Talk radio is one of the few places in American broadcast media that give voice to "regular people." But because local programs have largely been replaced by nationally syndicated hosts, the format rarely provides insights into the thoughts, concerns, and opinions of a local area.
Perhaps this is what makes Jim Fisher, talk-show host for WOC 1420AM for more than three decades, such a valued contributor to the genre. Whether you agree with him or not, he is one of us.
The Jim Fisher Show, heard Mondays through Fridays from 2 to 5:30 p.m., is a rarity. Not only has he maintained his program for 31 years and counting, but his show continues to be a commercial success. Clients get on waiting lists to be endorsed by Fisher, who has final say on which local advertisers he will pitch for. And his show consistently generates local advertising revenues that compete with nationally syndicated heavy-hitters such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who also air on WOC.
In an interview with this Quad Cities icon, Jim was charmingly frank in his assessment of his own success: "I have been blessed or cursed with a certain voice. I have never applied for a job. The Armed Forces Radio & Television Service asked me to work a volunteer shift while I was enlisted in the military in Asia. I ended up taking the licensing test here in the U.S. in the 1960s for commercial broadcasting."
Fisher moved around working for various stations as a rock-and-roll disc jockey, happy as a clam in his chosen field and eventually landing at KCRG Channel 9 in Cedar Rapids to get his chops in television and radio.
It was in this role that Fisher enjoyed interviews over the years with mega-stars such as Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Karen Carpenter, and Perry Como. Accomplishments such as these come with serious bragging rights, to say the least. Yet Fisher is fairly grounded about it all, claiming, "We all put our trousers on one leg at a time.
"Everyone looks at you like you're special. That is the hardest thing to get over. Approach the microphone with the attitude that you are no brighter, wiser, or better than anyone else. People can then hear you and respond well."
Jim eventually moved to the Quad Cities market, further honing his skills as a broadcaster by switching from rock and roll to adult music, as well as weather, for WOC and Channel 6.
"Talk radio wasn't being done full-time in a market of this size," explains Fisher. "So I hosted a talk show on Sunday evenings that was successful enough that the folks running things decided to try the same format during the week for three-plus hours a day."
On January 22, 1980, Fisher launched his first daytime talk show, interviewing presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. "I interviewed Reagan many times," recalls Fisher. "You see, a call from WOC [to Reagan] was like a call from home." Reagan got his start in broadcasting at WOC, and was on-hand for the dedication of its new headquarters in 1988.
Imagine doing talk radio for 31 years. Fisher has an unparalleled perspective relative to social dynamics because he has been in constant contact with his listenership. When asked how he views the dramatic social changes that have occurred while he's been at the microphone, his response is unreservedly positive.
"Times are so much better now than in the '60s," he says. "I remember 'Burn, baby, burn' and watching Washington, DC, on fire in protest over the Vietnam War.
"We hid that we were veterans because the military was so reviled. We were told not to wear our uniforms while on campuses during the 1970s. Racial tensions were at an all-time high. I remember watching downtown Birmingham during the civil-rights march and seeing on the CBS evening news my country come unglued."
He continues: "My grandmother was among the first women to ever vote. Not my great grandmother, mind you, but my grandmother. Now I have a young daughter entering college. When I was in college during the '70s, it was about 80 [percent] to 20 males. Now, it's about 55 to 45 female. Look at the opportunities for women in this culture that weren't available back then. The world is a much, much better place. When's the last time we did a duck-and-cover for a 20-megaton nuclear weapon dropping on the Arsenal? Now we are worried we might get a dirty bomb that would kill 35 people in New York. You tell me: Is the world a better place?"
It is clear that Fisher considers his job a craft of sorts, and not for just anyone. It takes a certain thick skin to survive in talk radio, regardless of the talk. "I wouldn't recommend anyone getting into talk radio unless you are really ready for life to be difficult," he observes. "Talk-show hosts are either loved or hated.
"Guys who do talk radio are chased up the mountain. We start down at the bottom, confused like everybody else. You hold conflicting viewpoints, you don't have to be consistent, you can be a total idiot on Tuesday and nobody cares. Then you start doing talk radio. You're fighting with people all day, every day, and they chase you up the mountain, where you're on this little pinnacle of 'correct.' You stand there on this little pinnacle of 'correct' all day. And you defend it. I got my butt handed to me the first couple of years doing talk radio. Some guy would call me with a viewpoint that differed from mine, and he would eat me for lunch. So I went home and studied."
Anyone who listens to The Jim Fisher Show knows that Jim comes prepared with reams of information gleaned from hours of research. He is constantly "fishing" for information on all manner of subjects from magazines and books. He is unusually high-tech, utilizing the Internet expertly as another resource for data.
Jim preps two hours for every hour he is on the air. He is also blessed with a remarkable memory for places, dates, and times, lending credibility in large measure to his examination of issues and subjects long forgotten by most of us.
But best of all is Jim Fisher's natural talent on live radio. He is a skillful technician behind the mic, as well as an empathetic listener. Thus, he is able to engage all points of view, pro and con, as expressed by his listeners, who bravely call him to "share."
Fisher has a knack for either dividing or uniting listeners, depending on whether you agree with his viewpoint. Some callers fume in opposition, while others chime in with their hearty agreement.
For my part, Jim makes me laugh. I don't always agree with his positions, but I completely applaud his endeavor to voice his opinions, to give others the opportunity to voice theirs, and to engage his callers in aggressive bantering where Jim, at least, pulls no punches. He is brutally honest, making him a consummate entertainer, as well.
"How long have you been a slut?" he recently asked a listener on the air. Whether he actually thought his caller was a slut - because she held that the underage female in a child-abuse case was as much at fault as her adult abuser - is irrelevant. He superbly emphasized the absurdity of her position by referring to her in such an outrageous manner. His delivery is purposely inflammatory, more often than not thought-provoking, and many times totally amusing in its own absurdity.
Interestingly, Fisher is fairly known for his political switch from the Democrat's camp to the Republicans'. He graduated from Coe College with a degree in political science, having interned on campaigns as part of his academic requirements.
But when asked what his reasoning was for the party-affiliation change, he clarified: "I was never a registered Democrat. If you are a young man who doesn't understand John Stuart Mill on liberty, you are taking classes from professors at college who are teaching you the basic liberal ideas of Western civilization. It is important to understand how women must have felt in the 1890s, or African Americans during the 1960s, or how Hispanics feel today about how they are treated in America whether they are legal or not. But when you get older and start paying the bills, you start asking: 'What are we doing?' The [liberal] philosophy doesn't hang together."
One decidedly conservative position, perhaps better described as unapologetically chauvinistic, is his adamant opposition to women in the military.
"I will not serve with women in the military because I don't want to see them dead. You are lovely, but I am not going to come back and save you. I can outrun you. Guess what. The bear is going to eat you," he asserts amid my genuine mirth.
On economics, his views are concise: "Corporations don't just sit on the money they earn. It's used to create jobs and pay other people in the form of wages. Those jobs create wealth for the people who have them. They in turn circulate those wages for goods and services that create jobs of their own."
Furthermore, he opines: "There is no question that most of the liberal policies since the '60s have failed. There are too many bureaucrats with too much time on their hands. They have nothing better to do than create more regulation. Meanwhile, we have military personnel who sit behind desks all day for their entire tour, who are getting the exact same wages and benefits as those military enlistees who are risking their very lives on a daily basis. We should greatly increase the compensation for the higher level of risk taken, and pay the clerks etc. accordingly. In other words, pay far less for less risk."
On another topic, he says: "Liberals no longer believe their own messages. Civil rights went from rights to license."
And if success in the marketplace is any barometer, he's right. For the past several years, ratings for broadcasters who favor liberal agendas are tanking. CNN used to be the recognized source for news but is now trailing, along with MSNBC, the neoconservative Fox News.
Fisher believes: "The liberal down at the core of things does not believe in it [liberal ideology]. He believes it for you, but not for himself. If you are a driver, ride a bike, but he isn't going to ride a bike. Another example: Barak Obama does not want to pay more taxes, but he thinks you should, and you should sacrifice to do it. What the hell has he ever sacrificed? He took every allowable deduction to avoid paying more taxes."
He continues: "Look at these guys in public office with the salaries and benefits they have, telling folks making $7.60 per hour that they have to pay upwards of four to five dollars for a gallon of gas. Liberals just don't believe what they are saying. Look at the failure of Air America, a strictly liberal talk-radio show. They couldn't make it with their liberal message. No one was interested in hearing it, and that means no advertisers."
Part of Jim's appeal comes from his willingness to throw down when callers challenge his viewpoints. He is not shy about his in-your-face approach to draw callers out. He uses what he refers to as a teacher/student methodology: "To get a student to talk, you reach out and poke the student's idea to get him fired up about it."
It definitely works. Callers are known to holler and sputter in an effort to get their points across. And regardless of any opposition, Fisher always gives them the floor. The community is well aware of this outlet, as evidenced by the daily stream of callers who continue to voice their opinions for or against the topic of the hour. It's actually therapeutic, because it has the added benefit of letting callers know they are not alone. It's a little like a town-hall meeting, with Fisher presiding.
At the end of the day, however, Jim has no expectations that he is changing people's minds. Nor is he interested in doing so.
"Everything we do in talk radio is entertainment, I don't care who it is," he says. "How much do we believe relative to what we say? Nobody can lie three hours a day, every day. Convictions lend credibility. And it's not that I don't have doubts. But you can't go in there and be the world's greatest teacher. You are not there to convert people to your point of view; you're there to entertain. You want to keep those radios turned on. So you want to pick things that are of general interest to both conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, blacks and whites, old and young. You talk to the general American. Every day, I make believe I am talking to one of those persons, not a thousand people at a time. Hopefully, though, people will get a benefit from the research I do, and from the ideas that come from others."
If you haven't figured it out by listening to Fisher on the air for the past 31 years, then you're missing the real secret to his impressive success: He's having a ball.
"You can't imagine how much fun I am having," he says. "I do this because it is fun, and I am making a good living at it. I get to go in every day and voice what half the audience is already thinking. The honest truth is: There were a bunch of Republicans who thought George W. Bush was the dumbest Republican they'd ever seen. Now Barack Obama is president and there are a bunch of Democrats that think he is the dumbest Democrat they've ever seen. This is real life. As a talk-show host, you get to say what other people would if they were lucky enough to have a God-given talent - and I owe God everything for this talent - to do talk radio for a living."
Spend five minutes with him, and you will discover the glint in his eye that exposes his underlying humor. He does not take himself too seriously. And you'd better watch yourself, because he prides himself on his abilities as a provocateur. By the time you figure out you've been "Fished," it's too late. That sparkle in his eye is there, his smile ever-widening as it dawns on you, even as you are still sputtering your rebuttals to some "gotcha" argument, that he has you hooked.