Hiring George Michael For WABC
(Replacing Cousin Bruce Morrow)
The Inside Story
George Michael on WABC
October 21, 1976
Selecting a replacement for Cousin' Brucie was a tall task. His name and Musicradio 77 WABC were synonymous. His name was synonymous with Top 40 music. It goes without saying that his replacement had to be a very major, major market jock.
At this point in time, I was Program Director of WABC and Rick Sklar was still in the office next door as Operations Director. Rick and I had many meetings behind closed doors, picking each others brains as we went through a select few airchecks of disc jockeys from around the country. Many jocks had talent. Some were even what one might call stars. But in our situation, replacing and competing with Bruce who was going to be down the street and down the dial on WNBC, not to mention competing with increasing FM competition, we needed more than a star. We needed a superstar.
First, we considered promoting from within because we had the best air staff in the country. Steve O'Brien and Johnny Donovan were great jocks and had served us well as weekend and fill-in jocks for when others were on vacation or out sick. As much as we liked and respected Steve and Johnny, we decided it best to leave them where they were.
We thought about Steve Smokin' Weed on 99X. He was a good jock with lots of style and personality. But somehow the moniker "Smokin'" (i.e. smoking pot) didn't fit with our family image, nor did a major part of what he did on the air. 99X's afternoon drive jock, Dave Thompson was also considered. Dave had a very clean, crisp, energetic, personable, All American (i.e. WABC) style and probably could have joined us as a weekend jock. But he too was not high profile enough to replace the legendary Cousin Brucie.
Jocks at other ABC owned stations around the country were considered, but we opted not to disrupt any of their competitive strength by pulling away any of their jocks. However, Pat St. John at our sister station in New York, WPLJ, was still highest on our short list. Pat had great pipes (deep voice), had personality, knew the music and the artists, and had an "FM" presentation style that was still energetic, all of which would help us fight the onslaught of FM. At that point in time, even though WPLJ was an AOR (album oriented rock) station, they were playing just the hit album cuts, much like a Top 40 of album rock format. Their playlist overlapped WABC's to some extent. The presentation style of their jocks was coming closer and closer to being a younger version of WABC's jocks. Pat St. John had it "down pat" so to speak. Plus he was well liked off the air. Pat St. John was one of the most serious contenders, but we decided not to disrupt WPLJ's growing success.
Super Max Kinkle doing evenings at CKLW in Windsor, Canada which blanketed Detroit and most of the nation at night was considered. Max had high energy that rocked CKLW. But his energy was also a detriment. WABC was not a screaming station. It was a personality station. We need a superstar jock with personality and style, and energy that did not reach the screaming level.
My favorite was always George Michael from WFIL in Philadelphia. It was surprising how few jocks Rick was considering. It was almost as if the shock of his close friend Bruce Morrow leaving left him clueless. Sklar looked to me to solve the problem. It was probably the first time I had ever seen the great Sklar in such a predicament. Had he decided that if I had the Program Director title, it should be my choice? My blame? Rick didn't even know who George Michael was. George had not even sent a tape to Sklar. It was I who had taped George and brought him to Sklar's attention. When I had been a jock myself at WMID in Atlantic City, "King" George Michael had been my role model.
So Rick and I played a handful of airchecks of our finalists to our General Manager, George Williams. Neither Sklar nor Williams was totally convinced at first that George Michael was the right replacement. It took some selling on my part, and another aircheck. So I drove back down to Philadelphia a second time to tape Michael's show without his knowledge.
Once the decision was made to go with George, I was delegated to make the initial contact with him. Calling him on the telephone was out of the question, because I would have to leave a message with the WFIL program director's secretary. If she knew my name or if her boss saw the message, the cat would be out of the bag. Getting through on the request line during his show would be next to impossible. Sklar and I decided the only way would be for me to meet George when he got off the air.
Driving from New York to Philadelphia, I listened to George Michael's show as soon as it came in on the radio, about half way down the Jersey Turnpike. Now more than ever, I was convinced George was the right choice. When I arrived in the City Line Avenue parking lot of Famous 56 WFIL, I was in the heart of Philadelphia's broadcast antenna farm. It was familiar territory because back in 1969, I had interviewed for a management position with Triangle Publications, which owned WFIL.
There were only a few cars in the dark parking lot when I arrived around 9 PM. For about an hour, I continued to listen to George's show. My head and body trembled with excitement, thinking about how I had risen to the point where I could offer the biggest job in radio to the jock who only four years before had been my idol. In my head, I could hear his voice saying our call letters and playing our jingles. But thoughts about the job at hand were more important, thinking about how I would introduce myself. After all, I could have been some kind of a crazed radio groupie stalker, coming out of nowhere. There's something about the darkness of night that makes everybody paranoid of strangers, especially for celebrities. Besides, I had only recently become Program Director and my name was not associated with WABC the way Sklar's name was.
I remembered the old TV show "The Millionaire," and felt like I was presenting George with a check for a million dollars. My eyes were glued to the building's exit door as I waited impatiently for George to leave the station when his show was over. It seemed like forever.
When the door finally opened, I recognized George immediately. His page boy Beatle-esque hairdo, although not very trendy at the time, was unmistakable. As casually as I could, I walked quickly to George, presented my business card with my new Program Director title, and introduced myself. I told him I needed to talk to him immediately about coming to WABC.
To my shock and chagrin, George did not pass out from what I had just said. To the contrary, he said he didn't have time to talk because he was meeting his girlfriend. Meeting his girlfriend! Here I was with the biggest job in radio, and he's more interested in seeing some girl?
I convinced George to call her and have her meet us across the street at the Marriott cocktail lounge. Over drinks, George revealed he was not interested because he was bowing out of radio, while he was on top. He had accepted a TV job doing play-by-play for the Baltimore Orioles who had just won the World Series the previous year. He tried to tell me no amount of money would change his mind. His career goal was to get on TV doing sports. If this were a negotiating tactic, he sure fooled me, because I believed him and empathized.
Trying to regain my composure and negotiating strategy, I realized I needed an even bigger carrot to lure George. One of my college friends, Penny Gaffney, had a management position with the New York Islanders. (Penny later became sales manager of WQXR, small world!) I knew they were looking for a new color man. So I told George I couldn't promise him anything in that regard, but I could at least get his foot in the door to be on-camera, in sports, on New York television. Plus, I knew people at WABC-TV and would make sure he came to their attention. These two things got George thinking, plus the lure of big money at WABC, not to mention that replacing Cousin' Brucie was the pinnacle of success as a Top 40 jock. Michael's girlfriend Pat arrived, I tried to get her to talk some sense into him, apologized for interrupting their evening plans and left. Pat would later marry George, and he did in fact get the TV job with the Islanders as well as weekend sports anchor at WABC-TV.
Once I got back on the Turnpike for my trek back to New York, I pulled into the first rest stop to report back to Sklar. He concurred that I had done everything possible under the circumstances. Over the course of the next week or so, George came to New York, met with Sklar and Williams, and the deal was done. Admittedly, it was in fact Sklar and Williams who were able to convince George to take the job. I was ecstatic the moment I heard his microphone go on the air for the first time at WABC. George Michael was without a doubt the charismatic superstar the station needed. Ironically, early in his career he had worked at WIL in St. Louis, along with Dan Ingram and Ron Lundy.
Over the years, George did his best to fit in and accept his new surroundings. But WABC was not WFIL. We had more polices, the pressure was enormous, and George did not have the clout he had at WFIL regarding format and what songs would be added to the playlist. Our jocks had to maintain their distance from playlist additions as well as people in the record industry. This was all new territory for George and it frustrated him. Our short playlist with very few records being added as soon as they were released frustrated him even more. George was never totally happy at WABC.
But he was a consummate professional and never let his passion for music get in the way of doing the best show he knew how to do. George set the standards high for his own performance, as well as those around him. Once he was so outraged at his engineer for making mistakes, he picked-up a huge rack which held 500 tape cartridges and threw it at the wall. That kinda' reminded me of my own rage when I had punched a wall and broken my hand. Another of Sklar's one-liners is apropos: with talent goes temperament.
Eventually after I left WABC and the format switched to talk, George left to pursue TV sports in Washington, D.C. at WRC-TV, a station owned by NBC. He also does a weekend sports show which is syndicated around the country by NBC. One of my deepest regrets is bringing George Michael to New York and making his life miserable. He sounded great on WABC, and was the best of all possible choices for replacing Cousin Brucie. But off the air, George regretted ever letting us persuade him to take the job every other jock in the world only dreamed about.
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