WGN newsman’s double life: Bertrand on Books

Chicagoans who know Steve Bertrand only as that news guy on WGN-AM (720) may be missing some of his best work.

In addition to his high-profile role on Jonathon Brandmeier’s morning show at the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk station (where he’s been a fixture for 27 years), Bertrand, 49, leads a professional double life as a nationally recognized interviewer of prominent authors.

Starting in 2004, when he became host of BarnesandNoble.com’s Meet the Writers series, he has engaged in hundreds of online video and audio conversations with the world’s top writers. Since 2011, he’s been on his own as creator and host of Steve Bertrand on Books, an outlet for his interviews and a lively community of writers and readers on Facebook.

No less an authority than Stephen King delivered supreme praise after Bertrand interviewed him about Under the Dome. “I found him to be a thoroughgoing professional,” King said of the host. “I only know him from the one instance, but based on the experience, I’d give him five stars. The interview was one of my best.” His interview with Steve Jobs’ sister, novelist Mona Simpson, was featured prominently on ABC News’ Nightline in 2011.

In all of his roles, Bertrand manages to combine a keen intelligence, sharp wit and good humor with an unpretentious, easygoing manner. It served him especially well for the many years he held his own with former WGN midday hosts Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey.  It also helped him survive the dark days of former Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels and his hand-picked WGN program director, Kevin Metheny.

“I think everyone who worked at the station knew we needed to shake things up, but the atmosphere became almost oppressive,” Bertrand recently recalled to Chicago Radio Spotlight’s Rick Kaempfer. “At one point I was told to stop pronouncing the ‘t’ in President Obama. It sounded too newsy. So for more than a year I referred to the President of the United States as ‘Presdeh-Obama.’ I've pretty much kept my feelings to myself until now but am comfortable saying this knowing we are headed toward brighter days.”

Of his current association with morning star Brandmeier, Bertrand said: “I am having a blast. Each day is a surprise. I like that. . . . He is so good at convincing people to let their guard down. I think it's because he's nice to them. He'll do an interview with someone who should be on the defensive and, before it's over, they'll invite him over for dinner.”

A native of Manteno, Illinois, who graduated from Marquette University with degrees in journalism and political science, Bertrand will be honored next month by his alma mater as Communicator of the Year. “Marquette opened intellectual doors for me,” he said. “It taught me that learning doesn’t end when class is over or even when college is over.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)