Fred Fiske, a radio host who was on the air in Washington for 64 years, died earlier this month. Fred often had me on his talk show program on WAMU FM, a 50,000 watt public radio station, in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was one of the kindest, most decent folks I ever encountered professionally in Washington. Fiske was a fixture on D.C. radio since before I was born. He was a short, stocky New Yorker with a deep voice who early on found radio jobs imitating country yokels. Fiske had the perfect gravitas for a public radio host and could be serious without stupefying
Fred first invited me on my show after an article controversy erupted over an article I wrote on the growth of food stamps and the illusion of mass hunger. I relished a two hour slugfest with one of the Carter administration’s top food stamp officials. Public radio fans flooded the station’s call-in lines, repeatedly implying that my parents had never been married. That article also got me denounced in a Washington Post editorial which claimed that I believed that “hungry people in America have only themselves to blame.” That wasn’t true but it was the Post, so no surprise there.
Three months later, Fred had me back on his show after my first Wall Street Journal article – an attack on business subsidies. The callers this time were not quite as hostile but were still plenty suspicious. Fred was indignant that I casually commented that America would be better off if Social Security hit the skids and was abolished. Fred declared that that was a “very irresponsible thing to say.”
A few months later, I was back after a Wall Street Journal oped criticizing lavish military pensions. My article pointed out that “treating supply clerks and combat veterans the same is unnecessary and inequitable.” That piece provoked hundreds of angry letters to the editor, including a few that hinted that it would be good for America if I was dead. I spent two hours on Fred’s show sparring with a lobbyist for military retirees. Back in those days, hosts and guests routinely smoked during programs. I puffed a cigar or two while the swaggering, derisive retired Major chain-smoked Marlboros. When Fred asked the lobbyist if he was concerned about the health effects of cigarettes, he sneered that he would continue smoking until he was no longer able to easily beat men 20 years younger on the tennis court.
That lobbyist had probably spun tall tales before numerous congressional committees and had his hogwash down pat. Listening to him caricature reality, I recognized that as long as someone sounds credible while the microphone was on, they can win in Washington.
Fiske did not have a “seven second delay” button used by many talk shows. After 90 minutes brawling with that lobbyist, one dude called and asked: “How much longer will these two guys be masturbating on the air?” Fiske quickly moved to the next call.
Fiske was a self-described “moderate” who got a kick out of me in part because my heresies prompted people across a five-state area to light up his call board. It was a healthy experience for me to be vilified hour after hour, caller after caller. I was intrigued to see how people reacted to ideas they despised and how a slight change in wording could either enrage or mollify folks. I’m sure I learned more from some of the callers than I can recall decades later, and I was sometimes surprised to agree with opposing guests more than I expected. I also learned a lot about being a talk show guest from Fred. He kindly had me on after each of my first four books came out – something that was definitely on his permanent record.
Fred passed away at age 96 after a great life which added entertainment and information to millions of listeners over the decades. I heartily appreciated the opportunities he gave me.