Constable: Voice of suburbs Stew Cohen not quite ready to drop that mic
Radio allows for a little wiggle room.
"I'd say, 'The election team is covering the Northwest suburban elections,' and it was just me," says Stew Cohen, who has spent most of his 45-year career as a news director for suburban radio stations.
When a severe storm kept him from driving to the station to deliver a weather update to his listeners, Cohen phoned in his report as he huddled under a desk in his basement.
And when he discovered his tape recorder had captured only the first 20 seconds of his long interview with former child star and Chief of Protocol of the United States Shirley Temple Black, Cohen had to do almost all of the talking in his report and drop in "It's a great challenge" and the other precious few sound bites he had from Black.
He's hoping to find a new outlet for that creativity and his voice since his unexpected departure in April from 103.9 The Fox and STAR 105.5 FM of Crystal Lake. New owners changed the formats and consolidated on-air staffs, leaving Cohen without a radio home for the first time in more than four decades. While he's hoping to do voice-overs and other radio work, he also admits to enjoying his newfound independence.
"I'm not really done, but I don't want to get up at 4 a.m. anymore," says Cohen, 65, who now has the freedom to ignore weather and traffic if he wishes. "My stress has gone down, and now I know how the other half lives."
As a kid growing up in Morton Grove and graduating from Maine East High School in 1972, "I didn't even know I wanted to be in radio," Cohen says.
Seeing a buddy working at WSIU during their college days at Southern Illinois University intrigued Cohen, who, as a boy, sometimes would add his voice to the recordings he made of songs playing on WLS. In private, he started reading everything out loud, from novels to homework, to make his voice better and stronger. He finally gained enough confidence to audition for WIDB in Carbondale. After his sixth audition, he finally landed a gig working 10 p.m. until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
"I nearly passed out during my first performance," Cohen remembers. He worked at his craft and got better.
In 1976, he was hired at WYEN, an FM station in Des Plaines. Cohen worked alongside Bob Roberts, who retired in April after a long career at WBBM, and Garry Meier, who later teamed with Chicago legend Steve Dahl.
"He and I met Steve Dahl at the same time," Cohen remembers.
Cohen was working in a factory assembly line, making phonograph needles, when he got his start at WYEN. He covered major stories, including a neo-Nazi group's plans to march through Skokie in 1977 and the 1978 arrest of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. He interviewed a host of politicians and Bobby Riggs, who put together the Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Billie Jean King.
Except for two years spent as news director of a public radio station in Dallas, Cohen spent 1979 until last month working for suburban radio stations. With stations changing owners and call letters frequently, Cohen's resume looks like the alphabet jumble of an eye chart. "I wrote them down so I wouldn't get mixed up," says Cohen, who spent the past 18 years at WZSR Star 105.5 FM and 103.9 The Fox in Crystal Lake.
"I love Crystal Lake and McHenry County," says Cohen, who is well known in the town where he lives with his wife of 33 years, Rita. Their sons Brenden, 25, who died in November from complications after a car crash, and Brant, 23, grew up watching their dad serve as master of ceremonies for dozens of events.
For 20 years, he has announced the queen contest for the McHenry County Fair. "I would practice the pronunciations of their names over and over," Cohen says.
As the main official for a local spelling bee, Cohen was nearly out of words for the two remaining candidates when one misspelled a word and claimed it was because Cohen mispronounced the word. Judges replayed the tape and ruled that Cohen had pronounced it correctly.
He has been the master of ceremonies for Alzheimer's Association fundraisers, the Elgin Trivia Bee, the McHenry County spelling bee for senior citizens, and other charity events, as well as serving on the boards of several not-for-profit organizations.
In 2013 he wrote "The WYEN Experience," about the people who made that suburban radio station an interesting place to work. He's also written several songs, including "Summer of Fulfillment in Cubbie Blue," which premiered in 2016 a few months before the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. As a boy, he once dreamed of pitching for the Cubs.
But Cohen, who has dozens of plaques noting his accomplishments, says he's happy with his career as a radio man. He rattles through names of people who helped him in his career. But he saves his final message for the people on the other end of his broadcasts.
"Thank you for listening all these years. You are the best," Cohen says, before adding a classic radio cliffhanger. "Stay tuned for what's next."