When asked about what he considers the ideal radio station, local radio legend Johnny Burke answers, “I’m working at it right now!” The station he is talking about is 103.9, WRSR-FM, The Fox, a locally owned and operated station in Genesee County that takes pride in that local ownership by being an active part of the community.
The Local Station
The Fox 103.9 was initially owned by Cumulus Broadcasting when the company began in the fall of 2000. Like an increasing number of radio stations, The Fox was part of a large corporate operation and for a while seemed destined to stay in that mold. However, after the merger of Cumulus and Citadel into a single broadcasting company, they decided to spin off one station in the Flint radio market. The station, WRSR, was then purchased by Krol Communications in 2012. The owner, Rod Krol, managed a number of radio stations in the area, including WJSZ, Owosso (Z92.5 The Castle), and WMLM, Alma (1520 Real Country).
Though part of a larger organization, both Burke and 103.9 The Fox general manager Bill Bailey take pride in the fact that the station is a local station, with local talent and local advertisers who play a role in the community. By not being part of “corporate” radio, the station is unique in being a genuine local voice. Because it has live, local talent on all day and night, it can respond to local events immediately.
“Corporate stations that rely on piped-in music and programming can’t respond in the same way,” Bailey says. He adds that unlike a large corporate station, The Fox doesn’t need to check with some central office in New York, Nashville or Las Vegas to respond to a need or concern of the local community. If there is a weather emergency, 103.9 The Fox can cover it in real time with local voices.
Both Burke and Bailey feel that with all the changes in the media, it’s more important than ever for local media to play a role in building communities and holding them together. “Live and Local” is more than a slogan for the station; it’s a commitment and a critical part of who they are. Bailey says that advertisers also appreciate working with a genuine local company that knows the community. He says they know their clients and have local ties to their advertisers.
Program director and afternoon drive time host Jeremy Fenech says, “It’s an absolute joy to be programming in my hometown of Flint! I absolutely love mid-Michigan, and being able to do what I do without my hands tied by a corporate mandate is very liberating. In a world of corporate-owned, cookie-cutter radio stations that all sound the same, 103.9 The Fox is controlled 100 percent locally.”
The Local Voice
The station got a boost when Burke joined the lineup after being let go in 2017 by Saginaw’s WHNN because of a “format change” at the Cumulus-owned station. Burke hails from Cleveland and got his start in radio during his college days at Kent State. Though his initial career choice was acting, he found his talent for radio. On the station webpage he says that he “quickly realized that he could talk for hours without really saying anything. This prepares you for one of two careers, and Johnny realized early on, that politics was not for him!”
Two days after marrying his wife, Genevieve, he moved to Flint and began a radio career with WTRX in 1980. He later worked in Las Vegas and Buffalo, New York, before he returned to Michigan to join WHNN, where he stayed for 25 years before joining 103.9 The Fox. He hosts from 5 to 10 a.m. weekdays.
“IN A WORLD OF CORPORATE-OWNED,
COOKIE-CUTTER RADIO STATIONS
THAT ALL SOUND THE SAME,
103.9 THE FOX IS CONTROLLED
100 PERCENT LOCALLY. ”
– JEREMY FENECH –
With the move to 103.9, Burke brought a major part of his mid-Michigan fan base. Though the transition was challenging after more than 25 years at WHNN, the move to the new station allowed Burke to pursue what he feels is a critical part of being in radio – being an active part of the community.
Burke shared his show with cohost Blondie (Bonnie Holzhei) for over 15 years and now shares the morning show helm with Lisa Marie (Szukhent). Meeting while hosting a local charity event five years ago, the two came together a year ago when Burke asked Szukhent to join him on air one morning as a guest cohost.
“It was a place I never thought I would end up. Radio was never on my list of careers, but when someone like Johnny Burke invites you to join him, and a station like The Fox has faith in you, it becomes a dream job,” says Szukhent, whom Burke dubbed the Fox Rock Diva.
Their on-air banter and “he said, she said” conversations have made them a morning show favorite among listeners. “I would say we are a combination of ‘George Burns & Gracie Allen’ meets ‘Will & Grace’…with a bit of ‘I Love Lucy’ mixed in,” Szukhent says with a laugh. “We put it out there. There isn’t much we don’t discuss and we agree to disagree.”
The Local Benefits
A major community commitment is the Johnny Burke Children’s Foundation, which offers help to children “where the need is not frivolous and there is no other help,” Burke says. Started in 1996, the Johnny Burke Children’s Foundation has distributed over $1.5 million to kids who needed it. The fund has helped families find shelter, bought human hair wigs for kids who’ve lost their hair, purchased computers for autistic learning programs, paid for backpacks to fight truancy and provided scholarships to summer camp programs for special-needs children.
Recently, the fund has made more than $6,000 available for teachers to purchase classroom supplies for their students. With a grant from AT&T, the fund provided over $15,000 to students to attend summer camps geared toward science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The goal is not only to help the students with their personal careers but also to provide an educated workforce for the mid-Michigan area.
The growing ratings show that the Flint and Genesee County community has adopted Burke and 103.9 The Fox as much as the station and Burke have adopted the community. They expect to remain the genuine and growing “Live and Local” voice of Genesee County. Joining Burke as on-air talent, the station has a combined experience of around 300 years with their lineup that includes such legends as Hal Maas, Roy Moore, Andre Peters, Steph Barber, Kelly Stevens, Curt Wise, Larry McCray and Mark Simons.