Engaging his listeners

Conservative air personality returns to WLS for the drive-time slot

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By KEN TRAINOR

Growing up in Aurora in the late 1970s and '80s, Francisco Cotto (pronounced COE-toe) wanted a more mainstream name. Like John. He even planned to change it when he got older.

Then he discovered radio.

"Cisco Cotto is a great radio name," he says. "It sticks in your mind. I'm often asked if it's made up, but it's actually my family name." (His dad arrived from Puerto Rico at the age of 19.)

Now Cotto, an Oak Parker, joins another great radio name, Roe Conn, for the "drive-time" afternoon slot (2-6 p.m.) at WLS radio (890 AM), right after Rush Limbaugh.

Conn and Cotto, Roe and Cisco. His first day on the air was Monday.

Cotto is a 12-year veteran of the airwaves, and this is his second stint with WLS. He spent the last three years at WIND (560 AM), co-hosting the morning show.

"I've been waking up at 2:30 a.m. for 10 years," says Cotto, who is 34. "Now I get to wake up when I want, no alarm. I'm getting eight hours of sleep each night. I've never had this much energy."

Radio was a bolt out of the blue for Cotto. He was a 16-year-old student at Aurora Christian High School when Michael King, the announcer for the Kane County Cougars minor league baseball team, gave a talk at the school. When they spoke afterward, King complimented Cotto's voice quality and took him to a game, then helped him arrange an internship at Moody Bible Institute's WMBI.

"When I walked into the studio for the first time," Cotto recalls, "the light went on. It was almost magical. I thought, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.'"

His best friend was interested in attending Western Illinois University, so Cotto accompanied him on a weekend visit. He saw the school's radio and TV department and observed their hands-on approach: "I knew it was the place for me."

While other students hit the bars, he hunkered down in the studio and worked part-time radio jobs, logging long hours because "that's what it takes. Radio is not just people talking on the air," he notes. "It really is an art form that requires practice, practice, practice, just like any other craft."

College, says Cotto, was the place to make your mistakes - when it only affects your grades, not your job. But not all his mistakes took place there. After an internship with WMAQ (670 AM, now The Score), he was hired as an entry-level reporter. Two years later, he joined WLS as a reporter and a news anchor. During one of his broadcasts, he tried to say, "The city shifts gears." We can't print how it really came out; we'll leave that to your imagination.

"Things can happen," Cotto says. "Fortunately, my boss came in laughing."

Conservative opinions

Working news was good experience, but he was full of opinions and the need to remain unbiased drove him crazy. "I thought I was going to explode," he recalls.

"I noticed the talk show hosts were having a lot more fun than I was." So he moved in that direction. Since he is decidedly of the conservative persuasion, he was right in his element.

Born in 1975, he observes, "I was always conservative. I grew up thinking Ronald Reagan would always be president. I became a political animal at an early age."

As his nickname, "The Reverend," indicates, he's also a devout Christian who will graduate with a master's degree in divinity from Moody Bible this spring. He met his wife, Anna, when he sat next to her on the first day in his first class. They attended Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park even before they moved here six years ago. In fact, Calvary is one of the reasons they chose Oak Park.

"I believe you should live in the community where you worship," he says.

The couple recently celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter named Gabriella. Cotto calls her Gabby for obvious reasons.

"She's my daughter, so she has to be a talker."

Cotto says he loves living in Oak Park. "Especially on a summer day," he says, "when you're walking or driving around town, it has an almost storybook beauty."

He also appreciates the diversity. "I've grown to love the people here," Cotto says. "On our block, we have people from all walks of life - black, white, Hispanic, Christian, Buddhist, gay, straight. We all get along really well."

Some contend that Oak Park's vaunted tolerance doesn't extend as far as the conservative viewpoint. But Cotto disagrees.

"Even if we disagree politically, you don't feel ostracized," he says. "There is a desire here to engage in debate. People usually know what they're talking about. They don't just speak from emotion. Afterward, we still like each other."

When he mentions his conservative slant to local liberals, "they're almost dumbfounded. 'You live here?' But if you know what you're talking about, liberals here will at least respect your point of view."

Role models

Cotto works to earn that respect. "It's so easy to spot a phony who is just uttering talking points. I don't want to be that guy."

Among his role models are print journalists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, because "they're thinkers, not reactionaries. I can respect either side if it's well thought out. I always try to think through what I'm feeling."

He also likes David Brooks, the conservative columnist of The New York Times who is highly regarded among liberals. "He navigates well in really tough waters," Cotto explains. "I disagree with him. Sometimes I think, 'Oh, David, get a spine.' But I never get angry at him."

Rush Limbaugh is also one of his role models. Regardless of what you think of his viewpoints, Cotto says, "you have to admire what he figured out about radio: At its core, it is an entertainment medium."

Cotto prefers pundits who understand the "entertainment factor." He enjoys reading liberals like Maureen Dowd and the late Molly Ivins because "dry opinion doesn't interest people. You have to be entertaining." In terms of on-air liberals, "I pay attention to Ed Schultz [WCPT and MSNBC] because he's trying to keep the entertainment factor in the medium."

On the other hand, he finds himself yelling as he reads Eleanor Clift of Newsweek and national-affairs newspaper columnist Helen Thomas because they're "so knee-jerk partisan and biting." Then again, he adds, "it means they're doing their jobs."

To do his job, Cotto subscribes to 10 magazines and five newspapers and visits numerous Web sites, such as Real Clear Politics, the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post.

"I try to digest as much as possible to sound informed on the air," he says.

Friends tease him because he only works four hours a day. "But it takes six hours to prepare for those four hours," he counters. In addition to the hours he puts in at the station (11 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days), he has two conference calls each morning with the show's producers. And he's always on the lookout for tidbits that might serve as material.

"My whole life is show prep," he says.

He has known his on-air partner for a decade, so he expects the transition to go smoothly. Conn, Cotto says, "is funny and reinforces the fun factor, whereas I can trend more serious." But when he gets too serious, his partner likes to tweak him with a wisecrack.

Keeping company

Radio personality Don Wade once told him he didn't become a good talk radio host until he realized he wasn't going to change the world.

"I keep people company," Cotto says, "and also give them something to think about. If you're boring, they're not going to listen to your show."

Afternoon radio is different, he notes. In the morning, listeners want information. In the afternoon, they want to hear about the stories that have been developing throughout the day but "with a fun twist."

"Listeners want to decompress on the way home," he observed. "The last thing they want is someone screaming at them." Conn and Cotto take calls from listeners and try to remember not to talk about themselves too much. "It's an intimate forum," he noted, "but the show is really about them.

"I'm an extrovert and I love spending time with people. I'm paid to engage people about the history being made every day."

As for the future, Cotto is nervous about radio in the age of consolidation, podcasts and the iPod, which are making traditional DJ jobs obsolete. Information and talk formats will survive, but he believes the Internet will replace radio as the principal medium.

"It increases competition and increases the quality of the product, but it makes the economics tough," he said. The Internet hurts radio by pulling revenue away, but it doesn't pull away enough to be profitable.

"It's a huge battle," Cotto says. "More people are fighting for the pie. The Internet will eventually win that battle."

In the meantime, "my job is to entertain people today. Tomorrow, who knows?"

Though he doesn't talk about his hometown on the air (his wider audience wouldn't be interested), he does pay attention to local development issues.

"I want the village elders to realize that what makes Oak Park great is its unique feel," Cotto says. "If we're not careful, we'll lose that and end up looking like any other suburb. Once it's gone, you can't get it back.

"I guess I feel protective," he adds. "I think I'm an Oak Park lifer."

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