“I’M GETTING READY TO TAKE MY KID TO A DANCE,” Michael Barkann says when I reach him on his cell phone to set up an interview. “Hang on, I have to unload groceries.”
Barkann? Unloading groceries? Kids?
In fact, he’s got two: Emily, 14, and Matthew, 10.
Who would have thought it? Where does he find the time? Barkann lives on TV. Look up from a barstool, and there he is, chatting up experts and former players before and after big games; look up on a weekday night at happy hour, and there he is again, talking with Daily News sportswriters and tossing off barbs; and then, after Eagles’ games, just as you’re ordering that one last brew before heading home, you look up, and yep, him again, that Barkann guy, hosting the postgame show.
Type “ubiquitous” and “Philadelphia” into a Google search, and you half expect to see the screen fill with the visage of Michael Barkann — smart-looking jacket, tie knotted tight and right, sporting that crooked smirk that’s served him well in this town for so long.
It took major chutzpah to up and leave a sports-anchor gig in Boston 14 years ago to return to Philly, where he’d spent five years at Channel 3 in the late ’80s, for an undefined position with Comcast’s fledgling and unstructured sports channel. (His boss in Boston told him that basic cable was the television equivalent of Siberia.)
The sports fare at Comcast SportsNet has morphed innumerable times on its journey from free-form to buttoned-down, and Barkann’s been there for all of it. In recent years, though, despite the perception that he’s still on the air damn near 24/7, Barkann now has a schedule that gives him time at home in Newtown Square with his wife, Ellen, and his two kids.
His signature hosting venues are the pre- and postgame shows (of which “Eagles Postgame Live,” with the panel of Ed Rendell, Ray Didinger, Vaughn Hebron and Derrick Gunn doing player interviews is the gem) and the weekday 5 p.m. “Daily News Live” chat fest, now in its 14th year.
“You want me as a subject for a column?” Barkann says, getting back on his cell, the sound of the car door slamming behind him. “I was just unpacking groceries. This is my life. I’m really boring.”
IT WOULD BE IRONIC, if true, because boredom is Barkann’s Kryptonite. To keep Philadelphians tuned into local sports chat on television, he has to keep things constantly hopped up. “If guests are plodding along,” Barkann says, “I’ll interrupt, make a joke, change the subject, use sophomoric humor if I have to. Whatever it takes.”
Sometimes, though not often, that means knowing when to be quiet.
Take the day I observed “Daily News Live,” which Barkann hosts weekdays with a rotating cast of Daily News sportswriters.
The panel this day is a veritable 50-year-old-white-guy extravaganza. With no big story to focus on, the talk revolves around such low-buzz fare as contract renewals, the hiring of Eagles’ assistant coaches, and how the Flyers might do that night against the Washington Capitals.
Just when I figure Barkann’s got to come zinging in, Mark Kram Jr., the headiest of the Daily News sportswriters, accuses the NFL of being a pack of greed merchants for wanting to add two more games to the regular season. Kram cites all the concussions in the NFL, and he sounds angry. “Seriously,” he says, “how much more abuse can these bodies take?”
Barkann, thrilled that a topic with some juice has landed at last, sits back and lets Kram riff uninterrupted until the subject drifts away of its own accord.
“I love moments like that,” Barkann explains later. “Kram will land on a hot-button topic, and I’ll let him just go, because his passion will carry the audience. Sometimes we’ll play a gunshot sound in the middle of one of his rants, like he’s a madman that has to be stopped, just to keep him honest.”
WISE-GUY HUMOR PLAYS BIG in Philly, and it’s one of the reasons Barkann, who grew up in central New Jersey, has had such a long and successful run in this town.
Exhibit one: his whoopee cushion story.
“So I went and got this whoopee cushion that I can control remotely,” he begins, the start of a smirk already creasing his lips. “And right before the start of ‘Daily News Live,’ I place the cushion right behind Stan Hochman.”
Barkann pauses — do I get the picture?
I do. Stan Hochman. Sportswriter. Institution. Elder statesman of the Philadelphia sporting community.
“So we’re live on the air, and I push the whoopee remote, and what you hear is pfffffft coming from right behind Stan.”
“One of the sportswriter panelists hears this, turns to Stan — we’re live on the air — and says, ‘What was that?’”
Barkann can’t help himself. His face fills with a full-blown smirk.
“Stan was furious,” he says. “Livid.”
Barkann attempts to look contrite.
“I apologized to Stan then,” he says, looking down. “And I apologize to him now, and I’m sure I’ll be apologizing to him some more in the future.”
Barkann, I may have neglected to mention, is 50 years old.
HE’S NO ONE-TRICK PONY, though. Barkann can be a wise guy, sure. But at the same time, he somehow also manages to be the most positive and enthusiastic sports broadcaster in the city.
Without the slightest irony, he’ll hit you with the bounciest of platitudes. Like: “This is a championship city! Do you know how great that is?” And: “Sports is the greatest thing in the world. You come in on a Monday and get to talk about all the great things you watched over the weekend. It’s like being a kid again.” And: “I feel bad for people who don’t like sports. They’re missing out on a real lifeblood.”
But Barkann is no fool. He’s been hanging around journalists for decades, so he knows all the tricks — including how easy it would be for a writer to parachute into his comfy Comcast sports world and paint him with a broad and unflattering brush.
Which may be why when we sit down for lunch at Gigi in Old City, a favorite of the professional sporting crowd, Barkann seems atypically guarded at first. He wonders aloud if one of us should have made contact with the Comcast public relations rep before this lunch, and if maybe she should be sitting with us now.
Well, not so much, as it turns out, because the minute we start talking sports and media, Barkann’s wariness fades, and he begins literally rubbing his hands together in anticipation of every new topic.
Newspapers, for instance — Barkann is a believer. “I like opening the sports pages real wide, seeing it all laid out in front of me,” he says, making a newspaper sound like an exotic delicacy. “I like that an editor is choosing what stories deserve big play. I get the perfect overview. I read blogs and websites, but there you don’t get the feeling that someone’s making the call about what matters.”
He likes sports columnists, too. “I love the combination of news and analysis.” He volunteers one of his all-time favorite columns: “Bill Lyon — right after Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson.” He remembers the headline, “Tyson Stares Up at Defeat.” “That column was a thing of beauty,” he says. “When I ran into Lyon afterward, I told him how much I liked it, and he told me he wasn’t even at the fight. He had watched it on television. I was stunned.”
As lunch progresses, Barkann grows ever considerate, the perfect host; he asks how I like my burger, if I’d like another Coke, is it too cold in here? As a kid, he says, he’d watch Carson to see how he treated guests. He watches Letterman today for the same reason.
I throw out some names and ask Barkann to react.
Ed Rendell: “The guy could have a big career as a commentator. He’s knowledgeable, opinionated, and people like him. His views represent the people. Have I seen the temper? No. When I kid him about it, he just rolls his eyes, like, ‘Don’t go there.’”
Allen Iverson: “I saw him play for Georgetown in ’96. You could see the greatness. What I remember most was listening to him talk — the timbre of his voice, the way he would think before he spoke. But now his story has become a sad one. The problems with his wife, remember that? That should have been his big change moment. I get it — he grew up poor. But he’s had running water now longer than he had no running water; he’s been all-world now longer than he was all-poor.”
DeSean Jackson: “I’ve learned from that guy. Remember when he posed falling across the goal line against Dallas and was hit with the penalty? Dumb. But DeSean sees his moves, the showboating, all of it, as enhancing his value. He sees himself as an entrepreneur who needs to stay in the headlines to build the brand. I’d never looked at it like that before.”
Michael Vick: “When I heard he was coming to Philly, all I could think of was that old Humphrey Bogart line, ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine!’ I mean, really, Andy, Michael Vick? Here? But now look. One slip and it’s over for him, but for now you’ve got to be impressed.”
Andy Reid: “I don’t know why the writers don’t all walk out on one of his press conferences one day. What a waste of everybody’s time. On the other hand, we’ve been in the playoffs nine of the past 12 years. What other coach would take a chance on Michael Vick? Maybe he did it because of what his two sons have been through, because he’s learned to believe in second chances. You don’t know, because he’s never going to say.”
Pro athletes generally: “Yeah, a lot of them are hard to take. There are good guys, though. Take the Phillies — Jimmy Rollins, Jamie Moyer, Chase Utley, all good guys. Ryan Howard, he gives back. But then you have other guys like Jayson Werth and Pat Burrell. To them I say, ‘See ya!’”
WHEN YOU’RE AROUND A GUY like Michael Barkann, a guy who’s so naturally up, who likes to keep it light, who could maybe clap you on the back or punch you on the shoulder at any given moment, it begins to rub off.
You begin to think maybe life isn’t so complex and stormy after all, maybe we just see it that way. Maybe life should be all about the next ball game, the next big trade, the next chance at a world championship. Why the hell not?
But just when you begin to think maybe Barkann’s well doesn’t run so deep, he hits you with this: “In a city like Philadelphia, an old city with great history, where neighborhoods are connected one to the other, sports means more than it does in a lot of other places. We define ourselves through the successes and failures of our teams. When the Phillies are in the World Series, it could be pouring rain, but we all have an extra bounce in our step. And when things aren’t going well, when the Eagles get knocked out of the playoff picture, we’re crushed. Our hopes are dashed. All we can think about is spring training and how far away it seems. Sports is part of the cycle of life here; it’s how we relate, how we measure seasons, highs and lows, life and death. Sports can pull you through. It can be a good thing, a really good thing.”
And, you know, I buy that — don’t you?
Still, even if Barkann knows exactly what he’s part of, in stirring the local sports conversation, I wonder what it’s like to live so much of one’s life on television. It must suck a bit of the soul out of you, to be always looking into a TV camera, to have to always be on. I mean, it must, right?
For the first time, Barkann looks at me confused, like he doesn’t understand what I’m getting at.
Then, after several moments, he says: “That is me on television. I’m the same guy on and off the air. Exactly. How great is that? When the light goes on, all I have to do is be myself. Is there a better way to make a living?”