Fred Fiske got his first radio job in Washington after hopping off a New York-bound train at Union Station, scanning the phone book and asking local stations whether they had any openings for an announcer.
Things were different in 1947.
Over the years, the jobs and the stations changed, but Fiske, who turned 91 this month, stayed behind the microphone. He kept talking — through 12 presidential administrations, five wars and countless crises, infinite hairstyles, lifestyles and new technologies, and a few social revolutions.
Until this week.
The longtime Washington radio voice — make that the longest-time Washington radio voice — has called it a career 64 years after signing on. Fiske’s last radio commentary, a brief and modest personal retrospective, aired Monday on WAMU (88.5 FM), his radio home since 1977.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” he concluded in the gentlemanly tones that have characterized his absurdly lengthy career as an announcer, pop-music DJ, talk-show host and gently insistent, moderately liberal commentator.
Fiske’s career spans a tumultuous epoch in communications, from a pre-television era in which news moved at the pace of a streetcar to the Internet age of atomized audiences and microscopic attention spans.
It’s fair to say that the Brooklyn-born Fiske met and interviewed most of the leading figures of the latter part of the 20th century. As a young man, he spoke with Eleanor Roosevelt, followed by every first lady through Rosalynn Carter. Generals Omar Bradley and George Marshall chatted him up about veterans’ affairs, as did a blustery U.S. senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy. Elvis Presley called in for an interview on Fiske’s pop-music show on WOL AM on the day Presley began his hitch in the Army. Any book-flacking author, movie-touting celebrity or self-promoting politician who came through town in the 1970s had to go on Fiske’s talk show on WWDC AM to get the word out.
Once, a man called Fiske on WWDC and told him that he was preparing to commit suicide. Fiske kept the man talking and signaled his engineer to trace the call and alert the police, who got to him before he could act.
Memorable, even thrilling, but that’s not what sustained him.
“I guess, basically, I’m a ham,” Fiske says. “I started as an actor, and I enjoyed performing. I enjoyed the attention I got. I enjoyed the people I met. I like dealing with ideas and things I’m interested in. I got to be present at a lot of important occasions and met important people of the era. . . . How could you not like that?”
Fiske’s radio days actually go back to the mid-1930s, when he was recruited by a teacher to appear on a network radio show called “The Magic of Speech.” He went on to act in radio dramas with the likes of Ronald Colman and William Holden and performed in Borscht Belt shows on the same bill as Danny Kaye and Henny Youngman.
During World War II, Fiske was a radio operator on a B-24 crew, which survived a devastating attack by German fighters in September 1944. (Fiske won the Distinguished Flying Cross for guiding rescuers to his crash-landed plane.)
Fiske has had several incarnations, each paralleling the trends and fashions of the radio business. He was an announcer on serious public-affairs programs like “Meet the Press,” back when commercial radio did serious public-affairs programs. He did newsmaker interviews. When news began to fade, he became a music personality, spinning Doris Day and Perry Como records. Eventually he became a drive-time morning personality, and then a talk-show host.
But as the business began to get rougher in the 1970s, Fiske balked.
While hosting “The Fred Fiske Show” on WWDC, management wanted him to adapt to the new style of confrontational radio. “They wanted me to provoke [listeners], call them dumbbells and such, to attract an audience,” he recalls. “I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t brought up that way.”
Instead, in 1977, he went to WAMU, the public-radio station owned by American University, where he did a nightly talk show, which became a Saturday morning talk show. Since the early 1990s, after the death of his first wife, Ruth, he has been a regular commentator on local and national affairs, offering what he describes as “moderate” opinions.
One measure of the length of Fiske’s career: He has spent more years on the air than WAMU has been around; the station turned 50 this year.
Another measure: He’s old enough to have mentored another Washington radio legend, Ed Walker. Fiske taught a broadcasting course at American University in the 1950s, and one of his students was Walker, then a junior, who would later team with former “Today” show weatherman Willard Scott as popular radio duo “The Joy Boys.”
“He gave me good grades,” says Walker, laughing. Walker is heard weekly on WAMU’s “Big Broadcast,” which features dramas and serials from radio’s golden age. “He was always very good to me and always very pleasant to be around. That comes across on the air. He never badgered people.”
Fiske’s retirement makes Walker, at a mere 79 years old, the oldest radio personality continuously on the air in Washington.
In his 10th decade, Fiske has the assured voice of a much younger man. His recall of long-ago events, dates and names is astoundingly quick, though he sometimes consults his wife, Sandy, for factoids of more recent vintage.
Except for a cranky back, he’s in robust health. Retirement will give the couple more time to travel (they have a trip to Paris and Normandy in the works).
Will he miss being at the mike? Fiske tries to be unsentimental, but the emotion comes through in the voice that has sustained him for so many years.
“When I came home and told Sandy I was retiring, she said my eyes filled up,” he says. ”I don’t know. I guess she was right.”