Northwest Business Magazine

For Three Decades, the Talk of This Town

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This local talk radio personality loves covering a breaking news story and sharing local events with his loyal audience. Learn how this familiar voice got his start.

Away from talk radio, Ken DeCoster spends his free time with wife Kristina, and daughters Carrie (left) and Sophia. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Nothing gives Ken DeCoster a thrill quite like covering a breaking news story.

“I get an adrenaline rush driving to a breaking news story,” says DeCoster, news director at Maverick Media. “It’s exciting to be on the scene of something that’s unfolding, and it’s exciting to get that information to our listeners.”

For the past 31 years, his voice has been familiar on Rockford’s radio airwaves. Whether it’s a house fire or train derailment, he’s usually among the first reporters in the know. Along with news duties, he hosts a midday talk show and provides play-by-play high school sports coverage on Maverick’s 100.5 NTA FM.

“Ken works really hard,” says Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato. “I hear his reports when I turn on the radio at 7:30 in the morning, and then he calls me at 7 that night looking for information. He’s always working.”

But don’t go looking for any scoops on DeCoster, because you likely won’t find any. The steady husband and father of two describes himself as a predictable creature of habit – and a devoted Boston Red Sox and Chicago Bears fan.

“There’s not a lot to me,” he says. “I don’t play piano and I don’t write poetry. Everyone in the media wants to have an impact. Hopefully, I’ve had an impact with what I do.”

DeCoster grew up with his parents and four siblings in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill. He says he was a typical kid, who enjoyed hanging out with close friends, playing golf and caddying at a local country club. Despite his father’s hopes, DeCoster’s golf career was short-lived, as was his quest to play football. He played one year, his junior season, at Loyola Academy, thanks to a $20 bet he made with a classmate. The 160-pound linebacker rarely saw the field, but he did win the wager that he would try out for the team.

“It was a moral victory,” he says. Loyola Academy, a Jesuit-led college prep school that also claims Bill Murray as an alum, finished the season with a disappointing 2-6 record.

DeCoster moved on to Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he graduated with a degree in speech communications in 1980. Finding an immediate job proved difficult, however, so he spent a year tending bar and hauling boxes for a Chicago-area supply company. Finally, he landed a job as a news reporter at Rockford radio station WRRR. Lacking money for an apartment, DeCoster, 23 at the time, stayed in YMCA housing when he arrived in town.

A year later, DeCoster moved to WROK AM, where he spent 13 years in the news department, working alongside Bob Presman, John Strandin, Fred Speer, Wes Bleed and Lisa Fielding. Bleed later moved to WGN Radio, Fielding to WBBM, both in Chicago. In 1995, DeCoster joined Radio Works, which became Maverick Media in 2005, and has been there ever since.

Since 2004, DeCoster has hosted a daily three-hour talk show on 100.5 NTA FM, which airs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. He opines on local and national issues, ranging from concealed carry laws to property taxes. He takes pride in being well prepared for his broadcasts, reading several publications prior to taking his place behind the microphone. DeCoster schedules many of his guests in advance, and some days stumbles into a hot topic. There are those days, however, when the phone lines are eerily silent – a talk show host’s worst nightmare.

“There are times I wish my topic had greater impact,” he says. “Like any job, there are good and bad days.”

Unlike many bombastic talk show hosts, DeCoster treats callers with respect, although he doesn’t allow them to dominate more air time than allowed. It’s nothing personal, he says, but an interesting program must always keep moving.

“I hope I’m thorough and fair-minded,” says DeCoster. “I will never be Rush Limbaugh. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and I’m not a liberal. I try to assess each political race or issue as it stands. I enjoy local politics, but I can’t be pinned into one camp.”

Over the years, DeCoster has reported on a number of celebrities, including Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama. He’s most proud of a one-on-one interview he once scored with President Ronald Reagan, who was tossing a football around with students at Dixon High School, at the time.

As for the interviews he wants, but has yet to get, Beatles great Paul McCartney rates high.

Locally, DeCoster has covered many compelling news stories, including the fatal shooting of Mark Barmore by police in August 2009. “It had a tremendous impact on this community for a number of reasons,” he says. “There was a lot of depth to it, including the marches, the appearance of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, and the dismissal of Officer Oda Poole. It was a horrible, tragic story, one that the community will always remember.”

In a media market that’s always relied upon young and inexperienced reporters, news sources appreciate the wisdom and insight displayed by savvy veterans like DeCoster.

“You can count on Ken to be fair, honest and properly informed on key issues,” Bruscato says. “He has the capacity to give perspective on issues that are different from other members of the media. And his follow-through is excellent. He’s never afraid to ask ‘Why not?’ on certain issues. You always know where you stand with Ken.”

Still, in the midst of serious news, DeCoster often flashes a lighter side that puts guests and listeners at ease. His dry sense of humor has emerged during a roast for Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey and during the annual Legal Follies, a comedy and musical production that benefits area charities.

While DeCoster enjoys his daily banter with community members, his greatest joy in life is spending time with his wife of six years, Kristina, a former television news anchor and reporter, and their two young daughters, 5-year-old Carrie and 3-month-old Sophia. “Every day is a new development,” says DeCoster of fatherhood. “Carrie blows me away as to how smart she is, and Sophia is starting to laugh and smile. It’s exciting.”

During his free time, DeCoster listens to the music of British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. He also enjoys long bicycle rides through downtown and the Churchill’s Grove area of Rockford, and quiet walks along the Sinnissippi Recreation Path. “Saturday mornings are my favorite time of the week,” he says.

Sounds like a pretty comfortable existence for a guy who came to Rockford 30 years ago and never intended to stay.

“I’ve grown roots here,” he says. “I’m encouraged by Rockford. Despite everything you hear on talk radio, there’s a lot going on here.”

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