Mick Fiocchi is such a natural behind the mike at WXPR radio station, it’s hard to believe he came to the Northwoods 43 years ago intending to be a mason. “My family were mason contractors and when I moved up here, I was just finishing up an apprenticeship to become a brick layer,” he said.
However, for more than 30 years, WXPR listeners have been waking up with Mick, who will soon be retiring. “I started the morning edition of the show in 1983,” he said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
So how does a licensed mason make the jump into the world of public radio? “One day while I was driving to work, I happened to tune into a public radio station while the show ‘All Things Considered’ was airing,” he said. “I was hooked. It was life-changing for me and I knew right then I wanted to become involved in public radio.”
Mick and his wife Karen moved to the Summit Lake area in 1970 from a Chicago suburb. Mick fell in love with the Northwoods while vacationing with his family up here as a child and knew he wanted to someday make it his home. He graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., with a degree in history before pursuing his apprenticeship in masonry. He worked as a mason for 13 years before that fortuitous radio show captured his attention. “I consider myself a generalist,” he said. “I’m interested in many different things.”
Then in the early 1980s, he read a press release in a local paper announcing that volunteers and funds were needed to start a public radio station in the area. Right away, Mick jumped on board. “First thing I did was volunteer,” he said. “Money was needed to start WXPR and so a group of us, led by Peter Nordgren, started doing fundraisers to create the station.”
It wasn’t long before the group had $40,000 in seed money to establish WXPR. “That was really phenomenal to us,” said Mick. “This was back in the early 1980s when the economy was pretty bad. But it gave us hope that people really wanted this type of a radio station up here if they were willing to donate to it, but it was also sort of scary. I mean, we all wondered if we could keep it going.”
In fact, Mick admits that for the first few years of the station’s existence, the non-profit ran in the red. “Once we got it going, it was like now what,” he said with a chuckle. “As a non-profit that’s sometimes the case but eventually, we caught up financially.”
Another interesting aspect of this grassroots effort was that Mick, Peter and the other founders of WXPR were all under age 30. “We had a lot of enthusiasm for what we were doing,” said Mick. “We really believed in the concept of public radio.”
The group set up shop in a structure on Prospect St. that was originally built by the Rhinelander Refrigerator Company near the turn of the century. It was then bought by the paper mill and used in the making of specialty paper before it was sold in the 1940s and remodeled into a duplex. In 1983, WXPR moved in.
While Mick started at the station as a volunteer, in 1984 he became a full-time paid employee and he has been behind the mike since the first day WXPR went on the air in April of 1983. Mick has been a part of many listeners’ early morning routine for 30 years and he’s also been a fervent and enthusiastic fundraiser for WXPR for that many years, too. “I look at it like we provide a service,” he said. “Hopefully people want to pay something for that service. That’s what keeps the station going forward.”
Another forward step was when WXPR moved recently to their new location on Stevens Street. “The duplex was a good spot for us for many years, but we were outgrowing it,” said Mick. “We were looking to remodel it before the opportunity to move here came along.”
Jim Johnson of Johnson and Houlihan Law Offices donated 75 percent of the value of the $200,000 building to the station. “Moving here cost us less than it would have to remodel what we had,” said Mick. This building also has an interesting history. It was built by the Rhinelander Publishing Company and then was home to the Rhinelander Daily News for many years. “I’ve been looking for a picture of the building back when it was built, but no one seems to have one,” he said. “I would really like to see what this area looked like when this building was constructed.”
Today, surveys indicate that there are 18,000 Northwoods area listeners who tune into WXPR at least once a week, but Mick believes that number is higher. “Now with the Internet, people from all over the world can listen to this station,” he said. “I had one lady tell me we were her lifeline while she was living in Asia.”
In addition, there are 40 volunteer radio personalities who host their own programs throughout the week and more than 100 volunteers who perform other services for WXPR. And right now, WXPR personnel are interviewing for a community feature editor. “One of the things our listeners are always asking for is more local news,” he said. “The person hired for this position will be in charge of that. We want to have field reporters all over the Northwoods who report on what is going on in their areas.”
Mick is proud of the fact that WXPR has always been open to the public, whether people listen to the station or volunteer there. “We always encourage people who want to explore being on the radio to come in and train with us,” said Mick. “It’s not rocket science and in fact is really a lot of fun. It becomes addicting, especially when you get feedback from your listeners.”
And there’ll be plenty of listeners who will be sad to see Mick retire, and this silky-voiced DJ agrees it is going to be tough to hang up his mike. This weekend, Mick’s success with WXPR will be celebrated with friends, family and colleagues who will be hosting a retirement “roast” to thank him for all his efforts over the years in keeping WXPR going and prosperous. He admits this send-off will be emotional for him, but he’s looking forward to taking life at a slower pace.
However, WXPR will always be in his heart. “I don’t want to be the old guy that hangs around meddling but I’m going to visit every once in a while just to see how things are going,” he chuckled. “But I’ve got three grandchildren I want to spend more time with and fishing is a priority. I do have to admit, though, this career has been deeply gratifying. I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world to go from being a volunteer to an employee. I’ve loved every minute of it.”