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A Radio Retrospective

Star 105.5 News Director Stew Cohen reminisces coming up through a Des Plaines radio station in his book “The WYEN Experience.”

My grandfather, Lawrence C. Domack, was an inventor and small-time manufacturer in Chicago. He had a work and living space in Wicker Park that we called Gramp’s Shop. It was an all-brick industrial kind of building with a solid steel door and rows of awning-type windows. The windows were mainly for providing light, so the sills were very high, so high you pretty much saw nothing but sky.

On one of these windowsills sat an old Philco radio, which we always played while working. The first thing we’d do is tune in to the big sound of WLS and listen to the Silver Dollar Survey (Chicago’s hot record survey) and make predictions, or little bets, regarding next week’s top 10 songs.

On Fridays, we’d get paid for our work and with the money burning a hole in our pockets, we’d head down to the record shop. There we’d maybe buy a 45 or two, but for sure we would pick up that week’s new Silver Dollar Survey list. Scanning the 30 or so songs listed, we’d immediately know if our song was moving toward fame and glory, or the basement. That was 1961.

Fast-forward 10 years:

Phone call, off-air:

“Hi, do you have a request?”

“I’d like to hear ‘Time of the Season.’”

“Ah, great song by The Zombies.

What’s your name and where do you live?”

“My name is Sue, and I live in Wheeling”

“Sue, your song is just 10 minutes away.

Have a great day!”

 

A bit later, on-air:

“A request from Sue in Wheeling for

The Zombies’ ‘Time of the Season.’”

“This is WYEN Request Radio.”

 

And so, in 1971, request radio was born.

Building a radio station and broadcasting those words was no easy task, but what better place to do it than in the heart of the nation, Chicago? It’s a perfect radio town, no barren oceans, no signal-blocking mountains, just clear skies and prairies that go on seemingly forever, in all directions.

A Dream Come True

In the late ’60s, a man named Ed Walters had a dream to build a radio station, a station that would provide the perfect training ground for radio upstarts — kids wanting a chance to dive into radio. And so Walters and his wife, Carol, began building the dream.

The first thing they needed was a frequency, but buying an existing station was financially impossible. The Federal Communications Comission (FCC) did have one frequency still available in Chicagoland, 106.7 FM, licensed for Des Plaines. Little did the Walters’ know how difficult securing that FCC license would be, but, after years of jumping through Washington’s bureaucratic hoops, the couple finally succeeded.

Request Radio is Born

The Walters’ built their studio, erected their tower, and on December 3, 1971, through the voice of Ray Smithers, Ed’s dream came to fruition. His dream filled the air via the studio monitors and transmitter radiating out of the WYEN tower, and magically reached into thousands of homes in Cook, Lake and McHenry counties, and beyond.

At midnight, Gil Peters began the all-night program. Being the first broadcast, friends and family began calling in, requesting he play songs for them. It was during that midnight shift, as the phone rang off the hook, that request radio was born. Like a one-man band, Peters answered the phone, wrote down requests, searched for and spun the records (yep, those big, round, flat things), reported the news and read commercials. Through those many calls, WYEN got to know its listeners — many who became not just listeners, but friends of WYEN. WYEN became the station you could talk to.

WYEN: All-Star Staff

As WYEN gained momentum, it also picked up announcers through the years, familiar personalities like Bill Elliott, John Zur, Val Stouffer, Bruce Davis, Chris Devine, Dan Diamond, Cindy Bravos, Louie Parrott, Bob Roberts and Garry Meier, to name a few. Many of these colorful characters went on to popular radio and TV stations like WLS, WBBM, WGN, CBS and NBC.

One of these announcers was broadcast journalist and Morton Grove native Stew Cohen. Although WYEN was sold and changed ownership and format in 1986, its spirit lives on, due in no small part to Cohen’s efforts. He writes about the wonderful radio characters of WYEN, plus off- and on-air memories  at  one  of  America’s  last  mom-and-pop radio stations, in “The WYEN Experience.”

Cohen left WYEN in 1979 to begin working with his mentor, the late Mal Bellairs, at WIVS-AM in Crystal Lake and at WXRD-FM (which was located in the Old McHenry Courthouse on the Woodstock Square). In 1991, 20 years after WYEN was born, WZSR-FM (Star 105.5, star105.com) hit the airwaves, and Cohen has been there ever since. Today, he is the award-winning news director of Star 105.5 (adult contemporary serving McHenry County) and 103.9 The Fox (classic rock serving Kane County). Both broadcast from the studios behind McHenry County College.

Cohen: A Staple in Radio

Back in the WYEN days, Cohen always packed a tape recorder and plenty of pay phone change. He was often on the run, reporting breaking news events, such as the 1978 arrest of “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy Jr., or doing interviews with people like tennis hustler Bobby Riggs or America’s Sweetheart Shirley Temple.

Today’s well-appointed Star 105.5 studio in Crystal Lake is a far different scene than radio stations of Cohen’s early on-air days. A single computer with Wi-Fi has eliminated pounding on the old Smith Corona typewriter while wading through piles of news script. Missing is the noise of the United Press International wire-service teleprinter clacking away, and cell phone have eliminated the need for sprints to the phone booth to report at the scene of breaking news.

Today’s digital technology has made gathering  and sending information so much easier, but meeting the needs of today’s complex radio audiences makes programming more specialized. So it’s a bit of give and take, according to Cohen.

Although technology continues to evolve, the seasoned broadcast journalist’s mission has changed little. He’s always realized the importance of his position and takes his job seriously, which is “getting unbiased information to the audience, allowing them to absorb, feel and decide for themselves,” he said.

As for the future of radio, Cohen sees this medium as an all-important means of keeping our American society connected, not isolated. “Radio must flourish, it makes America, America,” he said.

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