By Leonard Shapiro
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 24, 2009;
Almost any time I wrote something naughty or nice about George Michael in the newspaper or on the Web site over the years, I'd receive several e-mail responses from around the country, all from people who had worked for Michael at WRC-TV, Washington's NBC affiliate.
The notes were written mostly by former interns or production assistants, long-ago college kids from the local schools who showed up at the station at all hours of the day and night for a few extra course credits, usually without pay, for the chance to receive a hands-on education in the sports television business from a true master of the genre.
Invariably, their e-mails would credit Michael for giving them their first real opportunity in the broadcasting business. They also gushed about how much they appreciated all the time he took with them, even if that also included occasionally being berated for not picking out the proper highlight, for coming back from an interview with poor-quality audio on a sound bite, for not asking the right question.
Many of those college students or retired pro athletes, such as former Redskins tight end Rick "Doc" Walker, went on to broadcasting careers in front of or behind the cameras in stations around the country. Some stayed around working at Washington's local radio and television stations, and a few figured out that perhaps their futures might be better spent in a different profession. And yet, those in the latter group were actually grateful that Michael had steered them in another direction.
George Michael died early Thursday morning at Sibley Hospital after a long and very private battle with leukemia. I last spoke with him in September after hearing from a mutual friend that Michael was having some health problems. When I asked him about it, Michael soft-pedaled any such suggestion, insisting he was feeling just fine and was even thinking about trying to get his old "Redskins Report" show back on the air next season.
That day, he clearly wanted to change the subject and soon was speaking enthusiastically about his longtime passion: research on old baseball photographs. Michael considered himself something of a baseball historian and in recent years was purchasing, along with several partners, sports photo libraries from various sources, including newspapers going out of business. He went on at length about how much satisfaction his latest pursuit was providing, but he also made it very clear that he was still paying close attention to what he was watching on local television.
Michael didn't particularly like what he was seeing, especially the ever shorter sports reports at Channel 4 and at every other station in town. For most of his 28 years on the air in Washington, Michael often was given seven and eight minutes a night to do his entertaining sportscasts, loaded with highlights, interviews, features, occasional breaking news and memorable taped footage ranging from riotous Jack Russell Terrier races at the Washington Horse Show, to rodeo bull riding and "rasslin'," as WRC newscaster Jim Vance liked to call it.
These days, local sportscasters are lucky if they get more than 2 1/2 minutes at 6 and 11, hardly enough time to do much besides showing a few highlights and a quickie interview from a pro or college locker room around town.
"Everything has changed," Michael said that day. "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 won't argue with that. That's just the way it is now . . . The problem is, if I'm going to do it, I'm only going to do it right."
Over the years, Michael often did it right. But he also had his critics, present company included, particularly in his earlier days on the air. In the beginning, he had an annoying tendency to shy away from tough questions and too often got far too close to some of the athletes, coaches and owners he was supposed to be covering, a habit he never was able to break.
Whenever I wrote any of that in the newspaper, Michael almost always would call me up not long after he had gone through the sports section at the breakfast table and choked on his Cheerios. He definitely wasn't happy. I'd also see him out at Redskins Park occasionally, and he always had something to say in response to any criticism, real or imagined. Usually, we just agreed to disagree.
Still, Michael, despite his outsized ego, also seemed to take some of that criticism to heart. Despite his frequent on-air bluster, in recent years he clearly made an effort to ask many of the same questions people watching his sportscasts wanted answered. And while he remained a frequent visitor to Daniel Snyder's private box on game days, he could be tough on the owner and the team on the air when warranted, and even managed to cajole the media-shy Snyder on camera every once in a while, getting in a zinger or two that clearly did not please the owner.
"George didn't change anything he did because of his relationship with" Snyder, Sonny Jurgensen, Michael's friend and longtime colleague, said Thursday. "George was strong-minded and always told him what he thought. I think Snyder respected that."
For 28 years, Washingtonians obviously respected the time and all-consuming effort George Michael put into his work, evidenced by Channel 4's No. 1 spot in the ratings for most of those years, when Michael's nightly sportscasts and weekly roundtable discussion shows became must-watch local television.
And the people who worked with him for many of those years -- interns, producers, directors, cameramen and -women -- always said it was not difficult to understand why he had such a devoted and widespread following.
"He made you better because he wanted it done right," said current Channel 4 sportscaster Dan Hellie, hired by Michael as 30-year-old weekend anchor in 2006. "He did it his way. Everybody who worked for George knew how he wanted it done and appreciated that he was a perfectionist. He was the best."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.