She’d been in the dark two days, pregnant and nearing panic, when she found the Sony Walkman.
“KXLY Newstalk 920, you’re on the air.”
“Mike,” the caller said softly, “I’m cold.”
Since Tuesday, the only light in thousands of Spokane-area homes is the glow of a radio dial, mostly tuned to 920 AM.
When icy limbs began snapping power lines, KXLY was the only AM station still on the air.
Driving home for lunch after his morning talk show, news director Mike Fitzsimmons knew something big was brewing. By 1 p.m., he’d changed the schedule, opening the telephones and going back on the air until 11 p.m. He was back on Wednesday at 9 a.m.
For the next four days, worried callers jammed seven telephone lines.
Fitzsimmons talked and talked, his radio booth a clearinghouse for finding firewood, Red Cross shelters and downed lines.
Fitzsimmons sent a traffic reporter to help a legally blind woman find blankets for the night. He directed working parents to day-care centers that no one else realized were cold and dark. Children called Fitzsimmons to tell their dads - Washington Water Power linemen - good night. Telephones were out, cable television lines were down, roads were closed.
But the radio glowed.
If Fitzsimmons seemed like Spokane’s Edward R. Murrow, this week has been his London blitz.
“I’ve been listening constantly,” said Janet Blessing, who was without power three days. The program manager for Catholic Charities’ aid agency for seniors, Volunteer Chore, said, “I’d beg, borrow and steal to get batteries for my radio.”
When Ronda McCray worried about a missing family at Nine Mile, the young mother of three called Fitzsimmons.
“Everyone is listening to him.”
Within 10 minutes, the family was located and another telephone number was broadcast to help find other missing persons. “It was awesome.”
“I’m just the mouthpiece,” Fitzsimmons said. “I happen to be the announcer. But without the staff none of it would happen. I’m not the answer man.”
It took nearly 15 people working in shifts, racing from telephones to computers, to keep the answers flowing. Talk show host Rick Miller shared his time with Fitzsimmons, Steve Easley screened a zillion calls, reporter/anchor Jason Brooks had to be chased out after 16 hours.
“It’s exhilarating,” said producer Kathy Kline.
But Fitzsimmons was the voice everyone heard, subtle as a locomotive.
When the pregnant woman called, he interrupted, roaring that the air conditioning overhead just went on. She laughed and talked about losing control of her emotions in the dark. He roared that the Cougars will be skinned at this weekend’s Apple Cup. He roared about a “yahoo yesterday who thought he’d climb the power pole and fix the problem himself.
“May the fleas of 1,000 camels infest his armpits.”
Part of that roar is deliberate: Dead air time is deadly. Part is just Fitzsimmons, confrontational by birth, a lawyer by training, the mouth who took on Rush Limbaugh.
In 1994, KXLY hired Fitzsimmons as a local conservative talk show host opposite Limbaugh. His views are widely enough known that a stranger meeting him in Kinko’s recently blurted: “I hate your guts.”
He shrugged: “You really don’t know me.”
The man behind the microphone is also a nationally known voice of hydroplane racing, a documentary maker, a Hollywood screenwriter, an international manufacturer of Christmas ornaments and wood craftsman known for the miniature vehicles he makes for model railroads. He also makes bake sale signs at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, where he serves on the pastoral council.
The oldest son of an Irish investment banker, Fitzsimmons grew up in the Beaver Cleaver-neighborhoods around Lake Washington circa 1951, when the annual hydroplane races were bigger than Christmas.
He studied political science at Seattle University, graduated from Gonzaga Law School, but never passed the bar, opting to follow the hydroplane racing circuit instead.
“My father was shocked, but I’ve never regretted it.”
He became and at 48 remains, a broadcast announcer on the national hydroplane racing circuit and owner of the largest audio and video library on the sport in the world.
In 1974, he went to work reading copy at KSPO in Spokane, becoming news director and conservative commentator.
One Sunday in May, he began broadcasting after the eruption of Mount St. Helens and went clean until Tuesday night. For most of that week, he was the only voice out there.
“Not the city, not the county, not the governor, you,” commentator Bob Glatzer reminded him this week.
But his KSPO stint ended badly when he was fired in 1982. Fitzsimmons sued the station owner for sexual harassment saying he was unjustly fired after rejecting homosexual advances.
After a seven-day trial, the jury deadlocked. But the station never recovered. Fitzsimmons meanwhile became news director at KXLY-TV where he painted the set black to stop people as they flipped between channels 2 and 6.
“It was a gimmick I admit,” he said. The following year, management returned him to radio, what he calls “the theater of the mind.”
He left again in 1985 to produce corporate videos, manage a broadcast equipment company and build miniature vehicles for his model railroad company, Swiftwater Manufacturing Inc.
He since turned his manufacturing into designing Christmas ornaments of tiny ferry boats, trolleys and cruise ships. He is finishing a documentary for the Hydroplane and Race Boat Museum in Seattle. He spent every Wednesday for the past year writing a screenplay with actor Leon Heinen, who appeared in “Forrest Gump.”
Like Gump, Fitzsimmons always seems to surface during major events and, like Gump, have something to say.
Discussions last week covered drivers who didn’t stop at blacked-out traffic lights, “zero vacuum heads”; and people with electricity feeling “power guilt,” and those without, “power anger” and “power envy.”
Fitzsimmons had power envy, staying with his dog Shelby in his north central Spokane home while his wife, Helen, and two of their three children stayed with friends.
His wife is active in the Republican Party. But Fitzsimmons admitted he also voted for Democrats whose records he liked, including Deborah Senn and Lisa Brown.
But politics was not what Fitzsimmons talked this week.
Ann Price of the Spokane Food Bank listened in her dark home and at work, tracking the opening of new Red Cross shelters her agency would serve. Blessing listened while wallpapering her bedroom by candlelight.
The FM stations that share KXLY’s station on West Boone in Spokane, KXLY-FM and KZZU, also continued broadcasting, as did KCDA in Coeur d’Alene. By Wednesday most stations were back on.
But Fitzsimmons was where callers heard how to keep tropical fish warm and billet birds if they went to a shelter, where WWP executives answered the telephone and where a pregnant woman, alone in the dark, found comfort.
“People need to feel they’re in this together,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s good for the psyche.”
“Thanks, Mike,” the pregnant woman said. “Thanks for keeping me company.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo