WASHINGTON - -George Michael, 70, a high-rated and hyper-animated Washington sportscaster whose extensive use of game highlights from across the country on his nationally syndicated show has now become the norm in the industry, died Thursday at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He had chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Mr. Michael was a popular rock 'n' roll disc jockey in Philadelphia and New York before making a successful transition to television, where his boisterous style and unremitting hustle made him one of the dominant personalities in Washington for years. He represented sports as entertainment, with what some regarded as a team-friendly approach, especially to the hometown Redskins.
Mr. Michael worked at WRC (Channel 4), an NBC-owned-and-operated station, from 1980 to 2008. With his bronzed face, receding golden hair and brilliant teeth, he was one of the most immediately recognizable figures on local television.
Mr. Michael created and produced the long-running shows "Redskins Report" and "Full Court Press," featuring guests such as former Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and print sports reporters including Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of the Post.
Starting in 1980, Mr. Michael oversaw a trend-setting show that made liberal use of action highlights from games in addition to interviews and other reports. "The George Michael Sports Machine," as it was eventually called, was syndicated to almost 200 stations at its peak, including Baltimore's WJZ (Channel 13). The show, one of the first to recognize the growing appeal of NASCAR, was unique on noncable television and it would be years before the cable network ESPN would render it obsolete.
"George wasn't the first to make videotape the king - Warner Wolf did it before him - but his rise at Channel 4 coincided with better technology to provide the highlights, the greatest sports boom in U.S. history and a profitable local news operation willing to spend time and money on its sports segments," said Norman Chad, a syndicated columnist and the Post's former sports television critic. Longtime Washington sportscaster Frank Herzog said that before Mr. Michael arrived, local sports newscasts primarily used video from games they showed.
"Suddenly, he gets the satellite dishes and gets games from all over the country. So he's showing wild video that we could not get our hands on," Herzog said. "He was willing to gamble on sports that were not mainstream sports, so he made professonal wrestling famous. He brought NASCAR to Washington, where it had been ignored. Rodeo, bullriding, even the terrier races at the International Horse Show. He changed the way we looked at sports."
Mr. Michael was criticized during his career for getting too close to the subjects he covered - wearing Redskins paraphernalia while covering the Super Bowl during the 1982 season and sitting on the team's float during the victory parade.
Mr. Michael bristled at suggestions he was anything but objective. "How can you say that?" he once said. "There's two sides to you, a reporter and a fan. I am a journalist first. Hey, putting on that Redskins hat was entertainment."
George Michael Gimpel was born March 24, 1939, and grew up in St. Louis, where his father was a butcher. They were not close, Mr. Michael told the Post, and grew more distant after his mother died. He also grew apart from his siblings and spoke bitterly about his early life.
He was attending St. Louis University in the early 1960s when he became a record promoter, where he had the task of trying to get Midwest radio stations to play Motown records. He then worked for a series of stations throughout the Midwest.
He was a rock-and-roll disc jockey in Philadelphia before being offered a job in 1974 as a radio personality on WABC in New York. He was making great money, about $65,000 annually, but his personal life unraveled. His first wife, Patricia, left him and their children.
He later married Pat Lackman, a writer who became a key partner in her husband's on-air career. She survives along with two children from his first marriage, Brad and Michelle.
In New York, Mr. Michael became a play-by-play announcer for the New York Islanders and appeared on Howard Cosell's "Speaking of Sports" radio show.
By the late 1970s, Mr. Michael said he thought his career was fading in New York and turned down an offer by the New York Mets to replace Lindsey Nelson as the team's play-by-play man. He accepted an offer at WRC.
Mr. Michael's admirers called him a ferociously hard worker with a perfectionist streak. Profiles over the years conveyed a man who boasted a healthy ego but at times lacked thick skin. He was demanding with his entire staff.