Despite a last name that is well known throughout the Philadelphia area, Spike Eskin worked his way through the ranks to his current role as program director of CBS Radio sports WIP-FM (94.1). That said, it’s a role he was born to do.
His father, Howard Eskin, is a legendary sports media figure in Philly, having worked in both TV and radio throughout his career. But Spike had to do it on his own.
Starting as an intern at the former rock WYSP and getting his first paid gig as a member of the station’s event team, he eventually landed late nights at the station after graduating from Syracuse University. During his first tenure at the station, Spike handled middays, produced the syndicated “Don & Mike” show and was eventually named the station’s music director. After a stint as APD/MD at modern rock “Q101” WKQX Chicago, he returned to ‘YSP as APD/MD and midday host and was the last music jock on the station before its flip to sports in 2011.
After the format switch, Spike became a sports editor for CBSPhilly.com and handled sports anchor chores at news/talk sister KYW. He moved into on-air host roles at WIP-FM and was named program director, under former OM Andy Bloom, in 2014. After Bloom’s 2016 exit, Spike moved off the air to focus on his increased responsibilities managing the city’s biggest, and most successful, sports radio outlet.
Inside Radio spoke to Eskin about some of the recent changes at the station (it has launched three new shows in the past year), the challenges of developing new radio hosts and what he learned from his father as his career has progressed. An edited transcript follows.
Your earlier career experience was in the rock format—tell us about the transition into sports talk radio.
It’s been a long transition. I’m glad that I didn’t go right from programming music radio to programming sports radio. It was a slow process from being a rock programmer and jock to writing sports blogs and podcasts to hosting here at WIP and then to being a program director with somebody over me at WIP and then to programming all on my own here. It has been interesting and a learning experience.
What are the similarities, and what are the differences, between programming for a rock audience and programming for a sports audience?
Similarities: It’s the same male audience who probably grew up doing a lot of the same things. Even as an adult they probably have a very similar life pattern. They are adult guys, who have good jobs and have families and lives and they use the radio station as an escape.
Differences: The audience is more connected to hosts on a sports station than they are to talents on a rock station. Obviously there are exceptions to that and I’m not trying to denigrate the relationships a music jock has with his audience, but I would say the biggest difference is that for rock, you as an air talent offer a complement to the music. They’re listening for the music, and you complement that. On a sports station the audience is listening for the host, specifically. It is the personalities that drive the radio station. From an air talent and from a content strategy that’s the real difference. From a programming standpoint, normally a rock station has a morning show and then music deejays the rest of the day. Here at WIP we have a morning show in every daypart so the talent demands are much higher.
You manage an air staff that consists of a heritage morning show, Angelo Cataldi, and dayparts filled with shows that contain former athletes. That makes for a lot of stars and egos in the building. What’s your key to managing them?
Having very little ego myself helps. I understand that my role is less as a boss and a PD, and more as a coach. They are so good at what they do—from Angelo all the way down to the newer guys. They’re so in it and they’re doing a four-hour show every day. When you’re in that cycle—and I did that on some level for some time—it’s a little bit harder sometimes to see things. I try to act as a bird’s-eye view for them. I don’t need to tell Angelo what topics to talk about; I’d be stupid to do that. My job with Angelo is to get him what he needs and when he asks me for advice help him in that aspect. I would think an NBA coach probably does the same thing with their players, knowing that at the end of the day they’re more valuable than I am. Me being here for a few years and working my way up at WIP I understand what they are going through. I think getting to know everyone for a long time before I became PD was helpful.
Besides Cataldi being steady in mornings, there have been changes in every other daypart, with new hires that include Chris Carlin, Joe DeCamara, Jon Ritchie and Jon Marks. Care to give us a status update on how the shows are developing?
I’m really happy with the new shows. You can’t really try them out. When you put two guys together for a radio show who haven’t worked together extensively you’re taking a leap of faith. You can know their personalities, know what they’re good at, but ultimately until they’re talking to each other for four hours a day and spending hours and hours with each other, you’re never really going to know how it works out until it’s on the air. Joe and Jon are different guys who came from different places and have different skill sets. They let each other shine and they learn from each other. The same goes for Chris and Ike Reese. There’s Chris, who is not just a radio lifer, but he has been doing it at the highest level. Where he came from and where he is now is very different than the path that Ike took. Ike had already been here and with Chris coming in from out of market, to pair them together was a huge task. But they work well together and they’ve been great communicators and they are committed to the show. I think it shows. Jon Marks has been an amazing addition. I’ve always been a fan of Jon’s, but working with him and seeing the energy and passion he brings to every show he does makes me an even bigger fan. Getting a guy like Jon makes us a deeper, stronger radio station. Obviously all these shows will be different from day one to day 100 to day 1,000 and I think they are getting better every time they become a little more comfortable with each other. But given the short amount of time they have had been on the air, I’ve been really happy.
What’s the process for finding up-and-coming sports radio air talent?
It’s not like it used to be. There is not a farm system in terms of smaller market radio guys. You have to think outside the box sometimes and you have to identify one thing you like. You’re probably not going to find a finished product anywhere. One thing we do is we look internally. We’ve had really young guys on the radio station who hadn’t been on the air before and wanted to. We have been able to take those guys and get them to a place where they are comfortable on the air. Outside the radio station, it’s tougher. You have to listen to podcasts—but not all podcasters make great radio hosts. Pulling the ‘Bleeding Green Nation’ guys in and having them be a part of the fabric of the station was one thing we did. Taking what John Barchard has developed with his podcast audience and making him into a great radio host I think that’s the way you have to do it. You have to look for the right attitude and right personality and teach them how to do radio as opposed to trying to look for finished products who are doing radio anywhere.
Philadelphia is known nationally as a tough sports town. How much of that is true, and how much of it is legend?
I’d say it’s true. There’s a certain sort of sports fan in different parts of the country. I think Northeast sports fans are all very similar. But how grumpy you are depends on how much success that your teams have had. I don’t think we’re too much different than other people in other Northeast markets except that they’re sort of condescending and smug because they’ve won a lot. If you put us all in the same room, with the same team to root for, I think we all behave similarly. The people here are very passionate but they haven’t had a ton of success with their teams so a lot of times that passion can turn into crimes of passion, for lack of a better word. The city’s reputation is true and it’s earned but I don’t think it’s all bad.
Wing Bowl just marked its 25th Anniversary. Can you paint a picture for those who have not witnessed it in person?
The people who haven’t been to Wing Bowl and who have walked in and said, ‘Oh yeah, this is exactly what I expected’ and understood it completely are the two professional wrestlers we have had there over the last few years. When Nick Foley and Ric Flair walked into Wing Bowl they looked at it like, ‘Yup, I get this.’ Anybody else, there’s not really anything you can say to them that will prepare them for it. Chazz Palminteri came to Wing Bowl and I met him at the loading dock to bring him in. We’re walking through the backstage area of the Wells Fargo Center and I said ‘I can either take you to the green room or I can take you up on stage with Angelo and you can see Wing Bowl.’ He said, ‘I got to see Wing Bowl.’ We get to the edge of the floor of the Center and we step foot in and he stops and he looks around in amazement. He then said, ‘You can bring me to the green room.’ Those were the two different sorts of reactions people have had.
You’re following in the footsteps, to an extent, of your father—well-known Philadelphia sportscaster and radio and TV host Howard Eskin. What advice has he been able to provide as your career has progressed?
Watching him has been the best avenue of learning from him. We don’t sit around the fire and he tells me great pieces of advice on how to handle this guy or that guy. After all, handling people within the building was never his specialty, but looking at what he does and looking at what works and what doesn’t work and taking those things and applying them to the other people that I work with here, that’s what I do. He’s a master at getting reaction. His work ethic is well documented, but as well documented as it is, it is still probably understated. He never, ever stops. The final thing that I have learned is that when you see my father out in public he will never not stop and shake your hand and take a picture and talk sports with somebody. It’s so important in a market like Philadelphia—which is a big city, but a small town—to make sure that every one of our hosts that are out in public understands the value of those people that listen and love the radio station and keep WIP as important as it is. We value the people as he does—even though he calls them names all the time.