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Public radio head

StudioTulsa’s man behind the mic

Rich Fisher in his Public Radio Tulsa studio

Michelle Pollard

It’s entirely possible that Rich Fisher is the first human ever cloned. How else could he do all he does?

The short list: Fisher manages the KWGS National Public Radio affiliate and KWTU’s streaming classical offerings, overseeing everything from programming to personnel, and conducts half-hour interviews five days a week for StudioTulsa throughout the year. As a musician, he plays for Tulsa Community College’s Signature Symphony as principal trombonist and sits in as a replacement trombone for the Tulsa Symphony. He is also the jazz director for Starlight Concerts in the summers, musical director and conductor of the Starlight Jazz Orchestra, and has been a key member at times for various salsa groups (Salsa Rhythm Project, Salsabor), Klezmer bands, and horn ensembles. In his spare time he raised two kids and has been married for 30 years to Holly, an accomplished saxophone player and singer. 

Then again, maybe he’s a modern invisible man. After all, who notices trombone players or knows what the person on the airwaves looks like?

Quick sketch: Fisher might have been the kid in fourth grade who always had a frog in his pocket, and most certainly was a music nerd: glasses, an affable facial expression with hints of potential mischief—perfect for the back row of the brass section or behind a microphone. In person and on the air he’s soft-spoken with slight traces of Okie inflections and a ready, easygoing laugh. He describes himself as “half radio guy and half musician”—a balance he finds essential to his sense of identity.

Raised in Jay, Oklahoma, by educator parents with strong music backgrounds, Fisher first began playing professionally in the early 1980s with a house band at the Shangri-La Resort on Grand Lake.

For an entry-level job it sounds like something out of Raymond Chandler or Damon Runyon.

“They were really great musicians who had played in Vegas and the Copacabana and the like,” Fisher said. “They told mob stories and a bunch of them were Woody Herman Big Band veterans. They’d fish all day and play all night.” 

He also went on the road for a time with a band led by a guitar player who called himself “B.B.” Coleman and who “stole everything, including every lick, from B.B. King.” But Fisher soon concluded that the uncertainty of a musician’s life wasn’t for him.

While an undergrad at the University of Tulsa, he worked at KWGS. He left there to work for KCMA, a classical music station, then to manage a record store called “Buttons,” part of the Sound Warehouse chain. After a few years, he returned to KWGS full-time as the music director, overseeing jazz and classical shows. 

“In 1992 we switched formats to all news and information,” Fisher said. “Instead of getting a pink slip, which is what would normally happen, Bill Nole, who was the program director, said: ‘Yeah, you might be a good talk show host.’ And that’s how I
got started.” 

Some of his most memorable interviews include Jane Goodall, Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis, and Paul Tsongas. Among the most challenging, Fisher lists African American writer Amiri Baraka and Native American writer and activist Russell Means. 

“[Baraka’s] was a phone interview and apparently I woke him up.” 

Baraka was discombobulated but Fisher, still a bit of a rookie, persisted with the interview. 

“He had just had a poetry collection published and while he was waking up I asked him if he would read something from the collection. I heard him put the phone down as he was getting out of bed and say, ‘That motherfucker wants me to read something!’” 

Means, on the other hand, was just plain tough. 

“I interviewed him two or three times. They were always very good interviews—lively and interesting—but he was a big guy and intimidating. He had a very unnerving way about him.”

Fisher usually works a day or two ahead of the interviews, doing all of his own research and preparation. He likens it to cramming for exams. 

“You’re reading everything you can, you’re storing everything in your short-term memory. After doing this for 25 years, you have this body of knowledge to build upon. The most important thing is to listen to the answers and catch the vibe of the guest. Not every interview is a home run, but I feel a couple times a week I’ve done a decent job.”

Originally done live, Fisher’s interviews now are pre-recorded and then edited by producer Scott Gregory for clarity and cadence.

“One of my little foibles is that I’ll ask the same question three times in a row,” Fisher explained with a laugh. Gregory trims out those repetitions and other gaffes in post-production. 

In the past decade, Fisher has overseen the addition of local news segments and a shift to HD broadcast mode, giving KWGS two additional channels, including a 24-hour jazz feed, and providing the classical station, KWTU, with one extra feed, “The American Songbook.” He anticipates more changes in the near future: programming done in-house, a wider range of jazz, and a second, more adventurous classical stream.

The musician half of Fisher confesses a preference for performing classical music over jazz these days. 

“I like both but I’ve become stronger in classical music as I’ve matured. I like playing jazz but I know my limitations; I can play at a higher level in classical. It’s really a matter of not finding enough time in the practice room when it comes to jazz and improvising.” 

Still, it’s not hard to discover his roots. When asked if he had ever thought of a song choice for his funeral, Fisher immediately went to old-time jazz—“Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans funeral staple for over a hundred years:

Didn’t he ramble, he rambled,
Rambled all around, in and out the town.

It seems like the perfect song for a guy who’s never at a complete stop in his busy life.

For more from Michael, read his interview with actor and Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson.