The Weird One
How an oddball recluse came to co-host one of the most popular radio shows in Baltimore
Published: May 30, 2012
You may never get a chance to experience the enormous Moai statues of Easter Island, but sitting in the presence of Josh Spiegel—one-third of the 98 Rock Morning Show With Mickey, Amelia, and Spiegel—is pretty damn close. His jaw is square like those of the famed island behemoths, his brow is broad and ridged, and his head is freakin’ huge. But taken in context of the rest of him, it makes sense. Spiegel, 36, is tall, broad, and thick-limbed, and in conversation, his voice is Bunyanesque. But there is always the sense that he is holding back. When he opens up, you feel it in your bones.
Spiegel’s giant presence comes in handy on the show, the radio equivalent of a Slip ’N Slide through a dystopian Dundalk full of boobs, beer, and bacon. The show hurtles, live, through the news of the day and the whims of its cast, all the while flirting with misogyny and tap-dancing on the razor’s edge of good taste. Most of the time, the hosts manage to hold it all together, to define that line, and to shine a light on the anger on either side of it, without going over. It isn’t precisely Baltimore, but it’s a damn good facsimile of a specific part of it.
Many of those reading this right now won’t admit to listening to 98 Rock, but Mickey, Amelia, and Spiegel is one of the most popular shows in the market. According to Arbitron, a company that monitors radio listenership, the trio has an average weekly listenership of over 150,000. (And there are less than 70,000 people in Glen Burnie, so somebody else is tuning in.) The show’s popularity has something to do with the oddball mix of personalities hosting it. Mickey Cucchiella, the loud-mouthed, half-pint East Baltimore Italian with a chip on his shoulder, is the comedian. Amelia Ryerse, the self-described tree-hugger with a hot-rod Camaro and a Harley addiction, is the voice of estrogen, and Spiegel is the news guy. He’s also the weird one, who’s drilled the awkward silence down to a science. His questions often confound guests, as he seems generally befuddled by the everyday workings of the real world. Reclusive by nature, Spiegel makes his home in the far corner of the studio, pressed against the wall, staring out his Big News Window and into the empty room next door. A computer monitor hangs between him and the frequently topless guests. In the hallways or on the street, Spiegel can come across as meek, but in this little space, he is safe and he is a lion.
The Morning Show has a reputation for being base, lowbrow, anti-intellectual. And, to a degree, that’s true. A recent live broadcast from an open tent in the infield of the Preakness is a case in point. Bikini-clad beach-volleyball players snuck in and out behind the hosts to use the Spot-A-Pot. In front of them, a phalanx of short-shorted girls maintained a perimeter and handed out 100 pounds of free bacon. Scott Bartlett, a buzz-cut roid-rocker from the band Saving Abel, was miked up with the crew. He sat one seat from the end throwing up devil horns, echoing another pair tattooed on the inside of his biceps. Next to him, at the end of the line, sat Spiegel, staring serenely off at a cloudless patch of sky. Suddenly a man-boy in an Orioles cap and a wife-beater broke the bacon-y barrier and bellowed, “Woooooo! 98 Rock! I love you guys! I LOVE YOU GUYS!” Then he crouched down low, cocked his head toward Spiegel like a monkey weighing a handful of poo, and grunted, “But you’re kinda weird.”
Scott Reardon, the show’s producer and unofficial fourth host, knows that listeners like this are his base. “Every year we do a March Madness of the coolest thing ever,” he says. “The final four is always Boobs, Beer, Strippers, and, like, the Ravens or something like that. Dudes who want to get into their car and that’s what they want to hear. That’s our wheelhouse right there. But I think we’re more than that.” The show’s guest list would seem to concur. Gov. Martin O’Malley has stopped by, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is a regular guest, and legendary newsman Dan Rather made an appearance recently. (Disclosure: Less notable but more frequent guests include this reporter.)
And the show clearly has a deeper draw than boobs and beer. Aaron Henkin, co-producer and co-host of WYPR-FM’s arts and culture show The Signal, makes his living in public radio, the furthest thing on the spectrum from Mickey, Amelia, and Spiegel, but he loves it. “So much of radio is preproduced, scripted, written, and rewritten,” he says. “Then there’s Mickey, Amelia, and Spiegel. They’re in that studio day after day walking a tightrope without a net. It’s like listening to the human brain work in real time.” But as much as Henkin loves the show, it is Spiegel with whom he connects. “Spiegel is the real agent of chaos in the show,” he says. “He’s clearly written this informed, concise newscast, but it’s the delivery that I really tip my hat to. With just the Rubik’s Cube intonations of his voice he’s presenting levels of commentary on the news that are so intangible that I think they are really kind of subversive and edgy. I’m kind of star-struck by the guy.”
The Rubik’s Cube is an apt analogy for Spiegel’s vocal stylings. His voice has a baseline baritone, the prototypical old-school newsman, but through the course of a story he’ll drop to a whisper, throw in a few awkward rumblings that seem to come from some dank cavern off the left side of his esophagus, then launch into a falsetto capped with a girlish titter, but like the cube, there is an arcane mathematics behind it. Cucchiella is the mouth of the show (and frequently the foot to jam in that mouth), and Ryerse is the conscience, but Spiegel is the brain, and like any good brain, he’s flummoxed by much of this modern world. It’s teetering on the confusion of this strange man in an even stranger land where the show often finds its traction.
Those moments of awkwardness keep the thinking fan coming back, but they also produce a state of perplexity. “I wonder what he’s like once the show is done,” Henkin says. “I just imagine him getting into a late-model Buick and driving away to some quiet, hermit-like apartment where he takes off his socks and watches CNN.”
Most days, Spiegel does head home, though he doesn’t drive a Buick or live in a hermitage. He owns a large house near a horse farm in Baltimore County with plenty of room for his pooch—whom I called Pumpernickel for three hours before learning from Reardon that it’s only a stage name to guard the dog’s privacy—to frolic in the backyard. Spiegel loves sitting on his deck, but adds, “I worry about a tree falling.” And inside, well, it’s clear that Spiegel lives alone. There is a lot more house than furniture and paintings sit propped up against walls, dude-style, waiting to be hung, though there are a few exceptions. Giant photos of the aforementioned dog fill the foyer and line the stairs, family photos from trips to Israel hang in the living room, and two framed and signed pictures of Spiderman hang prominently in the library, though Spiegel confides, “I don’t think Spiderman really signed it.”
Spiegel is a gracious host and his love for his dog is palpable and endearing. When I ask people who know him about Spiegel, there are three words that always come up. The first is “awkward,” but it’s followed quickly by “sweet” and “decent.” Yet he is awkward, and he knows it.
“Off the air, I’m not always uncomfortable,” he says. “At home I’m fine, I feel safe here, but going places, yeah, it can be uncomfortable. All the neurotic stuff I do on the air—or a lot of it, or most of it, or really all of it—is real.”
It may seem strange to say about a man who holds court before 350,000 people a day, but Spiegel is very shy, in an intense way that’s difficult to describe. It’s as if he’s eager to share something of himself, but only in a safe way. Yet it’s nearly impossible for him to know ahead of time who and what will be safe. When he was a little boy, like many little boys, he didn’t want to go to kindergarten. So he told his mother he wasn’t going to talk anymore. But unlike most little boys, Spiegel kept his word.
“I had a friend,” Spiegel says. “I think his name was Phillip. He had giant glasses and I think I spoke to him, but I didn’t speak to the teachers or the other students.” For a year and a half, Spiegel didn’t speak outside his home: not in school or on the playground, and at the child psychologist’s office, he would sit in silence for his hour. “I got teased and one teacher threatened to throw me out the window, but it was a ground-floor classroom so it wouldn’t have mattered,” Spiegel says. “I guess she wanted me to talk, but I just wouldn’t talk. But hey, look at me now!”
At moments like this, when Spiegel opens his heart and ties up the pain with a laugh, one understands why the people around him love him and feel an urge to protect him. “If Josh was in a burning car, I would try to save him,” Ryerse says. “I couldn’t, he’s way too heavy. But I really care about him. But I know not to run up and hug him because it will freak him the fuck out. He’s the person in high school you wanted to reach out and say, ‘It’s OK, dude. I’m just like you.’”
When asked if he considers Spiegel a friend, Cucchiella doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, I think Josh and I are friends,” he says, then thinks for a moment and adds, “Not the kind of friend when you think of the word ‘friend.’ But I think he would consider me a friend. But not traditional friends. I don’t think I know anything about him that’s not on the air.
“Josh is the weirdest human being I’ve ever met,” Cucchiella continues, “and, let’s be honest, he’s probably medically insane. But he’s also one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. . . He’s a decent, decent, incredible man.”
Josh Spiegel is also uniquely suited to his role on the Morning Show. He is a classically trained newsman with nearly a quarter-century in the business, and he can carry the weight of a real story in a way your average shock jock can never hope to. Then, 30 seconds later, he’ll launch into a show tune, segue into a mock tirade on the imagined horrors of something seemingly mundane like a Thursday in Baltimore, then shoot over to an interview with his roving reporter (and alter ego) Agnes Updick. On the air, he’s a duck in water, or maybe a Trans-Am in Edgemere. It’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. “What would you do if you weren’t in radio?” I ask.
Spiegel has a way of saying “well” that listeners will recognize. In person, it starts with a head cock. His chin juts down half an inch then off to the left by a few degrees; you can almost feel his tongue press the back of his throat on that long double ‘l.’ It gives him a moment, a pause, before answering a question he’d rather not think about.
“Well,” he says, “I like Spiderman. But that’s the thing, I don’t really have a fall-back plan. I can relate to the Peter Parker character. You know, my life is sort of compartmentalized. I wonder if the real me is off the air or on, and I tend to think the real me is on the air. On the air I feel safe.” He pauses, then adds wistfully. “I feel like I’m flying. I feel free.”
While many of us bury ourselves for eight hours a day in a job as penance for the weekends, Spiegel spends his time between shows waiting for the next one. He arrives at the station at 4 a.m. every day, writes the news, and lays down tracks.
“Do you know what chutzpah is?” Spiegel asks, then launches into the story of how he got his start in radio. His voice is brighter somehow, light. “I started working at a Spanish station in my neighborhood, WMDO, Radio Mundo, 1340 AM [in Washington, D.C.]. Doing the weather.”
At the time, Spiegel was a 12-year-old Jewish kid from the suburbs, just a handful of summers removed from his long stint of not speaking in public, and he was riding the airwaves on Spanish-language radio. He couldn’t speak Spanish and had the voice of a 12-year-old, so the gig didn’t last long, but Spiegel stayed on behind the scenes. He worked 10-hour days over that summer and fell ever more deeply into the welcoming arms of radio. At 14, he went to WNAV in Annapolis, then at 15, he took a plum internship with NBC Radio News.
At 16, Spiegel started working for WPGC, an urban station with the largest listenership in D.C. “They’d have me write a story after reading the AP wire,” he remembers. “I’d get to the station at 5:30 in the morning, then go to school at 7:45, then, after I did my homework, I would maybe go to a press conference or a community meeting. I interviewed Marion Barry, and when I was 18 years old, I invited him to lunch. We ate at the Washington Hotel. The lunch was like $65 and I billed the station and they were stunned. I told them I was trying to improve our relationship with the mayor.” In 2005, he joined the 98 Rock Morning Show, followed a few months later by Cucchiella and Ryerse. And somewhere along the way, Spiegel transformed from straight newsman to ungainly lizard king of Baltimore morning radio.
Off the air, Josh Spiegel is Peter Parker, small (despite his physical girth and gargantuan head), nearly invisible. But with a microphone at his lips, he’s Spiderman with the voice of a stone giant. “This I know I do well,” he says. “This is me. Chutzpah. It’s like balls.”
> Email Jim Meyer