Skeeter Hawkins, Fred Fiske and Empathy on the Radio
This week's Listener column
Now it can be told: The backwoods voice of Washington's most popular hillbilly radio show of the 1950s, Skeeter Hawkins, was in fact longtime talk show host Fred Fiske, putting on a Kentucky accent and posing for publicity photos wearing a big cowboy hat.
Under his own name, Fiske -- who in September will celebrate 60 years on Washington airwaves and 30 years at public radio station WAMU -- was a disc jockey at WWDC in the '50s, playing the sounds of Perry Como and Frankie Laine.
But when the station decided to offer local listeners Washington's first country music show, WWDC turned to a Brooklyn-born staffer, a serious fellow who had served as the voice of "Meet the Press" and done a stint as the Mutual network's presidential announcer, the guy who says, "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States . . . "
As the announcer on "Reporters Roundtable," a nationwide political interview program, Fiske could hardly double as host of a country show, so WWDC asked him to create a second identity -- a bit of radio trickery that remains common practice today.
"Hiya everybody, this is Skeeter Hawkins," Fiske drawled a half-century later, this time in the apartment he shares with his wife, Sandy, at Leisure World in Silver Spring. Now 87, Fiske still delivers weekly commentaries on WAMU's "Metro Connection," although he officially retired from the station 20 years ago.
From his teenage debut on a program of short dramas called "The Magic of Speech," sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English on NBC's Red Network, to his years as host of a nightly Washington talk show improbably titled "Empathy" (now there's an emotion not regularly heard on radio anymore), Fiske thrived in an era when radio was a blend of showbiz and high-minded programming.
After World War II -- Fiske flew 30 missions over Germany and was shot down -- he intended to teach high school. But while traveling from a radio job in Kentucky up to his new teaching position in New York City in 1947, he got off the train in several cities and popped in at radio stations to fill out applications. When he got a call from WOL in Washington, he jumped at the chance to be a broadcaster in the nation's capital.
He announced presidential inaugurations, state funerals and elections before becoming a DJ on WWDC, where he spun the hits for 17 years, topping the legendary Arthur Godfrey in the ratings. But despite penning a column for the Washington Daily News called "Fiske's Discs," he was never much of a music man. When a promoter sought Fiske's advice about bringing a newly popular singer named Elvis Presley to do a stage show at Loew's Capitol, the DJ responded, "He's a country singer; he's not for Washington." The concert idea was scratched and the promoter never forgave Fiske.
In 1970, when telephone call-in shows were just starting to become a popular form of programming, Fiske became host of the only such show in town, hosting three authors a week and chatting with listeners nightly. "The talk show was more me than the disc jockey thing," he says. "I decided I was going to read the books, so the first thing I did was to go to Evelyn Wood for a speed-reading course."
"Empathy" -- "I don't suspect many listeners knew what the word meant," Fiske says -- was later renamed "The Fred Fiske Show." By any name, the show proved too cerebral for WWDC owner Morton Bender, who called the host one night and said he might attract a larger audience if he insulted callers and lunged into more controversial waters.
"I came up in a time when you couldn't say 'hell' on the radio," Fiske says. "I couldn't bring myself to do the insults. The climate has changed, of course, but the way I was taught, you didn't offend anybody."
Talk on commercial radio was embracing a more confrontational style, so Fiske grabbed a chance to move to public radio, where he spent a decade as WAMU's evening host before his first wife, Ruth, fell ill and needed Fred to be at home. In 1987, Fiske's show became a Saturday-only affair, and in 1996 he scaled back to weekly commentaries.
Now, 22 years after he was forced to take a few weeks off the air (because of a heart attack he suffered while driving home from a crab feast at then-Mayor Marion Barry's house), Fiske has no intention of signing off. His voice is still rich and strong, and his commentaries are the only place on the radio where you can hear stories about Al Jolson's ad-libs, the puzzle of what to do with a closet full of 67 ties left over from radio's era of more formal dress, and Fiske's own experiences serving under his squadron commander, Jimmy Stewart.
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