November 16, 2016
There was some trepidation that spread swiftly across the small Philadelphia sports universe when WIP announced that Chris Carlin would be its new afternoon drive time host, paired with popular former Philadelphia Eagle Ike Reese in the 2 p.m.-6 p.m. slot. You could almost hear the collective, “Woo, wait, what, who?” from the fickle Philadelphia fanbase.
After all, Carlin is a New Yorker. He’s “one of them,” not “one of us.”
Carlin, 44, permanently takes over for the talented, though polarizing, Josh Innes, who hit Philadelphia with a splash in January 2014 and quickly fizzled in a few years before he was terminated in August.
Carlin sat with PhillyVoice for our latest edition of The Q&A early this week. And there were quickly a few qualities that surfaced that may endear him to the hardcore Philadelphia sports fan.
One, he knows his stuff. He doesn’t say things for the sake of causing a stir. He’s versed in everything from the NFL, to college basketball, to the NBA, MLB and the NHL. Secondly, Carlin has a self-effacing sense of humor that stems from an arduous climb up the media food chain. He’s done everything from produce a nationally renowned show to cut tape on New Year’s Day in a barren office.
Philadelphia fans can relate to the persistent grinder than never relents. That’s pretty much Carlin, who one time called almost every luxury hotel in downtown Miami to track down then-Cleveland Indians manager Mike Hargrove during the 1997 World Series — and then called him 40 times to secure him for the Mike & the Mad Dog Show in New York. He can laugh at his “good looks” and is very anxious to get to know Philadelphia.
Aside from occupying the high-profile, high-pressure afternoon drive time slot, he’s the kind of everyman that you can imagine being plunked down on a bar stool next to you as part of Philadelphia’s sports fabric.
Before you came here, what did you hear about the Philly fanbase?
Chris Carlin: Working in New York for 20 years, there was one thing that was very clear when it came to the Philly fanbase and that was the energy level and the remarkable passion that proves they care deeply about their teams. I have an incredible respect for that, considering what my job is. The impressions I had coming in are the same that a lot of people have about the Philly sports fan. We always hear the stories about people booing Santa Claus, but those were things that were always overblown to me [laughs].
How did you hear about the afternoon drive job being opened at WIP?
The one thing that I knew, in talking to everyone before coming here, Philly is going to spot a phony. And they’re going to do it quickly.
I had heard that they made a change, and I knew some people in New York from CBS. [WIP program director] Spike Eskin reached out to me and I was thrilled to even talk about it, because I knew what the station was. Working at WFAN as I did for a long time, you always understood what WIP was, and that was a place with a remarkable history and had performed at such an incredibly high level. When a piece of real estate like the afternoon drive time becomes available, in a city like Philadelphia, you don’t waste much time expressing interest in it.
It’s something that I’ve been itching to do for a real long time is get back into radio after working the last eight-plus years of TV. It just worked out better for me, especially after meeting with Spike and everybody at WIP. That just got more and more excited about the opportunity, and then I met with Ike and we clearly had a pretty good connection. I was excited about the whole thing. When it came up, I couldn’t get to it fast enough, to tell you the truth.
It was a little bit of both, Spike coming to me and me going to them. I expressed interest in the job with folks in New York about it, and Spike reached out to me I would say around the start of the football season.
It appears you have a great grasp of the Philly fanbase and what WIP wants, instead of shtick.
The one thing that I knew, in talking to everyone before coming here, Philly is going to spot a phony. And they’re going to do it quickly. I’m not going to sit there and try to be somebody that I’m not. I have always felt like my best attribute is to be me and have fun. It sounds so cliché, but it’s worked for me. I want to have as much fun as I can, and realize that we’re not splitting the atom here. We’re talking about sports, but at the same time, doing it with an incredible passion and energy while having and interjecting a sense of humor into it.
I’ve kind of developed the motto over the last seven or eight years that I’m at my best when I have the freedom to be an idiot [laughs]. What I mean by that is not to say something stupid just for effect, but to just go out and act like we’re hanging out and arguing at a bar about something. I have an appreciation of what Philly is about. I can’t wait to spend more time in Philadelphia and get a real taste for the city. I can’t wait to go three out of the last four Eagle games, I can’t wait to see the Flyers and Sixers in person.
I just want to hang out in town a little bit. It’s important for me to get ingratiated into the community and hang out as much as I can.
Where are you originally from and how did you get your start in the business?
I grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, which is North Jersey, and went to Hobart College, which is in upstate New York. I went to Oratory Prep, in Summit, New Jersey, a Catholic high school. I played baseball all four years, and I was okay. I caught up until sophomore year, and I wasn’t good defensively, though I was a decent offensive player to where they put me in a lot of different places just to see where I wasn’t a liability [laughs]. I DHed a lot, but I always loved baseball. I loved playing. Our high school was too small to have a football team, but I probably would have played that too if we did. It was important to my folks that I went to Catholic school.
My thought process going to Hobart was to be a lawyer. I’m the youngest of six. My father passed away when I was 15. He was a neurologist, just 60 when he died of a massive stroke in 1988 on a golf course. I have two older brothers that are lawyers. I saw they were making a good living, and I thought, for all of the wrong reasons, that being a lawyer would be great. I took a political science class at Hobart my first semester and that was over with quickly [laughs]. I didn’t have an interest in it.
Anyway, the radio station at Hobart was in the basement of my dorm. It wasn’t anything I ever really considered. But I was a huge sports fan growing up, and a kid came up to me that worked at the station that knew I knew a lot about sports and was a big fan. He told me that the color commentator on the student station for football recently got into an altercation in a bar.
Turns out, the kid was a senior, got pretty drunk and was aggravating. He was just a bad drunk [laughs]. Someone at the bar decided that they had enough of this guy. So they came up behind him and pulled his pants down while he’s standing at the bar [laughs]. He turns around and punches the first person he sees. It happened to be an off-duty police officer. So needless to say, he was asked not to return to the broadcast [laughs].
My career is owed to a drunk, belligerent man with no pants [laughs]!
Once I figured it out in college there wasn’t a Plan B. There wasn’t anything else. I sacrificed a social life in my 20s for it. But I wouldn’t trade it. I started doing some sideline reporting for Division III football for a team that couldn’t win a game. I fell in love with it quickly. At Hobart, there wasn’t a program for it, so nobody was really doing it and no one had an interest in doing it. So I started doing it. I got my degree in English, and we only had one journalism class offered in four years. It was mostly writing, and I did as many sports as I could. I did live events, play-by-play for lacrosse, mens and women’s basketball, hockey, I did some soccer. You name it, I did it. I got my first real break during minor league baseball in the New York-Penn League, because there was a team in town. It was a Cubs’ affiliate and they broadcast their games on our student station.
From my sophomore year until after my senior year I did that.
First job out of college?
The spring of my senior year, I sent out exactly 100 resumes to radio stations, colleges, mid-level schools across the country looking to get an opportunity to broadcast for somebody. I didn’t get one interview out of it [laughs]. I received a couple of thank you notes for my interest, and then it started to become, ‘What are you doing here? Am I going to be able to get a job?’
Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I had listened to WFAN, The Fan, all of the time, and worked at a drug store while I was home. I delivered for the drug store and listened to Mike & the Mad Dog (Mike Francesa and Chris Russo) a lot. I couldn’t get enough. I applied for an internship at WFAN in the fall, and just by chance, I got it. I graduated Hobart in June 1995. Three months in the fall of 1995, I was interning at WFAN. But I had to call 50 different schools in the Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey areas to find someone willing to give me credit for the internship. To get an internship at WFAN, you had to be able to get credit for it. Bloomsburg University was willing to take my $500 bucks for one credit.
I paid to do an internship at WFAN. Listen, it was a place that I absolutely loved. After my three months were up, I still didn’t have a job. I was the kind of kid who was quiet, kept his head down and went about his business. I didn’t want to show any of the on-air people how much I knew. I wanted to learn everything I could. At the end of the internship, I went to speak with the guy who ran the internship, Eric Spitz (now Director of Programming for CBS Sports Radio), and I told him that I really wanted to work there. What could I do to earn that?
I did well enough in the internship that they hired me part time. I worked all of the crummy shifts. My first shift was New Year’s Day 1996. I won’t forget it. The primary things you did were answer phones in the newsroom and edit tape and sound bites. It was reel-to-reel, legit tape. I ran the board a little bit. Basically, it was any of the garbage work that had to be done. I remember editing tape of the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day when Keyshawn Johnson went off on Northwestern. That eventually grew to better hours and got me an on-air job at a station in Rockland, New York, called WRKL. It was pretty much the radio station where everyone in the county listened to for the school closings. I did the morning sports there. You couldn’t hear it across the street [laughs].
I would work at WFAN from 4 until 12-midnight a couple of nights a week, then drive up to WRKL and sleep on an air mattress and get up at 4:30 in the morning and write a local sportscast.
Eventually, I got offered a fulltime job at WFAN as the assistant producer for Mike & the Mad Dog.
Who were your early influences?
Spitz is right at the top of the list, as is Eddie Scozzare. Those guys hired me and taught me the ins and outs. Frankly, I just needed to learn to work in that kind of environment. The thing about sports radio is everyone has an opinion. I was not in a job where people really cared about my opinion. My job was to execute and get all of the other stuff done. That was important to understand. Certainly, Mark Chernoff (VP of Sports Programming for WFAN and CBS Radio) showed a lot of faith in me. They made me the producer for Mike & the Mad Dog in September 1997.
They only had one other producer, and that was Bob Gelb, who has Philly roots. He pulled me aside one day and asked me if I ever wanted to produce the show. It wasn’t something that I ever remotely considered and it scared the (expletive) out of me, to be honest. But you’re not going to say no to that. So in September 1997, I’m a 24-year-old kid who had just been handed the keys to the greatest sports talk radio show in the country. I really didn’t know what I was doing but I learned along the way. Mike and Chris were massive influences on me, in regards to work ethic, and passion, and knowledge. All of that.
I’m sure things weren’t easy ...
No doubt. I got an earful from both of them. It was ultimately good for me. You need that. You need to get kicked in the ass. They made me better, there’s no question. Mike had a coach’s mentality of putting pressure on you to make it happen. That, while stressful, made me better. It pushed me to do absolutely everything that I could to get the job done. People don’t understand what that is until you do it.
What I mean by that is, within the first few weeks on the job, I remember the Marlins were playing the Indians in the World Series. Our competition at the time got Jim Leyland on their show. The next day, my boss says to me (Indians manager) “Mike Hargrove will be on the show this week.” I’m thinking, ‘How I’m going to get Mike Hargrove on the show? He doesn’t know me from Adam.’ I’m not exaggerating when I tell you this, I easily called 50 luxury hotels in Miami looking for Mike Hargrove’s room. It was a different time back then. Finally, I found it, but he wasn’t in the room. I kept calling, and calling, and I’m not exaggerating, I called that room at least 35 to 40 times before I actually got him on the phone. He turned me down, but said if I called him tomorrow, he would do it. I was thinking he was just blowing me off. I called him the next day. I kept calling and calling until I got him, and we got him. He went on the air.
The point is: Get it done, no matter how you have to get it done.
While incredibly stressful, it was a great experience for me. There were days when I could not book my mother on the show [laughs]. I had plenty of those days when I called every hotel in the city. It was painful at times, and other times it was incredibly rewarding. They called me “Continent.” The year after “Big Country” Bryant Reeves left Oklahoma State, St. Mary’s had a player (Brad Millard) who was 7-4, 320 pounds called “Continent,” where they got it. I was three bills at the time — still am.
I produced Mike & the Mad Dog for six-and-a-half years, from September 1997 to February 2004. They were on the air together from September 1989 to the summer of 2008, almost 19 years. Gelb was there for the first eight years and I was there for the next six-and-a-half years, the second-longest producer they had.
Any funny stories involving those two?
Oh, hundreds. The one that always sticks out to me was the “Horse Whisperer story.” We were in Indianapolis for Knicks-Pacers series in the NBA 2000 playoffs. Mike’s hotel room wasn’t ready yet, so I went downstairs to check on it. I came back up to Chris’s room and the two were sitting on the couch watching the movie “The Horse Whisperer,” with Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas. I came in and gave Mike an update on his room, and they both shushed me. It was in the middle of a dramatic scene, where Redford breaks it off with Kristin Scott Thomas. At the end of the scene, Dog turns to Mike and says, “Mike, it absolutely had to be done. That woman is lost right now, you can’t be in a relationship with her.” Mike turns back to Chris and says, “Absolutely. Right move. No question.” It was if they were breaking down the Knicks-Pacers. I laughed to myself as I walked out. The two loved movies. I remember after seeing “Saving Private Ryan,” they spoke about that for a good 20, 25 minutes. At the end, Chris turned to Mike said, “Listen Mike, if there is one thing you take from this movie, war is bad!” You think [laughs].
I’m still pretty close to Chris today. Mike and I, unfortunately, haven’t maintained that same relationship. It’s all good. Those guys were very, very good to me and are a reason why I’ve had the success that I’ve had.
Where was the breakthrough from one side of the producer’s glass to being on air?
I had always wanted to do play-by-play. I did some things for Bucknell University for a guy who was a mentor for me, Bob Behler (now the voice of Boise State football). Bob was leaving Bucknell to go to UMass. I wanted the Bucknell job bad. I wanted to be their play-by-play guy. I knew everyone that was there, except for the athletic director, who was new. I didn’t get the job and was crushed. I thought if I couldn’t get this job at Bucknell, which is in the middle of nowhere, where am I going with my career?
It worked out for the best, because in 2001, two things happened: Rutgers made a change with its broadcast team when Greg Schiano came in as the new football coach, and I applied for the play-by-play job, which I didn’t get. But they offered me the sideline job, which I took. The other thing that happened was Mark Chernoff decided to throw me a bone and gave me a show. It was on the Sunday night of Selection Sunday, in March of 2001. I was excited. I did so much studying about what team’s RPI is what, and what team is going where, and what teams got screwed. That kind of stuff. I started the show and was beyond nervous. I got in the next day and Mark told me the show was awful.
He was honest with me. He said I was too worried about being right and I wasn’t having any fun. He gave me some other chances, because I worked very hard for Mark. He was always very fair to me. I was always too worried about not saying the right thing on the air. Then finally, I had done the same three or four shows and got the same reaction. At the end of that summer, I did a show after just getting back from vacation. Things weren’t going anywhere, so I decided to goof around with the callers and see what happened. I did it for the hell of it. I never really wanted to do talk shows at the time. So I get in the next day, and Mark tells me this is exactly what the hell he’s been talking about. Why I hadn’t I been doing that?
Hence, I thrive on the rep of acting “like an idiot” was born. Mark started giving me a lot more chances after that. I really started having a ton of fun doing it. I left producing in 2004 and started getting more shows. At the end of the year, they made changes at the station and I got the overnight show when they moved Joe Benigno to midday. It was awesome. Unfortunately, I only had the overnight show for a few months, because the person doing sports for Don Imus had gotten into some trouble and had to go to rehab, so they asked me to fill in on that.
Listen, in one way, [Imus] gave me an incredible opportunity to be on national television every day. In another way, it was miserable and he was very tough on me. He was nasty to me at times...
Were you there around the infamous Imus fracas with the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team?
Imus for some reason kind of liked me when I filled in, so they put me on that show. That was tough, that was really tough. All of a sudden you’re placed in this position to do comedy, but it’s more prepared. I wasn’t a comedy writer by any stretch. You had a guy like Mike Breen who had done it years earlier and was just unbelievable at it. Mike was so good that I wanted to do well. I was there from mid-2005 to 2007.
The first thing that comes up when people Google me is when Imus fired me and rehired me in the same segment on the air. The fired part was a bit for the air, but I knew Imus was ticked at me and said that, even though he didn’t really mean it. Though there were times when I wished that he really had fired me. It would have removed incredible stress.
It was stressful because I wasn’t a good fit, and I knew I wasn’t a good fit. They had talked about replacing me several times. I wanted to be good at everything I did, and I really wasn’t good at this. And Imus was tough.
Then, on April 3, 2007, a Tuesday, I got the worst flu of my entire life. I couldn’t move out of bed. The next day, Imus made the comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, and I wasn’t there for it.
Keep in mind, I was also doing play-by-play for Rutgers football by then and I had a relationship with the university that went back five or six years at this point. That whole week I was sick and I got a little better, so by Friday with Imus, that whole thing had begun to pick up speed. The next week was when he got fired. I went back to work that Monday. Honestly, I really didn’t care to, but Rutgers told me that they knew it wasn’t me and to go back to work.
Later that week, sponsors were dropping and Imus got fired. The world was on its ear at WFAN. I was still under contract. I wasn’t one of the people that got fired obviously.
Did you get along with Imus? I understand he was a radio icon, but I also understand Don wasn’t an easy guy to get along with either.
Listen, in one way, he gave me an incredible opportunity to be on national television every day. In another way, it was miserable and he was very tough on me. He was nasty to me at times, and there were times when he was very nice to me. It was a tough time. You want to perform, and you’re on that stage, and you know when you’re not performing. It’s not through a lack of effort. We were not friends — I wouldn’t say that. Go through some of those clips. They were brutal times for me, they really were.
It makes me cringe when I still see those clips if you Google me. But, I came out better for the experience, no question.
Hopefully things got better?
They did. Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton got hired and I was still under contract. I worked for a year-and-a-half on their show. Those guys know what they’re doing and I kind of got put in their laps. They were great with me. They really were. In the middle of 2008, SNY (SportsNet New York), which started in 2006, wanted to start this new show called “Loud Mouths,” with myself and Adam Schein. We started doing this, and I was blown away that anyone would want to put me on TV.
I was doing it part time every day, and at the end of 2008, SNY said that they wanted to hire me fulltime.
Again, I’m bald, 300 pounds and I’m certainly not anything special to look at—and I might repulse people more than attract them [laughs]. But they thought of me as an everyman. That’s cool to me. I started doing it, and was there for the last eight-and-a-half years. I hosted Mets pre- and post-game shows for five years with Bob Ojeda. I hosted SportsNite, which is our local New York version of SportsCenter, all the while doing “Loud Mouths” in between. I had a complete blast there on a lot of different levels.
Why leave that?
I knew a couple of things. I was paid reasonably well and I had made the conscious decision to scale back to just doing ‘Loud Mouths” and freelance work, because I wanted to go into other things. I knew I wanted to get back into radio. What “Loud Mouths” did for me was really confirm over the years that I had this innate need for people to know what I think. I have to tell you what I think. “Loud Mouths” was great for that, but it was only 30 minutes a day. You have to say everything that you think in a span of 40 seconds. And I have a lot to say [laughs].
That was a big impetus, and I always loved radio. TV was great, and it took me out of my comfort zone, but I got comfortable doing it. It was time to change it up. I never expected an opportunity like this to come, and as quickly as it did.
Would you define this move to WIP as your big chance?
No question. No question. This is a special piece of real estate. This is a special place to be. I’m not trying to kiss the town’s fanny, or anything like that. I always knew what WIP was, and the afternoon drive slot is an incredible place to be. You can have a huge influence sports-wise in the town. It’s not about influencing people’s opinion. Like I said, you couldn’t do better if you handed me the biggest megaphone in the city to share my opinion on things. When it came up, it’s always something that I wanted to do.
The other big factor for me is competition. You deliver or you don’t. You are graded by what the ratings say. I need that. In TV, you’re rated, but for local cable, it’s not all about that. It’s about subscription fees. This is a direct correlation: You’re getting it done or you’re not. What do you have to do to get it done? There is pressure to get it done. I haven’t felt that pressure in a long time and I’ve been itching to have it. I’m thrilled to have it right now. It’s honestly to prove that I can get it done on the big stage. I was never one who wanted to do a show alone, and Ike has the perfect temperament to work with. We’re going to get into some things that we’re both passionate about, and really fired up over.
I respect Ike’s place in the city, because of who Ike was a player, and that’s really a lot like me. Ike was a blue-collar guy who worked hard and got the job done. It’s why the city loves him.
You know you are entering a competitive market with a staple down the dial in Mike Missanelli?
I don’t care what anybody else is doing. I have to worry about us; this is my chance. If I’m focused too much on what anybody else is doing, then I’m taking away from what I’m trying to accomplish. I understand what the business is all about and it’s why I’m here. I’m trying to get it done. I honestly don’t care who the competition is. It’s just about capitalizing on an opportunity. It will never escape me what a special chance this is, and how many people in my industry would kill for this, and certainly as deserving, if not more so than me. I want to go and win. We just want to win and take advantage of it as much as Ike and I can.
What did you hear about your predecessor’s on-air persona?
That he had a different style than me. I’m never someone that’s out to try to shock anyone, or anything like that. We’re different people. That’s okay. I can’t really worry about it. Everyone has their own style and what works for them. If I’m not good enough either, guess what, the next person will be here. Whatever Josh was doing it’s what he believed in. Okay, I have this chance now and I have to do what I believe in, and hopefully, it’s the right thing. I do care about the games and the sports. It’s why we’re here ultimately. I will say this: The reputation of Philadelphia fans outside of the city is that they’re brutally tough. I think they’re very tough, but I haven’t found them to be living up to the reputation that they have nationally. The one thing I know every team across the country has are great fans and they have fans that are not great. It doesn’t matter where you are. So far, I love what I’ve heard back from the fans. I won’t profess to know enough about the town to say that I have a great handle on what they’re thinking, but I can’t wait to find out.
I have a sense you want to be a Philly guy, and that there is some Philly in you.
I hope so. I’ve lived in Jersey my whole life. I hope I can make Philadelphia a second home.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JSantoliquito