Second in a seven-part series
As the senior vice president for sports at Westwood One, Larry Michael is one of the most powerful executives in sports radio. He hires, fires, produces and programs sports coverage for the national radio network. He negotiates rights deals with the NFL and Notre Dame football. But unlike almost all other major radio executives, Michael is also an ambitious play-by-play announcer. He has worked some of Westwood One's biggest events, including the Masters, Olympics and the NCAA basketball tournament.
Those dual roles have made Michael a controversial figure in his profession, with sports radio industry insiders questioning if Michael has used his corporate standing to enhance his broadcasting career. The controversy has increased since WJFK, which like Westwood One is owned by Infinity Broadcasting Corp., fired veteran Washington Redskins broadcaster Frank Herzog in February and replaced him with Michael without considering other candidates.
"Is it fair? Did they get the best guy? Did they scour the country? No, they didn't," said Richard Neer, who hosts a weekend talk show on WFAN in New York and writes a column on sports talk radio for Talkers, the industry magazine. "They got a good guy. He is very good. But I'm saying they could have found somebody in another NFL city that might do a better job."
For 23 years, Herzog teamed with former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and Hall of Famer Sam Huff to form a popular announcing team. Herzog's dismissal by WJFK Vice President-General Manager Alan Leinwand led to an angry response by fans, some of whom called for a boycott of the broadcasts. Some observers said Herzog had lost a step; a recent, non-scientific poll on The Washington Post's Web site indicated that most fans will tune in to the new broadcast, despite Herzog's departure.
In an interview last month, Leinwand said Michael, 47, deserved the job. Leinwand called Michael, who also has been the voice of the George Washington University men's basketball team for 11 years and the host of WJFK's pregame and postgame Redskins shows, "one of the pre-eminent play-by-play broadcasters in the country."
Leinwand and Michael are corporate cousins of sorts, both managing separate divisions of the Viacom Inc. media conglomerate, which also owns CBS television, Paramount Pictures and the Simon & Schuster publishing house. Viacom also owns Infinity Broadcasting, which operates 185 radio stations, including WJFK.
Michael inhabits an entirely different Viacom division as the senior vice president for Westwood One sports, which supplies play-by-play coverage of national sporting events, including "Monday Night Football" and the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Michael and Leinwand have no authority over each other, although now that Michael is the Redskins' play-by-play local broadcaster, he works for the local Infinity radio station and answers to Leinwand in his part-time job as an announcer.
Said Michael: "I don't think there are any conspiracy theories in this. I have worked my butt off. For eight years, I've been covering the team for WJFK. I have had the pregame and postgame responsibilities, as well as a variety of shows, all on WJFK. Those eight years put me in the position where I would be considered to succeed Frank. My abilities are to be judged, but I'm not apologizing."
Michael is accustomed to such challenges, including a tense meeting 13 years ago when he was picking up speed as the manager of Westood One's sports operations. Michael came to work at his Crystal City office and faced a mutiny. About a dozen employees sat down in a conference room with him to air their grievances. They complained about perceived favoritism. Some announcers were uncomfortable with Michael taking on-air assignments, which they felt was taking away from their own opportunities, according to at least five people who were present at the meeting.
"It was just tough for a lot of guys, and that's as diplomatic as I can put it," Bill Rosinski, who was at the meeting and is now the voice of the Carolina Panthers, said of working for Michael.
"I'm not saying Larry did anything untoward," said Bob Berger, who worked for Michael in the early 1990s and who hosts a weekend show for SportingNews Radio in Chicago. "The company was doing things on the cheap, and Larry had a knack for putting out a product for as little as possible. He wore many hats and got people to do work for less than one might have thought. Larry probably worked cheaper on some assignments where he was getting a chance to do play-by-play. I never really had a problem with it. Some guys who had ambitions to do play-by-play saw Larry blocking them from those assignments."
Michael stayed in charge and most of those at the meeting eventually left Westwood One. Though many in radio broadcasting say they respect his work ethic and his play-by-play skills, there are some who are uncomfortable with Michael's role as both a senior manager at Westwood One and as an on-air broadcaster.
"How can you be objective about your own performance and how credible can you be to the talent you are managing?" said Todd Castleberry, director of operations for SportsTalk 980 WTEM. "That seems to me to be an awfully conflicted situation."
Michael said he doesn't see a conflict of interest because there are so many layers of management above and below him with input into decisions. He said he does not assign himself to games; that job is done by someone he supervises. He attributes enmity from others in the industry as the price of being a manager.
"Anybody in that meeting ended up better off as a result of having worked for Westwood One. Anyone who paints me other than a good guy doesn't know me," Michael said, adding that during his management career, "I have stepped on toes. There are people I have dispatched from Westwood One."
Frank Murphy, a former vice president of CBS Radio Networks who is a communications consultant, praises Michael as "very professional." But Murphy said he probably would not put himself in the position of being both manager and on-air talent. "I think you have to put yourself in the position to treat your audience fairly and the people you are working with fairly," Murphy said.
Michael said there is no easy answer to the question of why he is both a senior manager as well as an on-air entertainer, which is unique in sports radio.
"I love being at the event, being at the game," Michael said. "I have a passion for the action. I also have an equal passion on the business side to get things done. And there's no doubt I like getting compensated for the work I do, and I'm lucky enough to be able to work a lot. The financial reward that comes with working a lot certainly benefits my family. You have the passion fix. You have the financial fix."
Michael grew up in Silver Spring and absorbed a strong work ethic from his Greek parents, who ran a small cafe on H Street in downtown Washington for several years. He learned to hustle early, taking the D.C. Transit bus downtown to help serve customers at his father's shop.
"I've never been afraid to work hard," he said.
He attended the University of Maryland as a law enforcement major, but fell in love with broadcasting after a visit to the campus radio station, WMUC, in his sophomore year, and then he promptly switched his major to radio, television and film. He started spinning records but switched to the sports department, where he did play-by-play covering the Terrapins basketball team and learned the fundamentals of announcing and radio production.
"You were working as engineer, producer and talent," said Michael, who lives in McLean with his wife and three children. "You showed up and hooked up your equipment yourself. There were 11th-hour details to work out, and you needed to make sure you identify the players and the sport correctly and get the time correctly."
Michael learned early on about the value of knowing people who could put you in a position to thrive. A buddy helped him get a summer job working street repairs for a local paving company. When it was time to graduate, a professor referred him to Channel 2 in Baltimore, where he was offered a master control job. He took a position instead covering professional golf tournaments for Mutual Radio, tearing around the country in his Pontiac Firebird, collecting $100 a tournament, and getting on-the-job training in basic radio reporting.
"I remember Jack Nicklaus took so long over putts," Michael said. "So when you were describing Jack's putts, he would be frozen over the ball like a statue. So you had to be prepared to keep talking, describing the scene, describing the break of the putt."
Mutual Radio hired Michael in the early 1980s as a producer on programs such as Notre Dame football. A couple of years later he took over as host of the coach's show for the Fighting Irish, first with coach Gerry Faust and then with Lou Holtz. Michael to this day does the pregame coach's show every Saturday for Notre Dame football and still wears a ring from Notre Dame's 1988 national championship.
"That was a pretty big break for me to be associated with that broadcast," he said.
His other big break came in the late 1980s when Westwood One purchased Mutual Radio from the Amway Corporation and promoted Michael over another veteran to manage sports operations. "Larry's passion is play-by-play, but he understands the business side of sports better than most," said Joel Hollander, the chief executive officer of Westwood One at the time and now head of Infinity Broadcasting. "He has a unique skill-set that nobody else has. We brought the sports division to an entirely new level together. Larry can go in and help me negotiate a deal with the NFL at its highest level and then get on the air and do a George Washington basketball and now Redskins football. He has a myriad of expertise."
Case in point: Michael helped Westwood One wring more from its NFL rights deal by broadcasting the games in Spanish. His discipline extends to the announcer's seat as well.
"He comes to the arena prepared," NCAA broadcast partner Kevin Grevey said. "I will glance over and he has a working sheet and he unfolds it and there it is. He obviously does his preparation in advance a couple of days before. He is Mr. Smooth, his tie on and his Windsor knot and his suit. He coolly breezes into the arena and puts his headset on and away we go."
"He's very accurate," Neer said. "He's not a screamer. He's not really a homer. He plays it pretty down the middle."
Though he may play things down the middle, Michael has become close friends with some of the subjects he covers. He counts Holtz and former GW basketball coach Mike Jarvis as good friends.
"He was more than just a great voice," Jarvis said. "He realized that he was doing college basketball and doing a game that 18- and 19-year-old kids played and he realized it wasn't easy for them. He took a very humanistic approach."
When it comes to the Redskins, Michael said he understands the players and coaches and tries to get "something the regular guy would like outside the X's and O's."
Michael said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs "reminds me of Jack Nicklaus. You ask Joe a question, you are going to learn something every time he answers. I haven't had that many conversations with Joe Gibbs, but every single question I have ever asked him on mike, I've got an 'Oh. Wow.' answer."
WJFK has owned the rights to broadcast Redskins games since 1996, and they pay one of the highest radio fees in all of sports at an estimated $10 million a year, which includes $8 million in cash and $2 million in commercial time to the team, according to industry experts. After acquiring the rights to broadcast the Redskins, WJFK called Michael at Westwood One and asked him if he was interested in becoming part of the program as a pregame and postgame reporter.
"The general manager and the programming director at the time called me and asked me to come in and see if I was interested in talking," Michael said. "People knew me from being in town and through word of mouth."
For years, Michael also made no secret that he wanted the Redskins job, Leinwand, Jurgensen and Herzog said.
"I used to joke about it with him that he wanted the job," Herzog said. "I knew he wanted it. I heard from people at the station and I don't blame him. I would want it, too."
Leinwand said he had decided by the end of January to fire Herzog, 59. The Redskins were consulted and acquiesced. One of Michael's jobs at Westwood One is to help decide which NFL teams will be heard nationally on Westwood One's Sunday NFL doubleheaders, a decision that can mean thousands of dollars to an NFL team for each broadcast, including the Redskins.
Herzog does not blame Michael for his ouster, saying that "to suggest that there was some kind of Machiavellian plot to do this was a stretch."
"It was an easy decision," Leinwand said. "Larry was sitting at the doorstep."
Those who have worked with, and for, Michael aren't surprised by his success, or his move into the Redskins' booth.
"Larry is also a politician. You have to be," said Tony Roberts, who has worked with Michael for 25 years as a broadcaster of Notre Dame football. "He's good at staying on good terms with people. He must have wooed the right people to get [the Redskins'] job."
"When he wants something, he will go after it and somehow, some way, he seems to get everything he wants," said Berger. "Larry was always able to visualize the big picture at a company, and do what was good for the company. But he also benefited. Larry is a bright guy. He's a great politician. He's got a vast empire now."
Michael has an even simpler explanation for his success.
"Ambition," he said. "Ambition."