You may not know the face, but it’s likely you know that voice. Omar Fetouh, assistant news director at Buffalo’s public radio station, WBFO-88.7, delivers the day’s top stories in rich calm tones that feel like auditory pats on the back, especially when the world seems mired in chaos.
In fact, Fetouh, the youngest child of a couple who emigrated from Egypt to study medicine in the United States, entered the radio world at a particularly calamitous time, signing on in late 2001 as a news intern at what was then WNED-AM 970. It was a serendipitous move, as the Canisius College graduate thought he’d do "something in mass media" but had no plan for what. In its early days of 24/7 news coverage, the station needed all hands on deck, and Fetouh learned quickly. "It was a real crash course, and I started working with some really good people," he says. "I liked it." Fifteen years later, the city’s two public radio stations (WBFO and WNED) merged, and he is number two on the news team—after news director Brian Meyer—where he helps guide a reporting staff of four-and-a-half, writes and edits stories, and hosts, adding in local content from noon to 2 p.m.
Did anyone ever tell you you have a voice made for broadcasting?
I do hear that a lot of people hear me as a soothing voice, but I find the whole thing kind of weird. I know people know my name and what I do. I consider myself an introvert. I would get very nervous if I had to speak in front of a room full of people, but when I am alone in the control booth here, in front of a microphone—well, that just seems like second nature now. It’s such a huge part of my life, and it’s exciting to help shape and guide what we do here. In my younger days, I was not what you’d call a newshound. I never had a broadcast hero or someone I wanted to emulate; I have never been as interested in personalities as I have been in the story itself.
I grew up a true Buffalonian; my two older sisters were born in North Carolina, where my parents were studying medicine. We were all lucky to go to good schools here. I went to Elmwood Franklin and St. Joseph Collegiate Institute. My parents never pushed us in any career direction; they wanted us to do what we wanted to do, to find our own ways. (Today one of my sisters is a global relief worker, and the other is an attorney.) After two years studying computer science at Syracuse University, I transferred to Canisius College, where I finished with a degree in communications and media studies. Turns out I just really enjoy this whole world, the public radio universe. I am excited to hear people say they are listeners.
What do you love about your work? And has it changed over the last decade?
I think the feedback we receive from so many people who really value what we do or are just thankful we’ve done certain stories—for example, we’ve done a lot on the immigrant/refugee population here—this has been very gratifying. Our goal is to present strong, accurate, informative reporting in a thoughtful way. My air-shift is actually one of the smaller parts of my job. The rest of my time is reporting, getting out in the field, though I don’t get to do so much of that every day. What I really like is that every day is different. There is always so much going on; we know we can’t cover everything. One of my tasks is preparing a "digest" of upcoming events the day before; of course, that is readjusted daily. I deploy reporters. We need to think about the news that we need to get on the air that day or the next morning, and long term, the longer, feature-length pieces we produce. Handling the daily flow of news and assignment editing—that’s all part of my job. The biggest difference now and when I started in this business? Our reporters now need to be multimedia journalists; you have to be tweeting, taking photos and video. You have to think about social media; that’s been a huge change. And I think it’s good; the reporter knows the story better than anyone. It’s an added burden and more work a reporter has to do, but it helps you tell the story better and reach a wider audience. Hopefully, social media brings people to the actual radio to listen.
It doesn’t appear you have concerns about the future of the medium.
For years, people have said radio is a dying medium, and, yet, public radio has grown, for many reasons. The current generation is more tuned in, more socially conscious than ever, and a really important part of what we are doing here is attracting younger listeners, in the hope they become listeners for life. Polls show that NPR is considered one of the most trusted news sources. That trust is really important. People who have grown up in the age of twenty-four-hour news services have seen how it can be very partisan, but here in public radio, there is more thoughtful reporting and civil discourse. I am always thinking about who is our audience—not just city dwellers, but people in small towns, farmers, folks in the Southern Tier, all age groups. This is a pretty big responsibility, and I am proud of what we do, of being an advocate for our listeners. We take this part of our mission very seriously.
What about your own future?
I like it here. I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I have a lot of ties here. I could see myself living here my whole life. I live in the city; I ride my bike, I love music, I play the guitar, I enjoy going out to hear music. I am happy about the renaissance we see, positive stories about Buffalo in national media. Canalside, the Harbor—it’s all great, great momentum. And though I do try to separate my work and personal life as much as possible, I am always tuned in to what’s happening around me. In my field, you always have to be sort of on call for events; news happens all the time, and you have to be ready to spring into action.
Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.