Robert Frazen Live | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Robert Frazen Live

One part Tony Bennett, one part Larry King. Once a month he lives the dream.


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The receptionist at an Oakbrook Terrace hotel directs me to a back room, where the radio program Robert Frazen's One on One, focusing on the media, politics, and entertainment, is taped every month. Frazen, the host and producer, has invited me to discuss movies. Describing the evening, he emphasizes its unconventional range. "There's going to be the program, a dinner, music, trivia, prizes, and dancing," he says.

When I walk into the room, I see a man in a tuxedo and black tie singing into a makeshift microphone, grooving to the rhythms of an accompanist on keyboard. A woman asks whether I'm lost. I tell her I'm looking for the radio program. "This is the place," she says. I look at the man at the microphone, putting his heart into the song. She looks back at me.

"That's Robert," she says.

Frazen's manner is sincere, direct, and unpretentious. He's also cautious in what he says about people. "Don't write that or they'll sue me," he says. "I met that woman's agent once, and he'll sue you if you say hello." What he tells all his guests--he's even trademarked the expression--is "Share your wisdom." He explains in his regal, authoritative radio voice that "everybody has some in one field or area, or they're trying to get some."

With an almost evangelical zeal, Frazen says that when he's moderating a discussion, "I feel serene and very joyful," free and alive. Together his

enthusiasm and showmanship make for a man seemingly without fear or envy. At the end of the taping he announces, "There are two kinds of people. There are winners and there are losers. And the people in this room tonight are winners."

The other panelist, film writer Peter Sobczynski, and I are the only people in the room who don't know everyone else. Frazen has cultivated a core group of about 8 to 12 people who show up religiously for every taping. Tonight's is number 421 in a series that's been taped and aired in various places over the years; currently the show is broadcast from Aurora on WBIG, 1250 AM, at different times on Thursday afternoons.

Jo-Anne Konkle, who lives in Berwyn, is one of the regulars. She met Frazen on a blind date about 11 years ago. "He told me about the show, what he was doing with his life. It sounded like an interesting thing. At the time the show was meeting in different restaurants in Uptown. I went to [a taping], and I got hooked on it. He had different people, different topics, and it was very well-done. We actually got to ask people questions. You got to participate in part of the conversation. Whether I agreed with the person's politics or not, everybody has a chance to say their piece."

Frazen's questions to me and Sobczynski are pretty uncomplicated. He takes the old-school approach of asking and listening ("I might have an honorable disagreement with a guest, but I'm not confrontational," he says). He notes that he likes movies from the classic studio period of the 30s and 40s and wants to know about Julia Roberts, what we think of Gladiator winning the Academy Award for best picture, and my impressions of Chocolat.

Once the taping is over, the evening turns surreal. There are four tables, and Sobczynski and I sit at one of them with Frazen. After dinner he returns to the front of the room and starts a trivia contest. But everything is a prelude to his "act," belting out classic songs and folk tunes. His voice is decent, without much range or nuance, but he sings with conviction "Young at Heart," "Strangers in the Night," "Time in a Bottle," and a number in Hebrew. Then he introduces his friend Maurice, an 81-year-old Chicago real estate broker whom Frazen has known for about six months. (When Maurice was sitting at the table with us, I asked him if he works for himself. "Yes, sir," he said. "I want that commission check to go in my pocket.") Taking over the microphone, Maurice lights into "Summer Wind."

Frazen tells me that he loves Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and that his repertoire includes 220 songs. He got his musical ability from his mother, a community and social activist. "She was amazing. You could just name a song and she could play it on the piano." The late folksinger Steve Goodman was his cousin, he says.

I wonder if any of the guests have ever shown displeasure with this part of the evening, if they find it demeans the serious nature of the talk show. Frazen insists that he's never had a guest object. "I got heckled once," he says. "Back when we first started, when we used to serve alcohol, I started singing and this guy got up, I think, and yelled at me to sit down." Frazen never stopped singing.

"I tried to do a live show in a restaurant in Naperville about four or five years ago. It would have worked except there was another group the owner of the bar had booked. The guys were a heavy-metal band. I'm up there talking about foreign policy. These guys are belting away. You try to talk to them, and they can't speak in a normal voice. They just shout. As you probably could surmise, I don't like heavy metal. It was like a Saturday Night Live sketch."

Frazen's activities can be eclectic. This year he was the master of ceremonies at the Miss Philippines contest, held at the Hyatt O'Hare. "I asked how many people there knew who Bert Parks was, and about 20 people raised their hands," he says. "I looked like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in terms of size. I looked like I could dunk out there. There's nothing better than looking at 700 Filipino girls and singing, 'Here she comes, Miss Filipino America.' But then I get a lot of strange requests."

Frazen was born in Hyde Park and grew up in Rogers Park near Loyola University. He's reluctant to divulge certain biographical details--how old he is, whether he's ever been married. "I was always a different kid. When I was in eighth grade, I was president of a student club about Indians. I tried to get a bunch of my friends to go hear Dick Gregory speak at a church in Rogers Park." He attended Sullivan High School, earned a bachelor's degree in education from Northeastern Illinois, and is a few credit hours short of his master's in education from Loyola.

He taught special education at Talcott Elementary School on the west side for six years. "It was a battleground," he says. "It was a school where there were 40 kids to a class. You had a good day if your car was still there. There were too many children in one class and not enough family involvement." He left to work in communications and advertising, selling radio and television spots for Green Communications. "I just decided I wanted to be on the other end of that," he says.

Some of his friends and colleagues told him he was nuts to go into radio and television broadcasting. "Their negativity was my motivation," he says. "As long as you know in your heart that you are capable of achieving something, that gives you the opportunity and incentive to know you can do anything. I just always knew I was going to do my own thing." The first daily program Frazen hosted was in 1993, the one-hour Robert Frazen's One on One: The Best of the North Shore on a Winnetka ("or maybe it was Northbrook") station, he says.

He then did a cable-access television program with the same name. Comparing the two, he says, "I enjoy the creativity of radio. The difference between the two--people play to the cameras, and there's more free-flowing movement and energy with the radio." His kitschy showmanship seems a conscious choice. "I'm an educator by profession, a teacher," Frazen says. "I believe a good journalist is a teacher, an inspirer. The whole reason for starting the show was I wanted to have an environment where people can be stimulated, feel free to discuss their ideas, be entertained, and interact with other people. Most radio stations begin with the crime blotter. I prefer a more upbeat approach, with the idea that people want to be entertained."

Frazen believes in hard, probing journalism, but he also believes that First Amendment privileges entail ethical considerations such as treating others with dignity and humanity. His views seem those of a moderate Republican, but he refuses to admit any party affiliation, saying he's more often persuaded by individuals than politics. Last fall he covered the national conventions of both parties. "I have friends on both sides of the aisle," he says. When he goes to Washington next month, he'll interview Barbara Bush and Henry Kissinger.

"More important than having views, I think it's important for others to have views," he says. "I like inclusiveness. I think it's important that people get their news from a number of different sources. Media people are like any other profession. There's a group, and there are individuals within that group. Politically the lines between the parties have been blurred. One year a friend of mine was honored for her work in teaching, and I went with her, and Tip O'Neill was there. I had a wonderful time. I also read the Bill Bennett books."

Frazen later leaves me a voice mail message attributing glowing comments about his show to former guests Janet Davies at Channel 7, Tribune sports columnist Fred Mitchell, and Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet. He envisions the program expanding--"being heard in more places and having more people attending."

He's even considering a run for office: the Du Page County Board. He says he needs only 4,000 signatures to get on the ticket. "One of the core group said, 'That's no problem. We just have to get 500 signatures apiece.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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