Stew Cohen
Stew Cohen

He's a familiar voice in McHenry County as he tells the latest news stories on Star 105.5 and Y103.9 FM, but Stew Cohen has so much more to tell.

In his new book, "The WYEN Experience," the Chicago broadcast news veteran shares stories of the days in which FM radio operated without digital technology. 

Inspired by his time at WYEN Request Radio, a small pioneering radio station once in Des Plaines, the book includes tales of the station's behind the scenes strategies as well as Cohen's experiences interviewing celebrities and sports figures. 

At the station from 1976 to 1979, Cohen worked his way up to news director before moving on.

"Most of the people who work in radio worked in stations like this," said Cohen, now an award winning news director at the Crystal Lake-based radio stations. 

"This is a story that takes place before technology changed everything. A lot of people don't know what life was like. ... People should know about this time in broadcast because it will never be like that again." 

A conversation with former co-worker Kenn Heinlein, as well as Cohen's longtime personal goal to write a book, inspired "The WYEN Experience."

He hunted down as many former co-workers as he could, sharing their stories, as well. Among those on the air at WYEN in the 1970s were Garry Meier of WGN AM 720, Bob Roberts of WBBM AM 780 and Mike Roberts of WTMX of 101.9.

The station stumbled in the 1980s and was sold a few years later. "Yet thousands of people listened to WYEN and enjoyed its music and announcers. The station mirrored the 1970s. I'm hoping through this book to give life to the station and the times," Cohen writes in the book's preface.

The book also includes photographs from those days, most of which were provided by Heinlein. Heinlein and his son, Dan, also provided an interview with his mother-in-law, Carol Walters, who was married to the late Ed Walters, the owner of the radio station.

"I worked, reall, the Golden Years of the station," Cohen said. "By '76, it was really going great guns."

Writing the book over several years, Cohen realized after falling asleep at the keyboard nightly that he'd have to work on it on the weekends. He'd get up at 4 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays to work on the book for several hours.

He shares some of his personal story, beginning with his days in high school when he feared public speaking, hiding out in the school bathroom to avoid his turn at the front of the English class. 

Many think he was born with an announcer's voice, he said. But it took numerous failed attempts and audible, hard on-air swallows to get him where he is today. He struggled with an overwhelming lack of confidence, he said. 

"I was turned down over and over again," he said of his early attempts at on-air jobs. 

He'd read out loud to himself continuously to get better. 

Even when he finally landed a job, he said it took him awhile to learn to be a good listener. And technological mishaps didn't help, such as the time he thought he'd taped an entire interview with Shirley Temple Jones, only to find out the tape had quit after 15 to 20 seconds.

He scrambled to throw something together to play on the air with fragments of her voice.

"It didn't make any sense, but I had to prove I was there," he said.

While at WYEN, he also interviewed Judy Tenuta, an aspiring comedian at the time, and took her on a pseudo date to a sort of radio mixer. He said he chickened out when it came to officially asking her out on a real date. Other celebrity interviews included Tom Bosley, Walter Peyton, Bobby Riggs and Mark Spitz.

Cohen also covered the John Wayne Gacy murders and arrest, among other major news stories.

"It was only two and a half years, but I did a lot in those two and a half years," he said.

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