A Journalistic Career Comes To A Close
Listen to the Story
Fresh out of college, Bill Cohen went to work at WOSU in 1970. It wasn’t long before he took a job as a reporter at what would become the public radio statehouse news bureau. Now after more than 40 years in public broadcasting Bill Cohen is set to retire.
For almost 40 years Bill Cohen has been reporting on state government from an office in the basement of the Ohio Statehouse.
“I don’t know if that’s a commentary on how the legislators feel about us but that’s okay; as long as we’ve got some space to do our job,” Cohen says.
Cohen is one of the longest serving members of the Statehouse press corps. He follows Ohio’s political maneuverings as easily as he navigates the capitol building’s labyrinth of underground walkways.
“This is one of the hallways here in the basement of the capitol that leads to the radio/TV newsroom here where we do the work after we gather the raw materials for our stories.” Cohen says.
He writes copy at his desk then moves to a small studio where he assembles each report, always signing off with the familiar:
Bill Cohen at the Ohio Pubic Radio Statehouse News Bureau.
Some of the raw elements for stories come from the elegantly restored House and Senate chambers where legislators debate and discuss the issues. Cohen says it’s a pleasure to work in such beautiful surroundings but he says he’s much more interested in reporting on the political process.
“When I see some of these tours when they talk to people about this building, I want to kind of push the guy out of the way and say to the crowd, ‘Yes that’s kind of interesting but that’s not why this place is important. This place is important because of what happens here every day. The 132 state legislators make decisions that impact your life, your wallet, your job, your school, and that’s what’s important about this place.’”
That’s one reason why Cohen, with his unique style, has such a respectable following. One of his fans is NPR senior editor Ken Barcus.
“Here, I’ll give you my Bill impression: ‘Bill Cohen. Retiring. Why is he leaving?’ I love Bill’s declarative opens. I will always remember Bill: ‘Shortage of money. What to do? Senator Jones thinks it’s time for action.’ That’s the classic Bill Cohen open. I think he should patent it. So I don’t imagine I’ll ever know anything about Ohio politics again if Bill retires,” Barcus says.
During his lengthy career Cohen has covered the heavyweights of Ohio politics. In 1986, he went one-on-one with former 4-term governor Jim Rhodes. In a preceding speech Cohen recalls Rhodes saying:
‘If you can’t answer the tough questions, you don’t belong in politics.’
But afterward Cohen says he found it difficult to pin Rhodes down on an issue that was controversial at the time.
Cohen: Governor, are you in favor of the mandatory seat belt law?
Rhodes: I haven’t given it any thought. I thought it was law.
Cohen: It is. Do you favor it or not?
Rhodes: I, I don’t know…I put a seat belt on every time. I’m following the law.
Cohen: Do you think it should be the law?
Rhodes: I don’t know … I haven’t seen any polls.
Cohen: Some people want to repeal the seat belt law. Do you think that’s a good idea?
Rhodes: Put it on the ballot!
Then there was the time when the powerful Democratic speaker of the Ohio House, Vern Riffe, confided to Cohen that his father had given him some valuable advice…
“Be in charge of the jobs and be in charge of the money. If you’re in charge of the jobs and the money, they can’t oust you,” Riffe said.
Cohen says that during his reporting career, there’s only been one time that he feared for his personal safety:
“The Ku Klux Klan had some rallies at the Statehouse, probably about a dozen of them. They were confronted by hundreds and hundreds of counter-protesters and tensions were high and I remember wearing a motorcycle helmet because I was worried about flying bricks and flying bottles. I didn’t know from which side, but it didn’t matter, I didn’t want to be hit,” Cohen says.
Though he’s been a devoted journalist, Cohen says that’s never gotten in the way of his having fun. His longevity at the Statehouse is proof of his expertise as a reporter. Then, Cohen jokes:
“I’ve been here longer than most legislators but of course one reason for that is term limits. Luckily for me we don’t have term limits for reporters.”
Bill Cohen’s professional career is drawing to a close. Now, he says, he’ll have a lot more time for Columbus Clippers games, collecting Mad magazines, playing his guitar, singing folk music and writing songs.
Passing through, passing through
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue
Glad that I ran into you
We’re all strangers here and only passing through