Jess Atkinson disclosed late last week that he's leaving WUSA-9 after just two years as sports anchor. No reason was given for the departure. Atkinson has agreed to stick around until his replacement is found.
The search should be a short one. Chick Hernandez deserves the job--if he wants it.
"I'm not looking for work. Really," says Hernandez, now in the last year of his contract with the cable channel Comcast Sportsnet. "But if a local station wants my services, well, I'm not going to not take that phone call."
There is pressure on Channel 9 to do more than merely replace Atkinson: Viewers are still waiting for the station to land another Glenn Brenner. That's an impossible task, of course. But Hernandez, an incurable ham, is the only guy in the market close to Brenner in on-air spirit and smarts. To wit: Comcast showed a highlight clip from a recent karate championship in which a man in a chair was attacked from behind; Hernandez, off the cuff, declared that the action looked like "a game of musical chairs gone horribly wrong."
The Brenneresque approach to his profession isn't entirely coincidental.
"My first exposure to this business was as an intern with Glenn Brenner," says Hernandez. "Everybody in this town, including me, knows he was the best there was. I keep a picture of Glenn Brenner over my desk, and I look at it every day before work. I never go into work thinking I'm Mr. News. This is about entertainment."
For the uninitiated: Brenner was the sportscaster at Channel 9 from 1977 until his death, in January 1992, shortly after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. He regarded sports with far less reverence than did his competitors, and he showed that his way was the right way by proving that cloistered nuns and caged elephants could pick NFL games better than the recognized "experts." The ratings books backed him up, too, sweeps month after sweeps month. Locally, Brenner's death led to the type of mourning usually reserved for royalty or rock stars. President George H.W. Bush said Brenner's passing left him with "a painful emptiness." Joe Gibbs dedicated the Redskins' Super Bowl win over the Buffalo Bills to him.
The station has never recovered from the loss, in terms of either morale or ratings. Sonny Jurgensen, Brenner's longtime sidekick during football seasons, broke his contract and fled to WRC-Channel 4 and George Michael rather than work at Channel 9 without Brenner. Michael has been the dominant sports anchor in town ever since.
Shortly after Brenner's death, management brought back Warner Wolf, a D.C. native who'd started his career at Channel 9 before becoming New York's top sportscaster, to try to break the station out of its malaise. But Wolf's comeback stint was a disaster for all involved. The guy who'd given the sports world "Let's go to the videotape!" and the "Boo of the Week" award was suspended and eventually fired after a bizarre dispute with his bosses at the station over whether he could give out horse-racing results. Next came Ken Broo, imported from Cincinnati. The pressure to be Brenner led to recurring bits with names such as the "Broo View," but he never warmed up to Washington, and vice versa.
Atkinson, another local boy--he played football for Crossland High School, the University of Maryland, and the Redskins, where he was a perfect 7-for-7 on field-goal attempts in 1986 and 1987--got precious little support from management in his time at Channel 9. His portion of the 11 o'clock newscast was gradually reduced to just one minute to make more time for Doppler 9000. (Michael, meanwhile, routinely gets seven or eight minutes a night.)
Hernandez learned too much about unsupportive management during his days at WTTG-Fox 5, where for six years he honed his act as backup sportscaster to Steve Buckhantz. A multisport star at Montgomery Blair High School and a Maryland grad, Hernandez was just happy to be in his home market during his early days at Channel 5, even if he was working mostly on weekends. But when his pal and sometime straight man Buckhantz quit, in 1997, Hernandez and a lot of local viewers thought he was ready for the top job.
"Everybody I worked with was telling me I was the natural choice," he says. "But I never bought into that."
And rightly so, as things turned out. Management passed over Hernandez's application to hire an outsider, ESPN castoff Brett Haber, who seemed to work "We kid because we care!" or some similar smarminess into every telecast. The most noteworthy report Haber filed during his three years here came when he got nauseated and had to be hospitalized after a promotional flight with the Blue Angels stunt-jet team.
Rather than be No. 2 for Haber, Hernandez moved to cable, where he now hosts two nightly shows on Comcast Sportsnet. Two months after Hernandez left Channel 5, Haber took a job in New York. Hernandez says that he never even inquired about that position that time. He did, however, try to get the Channel 9 job that ultimately went to Atkinson. Hernandez thinks that WUSA management was still sore about a comic turn he'd taken during a gig as presenter at the local Emmy Awards years earlier, when he faux-mistakenly referred to the event as "the Essence Awards."
"Word got back to me they were afraid of me because of the Emmys," he says. "So they put my [audition] tape in the 'No!' pile and never even gave me a chance. I'm going to be me, and that means I'll try to find humor in anything. That's what I learned from Glenn Brenner. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, well...."
Hernandez says that Comcast Sportsnet, which owns the rights to Wizards, Orioles, and Capitals telecasts, has let him live out a sportscaster's dream.
"I'm on an hour a night in the market I want to be in," he says. "I can do anything I want. If a new Oriole that nobody ever heard of goes 3-for-4 against the Dodgers, we can do a three- or four-minute piece on him. We don't care about the news and weather viewers, so I don't have to worry about being sandwiched between weather reports."
The downside is that Comcast attracts a fraction of the audience that WUSA brings in.
"Well, it's the curse of cable," Hernandez says. "I get the question all the time: 'Whatever happened to you?'"
And more people watching means more money for the talent. So if the WUSA management can get over his Emmy barbs, it should do the station's viewers a favor and give Hernandez a call.
"Like I said, I'd listen to anybody that wants me," he says. "But I'm not doing weekends." --Dave McKenna