Thursday, December 24, 2009

George Michael, RIP

As a broadcasting refugee, I'm sometimes asked about how much "fun" that business was, and advice I would offer for young people wanting to enter the trade.

My standard reply goes something like this: yes, it was fun working in radio and television, but it was also hard work; lots of long hours and low pay, with no little guarantee that I would ever earn a living wage--or reach the upper rungs of that profession. I also respond that visiting an Air Force recruiter's office was one of the smartest moves I ever made. It opened doors (and opportunities) that I would have otherwise missed. Now, in middle age, I can look back on a successful military career (and the retirement benefits it offers), while many of my broadcasting peers are still struggling with low wages and diminishing employment prospects.

Still, I have the utmost respect for those who keep laboring behind a microphone, or in front of a television camera, and somehow reach the top of a ruthless business. George Michael was one of those individuals; the iconic Washington, D.C. sportscaster died today after a battle with cancer. He was 70.

For 28 years, until he moved to "semi-retired" status in 2007, Mr. Michael was the lead sportscaster for WRC-TV, the NBC-owned station in the nation's capital. For much of that period, he was arguably the best-known sports broadcaster in the Washington region; his nightly reports on Channel 4 helped that station achieve dominance in the local ratings, and made WRC one of the most profitable operations in the NBC portfolio.

Outside the D.C. area, Michael will be remembered as host of the "Sports Machine," a syndicated, Sunday night sports recap program that aired in 200 different cities across the country. Utilizing videotape and satellite technology that was coming into its own, Mr. Michael helped popularize a highlights-driven format that was perfected by ESPN and various regional sports channels.

But George Michael will also be remembered for the "other" half of his broadcasting career. Before moving to Washington, he was one of the most successful Top 40 DJs of the 1960s and 1970s, with stints in various cities, including Philadelphia and New York.

Michael's first exposure to radio came during his college days, at Saint Louis University. To help pay his way through school, Michael worked as a part-time record promoter, trying to convince program directors and DJs to play songs from a new Detroit label called Motown. Deciding there was more money on the other side of the microphone, he became a radio personality, starting at WIL in St. Louis.

Until the mid-1960s, he was an itinerant disc jockey; "I had a Red Nash Rambler and deflatable furniture," he later recalled for the Washington Post. "I didn't stay put for very long." But Top 40 was the hottest format of the day, and one of the quickest tickets to broadcasting riches. Hitching his career to that style of radio, Michael demonstrated a keen sense of where the business was headed, a quality that would serve him well later.

Michael's radio wanderings came to an end in 1966, when he became the evening DJ at WFIL-AM, an influential rock and roll outlet in Philadelphia. He dominated his time slot for the next eight years and in 1974, received the call that ever jock dreamed of: a job offer at WABC in New York.

In those days, WABC was the most important Top 40 station in the nation, with a weekly cumulative audience of seven million listeners. Michael was hired to replace "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, a New York radio legend who spent 13 years at ABC before jumping to rival WNBC. Michael more than held his own against Morrow, although WABC (and other AM stations) were facing increased competition from FM outlets. With an eye towards the future, Mr. Michael took on other assignments in New York, substituting for Howard Cosell on his daily sports commentary and handling color commentary for the New York Islanders.

As a radio broadcaster, George Michael gained a reputation as a perfectionist, a trait that would follow him into television. All Top 40 stations had a "tight" format, and WABC had the tightest of them all. DJs were expected to weave their patter through commercials, promos and jingles, talking "up" until the song's lyrics began. While many jocks relied on their knowledge of the music, Michael took his preparation a step further, using a stopwatch to tell him how many seconds remained until the lyrics started. He sometimes threw music or commercial "cartridges" at broadcast engineers who couldn't match his level of precision.

Mr. Michael remained at WABC until 1979, when the station (with its audience eroding) began moving away from its Top 40 roots. Ready for a change, he accepted an offer from WRC, which then trailed rival WUSA in the local ratings. "What did I have to lose?" he later told the Post.

In Washington, Michael also faced entrenched competition. In the 1980s, WUSA's Glenn Brenner was the city's leading sportscaster, and one of the most popular TV personalities in the history of the market. Brenner was known for his irreverence toward sports; in one memorable segment, he proved that a cloistered nun could predict NFL winners more accurately than the so-called experts. He also remarked, famously, that one of Mike Tyson's opponents had "fewer fights than Ghandi."

Still, George Michael and WRC began to chip away at WUSA's lead. In the mid-1980s, he launched the Sports Machine, his weekend highlights program that attracted millions of viewers. In some respects, the show wasn't particularly innovative; one of his predecessors in Washington (Warner Wolf) pioneered the "let's-go-the-tape" approach to sportscasting in the 1970s, and several cable outlets--including ESPN--were airing highlights programs on a daily basis. Michael also adopted the show's most memorable prop (a full-sized Ampex videotape machine) from an early edition of The NFL Today, hosted by Frank Gifford.

But in that era before SportsCenter became a part of the national lexicon, the George Michael Sports Machine became a hit, and expanded his audience. Michael became Washington's dominant sportscaster in 1992, after WUSA's Glenn Brenner passed away following a brief battle with brain cancer. Over the years that followed, the station tried a series of sports anchors to compete with Mr. Michael (including Warner Wolf), but none could match the popularity of Brenner--or George Michael.

After dominating the local ratings for more than a decade, Mr. Michael suddenly retired from WRC in 2007. According to local media accounts, his departure was (in part) a protest to budget cuts at the station. With the emergence of ESPN, Fox, and other outlets, there was less demand for a large sports department at local stations--and sports anchors with multi-million dollar salaries.

In many respects, the passing of George Michael represents the end of an era, not just in Washington, but across America. Convinced that viewers will get their coverage from cable, a number of stations have actually eliminated their local sportscasts. More will certainly follow; after all, you can save a lot of money by eliminating your sports department. And besides, it's hard to find a sportscaster with the talent--and the showmanship--of a George Michael.

No comments: