The broadcast industry has lost one of its native sons with the passing of Walt Wurfel.
Known for his kindness, compassion and professionalism, Wurfel was a broadcast professional who with experience in dozens of separate communications sectors: as a reporter, news director, press secretary, editor, radio station owner and ham radio operator.
His work as a journalist began after he graduated from Stanford University and the Columbia University School of Journalism. That path took him to the Washington Evening Star as a reporter, to the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times as foreign editor and political editor, and to WTSJ(TV) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as an assistant news director.
Both a fluent Spanish speaker and a dedicated ham radio operator, Wurfel — signing off and on as W4ZPQ — used both of those skills in 1989 during Hurricane Hugo. He monitored ham radio reports during the deadly Category 5 hurricane as it traveled over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and contributed to coverage of the storm by The Washington Post, where his wife, Sara Fitzgerald, worked at the time.
Wurfel had a foot in the political field as well, serving as deputy press secretary for the Carter White House as well as press secretary to the presidential primary campaign of Hubert Humphrey in 1972.
As deputy press secretary for the Carter administration, it was clear that one of Wurfel’s early priorities was connecting with small town journalists.
“[We] basically figured that Jimmy Carter was a president that would understand the value of the local news media, perhaps more than anybody else,” Wurfel said in an exit interview he gave in 1979 after serving as deputy press secretary. “[Local media] was the only media coverage he was getting [previously] and I think he has a full blown idea of how valuable it is. … What we wanted to do was have somebody whose sole job was to respond to the local news media and to help them.”
In that interview, Wurfel laid out the basic tenants that any viable journalist or member of a press office should possess. It’s a list that’s as true today as it was in 1979: intelligence, a sense of self security, conscientiousness. “You can overcome all kinds of other sins by understanding, respecting, and responding to deadlines and being generally helpful in trying to get information to people,” he said in that interview.
His foray into the broadcasting corporate ranks included serving as vice president of corporate communications at Gannett Co., as director of radio stations in Middletown and Utica, N.Y., for Straus Broadcasting Group, and as part owner of radio station WXGM(AM/FM) in Gloucester, Va.
He also served as senior vice president of communications at NAB from more than 10 years beginning in 1986, and served as treasurer and member of the board for the National Press Foundation for many years.
Wurfel passed away at the age of 81 at an assisted living facility in Falls Church, Va., where he had been living for the last year and a half.
A memorial service for Wurfel will be held on Dec. 22 at 1 p.m. at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Va.