‘Broadcasting Is My Nest’: Remembering Mountain Stage Chief Engineer Francis Fisher
Mountain Stage chief engineer Francis Fisher passed away last week.
Fisher was — for a lack of a better way of putting it — the man behind the curtain on the show. But what most radio listeners here in the state don’t know is that Fisher was responsible for building West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s network as we all know it today.
To those who knew him well, Fisher was truly a unique human being — a man of wit and kindness that helped to elevate West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the state’s greatest export: Mountain Stage.
If you ever had the chance to see Mountain Stage in person, the playful pre-show banter between host Larry Groce and chief engineer Francis Fisher was the signal that things were rolling. It wasn’t just about those on stage who were performing — the crowd had to play a part.
Fisher and Groce recited that gag hundreds upon hundreds of times.
Talk to Fisher’s friends and family and you’ll hear him described in many different ways: funny, brilliant, mischievous, adventurous, a technophile. But the most repeated characteristic? A lifelong learner who approached almost everything in his own unique way.
Born in Atascadero, California, Fisher spent his formative years in Parkersburg, West Virginia before graduating high school in Morgantown.
Fisher’s daughter Emma Pepper says after high school, her father’s career started off rather unconventionally.
“He tried to go up to Fairmont State first — for college — and was there for a very short while before they sent him a letter,” Pepper said. “Maybe they sent it to his mother and father — and it had seven reasons why they didn't want him in that school anymore, including that he was running poker games out of his room.”
After a stint in the Navy where he learned the engineering trade, Fisher quickly got to work in the radio industry.
“When he got off the Navy ship and came back to West Virginia, he knew he wanted to get into broadcasting,” said Mountain Stage co-founder and former executive producer Andy Ridenour.
“He went back up to New York City and walked into NBC and got a job. That's unheard of. You just don't [come] from nowhere, from no radio experience at all. [With] just his engineering experience — he walked in and got a job at NBC.”
While in New York City in the mid-to-late ‘60s, Fisher, and his wife lived in the bustling neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Ridenour said the job at NBC Radio put Fisher right next to cultural icons of the time.
“He ended up in a lot of studio situations. Brigitte Bardot, Muhammad Ali — all these people that came in. He was the studio engineer for Long John Neble,” Ridenour said. “All this stuff and the experiences that he had there, most of us in the business couldn't work our way there.”
After leaving New York City, Fisher made his way back to West Virginia — landing at WDNE in Elkins. That’s where he first met Larry Groce, who had moved to the area as the first artist-in- residence for the National Endowment for the Arts.
“He was kind of going back to the land with his wife, Sandy, and their little girl Amanda was very small. And I fell in with him because I was doing a program there, which brought me to promotion to the radio station and stuff,” Groce said. “Him being the engineer, we kind of hit it off right away and became friends.”
As West Virginia Public Radio emerged as a statewide network in the late-’70s, Fisher was the mastermind behind linking the stations together.
Then-General Manager Rich Eiswerth said it was a remarkable undertaking, something ahead of its time and especially meaningful with limited resources and hardscrabble conditions.
“Francis — like so many engineers — never really got as much credit publicly as he deserved,” Eisewerth said. “He was a part of the heart and soul of that organization.”
Pepper says she came to learn that, over the course of her dad’s career, he had an almost tongue-in-cheek approach to his work.
“Whenever he started a new job, he would rewire everything so that only he would know how to make everything work,” Pepper said. “And that's how he enjoyed it — and he got himself a little bit of insurance with his job in that way.”
Once the network of West Virginia Public Radio stations came online, Fisher’s work never stopped. Broadcasting requires constant maintenance, and he spent much of his time making sure the signal was working.
“Any time we traveled, we always had the radio station on — because he wanted to make sure at the time that all of the towers were working, wherever we were going,” said Amanda Fredrickson, Fisher’s eldest daughter. “So we never heard any other music or radio station in the house growing up.”
But as the network grew, station managers wanted to create programming to scale up the audience. It was then that Fisher, Ridenour and Groce put their talents together to create Mountain Stage — and Ridenour and Groce credit Fisher on the front end of things.
“First piece of advice he gave me was to hire Larry to be the host,” Ridenour said. “And it was all great after that.”
“As Andy has said many times, we were fortunate to have a team — that every person had a certain knowledge and we didn't step on each other's toes, but we were happy to hear from the other person,” Groce said. “If they had a suggestion, we were lucky in that. Many times you don't find a combination that works.”
For 37-plus years, he manned the mixing board for almost every show — dialing in the sound for everyone from The Band, Bela Fleck, R.E.M., Warren Zevon and Buckwheat Zydeco.
Mountain Stage guitarist and Fisher’s de facto sidekick on the mixing board Michael Lipton says throughout the years, Fisher dealt with the gamut of personalities — with musicians and tour personnel oftentimes trying to usurp Fisher’s authority in running the technical aspects of the show.
“While he was the man behind the scenes, for sure, once you were in the booth, you were in his world and his lair — and you knew it and everybody knew it,” Lipton said. “He would — depending on the personality of the person who was with a particular group — either didn't have to stress or force the issue or he did. He would suss out people very quickly.”
On a personal note: Nearly a decade ago, I was working on a radio documentary to mark the 30th anniversary of Mountain Stage. Over the course of a year, I was lucky enough to sit down with dozens of people who had been a part of the show — from those on staff, to a wide range of performers and others who played a role in its success.
When I got Fisher in the studio to tell me his part of the story, I got the impression he wasn’t all that interested in waxing philosophical. His “man behind the curtain” persona was in full effect.
Fisher was wildly engaging despite his reservations. Most importantly, he never stopped making sure things sounded good.
“Are these levels okay? Oh, wait, yeah, turn it down. Hey, hey! Turn down a little more,” Fisher said with a laugh as he needled me a bit.
“This is weird, isn't it?” I asked him, knowing full well that he knew more than me about what I was doing on the technical side of recording.
“Well, see, that's part of the deal. I don't like doing this stuff — and you're in control of it. And...it makes me nervous,” he said, still laughing.
Groce says that’s exactly the kind of person Fisher was.
“Francis never wanted to [have the spotlight]. We tried to get him to do interviews and other things so that he could be recognized but he really didn't want it. It wasn't false modesty. He just didn't want it,” Groce said.
Pepper said her dad was — as much as anything — a person who revelled in humor, even at the end of his life. Just recently, West Virginia Public Broadcasting honored Fisher on the air for his contributions to the network of stations and Mountain Stage.
“I remember when we told him that we were writing this proclamation for West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Francis Fisher Week. And I said Larry is helping to write it. And the first thing he said to me was, ‘Is it funny?’” Pepper recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes, it's funny. It's good — it has stuff about your life, but it also has humor in it.’ And that was important to him to be able to find humor in most situations.”
Fisher mixed more than 960 episodes of Mountain Stage. In April 2020, he was inducted into the West Virginia Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame.
“I’ve always been Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch. Broadcasting is my nest, it’s my home, it’s what I loved to do,” he told me nearly a decade ago. “I’ve known since I was 9 or 10 or 11 or 12 years old exactly what I wanted to do with my life — and here it is.”
Francis Fisher, chief engineer for Mountain Stage, the person who helped build West Virginia Public Broadcasting — and so much more than that — was 79.