Top 10: Washington sports broadcasters well worth the air time
After 40 years of covering sports in the Washington market, and most of the last 25 writing about sports broadcasting, I'm often asked to offer an opinion on local TV sportscasters I've watched over the last four decades, specifically the best, and occasionally the worst.
Truth be told, we've been fortunate in the nation's capital to have been informed and entertained by some of the country's finest on-air practitioners on the nightly sportscasts of all four local network owned or affiliated stations. The market also has been a fertile breeding ground in developing talent for sports divisions of the national networks, both cable and over-the-air.
Did you know, for example, that Washingtonian James Brown, the main man in the studio for CBS Sports coverage of the NFL, began his career in the 1970s as a sports reporter covering high school games for Channel 9? That versatile ESPN play-by-play man Mike Patrick spent many weekends in the 1980s as a weekend anchor at Channel 7? Or that ESPN SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry, had the weekend sports job at Channel 7 from 1994 to 1996 before she left to help launch ESPNews that year?
Compiling a Letterman-like top 10 list of our favorite local lead sports anchors since 1970 is no easy task, with plenty of worthy (and countless unworthy) candidates. So here's one man's opinion on the top ten most memorable anchors, and feel free to e-mail your own best/worst choices, or comment online to me, the ignorant moron.
10. Nick Charles. Before the late George Michael, there was Nick Charles as sports director and anchor at Channel 4 from 1976 to 1979. A Chicago native who also worked at WTOP radio in the early 1970s, Charles was strikingly telegenic and a dapper dresser who also did television in Baltimore before coming to the nation's capital. He left the station in 1980 to join a fledgling cable network called CNN and became its longtime sports anchor. In recent years, he's been Showtime's lead boxing analyst, but is now off the air and engaged in a different fight, battling bladder cancer that was diagnosed last year.
9. Jim Karvellas. For 16 years, he was the play-by-play voice of the Baltimore and later Washington Bullets when they moved south, best known for his call of "bull's-eye!" after a critical basket from the home team. But he also was the lead sports anchor at Channel 5 in the 1970s until he left the market in 1980 to become the television voice of the New York Cosmos soccer team and do play-by-play work for the New York Knicks. He died in 2007 after battling prostate cancer.
8. Chick Hernandez. He grew up in Silver Spring, attended Blair High School and the University of Maryland, and got his start in this market as a weekend man at Channel 5, Hernandez now does it all for Comcast SportsNet -- anchoring nightly news shows for the Bethesda-based regional cable network, hosting a wide variety of studio productions as well as his own golf show, and still working as a reporter in the field. The man has a delicious sense of humor on and off the air, and a pretty good golf game, as well.
7. Dave Feldman. The California native is the best of the current crop of local sportscasters on the four main local newscasts. He came to Channel 5 after working as an anchor at ESPN and is clearly a hustling pro's pro. Like the rest of his on-air sports colleagues these days, he doesn't get much time in the early evening and late-night newscasts, but he's a fine interviewer and not at all shy about offering a strong opinion.
6. Bernie Smilovitz. I first met Brooklyn-born Bernie when he was a student at the University of Maryland doing occasional reports on the George Allen 1970s Redskins for WTOP. He became sports director at Channel 5 in 1978 before heading to the NBC affiliate in Detroit in 1986, where he is still on the air and a popular presence in the Motor City.
5. Steve Buckhantz. He grew up in Arlington and came back to the Washington market in 1984 as a sports anchor with Channel 5, where he broke one of the biggest Washington sports stories in recent memory, the retirement of Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs following the 1992 season. Buck had often dabbled in play-by-play whenever time allowed, and for the last 13 years he's been the television voice of the Wizards, with his signature "dagger!" call signaling a coup de grace, end-game moment.
4. Frank Herzog. He came to the Washington market in the early 1970s and has worked for most of the last four decades as a reporter, weekend man and sports anchor at both Channel 7 and Channel 9. He also was the radio play-by-play man when the Washington Bullets won the 1978 NBA championship and served as the radio voice of the Washington Redskins for 23 years until he was sadly dismissed in 2004 after 23 years of "touchdown, Washington Redskins." He spent the past few years as a newscaster with WTOP before his recent retirement from the airwaves. You can still get an occasional big-screen glimpse of "The Zog," who's often an extra in the movies.
3. Glenn Brenner. The former pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization came to Channel 9 in 1977 and mostly made us laugh hysterically with his irreverent style and loosey-goosey on-air demeanor. Brenner never took himself or his subject matter all too seriously, producing a highly entertaining sportscast that included his "weenie of the week" feature and a local nun picking NFL winners against the point spread. After running in the 1991 Marine Corps Marathon, he learned he had a malignant brain tumor that led to his tragic death in 1992 at the very height of his popularity.
2. George Michael. Now hear this. Once a rock-and-roll DJ and hockey play-by-play man, he came to Channel 4 in 1980 and began creating a sports juggernaut that helped the station dominate the ratings for most of his 27-year tenure. A demanding taskmaster overseeing the largest TV sports staff in town, he peppered his six- and seven-minute long sportscasts with highlights from NASCAR, pro rasslin', rodeo and Jack Russell terrier races and hosted a variety of Redskins-related studio shows, as well as the popular late-night "Sports Machine," a nationally syndicated sports highlight show that was a slickly produced precursor to ESPN's "SportsCenter." He also helped train several generations of directors, producers and on-air personalities now working around the country, perhaps his greatest legacy. Michael died last December after a long battle with leukemia.
1. Warner Wolf. He began his broadcasting career handling intercom announcements at Washington's Coolidge High School in the 1950s. He did sports on WTOP radio, including play-by-play on the old Washington Senators, before moving over to Channel 9 as the sports anchor in 1965. Wolf was a pioneer in the use of film and taped highlights, and will be forever be remembered for his catch-phrase "let's go to the videotape." He offered "Boo of the Week" and "Play of the Week" features and had a wide variety of signature utterances as in "hey man, boo . . . gimme a break . . . if you had the Redskins and 27 points . . . .you lost!!!" Wolf left Channel 9 in 1975 to work for ABC Sports, then became a fixture in the New York market doing local sports on the ABC and CBS affiliates. He came back to Washington to replace Brenner in 1992, but poor ratings led to his dismissal in 1995. He went back to New York, and can still be heard doing sports for Don Imus's nationally syndicated radio show.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com.