who has ever done it in morning sports radio. I don’t think there is anyone better than him and he’s still doing it at an amazing level. He’s the Peyton Manning of sports radio, he knows where everyone is going to be, knows the right lane and executes perfectly.
His presence both behind the scenes and on-air allowed the radio station to go through that change. I don’t know how we would’ve done it without him.
BC: Do you think about needing to replace him when he retires?
SE: Sure, you think about it. Who knows if it’s two years, five or seven years. Angelo’s passion for the show hasn’t decreased since I’ve been here so who knows when it will be. It makes it more difficult because you can’t plan for it specifically. You can keep your eyes and ears open, but that will be the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced at WIP, maybe even in radio.
BC: And you can look at WFAN who just tried to do that with Francesa.
SE: Yea…that was tough for Chris and them. It will be a challenge, but I’d like to think we’ve put ourselves in a position so that whenever Angelo leaves, we’ll be able to take it head on.
BC: Were you clued in the whole time when Carlin was a possibility to replace Mike?
SE: When Chris came here, WFAN was not in his plans. I know he’s said that, but having lived it, it really was not a thought. Chris was coming here to stay in Philly. When it was presented, I think it was an obvious decision for Chris to want to go to WFAN based on his history, but that being said I think he was really enjoying himself here and the show with Chris and Ike was really starting to hit its stride. I’m sure he was excited to be back at WFAN, but part of him still would’ve liked to see how things would’ve ended up with Ike here at WIP, but he wasn’t eyeballing that job when he came here.
It took a lot of guts for Chris to come down here. Coming to Philly as a perceived New Yorker, doing Mets pregame on TV, which you can’t hide from and the first thing people saw when googling Chris was Imus firing him. To walk into Philly and host with a former all-pro Eagle on afternoon drive in the middle of the football season…that takes guts! And he survived, he didn’t get to see what the next version was, but he weathered the storm and was a crucial part of us evolving. Even though he’s not here for it, he provided a bridge for us that I’m very thankful we had.
BC: I want to go back to when you said it takes at least six months to really be able to tell if a show can take off or not. You look at a situation like Carlin going to New York to host with Maggie and Bart when they’ve never done a show together, and you’ve had similar situations here at IP. Are there specific things you’re listening for when you first put hosts together knowing there’s a chance in six months the show might not build the way you wanted it to?
SE: Hearing hosts that give each other the space to be themselves is important. One thing we’re lucky enough to have with our shows is the hosts are different, but their differences fit. Our midday and afternoon shows, there are definite quarterbacks of the show, but the other host’s personality and presence is just as big, but they don’t get in each other’s way. There’s an unspoken chemistry that you can hear, but the most important thing I listen for at first is, are they listening to each other and giving each other space. If they’re doing those things and you can hear some spark, it’s a good sign.
BC: Did you ever talk to your dad about hosting on WIP full-time again with all of the changes you’ve had to make?
SE: I did not talk to him about it. It’s funny to say full-time, he is working full-time, just not doing four hours on-air each day. I don’t want to speak for him, but one thing I think that happened when he stopped doing his afternoon show is he loves the relationships. He loves being at Eagles practice, getting information and delivering the scoop. Sometimes the radio show nailed him to a chair for four hours when he could be out getting information and doing something else.
He loved being on-air, but I think this has been a great next career for him. He still does his Saturday morning show, he does sideline for the Eagles, he does an hour twice a week with Giglio who he loves, he does a weekly spot with the morning show, so he’s on five days a week, but without having to sit in a chair and call people nitwit for four hours a day.
BC: Exclude WIP, and not necessarily the best show, but who do you think is the most talented sports radio host.
SE: Man oh man, (long pause)…I’ll give you two that I love. I think Damon Amendolara on CBS Sports Radio is amazing. I remember when I started here I would get to work at 6:30am so I would wake up around 4 and get to hear him doing overnights and I could hear at that point how good he was and now that he has an even bigger opportunity with the network, it’s great. And then Dan Le Batard is fantastic, he does a lot of those things that Stern did with building a community.
BC: Do you ever see yourself doing five days a week again on-air in any format?
SE: I don’t plan to. The last time I did it was afternoon’s here with Josh and it was fun, but it was exhausting. Sports talk radio every day is exhausting. But here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to radio, I went from late night host to midday producer to late night host to midday host to music director back to late night host to APD to PD to middays in Philly to web and social media guy, to afternoon host and PD…(laughs) I don’t know what two years from now will be like. I will look at every opportunity when it is in front of me, but when I took this job, my hope was to make sure the next 25 years at WIP are as good as its first 25 years and I plan to do that.
Brandon Contes is a former reporter for BSM, now working for Awful Announcing. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonContes or reach him by email at Brandon.Contes@gmail.com.
NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs
Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?
Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.
Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.
The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.
Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.
Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.
So how did NBC get here?
Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.
Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.
Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.
But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.
As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.
Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.
NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.
Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.
But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?
Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)
The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.
Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice
“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”
I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.
Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.
On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.
All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.
It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.
Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.
How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.
On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night.
Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night.
To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.
Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.
Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.
Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore
“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”
One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.
The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.
Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.
But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.
I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.
Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.
How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.
Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.
This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.
Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.
On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.
At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.
Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.
Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?
I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.