The Voice of Longtime NBC Sports Director George Michael Is Missed

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to Washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

George Michael picked up the telephone Monday morning to call Sonny Jurgensen, his friend and former Channel 4 colleague, to rehash the Redskins' 9-7 victory over the woebegone St. Louis Rams on Sunday. They spoke for 40 minutes, and when they finished, Michael said he told Jurgensen, "If that [conversation] had been on the air, it would have been some great television."

Sadly, that chat will never see the light of day. Nor will Michael's face be seen or his blustery "now hear this" be heard anytime soon on local television, doing what he always did better than most -- asking provocative questions and often eliciting interesting and occasionally outrageous, newsmaking responses from anyone within range of his booming voice.

That memorable voice is mostly silent these days over the Washington airwaves, heard only occasionally when a local radio sports-talk host gets him as a guest for a quick hit, as WTEM's Tony Kornheiser did last week. But as for local television, which Michael often dominated as Channel 4's sports director from 1980 to 2007, he's been a TV no-show since his last "Redskins Report" aired in December.

Michael, 70, still lives in Montgomery County and spends most of his time these days researching old baseball photographs, a longtime passion that includes purchasing old newspaper photo libraries with several partners. He still watches a lot of football, the better to stay up on the sport whenever radio hosts from around the country call him for an on-air opinion.

Two years ago, Michael was the victim of an industry-wide budget-slashing movement in the local broadcasting business. Never mind that his nightly sportscasts at 6 and 11 and his popular weekly football and basketball shows often produced high ratings, not to mention more than occasional must-see television, a major reason Channel 4 has been No. 1 in the local TV news market for years.

"Everything has changed," Michael said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. "Why has it changed? Because whatever you do, quality doesn't really matter. It's whether you kept the cost down. Management doesn't worry about ratings. They worry about the dollars, and I guess I can't argue with that. That's just the way it is now."

Michael left the daily grind at Channel 4 two years ago when he was told his budget would be slashed and he'd have to let go of a number of key people in his sports operation. He still kept his hand in the business with his highly acclaimed "Redskins Report" show featuring panelists Jurgensen, John Riggins and Michael Wilbon during the NFL season, as well as his day-after-game interviews (along with Jurgensen) of the Redskins head coach du jour.

These days, Jim Zorn gets grilled on Comcast SportsNet by Chick Hernandez, a perfectly competent interviewer in his own right. Still, for this viewer, at least, it's just not the same without Michael asking the questions. Obviously all good things eventually come to an end, but Michael's outsize ego and bodacious bluster still ought to be on display -- whether on TV or talk radio -- on a regular basis in this town.

One of the first day-after questions Michael said he would have loved to ask Zorn involved that brutal halfback option play from the Rams 5-yard line midway through the third quarter, when Clinton Portis overthrew Chris Cooley in the end zone and the Redskins had to kick another field goal.

(By the way, much to his credit, Jurgensen did exactly that in his postgame radio locker room interview with Zorn. Jurgensen told the head coach that if he'd been the quarterback and that play came through his headset, he'd have ignored it and switched to something else. Why pay a quarterback all that money to throw touchdown passes, Jurgensen wondered, then take it out of his hands and allow a running back to heave it in a critical situation?

Just a tad perturbed, Zorn told Jurgensen that he would have benched him for disobeying a direct order, an almost laughable response from a novice play-caller to a Hall of Fame quarterback who called most of his plays over the course of his brilliant career. But it also was must-listen radio, a response that was aired several more times on the radio the next day.)

"If I were doing it, I would say to Zorn before we went on the air, 'There are three things today I'm going to ask you that you're probably not going to like,' " Michael said. "But these are the same questions the fans would be asking, and I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you for an answer."


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