This is your typical father-and-son tale. That may not sound like a convincing way to begin a story, but when the father is Howard Eskin—Fox 29 sports director, longtime WIP host, all-around loudmouth—and you’re talking about something the professional talker never talks about—his family—the typical becomes extraordinary. The very existence of Eskin’s wife and five children has been a mystery, even to those who’ve worked with him for years. (“I think he has a daughter,” says WIP veteran Rhea Hughes. “I know very little about his family.”)
Here, on the late-night shift at the WIP studios in Old City, at the end of a slow sports-news day, is living proof that Howard is indeed human—CBS Radio’s man of many hats and Howard-spawn, Brett “Spike” Eskin. It’s almost 11:30 p.m., and callers are in short supply. Suddenly there’s commotion in the producer’s booth, and a glimpse of a fur-lined parka. It’s Howard, fresh off the 10 o’clock news at the Fox studios next door and here for some paternal bonding—on the air, of course. He straps on a set of headphones and casually steps up to the mic. It’s something he’s done thousands of times, an act as natural as breathing or belittling a caller. When he’s beside his son, though, something old takes on new life.
“Joined in the studio by Fox 29 and WIP’s Howard Eskin,” says Spike. “How are you?”
“Absolutely sensational. Never had a bad day in my life.”
“I have a new feature at midnight that I think you’ll think is a really terrible idea.”
“What—you on the air?” Howard lets out a staccato chuckle.
“We’re long past that,” Spike says with the ease of someone who’s deflected Howard’s barbs for three decades and counting. He explains his plan for “Made-Up Trade Hour”: Call in with a deal you’d like to see any of the four major Philadelphia teams pull off.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Howard says.
“Really?” Spike knows there can’t be a compliment without a catch.
“Because these people will come up with things that are just so ridiculous and so
ludicrous—that’s what will make it terrific.”
Howard can’t pass up a chance to needle the audience, and soon the phone lines light up. There’s a playful energy as he banters with Spike, a mischief in his voice that strips it of its usual venom. After decades as “The King” of Philadelphia’s sports media, Howard left his daily WIP show in September 2011 as his ratings declined. Though he’s not slowing down—sideline reporting on the Eagles for WIP, on television at least six days a week and on the radio Saturday mornings—Howard, at 62, is in the twilight of his career, while his son is on the rise. What’s far more compelling than talk about the Eagles is listening for even the slightest insight into the relationship of the pair, for any clues to solve the riddle that everyone, from Howard’s colleagues to Spike’s callers, ponders.
“What would it be like to grow up as Howard Eskin’s son?” asks WIP morning-show host and longtime Howard foil Angelo Cataldi. “You say to yourself: It must have been tough.”
The first thing you notice about Spike Eskin is how little the 36-year-old resembles his father. Lean and wiry, with blond hair that stands at attention, Spike gives off a preppy rocker vibe, like a hipster who showers regularly and enjoys the NBA unironically. He’s wearing purple and red Nike high-tops, and the sleeves of his olive green flannel shirt are rolled up, revealing a rainbow of tattoos running down both arms. His first ink was on his right bicep: an image of the knife-wielding psycho from A Clockwork Orange. Spike was 17 and needed a parental permission form to get it. Howard doesn’t like tattoos and would call the average Eagles fan a dope for wanting one, but he signed anyway. Howard is mink coats and Rolexes. Spike is army jackets and rubber wristbands.
As much as Howard lacks introspection and a sense of humor, Spike is acutely self-aware and self-deprecating. His CBS bio ends with this line: “His father is Howard Eskin, but he’s asked that you not hold that against him.” When talk turns to the Sixers during his show, the first hint of a family resemblance surfaces.
“The NBA sucks,” Howard says, knowing it’s Spike’s favorite league.
“No it does not,” says Spike, looking his dad in the eye. “You’re out of the demo.”
“Why? Because I don’t like all that hip-hop nonsense at the All-Star Game?”
“What do you want? Six-foot white guys taking set shots? What’s the game supposed to be?”
“I want the game, as Larry Brown would say, to be played the right way. Gregg Popovich would say the same thing.”
Maybe it’s Howard’s name-drop of Brown that gets Spike riled up; along with Mike Schmidt, Andy Reid and Charles Barkley, the former Sixers coach is either one of Howard’s best sources or the possessor of one of the asses he kisses most, depending on your point of view. Spike loses his cool.
“Gregg Popovich is a coach in the NBA!” he yells, spittle flying. “He is part of the NBA product!”
Spike cools down, but Howard can’t resist tweaking him with some insider information from his son’s childhood: “Wait a minute. You’re the kid who liked John Starks, and he’s a stiff.”
“You like Doug Collins, and they’re 15 games under .500,” Spike says without a beat missed. “So I guess we’re even.”
That’s when things get really weird. First, they both laugh. Ask any of Howard’s co-hosts over the years—all of whom have suffered from post-traumatic Eskin disorder—and they’ll tell you that few arguments with him end in détente. Then, as Howard’s segment wraps up, I figure he’ll be out the door, en route to his Delaware County home or off to send flowers to Chip Kelly. Instead, he hangs out for another hour, microphone off, just listening. Howard would never do something as fun and goofy as Made-Up Trade Hour. But it turns out it’s a hit. The phone lines are full. One caller, Ethan, wants to send Sixers center Spencer Hawes back to Sacramento. “I admire you for punishing the team who gave you Spencer Hawes in the first place,” Spike says. “Ten for comedy, two for realism.” Howard cracks up.
Growing up in Glen Mills, Spike struggled to separate his father from “The King,” a 24-hour role that left Howard little time at home with his three sons and two daughters. Howard’s absence left holes he tried to fill by giving his eldest VIP treatment most kids would brag about for a lifetime. Spike wore Barkley’s massive Coogi sweaters, sat in the second row for Schmidt’s Hall of Fame induction, watched as the Cubs played the first night game at Wrigley, and slept over at Pete Rose’s house.
Howard rattles off such memories with pride, including a photo of father and son with Wayne Gretzky. For Spike, they’re bittersweet. “I had some amazing experiences,” he says. “The trade-off was, he wasn’t around a lot.” Maybe your dad helped you with extra batting practice after a Little League game; Spike’s threw out the first pitch one season—from a helicopter—and was nearly tossed from the stands once by an umpire. What Spike remembers about the Gretzky photo was that he was roughly eight years old and not entirely sure who the Great One was. “I was so un-thrilled,” he says. “For my dad, it never stopped. Sometimes when you’re a kid, you just want to sit down.”
That might sound like the whining of a suburban brat with a famous pop, but in another contrast that calls his DNA into question, Spike is humble and polite almost to a fault. One night at a Sixers game, as an intern hands out halftime stat sheets, he’s the only person on press row to offer an audible “Thank you.” He once sent the WIP morning crew an email to express his appreciation: “Thanks for being so gracious to me … as you can imagine, with my father’s history here, I wasn’t at all sure how my presence would be received. But you guys have always been supportive both on and off the air.”
He’s also quick to acknowledge what Howard’s hard work afforded him—an education at Episcopal Academy and Syracuse University, and local television and radio internships that jump-started his radio career. A stint at WYSP led Spike to an alt-rock station in Chicago, where he stuck with his college-radio pseudonym—referencing the punky haircut. By then, he’d also dropped his last name, to erase any hint of nepotism. Though he felt like a new person, Spike, like his dad, enjoyed being a renegade; as a program director, he once played a leaked White Stripes album, prompting a call from Jack White and making national news. He was also a bit of a hothead as a manager. “I learned to find what someone does well and bring that out of him,” he says of his eventual mellowing-out. “For most people, screaming doesn’t bring the best out of them.”
Spike returned home to ’YSP in 2007, but a few years later, when the station flipped formats to sports talk—the same day Howard “retired” from the afternoon drive—he found himself jobless. With nothing else to do, he developed a social-media presence through his sports and music website and a swelling Twitter account (now at 11,200 followers and climbing). That led to his current gig at CBS Radio, where he’s WIP’s social-media director and fill-in host, a sports editor for CBSPhilly.com, and a sports reporter for KYW Newsradio. “Going into WIP, I was scared about how people would perceive me,” he says. “I hear whispers in the industry that people think the only reason I got my job is because of my dad.” (A Twitter debate between Spike and Buzz Bissinger turned nasty when Spike took a jab at the writer: “Didn’t you write a good book 15 years ago?” Buzz later called him “a no-talent punk who got his job because of his father.”)
If those rumors swirled at WIP, the day they died was November 6, 2012, when Spike was the catalyst for what Cataldi calls “a miracle.” Howard and Cataldi were jousting over the Eagles’ disastrous season until Spike couldn’t take any more of his dad defending the coach. He ran down the hall from his office, and Cataldi waved him over to a microphone.
“Say he’s done a bad job!” Spike demanded. “Say it!”
“You’ve got to have players,” Howard demurred.
“Andy Reid picks the players! He picked the quarterback you’re complaining about! … Crush him!”
Cataldi sat back and let Spike hammer away until Howard finally surrendered: “Andy Reid’s done a bad job!” The morning-show crew erupted into applause and declared Spike a hero. “Howard has never given in to anyone on anything,” Cataldi says. “I guess we found his soft spot—his son.”
A week after Spike’s night shift, I’m eating breakfast with the Eskins in the upstairs dining room of the Omni Hotel, around the corner from the WIP and Fox studios on Market Street. Spike was at work by 7 a.m., after a 40-minute walk from the South Philadelphia rowhome he shares with his girlfriend. Howard, after doing his Sports Sunday night show on Fox, was back on television that morning with the station’s Good Day Philadelphia crew. When it comes to work ethic, it’s like father, like son. But where Spike is introspective and open, Howard is uncomfortable talking about his family, steering nearly every question back to sports. When I ask about him allowing young Spike to get tattoos, he turns it into a conversation about Todd Marinovich, the USC star quarterback whose controlling father ruined his career. Spike says he’s frequently pestered by people on Twitter who hate his dad; Howard follows that with stories of his own Twitter fight with former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, which somehow leads to him hanging at the Super Bowl, where a CBS broadcaster called him “a pioneer.” Howard told me he’d only talk to me for this story for his son’s sake, then says he can’t meet on a Friday because “it’s my only day off in a week.” Warm and cuddly he’s not.
Spike seems to have survived growing up Eskin thanks to his mother, Andi, the family’s emotional ballast, whom he describes as “definitely more laid-back, very accepting, very tolerant”—words never used to describe Howard. Though she’s been married to the elder Eskin for 38 years, Andi is seen in public only slightly more often than Bigfoot, and is just as mysterious to Howard’s colleagues. “I don’t think she was ever interested in being a part of my dad’s career,” Spike says, “at least not publicly.”
Countering Howard and sports in Spike’s life are Andi and music: one of his running gags at WYSP would be to put his mom on the air when she’d call him to request Aerosmith, which she did frequently. Spike remembers that when he was a kid, his mom would bring doughnuts to the gas station when she’d drop off her car for repairs. It seemed corny, until Spike tried it himself years later and saw how much the guys at the shop appreciated the simple gesture. “Relationships are very important to her,” he says. “Treating people well.” Off the air, Howard doesn’t call folks on the street morons or dopes. His version of handing out doughnuts is stopping to talk to the doormen at the Omni about Eagles draft picks.
Spike’s other survival tool is a sense of humor about himself and Howard. In 2011, he and his brother Jason, a 28-year-old digital-media marketer in Los Angeles, conspired to draw their dad into a Manti Te’o “catfish” scheme of sorts. Knowing how paranoid Howard is about imposters on social media, they created a fake Howard Eskin Twitter account, complete with the blue authenticity mark, and started sending his real account messages, just to rile him up. They pulled the account after a day of good-natured torment, but the needling continues. “The best era of making fun of him on Twitter was when Andy Reid was getting fired,” Spike says, while adding with pride that real Howard’s 36,700 followers are proof he’s “still relevant.”
Howard’s Andy Reid admission was more than Spike’s coronation as his own man; it was the resolution of a lifelong debate he’d never won. “When we would argue about sports when I was younger, it would make me mad, because he’s, like, a professional arguer,” Spike says. “So it was hard to win, you know? But now, you can just enjoy the banter.”
As our breakfast winds down, Spike admits he’s not sure he could handle sports talk five days a week, the way Howard once did. Wearing so many hats suits his ADD personality just fine. I ask Howard about retirement. “I still think I can work 10, 15 years,” he says, before segueing into a conversation he had with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue about Dick Vermeil. Spike recently told his parents they should take a break and retreat to Europe for a month. “My mom says, ‘Dad stop working for that long? No way.’ I don’t know what he’d do with himself if he wasn’t doing this. He’s busy 24 hours a day.”
A look through the Eskin family tree reveals how deeply both sports and compulsive hard work are rooted. Howard’s grandfather started a wagon-works business in Fairmount Park in the 1930s, and his son, Donald, took over as it became a truck-body shop. “My dad worked all the time,” Howard recalls. “He was always home late at night.” Sports served as a bonding agent, and Donald had season tickets for the Phillies and Sixers. He also had strong opinions—Howard’s father refused to buy Eagles tickets because he thought Leonard Tose, whom he knew through the trucking business, was a bum.
It’s more evidence that somewhere inside the fur coats and the bluster and the bobbleheads bearing his likeness, Howard is a father, one molded in the image of his own. Like a lot of dads, he talks to his son chiefly through the language of pick-and-rolls, Tampa-2 defenses and double-switches. But sports are what pulled Howard away from Spike, and when it led them to post-game parties or executive suites, Howard was The King, not Dad.
That’s mostly in the past now, as time—and their jobs—have brought the Eskins together. In the process, their relationship has exposed a reflective side of Howard few people have seen before. At a recent WIP event, Cataldi found himself in a position he’d never imagined—asking for, and receiving, advice from his on-air nemesis about leaving the daily grind of radio. “It was weird,” Cataldi recalls. “He became like a confidant. I’ve had some medical issues, and have thought about the day when I’m not on the air. I said, ‘You finally made a move, you walked away, what’s it like?’ He just said the sense of loss in not being on every day wasn’t as big a void as he thought it would be. Life goes on after this.” Then he adds: “The idea that I would ever go to Howard for insight was unthinkable.”
It’s nearly 9 a.m., and Spike is itching to get back to work. No hugs or kisses goodbye, just a “See ya later” wave of the hand. Howard spends the next five minutes haranguing me about the fraudulence of Sixers CEO Adam Aron, before he’s off to do whatever it is that Howard Eskin does all day long. Later that afternoon, he sends me an unprompted email that’s disturbing not for its vitriol, but for its complete lack thereof. In the past, when Howard has followed up after an interview, he’s name-dropped, bragged, or berated me—sometimes all at once. Now, he’s saying something he couldn’t in front of his kid: “Brett has done so much on his own that’s why I’m so proud of him!” He mentions a photo from Phillies fantasy camp of himself with Donald and Spike, only a year into his own career, before he was The King—back when they were just fathers and sons from Philadelphia, united by the game.