Sometime in the spring of 1997, Arnold Cohen, a Newark-based labor lawyer, agreed to host a weekly radio show on WDVR, a small all-volunteer public station based in pastoral Sergeantsville, New Jersey, 30 miles west of New Brunswick. The hour-long show would be called The World of Work, and Cohen RC’73, NLAW’76 would interview guests from all walks of the working life. In preparation for the show’s launch, Cohen and his wife, Sharon NCAS’75, compiled a list of potential guests. Cohen figured it would take him six to nine months to get through the entire list, after which, presumably, he would bring his nascent radio career to its quiet end. He miscalculated by about two decades.

In fact, since that first show, on July 11, 1997, Cohen has invited roughly 1,000 people to talk about their work experiences. He’s interviewed plumbers and electricians, priests and rabbis, a curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and an executive editor at the New York Times. One day, after reading a story in the Times about the brothers who ran the old-school butcher shop down the road from the radio station, Cohen took a walk to the shop and introduced himself. Before long, the butcher brothers, Joseph and Emil Maresca, were guests on his show.

The station’s management gives Cohen wide berth to choose his guests. The only time he ever sought permission beforehand was when he wanted to interview a stripper. The station was amenable. “I guess I would call them salt-of-the-earth people,” Cohen says of his guests, “but people who had a story to tell.”

Arnold “Shep” Cohen in office


Arnold “Shep” Cohen is a partner at Oxfeld Cohen, a law firm in Newark that represents labor unions and individual workers. He is also an adjunct instructor at Rutgers Law School, from which he graduated. Cohen recently celebrated his 20th anniversary as host of The World of Work, a radio talk show on which he interviews people about their jobs and their work experiences.

Nick Romanenko

Cohen—almost everyone knows him as “Shep,” the name by which he goes on the radio—has also interviewed the occasional celebrity. He once spoke with George Chakiris, who won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks street gang, in West Side Story. Cohen interviewed the comedian/actor/writer/director Carl Reiner, then 91, after the publication of Reiner’s memoir, I Remember Me. His agent told Cohen that Reiner could talk for only 20 minutes, but once Cohen got Reiner on the phone, the legendary funny man would not shut up. He remained on the show for the entire hour. “I avoided the required half-hour break—just avoided it—because I figured he would hang up,” Cohen says.

When the public television journalist Jim Lehrer wrote a book, A Bus of My Own, about his world-class collection of bus memorabilia, Cohen wrote to ask if he would sit for an interview. But the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings had consumed Washington, D.C., and Lehrer informed Cohen he was too busy to talk. Cohen figured that was that, but his wife would not take no for an answer. “Who does he think he is?” Sharon Cohen told her husband. “You’re busy, too!” So, Cohen sent Lehrer another letter. This time, Lehrer agreed, and Cohen gained some valuable interviewing tips from one of the best in the business. “He said, ‘Make sure your guest is the star of the show, not you. And ask short but probing questions.’ And I’ve listened to him,” Cohen says. “I’ve tried to do that.”

Cohen grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of a milkman who was also an assistant shop steward in the local Teamsters union. Many nights, discussion around the dinner table zeroed in on the topic of work. “We were always talking about labor and working  people and the dignity of the workplace,” Cohen says, “and I decided to make a career of that.”

That career is now in its fourth decade. Cohen is a partner at Oxfeld Cohen, which represents labor unions and individual workers across many industries. He’s negotiated union contracts and argued cases before the New Jersey Supreme Court, and for 32 years he’s been an adjunct instructor in Newark at the Rutgers Law School, from which he graduated in 1976.

As the host of a long-running radio show, Cohen routinely receives books from authors, agents, and publishers seeking airtime. He’s interviewed authors of books about Las Vegas casino workers and New York City doormen and Harvard maintenance workers. On a Friday afternoon in August, he interviewed Terry Beck, author of A Train of Thought: 40 Years Workin’ on the Railroad. Speaking by phone from his home in Texas, Beck regaled Cohen’s listeners with stories about his time with the fabled Santa Fe Railroad. At one point, Cohen, long a stickler for being thoroughly prepared for his interviews, asked Beck about “the mystique of the railroad.”

“I think people are drawn to things they don’t know much about,” Beck said. Intentionally or not, Beck had invoked the very maxim that has sustained Cohen’s  radio career for more than 20 years. “It’s still fun,”  Cohen says, “and I learn something every week.” •

The World of Work is broadcast on Fridays, 4 to 5 p.m., on WDVR-FM (89.7).