For D.C. sports fans of a certain age, the list of childhood sports heroes includes not just Redskins, Bullets and Capitals, but also sportscasters. Two, in particular.
“I remember what a prominent part Glenn Brenner and George Michael played, what kind of a role those guys had in my life,” said native Washingtonian Joe House, who was in middle school when the Redskins won their first Super Bowl.
“Those guys totally tied you to that [Redskins] team,” agreed ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt, who also grew up in this area. “When Brenner died I went to his wake – I felt totally tied to the guy,”
I’m not breaking any news by noting that the era of larger-than-life local sports anchors has likely passed. Still, in a town that’s seen so many iconic anchors, it’s a bit startling to realize that, more than three months after Brett Haber resigned from Brenner’s old station, WUSA has yet to hire a traditional sports director to replace him.
“We’re trying to be creative,” said Allan Horlick, the station’s president and general manager. “We’re exploring the possibility of replacing Brett in-kind, but at the same time, we’re using this as an opportunity to look and see: Is there a different model? Is there a better model? Is there something to fill a need that isn’t already being filled?”
And so, while the station has two full-time reporter/anchors in Dave Owens and Kristen Berset, it’s also experimenting with roundtable discussions featuring, for example, longtime print reporter David Elfin and Brian Mitchell. Horlick said the station is also considering adding more sports analysis from former athletes, radio hosts and even (gasp) bloggers.
Channel 9, Horlick said, could show highlights as part of a more traditional broadcast, “and frankly, there’s very little difference between what we’d do and what the other stations do.” Instead, he said, they’re “trying to tell knowledgeable fans something they don’t already know.”
The other local stations have maintained more traditional structures, with well-known faces at the top, from Dave Feldman at WTTG to Tim Brant at WJLA to Dan Hellie at WRC.
(The latter station has yet to replace Lindsay Czarniak, Hellie’s former partner, who recently departed for ESPN. Camille Edwards, WRC’s vice president of news, told me that the station is “actively looking for someone to replace Lindsay,” and that “unquestionably we’re going to be adding to our sports department.”)
How do such personnel moves impact an actual news show? During last Friday’s 6 p.m. newscast on WUSA, the first two stories were the Penn State scandal and the kidnapping of Wilson Ramos, but both were handled by news reporters. The previous day, WTTG led with the same two stories, which were introduced by Feldman.
“Whether it’s me doing it or Hellie or Tim Brant or Haber, I think you’d want your main sports guy doing your big sports story,” Feldman said. “So I think it IS important to have someone there who you trust, who’s been doing sports awhile. There’s been a real parade of very good talent in this town, and I would hate to see that some day it doesn’t matter.”
Indeed, a quarter-century ago, Norman Chad described Brenner as “the funniest person on Washington television,” and Michael as “the only reason to watch Channel 4 news.” Their names, faces and voices were as much a part of the Washington sports landscape as anyone they quoted. Another local anchor I spoke with this month likened it to the sway held by The Post’s sports columnists.
But of course, The Post will give a column to damn near anyone nowadays. Times change, and all that.
Sports is “no less important, but we’re taking this opportunity to see if there’s a better way,” Horlick said. “There’s no denying that every possible facet of the media industry is totally different than it was even two or three years ago. Seems like we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t exploring this stuff.”