STEPHAN, ROBERT STUDEBAKER (31 December 1895—20 February 1949) became one of the Midwest's best known radio editors during a career of two decades with the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER. Born in Bluffton, Ohio, he was the son of Lenora (Studebaker) and J. Charles Stephan; his father owned and managed restaurants and hotels in several Ohio cities. Stephan grew up in Bellevue.
In 1920, he graduated from Oberlin College, where he played football and baseball. He began working as a high school English teacher and a football coach, but he loved to write, and he began writing theater reviews for the Plain Dealer in 1925. His first full-time journalism job was as a sportswriter for the Cleveland Times and then for the Plain Dealer, where his byline began appearing in the fall of 1926. But Stephan was not just a sports fan; he also loved radio, and by the spring of 1929, he was writing about the Cleveland RADIO scene. At that time, the radio editor was Deane S. Kintner, who had been with the Plain Dealer since the early 1920s; but when Kintner left for a job as a publicist, Stephan took over as the Plain Dealer's radio editor in mid-January 1930.
Stephan became known for his insightful critiques of what was on the air. In his daily radio columns, he not only told the readers about the programs and the stars they were hearing on the local stations; he also provided his opinions about what the best shows were. He was a big booster of radio, committed to seeing it improve and progress. But, he did not hesitate to criticize the shows that he felt were formulaic and predictable, or take a performer to task for using material that was off-color and not family-friendly. Stephan came to know and chat with numerous celebrities, some of whom became his friends. The fact that he knew so many performers personally enabled him to provide his readers with interesting information they would not have gotten anywhere else. Among the entertainers he spent time with were names such as Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and Al Jolson. In fact, when radio stars came to Cleveland, Stephan and his wife Ruth (Schwind), whom he married in June 1942, often hosted them at their home. Bob and Ruth had one son, Robert Jr., who was born in August 1945.
In addition to covering Cleveland's radio and music industry, Stephan also made trips out to Hollywood, interviewing performers, and keeping readers up to date about the west coast movie and music scene. Then, when television came along, Stephan expanded his role and became the Radio-TV editor, as the new industry began making its presence felt in Cleveland. As he had done in radio's early years, he now critiqued the fledgling TV industry. He also pointed out the up and coming performers, and he continued to advocate for programs that were family-friendly. Because he had developed so many contacts in radio, television, and the music industry, he consistently provided Plain Dealer readers with coverage that often surpassed what could be found in much larger newspapers.
Stephan died unexpectedly of a heart attack on 20 February 1949 at the age of 53. He was buried in Cleveland's RIVERSIDE CEMETERY; his wife Ruth, who died in 1997, is also buried there. His death was a shock, both to his colleagues and to readers. Local radio station WGAR did a memorial broadcast several days after his death. The program featured songs he loved, and included tributes from local radio executives, as well as messages from many of the celebrities who knew him. Among the many who praised him was the president of CBS, Frank Stanton, who remembered him as a great supporter of broadcasting, but also as a "courageous critic." Popular bandleader Paul Whiteman said that Stephan's "constructive criticism" had benefited him personally, but also benefited the radio industry overall, by encouraging performers to "strive for higher levels of entertainment;" and comedian Jack Benny, who called Stephan "a gentleman... and a great newspaperman." ("Radio Stars Eulogize Stephan in Broadcast After Funeral," Cleveland Plain Dealer, 24 February 1949, p. 6.)
Stephan was succeeded at the Plain Dealer by George E. Condon, who remembered him as a mentor.
Donna L. Halper