Most of you knew George Michael, who died this week, as the host of his Sunday night “Sports Machine,” but others of a certain age knew him as the best Top 40 radio DJ they’ve ever heard.
In the mid-'70s, George took the unenviable position of replacing the legendary Cousin Bruce Morrow on WABC. WABC was then the biggest rage among teenagers like me. It was 50,000 watts clear channel radio which could be heard as far away as the Rocky Mountains. These days were AM radio’s heyday, just before the disco explosion and FM radio made AM Top 40 obsolete.
Cousin Brucie, whose shift was 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., decided to defect to archrival 66 WNBC. This left a huge whole in WABC’s lineup. The slot was as huge as morning drive -- people listened as they drove home, or in my case, as a young teenager, did homework. Our parents listened to Cousin Brucie when they were our age. And we’d all met him and partied with him at Palisades Amusement Park. Filling his shoes would be an impossible task, especially since Morrow would occupy the same time slot just down the dial.
And along came George Michael from a station in Philadelphia. He had a booming, deep voice and a knowledge of the music that rivaled Cousin Brucie. He was way upbeat and fun to listen to. George Michael was doing the impossible -- competing with Cousin Brucie.
On July 13, 1977, a giant blackout plunged New York City into darkness. It was a terrible time -- looting and violence were widespread. Of course, WABC had a powerful backup generator, and with little interference dominated coverage of the story. George Michael instantly became a journalist and anchored the coverage with grace.
Around this time I was a young desk assistant at WABC-TV Eyewitness News in New York working weekends. The station needed a weekend sportscaster, and much to my surprise, hired George Michael! I will never forget his wonderful smile and mellifluous voice carrying throughout the old newsroom. George worked seven days a week, five at WABC radio and two at WABC-TV. I don’t know how he did it.
George brought his girlfriend to work with him every weekend to help watch and log ball games. Every night, after the 6 p.m. news, he would come up to me with a $20 bill and ask me to buy coffee and ice cream for the whole staff. He was generous and a team player. He even gave me a few bucks to buy a sandwich.
George was alarmed to hear that on Sunday nights after the 11 p.m. news I had to take the subway home to The Bronx. The express bus I would normally take didn’t run late on Sundays, and in those days, taking the subway at that hour was not advisable. He drove me home every Sunday night, a trip that took him a half hour out of his way. I will never forget that kindness.
As a 16-year-old, it was such a kick being friends with the guy whose voice was listened to by all my friends at school.
In later years, whenever I was sent to Washington, on business, I stopped by to visit George. He always seemed to be having a blast. And he certainly revolutionized local TV sports.
There are several websites that have archived airchecks from the old WABC, including the blackout broadcast. It would be worthwhile to listen to George Michael’s shows, and see if you agree with me about his amazing talent as a broadcaster.