Jean Shepherd: Radio's Noble Savage
by Edward Grossman

first published in Harper's Magazine, January, 1966

In the old days, when Dewey used to run for President, the radio had an honored place in the American living room. It stood there in its big veneered box, and it provided information and entertainment. Suddenly television arrived. With its superior wonders it chased the radio out of the living room and nearly abolished it altogether. But by adapting- by setting up thousands of local stations and virtually abandoning the networks, by transistorizing, by abdicating to sponsors- the radio industry survived, and today it is turning an unprecedented profit. The difference is in the sound it makes: twenty years ago it was Tommy Dorsey and Fred Allen; today, it is pimple music and controverisal panel discussions, controverisal enough to keep the insomniacs awake.

One of the precious few sources of relief from this pap is the Jean Shepherd program, broadcast nightly over WOR in New York City, KFRC in San Francisco, and WNAC in Boston. Shepherd's business is to talk-- alone, in a scriptless free form, about his life and about what he hears, sees, and smells as an inhabitant of Manhattan and the world. He is uniquely inventive, sometimes hectic, and by no means everybody's meat. There is even disagreement about what he is really up to. "Shepherd is a professional scoffer," a noted clergyman once warned his flock, " and therefore a bad influence, especially on children." The conscientious New York Times, however, describes Shepherd as "a witty commentator." Another, entirely difference conclusion was drawn by a lady in Teaneck, New Jersey: she sent Shepherd a decrepit Hallicrafters receiver, with a letter instructing him to "fix this radio and have it back to me by Thursday."

The best way to account for these mixed reviews is to let Shepherd speak for himself.

10:15 P.M. The WOR news and weather are out of the way. A bugle sounds, and a sprightly theme song comes trotting on the air. The theme has a double meaning: it is the one that calls the horses to the gate at Aqueduct, and it is the Bahnfrei Overture, composed for an operetta by Eduard Strauss, the only member of the Strauss family who did not make good. Presently, Shepherd's clear, rowdy voice intrudes. "Okay, gang are you ready to play radio? Are you ready to shuffle off the mortal coil of mediocrity? I am if you are." There is a noise like a mechanized Bronx cheer (BRRAPP!)- it is Shepherd blowing his kazoo. At other times he twangs his Jew's-harp (BRROING!). "Yes, you fatheads out there in the darkness, you losers in the Sargasso Sea of existence, take heart, because WOR, in its never ending crusade of public service, is once again proud to bring you--(EROICA SYMPHONY UP)-- The Jean Shepherd Program!"

Shepherd stakes his claim on the microphone. He exorcises by name the disc jockeys and the lady interviewers who have preceded him, and he tells New York ('this Sodom-by-the-Sea, this fetid hole") to stand by for something else. Some ostentatious fumbling of papers, then the recitation of an item from the Times: children in Sydney, Australia, have imprisoned a man in a sewer for three days, coming to watch him and to throw bread crusts. Shepherd is not amazed. It is no more than he expects of people. His "old man," he remembers with no malice, was much the same way, an incurable onlooker at catastrophes ranging from midnight refinery explosions to dirigible crashes two counties removed. (BRROING!)

"Just a gigolo, " Shepherd sings off-pitch over a scratchy honky-tonk record, "Everywhere I go, People know the game I'm play-ing." He sings to get in the mood for his proper work. Besides "Gigolo," he is partial to "You Are My Sunshine," "I'm the Sheik of Araby," and "After You've Gone (And Left Me Cryin')." Midway through the chorus Shepherd interrupts himself; he has detected fire engines twenty-two stories below, whining through Times Square, and he must turn up the gain and throw open the window. "Holy smoke!"

Afterwards, there are commericals. Shepherd tells his controlman to "push the money button," and a jingle for "Whooppee" beer comes and goes, with Shepherd whistling and humming against it, and asking at its conclusion, "Isn't it wonderful to be able to measure your happiness in empty fliptop cans?"

There are evening when Shepherd spends all forty-five minutes letting his mind and tounge dart around this way. Usually, however, he discovers some main track. "That reminds me of something that happened to me when I was a kid," he will say, and is away on a Kid Story. Or, "That reminds me of something that happened to me when I was a yardbird," and he tells an Army Story. "I'm this kid, see? Walkin' around, spittin', havin' a fist know. well, one day me and Flick and Brunner decide to go in to the Star and Garter." The Star and Garter, he explains, was a burlesque house in Chicago, whispered about by parents on degenerate occasions like New Year's Eve.

With aside and stories-within-stories, Shepherd weaves his tale. He brings three sweating kids into the 99-cent den of sin, and, plays all the roles: the huckster ("Imported from Paris, France, we have for you..."), the tenor ("A Pretty Girl Is Like A Me-lo-dee..."). and the bass drum that speaks while the floozies do their stuff ("BOOM-ba-da-BOOM"). Later, the kids go home, silent, guilty, and that night Shepherd writhes in bed, fearful he has caught something...until he discovers it is only his itchy new Sears and Roebuck underwear.

Shepherd tells the Kid Stories in a nostalgic, loving way; the Army Stories he tell with admiration that he could have escaped such experiences with body and wits intact. His was a Company of misfits, sharpies, and a few boys who were going to get killed, with a career Captain (" a Cracker with a gut muscle like a washboard") who planned on turning them all into "the bayest f----owwfit in this heah f----Ahmee." Shepherd's GIs travel troop trains from Impasse, Kansas to Seepage, Arkansas, peeling tons of potatoes on the way and tossing the skins out into "the purple-black night"; they go to a hick town, "nine thousand guys on pass," and find a single fourteen-year-old waitress ready to oblige them. These are damned souls, but, strangely, not embittered. Even deserters bear no grudges. Everyone is in it together and making do as he can. Maybe this is why these stories, like the Kid Stories, are often disarmingly funny.

Quite as often, the stories are informed by a mass of details that ring true. Shepherd has total recall of the name, rank, and shape of everyone in his barracks; of who played first base for the Chicago White Sox in 1939 ( Zeke "Banana-nose" Bonura); of how the Little Orphan Annie theme song used to go. He remembers sounds, too, and mimics them convincingly. His Heat Lightning over Camp Crowder is distant and ominous; the Gurgling Sink over which his mother struggled forever " in her chenille bathrobe" is enough to give a hardened plumber pause. Together with this realism Shepherd throws in a stiff dose of hyperbole. When his squad is on an overnight hike, for example, it covers "ninety-seven miles," and the mercury during the day hovers at "a hundred and forty," while at night it plunges to "eighteen below zero." His vocabulary itself is hyperbolic-- from "trap" (for mouth) and "clutz", to "inchoate", "phantasmagoria," and "gallimaufry." The reason this composite style fits is that the world that Shepherd conjures up is not a temperate one; it is one in which people have to hustle hard to make it through another day without being struck by lightning, devoured by a sergeant, or saved by an evangelist.

Shepherd's fund of stories is not inexhaustible. He repeats himself, and sometimes he serves up just plain cold turkey. This is excusable, for it suggests that he is not making it all up, and it leads him to extemporize about more up-to-the-minute matters: "the crud that falls out of the sky" in New York; "Mr. Chucky from Fire Island," a weak wristed lad who has annexed a corner of the cultural scene; Progress; "Manny and Milt,", promoters of detergents and political candidates; also, venal union bosses, World Fair's, and blowhards in writing (like Norman Mailer), folk-singing and Protesting (Bob Dylan), and business management (Shepherd's boss).

"Listen to this one. From the London Sunday Times. Dateline Hong Kong." Shepherd reads, in a Charlie Chan accent, a report that Peking has laid down the Party line on humor. Henceforth all jokes will glorify the workers and scorn the imperialists. All other jokes are reactionary and forbidden."

"O Insclutable Oliental Mind! Or is it? I know these cats. They pad around the East Village. Legalize pot, race war, and jazz like that. Deadly serious, like Nazis. I've met them down in the Cost and Accounting Department, too, clean-shaven and in white collars. they can't see a damn thing ridiculous about themselves...only about you."

Shepherd can point a moral to anything; the one to this is: "Keep your knees loose." Then the Bahnfrei Overture is on again, indicating he has run out of time. " By the way, you clutzes that are about to write in saying, 'Lay off the philosophy,' you can stop worrying. Tomorrow there will be an all-kazoo program."


Shepherd in the flesh is not young, lean, and wisecracking, as his disembodied radio voice implies, but, middle-aged, stocky, with a Mephistophelean goatee that is starting to turn gray, and a surprisingly earnest and polite manner. He regularly telephones his mother, who is "real" and really lives in Hammond, Indiana, a place-name that has the same mythical importance for Shepherd as Hannibal had for Mark Twain. "I'd still be there," Shepherd reflects, "working in the steel mills and chewing Mail Pouch, if it hadn't of been for the second world war." The Signal Corps snatched him out of the mills at age seventeen and infected him with the radio bug. Several times he tried to shake it off, taking up Volkswagen dealership and sportscar racing, but without long-term success.

When he came to WOR ten years ago, fresh from running a hillbilly jamboree and interviewing wild animal acts for a Cincinatti station, Shepherd began by broadcasting records and random talk all night. His public then was mostly "night people"-- cabbies, students cramming on No-Doz, transatlantic pilots flying in on WOR's 50,000 watt signal. Now he has a larger (100,000 on a good night) and, to judge from his mail, more diversified audience. Hip adolescents are particularly sympatheic to him. A girl in a Quaker prep school based her valedictory speech on a Shepherd bit about false values created by advertising; a Scarsdale kid, quoting Kierkegaard, tried to explain to Shepherd why parents are mystified by his programs. Within the trade, too, Shepherd has achieved a measure of fame. "Official-type guys see me on an elevator," he says, "and they tell me I'm a great black humorist. Whatever that is."

But the devotion of his fans and recognition of fellow professionals has not been enough to make Shepherd as well known as a crowd of lesser performers. He remains essentially an "underground" phenomenon. The reason is no mystery: he is on radio, and he is himself. While national reputationns are made on television, with help from the press agent's art, Shepherd works in a local medium, and his work is a rare kind that PR men wouldn't know what to do with.

Undoubtedly it is too bad that more people can't hear Shepherd. Outside the Northeast, which is covered by WOR, his only outlet until recently was a small listener-sponsored station in Seattle whose apt call-letters are KRAB. It remains to be seen whether he can win audiences in San Francisco and Boston as well. On the other hand, it is gratifying that he is heard at all, and that many of his programs have been taped. Very soon, when the genetic race has run its course and everyone is born with a portable TV connected to his navel, archaeologists will find these tapes, and they will call Shepherd's flights of fact and fancy the final good moments of a lost form of communication.

Edward Grossman graduated from Harvard in 1964, was on the staff of "Look", and is now an assistant editor of "Harper's". In his spare time he listens to the radio.

Copyright © 1966 by the Harper's Magazine Foundation.

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