Radio couple garners devoted following over 44 years

No one's had more fun broadcasting than we have . . . and we've never considered it work. Pegeen Fitzgerald

For 44 of their 50 married years, Pegeen and Edward Fitzgerald have had a radio talk show in New York City. The unusual fact is that it's a program that isn't planned, usually has no guests, and is broadcast from their living room. And it has a loyal and devoted following.

The Fitzgeralds didn't start out as a radio couple. Married life began in San Francisco when she was in advertising and he managed a theater. The theater closed and Edward started in broadcasting.

A few years later they moved to New York, where they pursued their respective careers. But dinner with an executive from WOR (Edward's radio station) soon changed that when he said to Pegeen, ''I wish we knew someone who talks the way you talk to do a woman's program for us.'' ''Pegeen Prefers,'' which was broadcast during her lunch hour, soon debuted.

A few years later WOR panicked during Pegeen's brief hospitalization because it meant a possible loss of sponsors - to this day they have a reputation for making any time slot pay - so arrangements were made for Pegeen to broadcast from her room. But instead of having Harry Morgan, the regular announcer, with her, she wanted Edward to introduce the program.

The station agreed but was adamant about not letting the listeners know they were married. ''This is idiocy not saying we are married,'' Pegeen recalls telling them. So pretty soon they were husband and wife on the radio, too.

The Fitzgeralds' hour-long, Monday-to-Friday program is more like a chatty overheard conversation. According to the couple, there is no demarcation between the way they are whether off and on the air. In fact, neither one of them really knows what to expect from the other.

One day Edward, in jest, referred to their charming Victorian apartment in the East 30s as ''a white-collar tenement'' - something loyal listeners remember to this day. And the results of a University of Chicago symposium on the communication arts said the Fitzgeralds were the only thing on radio and television (they spent several years on television, also) that did not stem from something in theater or vaudeville. In short, a completely original format.

One and a half years later Variety listed over 75 couples who were doing talk shows - Dorothy Kilgallen and Dick Kollmar among others - but few lasted, either on the air or married. The Fitzgeralds' success? ''I can't think of anything that would keep us apart,'' says Pegeen.

Though theirs is primarily not a news show, the Fitzgeralds usually kept a news ticker running in their bathroom to keep up on late-breaking events. As a result, they were among the first to announce on the air that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. But the word ''atomic'' was so unfamiliar then that some discussion ensued as to how the word should be pronounced.

Edward did leave Pegeen once on the air. He was in the habit of doing theatrical gestures to Pegeen if her enthusiasm was slipping, usually by circling his hands. One day Pegeen, sensing that Ed's enthusiasm was flagging, began circling her hands. Edward didn't appreciate her suggestion so he left his microphone and went upstairs to take a nap. Pegeen was speechless for a moment, but listeners never knew why.

The Fitzgeralds have also become active in the lives of their listeners. ''They know more about us than we know about them,'' Pegeen says. Their manner is so approachable that people often ask her favors - anything from finding a home to finding a pet - to which she rarely says no. She feels she's asked because ''I know how to do it.'' On a recent broadcast she had a call from a father in New Jersey whose son wanted to meet Pegeen. She promptly invited them to come for tea when they were next in the city. The next day she received a note from a mother whose daughter also wanted to come to tea. ''I should probably expect about 20 children at this party,'' she says.

They also open up their weekend home in Kent, Conn., from which they do not broadcast, on Sunday afternoons for listeners in that area. They did broadcast for several years from Hay Island, near Darien, Conn., with the help of underwater cables. And since they would rather change apartments than have their walls painted, they have had many Manhattan homes.

Pegeen, in a way, sees her daily radio show as a rest from her other busy activities. As president of the Millennium Guild and Anti-Vivisection Society of New York, she spearheaded the campaign that produced those dramatic ads about the blinding of rabbits through cosmetic testing. As a result of her work, millions of dollars from these same cosmetic companies have gone to institutes to research alternative ways of testing.

Yet despite all her work and projects, which require a three-person office to handle over 200 calls and letters a day, Pegeen still says, ''I'm not that ambitious. People believe that ambition has a satisfaction that it doesn't have. I just want to come out even.''

So with that attitude the Fitzgeralds, who obviously don't plan to retire, keep going, with a break every now and then to watch their favorite television program - ''WKRP in Cincinnati,'' of course.

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