A couple minutes before going live on the radio, Conor O’Meara slips headphones over his ears, closes his eyes and starts tapping his fingers on the table. But he’s not nervous — the host of Conor’s Corner says he’s always cool and collected when he’s behind the microphone in the studio.
Still, the significance of this show, produced through Frogtown Community Radio in a cramped basement room of a St. Paul church, isn’t lost on Conor, his family or friends.
“This is my dream job,” he said with the same ardor he uses in his show’s introduction. That’s when he tells listeners, “I am Conor O’Meara from St. Paul, Minnesota. I am a person with autism. I love life and sports. Let’s go!”
O’Meara, who turns 22 on Feb. 3, is a sports fanatic — quick to rattle off statistics and predictions and share bold takes on players and coaches. He weighs in on all kinds of sports, everything from local high school hockey to Major League Baseball. Along with co-host Scott Applebaum, O’Meara also chats about whatever else is on his mind, whether that’s Bruce Springsteen or potential girlfriends. And he takes questions from callers, many of them neighbors or family friends.
During most of his shows, O’Meara puts out a message to listeners like him: “Go out there, do what you do. A disability doesn’t define who you are.”
In June, he completed a transition program that allowed him to continue his education and learn independent living skills after high school. Once that ended, O’Meara and his family were faced with the challenge of filling his days with meaningful activities and opportunities.
“It’s daunting to know that all of that support has ended,” said his dad, Shamus O’Meara. “Suddenly your loved one with a disability is expected to take the next giant leap and sometimes they can’t get there right away. You’re left as a family to come together to make that plan yourself, to be that supportive network.”
For Shamus, that often means not getting to the office until late on Monday afternoons because most Monday mornings are spent in the radio studio.
While the show is on, Shamus goes to “dad’s corner” (another room in the church) and listens live, careful to encourage his son without intruding on his work.
O’Meara’s a natural at chatting with whoever is sitting next to him, Shamus said. He’s long known his son as someone eager to connect with others.
“But some other people had never really heard his voice in that way,” Shamus said. “I think the real gift is that he’s able to make someone happy, even if he’s never met them before.”
Conor’s Corner began in November. So far, O’Meara has interviewed a handful of guests, including retired NHL player Bob Paradise, University of Minnesota head baseball coach John Anderson and Dan O’Brien, head football coach at Saint Thomas Academy.
“People call him the ‘Mayor of St. Paul,’ ” Shamus said. “Lots of people know Conor.”
That’s in part because of Conor’s devotion to cheering on and even announcing games at Highland Park High School in St. Paul. He played adaptive sports there before graduating in 2016.
Conor has the same candor on the radio that he did in the bleachers at a high school hockey match, said Dad. “He’s purely genuine. Just because he’s on the radio doesn’t change him at all. He simply loves talking to people.”
Co-host Applebaum, who also hosts a sports podcast with his own son, is adept at using gentle humor to guide O’Meara back to a question or topic if he gets sidetracked. He’s careful to never take the attention away from O’Meara, something the young radio host appreciates.
“[Scott] is very smart and very good at what he does,” O’Meara said. “I like him.”
Just a dozen episodes in, O’Meara already has a fan club. Listeners call in with questions each week (asking about everything from lawn mowing to Timberwolves players) and the first shipment of Conor’s Corner “swag” (T-shirts) has arrived.
Shamus said he still worries about what the next steps are for his son. O’Meara recently started working at a pizza parlor one day a week and he’s spending a lot of time preparing for his radio shows. But there are still hours of free time, still independent living skills he needs to learn.
For now, though, the radio show is “truly the bright spot” in O’Meara’s life, his dad said.
“In many ways, Conor is a pathfinder for others with disabilities who want to step out and be heard,” Shamus said. “To step in front of that microphone is a risk.”
For people with autism, daily tasks can sometimes take a lot of courage. O’Meara worked hard in his transition program to learn how to take public transportation and to keep track of bus routes, his dad said.
“As his dad, I watch him have some success with this radio program and I see it really solidifying who he is,” Shamus said.
“I hope that courage can help him in other aspects of his life, to find ways to take those next steps.”
Conor’s Corner airs every Monday from 10 to 11 a.m. on WFNU 94.1 FM Frogtown Community Radio.