Radio Stories – George Michael
Over the past couple of days, I’ve read a lot about George, listened to air checks, and even watched his TV farewell from WRC in Washington. I’ve probably spent more time researching this man, that I was lucky enough to spend almost 4 years working with at WABC, than I will for anyone I have, or will write about. I’ve also hemmed and hawed about writing this, put off starting for BS reasons, and thought a whole lot about it. That’s not only because George was a giant in the broadcasting business, or because I learned so much from him during those years at WABC, but because in no small way, I owe the last 38 years of my life at WABC to George Michael. So, with that as a preamble, let’s get started with Radio Stories – George Michael!
George was born George Michael Gimpel in St. Louis in 1939. During college, he worked as a record promoter in the Midwest where he was able to combine two of his early loves: radio and music. George worked at radio stations in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Denver, but it was in Philly as one of the original Boss Jocks at WFIL in 1966, that George became a legend. As both music director and evening DJ, George played a key role in making WFIL Philly’s most popular station by the summer of 1967. For the next 8 years, “King” George held court at WFIL, and would have probably stayed longer had it not been for a transition that was happening 90 miles away. In 1974, Bruce Morrow was leaving WABC after 13 years of holding down the evening shift, and finding someone to even try to fill Cousin Brucie’s shoes was not an easy task. WABC Program Director Rick Sklar turned his sights towards Philadelphia and WFIL’s evening jock George Michael, and after some involved negotiations, secured the services of George Michael to be the 6-10 jock at WABC Radio.
Listen to George on WFIL – http://youtu.be/0_70wCiBMDw WFIL
George started the evening shift on the night of September 9, 1974, and soon earned a reputation on the 8th floor as someone who expected a lot out of the people he worked with! George gave 100% when he was on the air, and he expected his engineers to do the same thing. There were some that were up for that, and some that weren’t. To the ones that were not looking for that much involvement, George was a pain in the ass. For the guys and gals who were up for what George wanted, working on his show was a great experience. The split was pretty much on an age basis, with the younger guys warming up
to George’s style, and soon he had a group of favored engineers he called “The A Team”. George’s show was high energy and fast moving, and he was known for tossing music carts to his engineers, so the best advice was to stay involved and pay attention! I first worked with George one night in mid August of 1976.
One of the engineers who worked with George a lot was Bill Mozer, who I’d known for years from C.W.Post (see the blog page, How Did I Get Here), and who was the one who got me hooked up with WABC. He had talked to George about my coming on board, and so George knew that we were friends. As soon as I sat down on the board that night, George said to me, “So did Mozer tell you about me?”, to which I replied, “Oh, you mean about you throwing things?”, which George got a huge kick out of. He called me a smart ass and that cemented our relationship!
George was an incredible person and I loved working with him. Yes, he was intense and he was demanding, but he was also incredibly open to letting you be involved in his show. He was a perfectionist, and hitting the talk ups, or keeping the show moving and the excitement level as high as possible was his #1 concern. He was also was a great team player, and if you were willing to follow his lead and give as much as he did, then working with him was very fulfilling. It wasn’t long before I was admitted to the “A Team”, and soon discovered that George Michael was my #1 supporter at WABC! His name may have been on the log, but when I was on the board at WABC between 6 and 10 PM Monday through Saturday, that show was as much mine as his. That was a lesson I learned from George, and the way I have felt working on every show I have been involved in since.
George on WABC in June, 1979 –
So yes, George was intense, but it was always so that he could do the best show possible, and that he did for the folks listening to the radio. Unlike the other DJs at WABC, George wasn’t happy with the digital hot clock…George used a stop watch and timed intros down to the 1/4 second. In fact, when Studio 8A was rebuilt in 1976, George Berger, our head maintenance guy, made sure it included a special mount on the DJ side of the overbridge so George could mount his stop watch there at eye level. On the day new music was put in the studio, one of the first things we did that night was time the intros to the new records. To simulate as much as possible on air playback, we’d drop the cart into cue, George would cue us, we’d start the cart, he’d hit the stop watch at the same time and get an exact time (like :07 and 3/4), and then he’d write it on the cart. Whenever we first played new spots that had an intro on them, during the next record we’d time it the same way. If it happened to be a mult spot with a couple of spots on the cart, George would actually write a number on the tape so we’d know if this was the one with the 2 second or the 3 second intro. The NABET labels that we put on every cart we made back then was the perfect place for George’s notes, and he wrote every time so he would be sure he could read the hand writing.
Listen to any air check of George on the radio, and you will instantly hear the intensity. The records, commercials, jingles, and his voice are all working towards one complete package. His show was not sequencing, it was a segue from start to end, and this was deadly serious to him. One night when I was on the board, he butchered the talk up of one of the current records, which was something that George Michael just didn’t do. He was so upset by the fact he’d stepped on the vocal, that he had me stop the cart on the air, reached back and grabbed the B copy (there were 2 copies of every record in the current’s library behind the jock), had me start it all over again and this time nailed the talk up! That was George!
Another aircheck of George on WABC http://youtu.be/TX0D4gYeUnY
There are legendary stories about George expressing his displeasure by throwing things, and although that’s not something that any of us who were part of his “A Team” ever experienced, working with George Michael was not without it’s potential for injuries. You see, George liked to lean back in his chair, reach into the oldies’ cart rack, select a cart, and flip it to the engineer who was probably 6 or 7 feet away. Every once in a while, you’d get taken by surprise having looked away for a second only to look back and see a cart sailing at you! Whenever that happened, George would laugh and treat us to one of his sport’s phrases he liked to use, “Don’t come across the blue line with your head down”. Every once in a while George would bean somebody (like he did with Kiki Hooper one night), which always reminded us to ALWAYS pay attention!!
One of the side effects of throwing around carts, is that occasionally the lead inside of them would break and jam the cart, or the bars would be dislodged and the tape would unspool. It was pretty common to shake out the loose lead after getting a cart tossed to you, and not that uncommon to have to open one up every now and then and have to put the bar back in place. I remember having to do that one night and running out of time. As they say, the show must go on, so I slapped it into the ITC cart machine with the cover off, hit the start button, and played the whole song while judiciously holding the top of the tape spool with my finger.
Years later, CNBC’s Joe Scarborough did a syndicated talk show at WABC that I was the engineer for. When I first met Joe, he told me about his connection with WABC. As a young boy living in upstate New York, Joe was interested in music and rather introverted. He told me stories about how he’d stay in his bedroom with his radio, and at night, when the AM sky wave extended radio signals, would tune into WABC and listen to George Michael playing the hits. We figured out that I was probably on the board during some of the nights he was listening, and so I was the connection between George Michael and Joe Scarborough and WABC.
But where, you may ask, is the George Michael, who as well as a DJ, became the legendary sportscaster. Well, for a number of years, the two parts of George coexisted. In 1974 George also did Orioles baseball on WJZ-TV, and started doing color commentary on NY Islander telecasts, and was the new weekend Sports Anchor on WABC’s Eyewitness News! All that and holding down the evening shift on the most listened to radio station in the nation? Talk about a full plate!!
By the time I came to WABC, George was doing the weekend sports on WABC, and color on Islander games. Now since hockey is not an every day sport, George would be gone a couple of nights a week. There was one night in particular that Johnny Donovan was filling in, that he and I will still occasionally talk about to this day. Remember how I said that George was a team player, and wanted his engineers to be as invested in the show as he was? Well, on this particular night that Johnny was filling in, the show had just started, and he handed me a song, and I told him we didn’t play that category at that point. Then he called for a jingle combination, and I replied, “no, we play a medium and a sonovox here”, then after I segued from the song, to the jingle, to the new song, he called for the mic and I shook my head NO. At that point, Johnny went back to his magazine and told me, “fine…just do the show and tell me when to talk.” Some days I wonder why he still talks to me!!
On Saturday night, when he was doing Channel 7 Eyewitness News, things were very different; very, very different. On those nights George, and his then girlfriend (and soon to be wife), and George’s future full time sports producer, Pat Lackman, would come to the studio loaded for bear. This was the days that Warner “Let’s go to the video tape” Wolf was the Monday through Friday sports anchor, and the future host of George Michael’s Sports Machine was not going to let down on the video tape portions just because it was Saturday! They would already have reams of notes on the day’s sports events, and during the show had a TV in the studio tuned to local games. George would be back and forth on the phone with his video editor at TV, and Pat would be going back and forth from the newsroom pulling wire copy. Add in dinner and doing an uptempo radio show, and it was a very intense environment. This was the one night of the 6 that George really depended on us, and it was the night that separated the boys from the men, and the girls from the women! It was busy…no it was crazy, but it was probably the most fun we had all week!! The show came off fine, and I would doubt the listeners had any idea of what was happening in Studio 8A, but occasionally things would get lost in the shuffle. Like the night George flipped the page in the promotions book at 9:45 and realized he’d done none of that night’s contests. That was the night that Susan Johnson, my then girlfriend, future fiancé, and for the past 35 years, Mrs. D’Elia won the complete Elvis Collection! Records…vinyl….remember them?
I said before that George was my number one supporter, and I truly mean that. On October 18, 1976, he wrote the following memo to WABC Chief Engineer Win Loyd, and
copied it to Rick Sklar, Glenn Morgan,
and GM Al Racco:
I feel that for every time a person complains, so also then should that person go out of his way
to be positive. Thus, this note about a part-time engineer named Frank D’Elia.
Since the day this man stepped in the studio, he has been a delight to work with. He knows
the music, he has a natural ear for mixes, he understands the flow of the show; in short,
he is a true pro.
It’s a shame he isn’t a permanent employee- -he would be a superb addition.
In no small way, I owe so much of who I am today to the time I spent working with George Michael. His attitude, his enthusiasm, and his support, taught me lessons I’m still living, and pushing management to hire me made all the difference in the world!
When the end came, it was swift. In November of 1979, Rick Sklar was no longer the Program Director of WABC, and WABC was no longer the powerhouse rating’s station it had been. The end was near, and George knew it. The new “powers that be”, were ready to revamp the station, and in one fell swoop, were getting rid of Harry Harrison, Chuck Leonard, and if he did an Islander game that his contract said he could do, George Michael. Well George did it, and the die was cast, but they screwed up. They didn’t get him before he came into WABC, and although we saw George take his headphones out of his locker that night, it was Johnny Donovan that came into 8A to do the show! True to who he was, after they told him, he came into the studio and gathered those of the A Team that were there, and talked to us. WABC had already hired Howard Hoffman, and George told us that Howard had no part of this and that he wanted us to work with Howard and do as good a job for Howard as we’d done for him. Even at the end, George Michael was a class act. Another lesson he taught us all!
George knew that the kind of radio he loved was dead, so now it was time for sports to come to the forefront and to be how he spent the rest of his career. Early in 1980, George took the position of Sports Director at WRC-TV in Washington, DC. A couple of weeks after he’d taken the job, Susie and I were in Washington for the weekend, and made arrangements to meet George and Pat for a drink after the 11 o’clock news. It was great to see two good friends again, and at the same time, sad, that these two people that I loved were now starting a career several hundred miles away from New York. Susie and I were both shocked when after the first drink that night, George offered me a job as his principle video tape editor at WRC-TV. I had no experience in TV, and told George I knew nothing about video editing, but he had faith that if I could do what I did in radio, I could edit video tape. George was looking to put a staff together, and wanted me to be a part of it. Wow…shock does not even come close to describing how both of us felt! I told George I’d think about it and that Susie and I had a lot to discuss, and that’s how we left it. At this point, Susie and I had only been married a couple of months, she had her career as a nurse, and I was a staff engineer at the American Broadcasting Company, and both our families were on Long Island. Were we ready to start our lives together in a new place, hundreds of miles away from our families, in a job I knew nothing about? I spoke to George several times over the next couple of weeks and told him our concerns. He said he really wanted me to be part of his team, but that I should do what was right for us. In the end Susie and I decided to stay in New York, but I always wonder how different my life would have been had we made the move.
In typical George Michael stand-up guy style, on March 1, 2007, after 27 years as WRC’s Sports Director and principle sports anchor, he resigned, rather than make cuts in his department dictated by NBC corporate. The George Michael Sports Machine went off the air later that month, and although George stayed on WRC with Redskins Report and Full Court Press, his days of doing daily sports reporting was over. All because he wouldn’t yield to corporate pressure to fire his people…..a team player till the end! When I recently watched his last cast on WRC-TV, I saw the same intense, committed, team player I knew from our time at WABC. He gave his all, be it as one of the top DJs in America, or as Washington, DC’s top sports maven, and he even had the same intense hand gestures we saw every night in 8A. A little less hair than he’d had in 1976, but still the same man I loved!
George Michael’s last WRC daily broadcast http://youtu.be/PSeLRN5Oylk
I spoke to George several times over the next couple of years, and was shocked on Christmas Eve, 2009 to find out that he had died of B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia. As wonderful as Christmas in the D’Elia household normally is, the shock of finding out that someone who had played such a huge part in my life was gone made me very sad. The last time I spoke to George was July of that year. We were down at our house in Ocean City, NJ and among other things we talked about how much he loved the Jersey Shore from his years in Philly radio. In typical George Michael style, he never said a word about being sick. He was the typical “King” George Michael I’d first met 33 years earlier, on that night in August of 1976 at WABC Radio. I’m so glad I talked to him then.
After playing telephone tag, George left me this phone message –
George on WABC Rewound 2002 Part 1
George on WABC Rewound 2002 Part 2
George Michael with Mark Simone on WABC’s Saturday Night Oldies March, 2006
Joe Scarborough asks me to remember George Michael on his syndicated show