For the past 30 years, Joe Collins has been a constant voice on Chicago radio stations (at virtually every stop on the dial), working with some of the city’s biggest names in the field from his traffic reporter’s studio at the various incarnations of what is now Total Traffic Network. But it was in the high-pressure, “every ten minutes on the 8’s” world of all-news radio (at WMAQ-AM and WBBM-AM) where Collins really made his mark. He was so good at keeping commuters informed, he earned the highest profile timeslots (morning and afternoon drive) at those stations, and he always delivered.
But in 2006, he began to have health issues, and the diagnosis was life-changing.
“I was diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral dystrophy. It’s a form of muscular dystrophy, a progressive muscle weakness disease, which affects your face, your shoulders, and your upper arms. I don’t seem to have it too much in my face, at least not yet, but it definitely affects my shoulders and upper arms. I also have weakness in my upper legs, which means I’m unsteady, and I need to walk with a cane.”
The learning curve of dealing with everyday life with this disease was humbling to the fiercely independent Collins.
“When it first got worse in ’09, which is basically how it is now, I had to learn how to approach the situation. I had to learn how to use leverage, how to think in advance about the problems I might face. My biggest enemies are stairs and chairs. I learned tricks from the tremendous therapists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. I remember one physical therapist, an amazing lady, who put me on the floor to show me how to get up. That terrified me; I was crying, but I had to learn how to do it.”
At first it didn’t affect his work on the air, but there were constant difficulties off the air.
“I’m lucky I work in an office that’s all on the same floor, and there’s an elevator in the building, so getting up to our floor isn’t a problem. I can get around the office. But the first thing I noticed was that getting somewhere quickly is really tough. Where is the one place in a job like mine that you have to get quickly? The bathroom. I was on WBBM when this disease struck, and our bathroom is a common floor bathroom that is all the way down the hall – the furthest possible place from my broadcasting location – and when you’re on WBBM the next report is coming up in ten minutes. I’m proud to say I never missed a report, but it was an amazing accomplishment under the circumstances.”
He managed to remain in his cherished afternoon slot at WBBM for several years, but eventually it became too much.
“I loved doing afternoons, but one of the things that comes with this is fatigue. It’s very unpredictable and sometimes it’s so overwhelming, you can’t do anything about it. That was my biggest fear, and it did affect me – I sounded really tired on the air. In January of 2012 they made accommodations for me. They moved me to middays, which was a shorter and less taxing shift. Then I went on vacation last September and had lots of plans, but all I did the whole time was sleep. The fatigue had returned with a vengeance, and it was scary. When I came back to work they said they had to take me off the air – it was too risky – and I can’t say I disagreed with the decision.”
Collins is far from upset with his bosses. He goes out of his way to make that point.
“Rick Sirovatka, Jim Dubenetzky, and Mike Michonski have been really supportive. They all talked to me and said they wanted to keep me around and use my talents, so they put me on stations where they do recorded traffic like Sirius XM Radio. I do traffic in Houston and Chicago in the afternoons now, along with other services.”
His friends, and there are many, have rallied to support him through the trying disease.
“I’m very blessed to have some wonderful friends. My theatre group [the Beverly Theatre Guild], which I had been a part of since 1978, said they wanted to raise money to upgrade my bathroom so I could get in and out of my bathtub. It was only a matter of time before I fell and really hurt myself. They raised over $23,000 at an event – over 400 people came to it. People were so incredibly generous. The theatre group, the radio community, people from all over – people I’ve worked with, people I’ve trained. It was so gratifying. They basically saved my life and allowed me to live independently.”
Collins has managed to keep a great attitude through all the adversity.
“It’s nice to go to a job I still love every day and work with people I really care about, and I think we contribute something meaningful. I’m still here, and I really try to be a good person, which I know sounds a little corny, but as long as I can remain independent and can contribute something, I’m going to keep on doing it.”
The guess here is that Joe Collins will be at this for years to come.
— Rick Kaempfer
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