Open Houses Honoring Heroes

| November 18, 2019

By Mike Kinosian
TALKERS
Managing Editor

 

LOS ANGELES — Apropos of the holidays, what follows is a truly feel-good story whose roots are traced to a New York real estate developer – but no – not that one.

When Zack Fisher tried to enlist in the Marines during the second World War, he was rejected, owing to a knee injury; consequently, Fisher received a 4-F classification.

As retirement age approached, he helped save the Intrepid from the scrapheap by turning the aircraft carrier that survived five kamikaze attacks and one torpedo strike into a Hudson River-berthed Sea, Air, & Space Museum.

Through that experience, Fisher not only got to know the military – in which he had enthusiastically hoped to serve – but was able to probe chief of naval operations, Carlisle Trost, as to what our armed forces needed.

Swiftly came the answer: The equivalent of 1974-founded The Ronald McDonald House, which – as indicated on its website – “keeps families with sick children together and near the care/resources they need.”

With that candid Admiral Trost feedback, Fisher personally wrote a check for the first 20+ Houses – given as a gift known as the “Zack & Elizabeth Fisher House,” recognized as one of the premiere nonprofits working to support quality-of-life for our military and their families.

Ever since its inception, the Fisher House has saved military and veterans’ families an estimated $451 million in out-of-pocket costs for lodging and transportation; more than 32,000 families were served in 2018.

 Million dollar lunch

Most of the 86 currently operational Fisher Houses are located in the United States, although two are in Germany, and one is in the United Kingdom; six more are under construction. Landstuhl, Germany’s Fisher House opened roughly three months before the September 11 attacks and, according to Fisher House Foundation president David Coker, “It has been a blessing to so many families.”

Our Nation’s Capital is noted for numerous things, including some serious traffic congestion. “I rely on radio for my traffic and news,” endorses Coker, who was selected as Fisher House Foundation’s first employee in 1994 when there were 14 such Houses. “Sixteen years ago, I called [then ABC Radio property, now Cumulus Media-owned] WMAL, the station I listen to on my way into work, and said there was a good relationship between what we do at Fisher House and the WMAL audience. That call didn’t get very far, so I thought I needed to take a different approach.”

Intently studying the Washington, DC news/talk station’s website, he noticed a contest was underway in which the winner could dine with a WMAL personality.

Literally the day after entering the competition, Coker received a call saying he’d won lunch with one of WMAL’s then-on-air hosts, Michael Graham, and the station’s program director at the time, Randall Bloomquist. “As we went around the table, we said who we were and what we did,” Coker recounts. “I gave Randall the Fisher House press kit I just happened to have with me.”

Soon thereafter, WMAL contacted Coker, indicating the station was interested in doing a Fisher House radio-thon. “It ran from Veteran’s Day through the end of the year and was wildly successful,” he comments. “They raised over one million dollars for us – the response took us to the next level. We have retained that relationship and WMAL still does a Fisher House radio-thon, an amazing two-day event, which will be held next month [December 2019]. This is [strictly] content information. We tell the story and don’t ask for funds at all. It is a pure coincidence that many people make gifts at the end of the year.”

Let’s put on a show

Nomadic life of radio professionals being what it is, Bloomquist left WMAL in September 2005 to program Atlanta news/talk WGST and have daily oversight of operations for the Atlanta Braves Radio Network, Georgia News Network, and Atlanta’s Total Traffic Network.

Several years later, he communicated with Coker, enthusing what WMAL did together with The Fisher House was quite extraordinary and wondered what would happen if they linked up again for a longform radio show. “It was his experience that stations were looking for fresh content,” Coker notes. “Randall said he would produce the show, get the stories, and offer it up between Christmas and New Year’s Day – a time station hosts want to be off-air with their families. He asked me if I was game and I said, ‘absolutely – let’s give it a try.’”

An obviously genuine advocate of the medium, Coker insists, “There is power in radio. You develop relationships with the people [to whom] you listen. When they are telling you a story, it sticks with you and I’ve always believed in that.”

Following his three-year Atlanta tenure, Bloomquist founded a consultancy; became Cumulus Media’s corporate news/talk program director; and has owned FAST SIGNS of Decatur, Georgia since April 2016.

Given Bloomquist’s exit from the radio industry, the baton for producing the Fisher House radio show was passed to WMAL morning drive co-host Brian Wilson, but when he took another job in Nashville at co-owned news/talk WWTN “Super Talk 99.7,” the hunt began anew to find a replacement.

Heat is on

Enter longtime major market programmer Jeff Wyatt, the two-year president of DC-based Jeff Wyatt Group. “He and his team have done a phenomenal job of telling the Fisher House story,” Coker proudly assesses. “We tend to be a best-kept secret, so awareness is our biggest challenge. One of our purposes is to let the American people know how special the men and women are who serve and [have them] understand a little bit more about the sacrifices made by their families. When someone is wounded, injured, or ill, they are not there by themselves. The families are with them on that journey of what the future holds and they are the caregivers. We know ‘life happens’ but we don’t know when.”

Even though the talk radio version of the Fisher House show had been on for years, Wyatt was more familiar with the program’s country offering, acquainted with it through iHeartMedia Baltimore’s production director, Stan Fisher. By virtue of his media connection, Stan – no relation to Zack Fisher – was in touch with Fisher House vice president of communications Kerri Childress, who passed away several weeks ago after a two-year fight against pancreatic cancer. “She reached out,” Wyatt states, “and asked if Stan knew anyone who could help with the show.”

Rather than being “a yin/yang, back-and-forth interviewer,” Wyatt prefers to “let the people tell the stories and the heat turns up [when that happens]. Finding them is really the critical seed to a great show. I get in front of them; we talk; and I guide them through describing their situation. They could be a Fisher House manager, a wounded active-duty person, an ill veteran, or the parents of a wounded active-duty person.”

Once Wyatt collects those interviews, it’s time to assemble the elements, sequence them, initiate the writing process, and as he elaborates, WMAL “Mornings on the Mall” co-host Mary Walter, “weaves us through all that information. Collecting the right audio, putting the pieces together, and writing the show for Mary is the scope of the work I do. After the show is done, it’s time to make sure we get the word out that it is available.”

 Thanksgiving buffet of options

This year’s title for the three-hour talk radio show is “The Fisher House Story – In Their Own Words” with Wyatt pointing out that he’s broken it up so the first two hours can standalone. “A station wanting a one-hour or two-hour show can use [whatever combination they choose] for a good outcome.”

Cognizant of the need stations have to satisfy a public affairs commitment, Wyatt developed a noncommercial, 30-minute show. “Stations can use that program to topically reflect what is going on in the marketplace,” he remarks. “Last year, the use for that exploded into multiple plays for all configurations.”

Inside of iHeartMedia’s Washington, DC cluster, for instance, WBIG “Big 100 – Washington’s Classic Rock,” alternative WWDC “DC-101,” and mainstream CHR WIHT “Hot 99.5 – DC’s #1 Hit Music Station” ran the 30-minute show in their public affairs slot. “They could run the three-hour talk radio show – but – they are not going to,” Wyatt concedes. “Return-on-investment for us really comes out of [news/talk] radio which is why we declare it that way. These days, when you can get in touch with a senior vice president of programming, it is good to let them know there is a 30-minute public affairs opportunity which usually fits their needs.”

Estimating that the number of affiliates airing the Fisher House radio show is 300+, Wyatt – now in his second year heading up “The Fisher House Story – proclaims that two particularly huge supporters are iHeartMedia’s senior VP/news, talk, sports programming (and WMAL’s former president/general manager) Chris Berry, and WMAL PD/Cumulus Media vice president of news/talk, Bill Hess. “I get a chance to appear on both their conference calls with programmers and they help spread the word,” Wyatt discloses. “What I found so exhilarating last year was to see stations use the show multiple times. It helps us and the stations. That is what this based on – being able to provide this show for them. We are so proud of the quality of the show and how highly they think of it.”

Some news/talk facilities use the three-hour program from Thanksgiving up until New Year’s Day and Wyatt mentions that one programmer used it once a day in that period and the station “moved it throughout several day-parts. Different configurations help us fulfill the need these guys have.”

Also on Wyatt’s plate is a 25-minute program designed for Salem Media Group properties. “They run 25-minute blocks so I cut down the 30-minute show a bit and we provide that to them,” he explains. “Stan did the audio production for us last year but his business, Stan Fisher Creative, has grown so much that it challenged his ability to do all the pieces in the intense timeframe we have to produce the show. For many years, I worked with Bernie Lucas who oversees [iHeartMedia Washington, DC country-formatted] WMZQ’s public affairs stuff so he ‘gets’ this whole concept very nicely; Bernie has been a great addition to the team.”

Architecture versus execution

Back in the early-1980s, Wyatt was assistant program director of Boston CHR WXKS-FM “Kiss 108,” later going on to program Philadelphia’s WUSL “Power 99”; Los Angeles rhythmic CHR KPWR “Power 106”; cross-town CHR KIIS “102.7 Kiss-FM”; and was regional VP/programming for Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia).

More recently, he was Red Zebra Broadcasting’s chief programming & marketing officer; iHeartMedia Baltimore’s senior VP/programming; and – as regional executive vice president – oversaw iHM’s news/talk stations in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. “Our kids were born in Los Angeles so that made [my time at ‘Power 106’ and ‘Kiss-FM’] kind of special,” Wyatt accentuates. “It was a great [era] for entertainment and radio; however, it seems that once a week, I have another reason for feeling glad we don’t live there anymore. We had great teams; our timing was good; and our effort was strong, so it all worked well.”

Sandwiched between Wyatt’s radio jobs was a mid-1990s marketing business. “The programming sirens called out and I looked for another opportunity,” he acknowledges. “This time, it has been interesting to go off doing projects, voiceover work, and some other [ventures],” but the Fisher House radio show “is the most intense thing I do the entire year. It is the one [for which] I have the most passion. I can pour my heart into it and work with people to achieve a goal. This is the way a grateful nation says ‘thank-you’ to those in our military.”

Whereas Wyatt spent 30 years in the “architecture of radio stations,” today’s radio business, he opines, “needs people who know how to execute. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, but we did do market-specific architecture [to accommodate] demand. We made things spontaneous, vibrant, and entertaining. That mentality is taken more now by the ‘corner office’ and governed by stock prices. Station owners aren’t as interested in that kind of programming. I found myself doing what they wanted which is very specific – accountability is one of their very strong suits. It wasn’t appreciated when I wanted to do things [my way] and it became too much. It is an interesting time in my career. The business has changed a lot and it doesn’t need my skills right now – I don’t hear the sirens anymore.”

Tearful appreciation

Designed in peace time and proven to be invaluable in war, The Fisher House turns 30 years old next year. “We are grateful to have found Jeff – he has done great things for us, Coker emphasizes. “People have raised their right hand and said they will support/defend this country, even if it costs them their life. When you get that phone call and learn [something bad has happened to a loved one], you want two things – the best medical care and to be there. The VA and the military do a great job of providing world-class health care [but] having a place for the family to stay is a challenge. The VA was established to care for those who have borne the battle.”

Nothing in that statement though says the family is included. “When we build and gift a Fisher House to the VA, many times that is the vehicle – the avenue – that allows the family to be part of it,” Coker stresses. “The government assumes responsibility for the operation and maintenance of a gifted Fisher House until perpetuity. That lets us go on and bless the next community.”

Representative of the riveting radio in this year’s “Fisher House Story – In Their Own Words” is the tragic situation involving active duty Army ranger staff sergeant Cory Remsburg, who, as Wyatt describes, “led his guys out one night in Afghanistan. They did their job, clearing a field for a helicopter to come in and get them. The ranger on Cory’s left, however, stepped on an IED [improvised explosive device) and paid the price. Cory took shrapnel to his brain – his story and that of his family begins there. [Meanwhile], Army veteran Luke Shimer, who deployed multiple times to Afghanistan, returned safely to start his high school teaching career but was struck by lightning on his front porch while talking on the phone.”

Perhaps the most significant thing “The Fisher House Story” accomplishes is informing people how to recognize and honor our veterans. “People who stay in these houses don’t know what the Foundation is – their loyalty is to [their particular community’s Fisher House],” Coker underscores. “This is such an ingenious way that Randall Bloomquist first developed to help spread the word. We have the chance to help veterans who were in the second World War, Korea, or Vietnam. We weren’t there for them when they came back from those wars – but we are there for them now. When someone walks through the door, we want them to know that there are those who appreciate/honor their service and want to help them in their time of need. I cannot tell you how many times people come to tears simply trying to say ‘thanks’ because of what the Fisher House has meant to them.”

Mike Kinosian is managing editor of TALKERS magazine.  Email him at: mike@Talkers.com. 

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Category: Features