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Oral Philosophers Part I:
Jean Shepherd


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 10, 2006

To the best of what memory I have left, I have belonged to just one cult in my entire existence and that was the cult of Jean Shepherd radio listeners. Like many other kids within the vast nighttime reach of WOR 710 on the AM dial, I accidentally fell into this cult. No one recruited me and it was as if Jean Shepherd's very existence were my own personal secret despite his doing his thing in public. (There is plenty of material on the Internet concerning just exactly who Jean Shepherd is, so I will be giving my personal take on him rather than reproduce lots of readily available background material.)

It all began innocently at the age of eleven. Back then, I would take my Vornado AM-only (FM was still exotic stuff) transistor radio to bed with me tuned to 770, the home of WABC, Cousin Brucie (one of many "fifth Beatles"), and a slew of Palisades Park ads. Between the difficulty I had dialing in the frequency exactly (no digital tuning back then) and the tendency for cheap Japanese radios (especially if they bore the house brand of Two Guys) to drift, it was not long before I stumbled onto Jean Shepherd, most often referred to by himself and others as "Shep." He had an especially direct connection to his listeners because many of them, like me, mainlined him directly into an ear either with a cheap earphone or by keeping their radios turned down low and hidden under their pillows. (I don't know what parents do now, but back in the days of my youth most kids had "bedtimes" between 9pm and 10pm, unless they had really strict or horny parents, in which case it could be as early as 8pm.)

Shep was like nothing else in the world of the NYC suburbs of the mid-60s with the possible exception of Mad Magazine, for which Shep once wrote an piece about his people, the night people, at a time when he worked the graveyard shift at WOR. Shep often fashioned himself as a professor, warning his listeners about what might appear on the "final exam." From 10:15 pm to 11:00 pm most nights (he got Sundays off and was pre-empted by evening sporting events that were carried on WOR), Shep would simply talk about the world, making it a special point to serve as an antidote to everything that happened out there.

Shep was both an outsider and a technology buff as were many of his listeners. It is amazing that he managed to stay on WOR for 22 years, and he clearly fought many battles with station management along the way. WOR was the establishment radio station, home to "Rambling with Gambling" and all manner of society folk, the kind who would show up on TV's "What's My Line?" and who Shep would mildly needle whenever he got the chance.

What Shep mainly did was to talk about the world as he saw it. At the time, this was a radical thing to do and it took years for him to convince WOR to buy into his approach. (He was officially fired early on, but concerted action by his then-nascent cult got him back on the air.) He often played "mood music," but it consisted mainly of campy tunes from his youth and he would "spoil" them with musical accompaniment on the Jew's harp, kazoo, nose flute, and his deliberately obnoxious vocal stylings.

There are reports that several influential people in "the city" belonged to the Shep cult, but it seems that pre-adolescent and adolescent males were the demographic that he, intentionally or not, appealed to most. I only discovered two other member of the cult during my school days. One went on to become the station manager of WFMU and the other is a hardcore electronics guy who flies to Asia to teach folks various fabrication techniques.

Shep was smarter than he let on; indeed, he was a genius, in many ways the radio counterpart of TV genius Ernie Kovacs. It is easy to dig up accounts of the many clever things Shep did, so I will not go into them here. Good chunks of what is known as freeform radio (the Pacifica stations, WFMU, and the better college stations) as well as the better stuff that shows up on network public radio when they are not being overly political ("A Prairie Home Companion," "Fresh Air," "Le Show," and pretty much anything Joe Frank does) owe a gigantic debt to Shep. Indeed, many of the people involved in forming the alternative radio universe were either Shep fans or influenced by them. After Shep passed away in 1999, there were radio tributes to him by Harry Shearer and others in the radio business who "worshiped" him and he was even commemorated in a "Zippy the Pinhead" strip.

Shep spouted his philosophy many different ways that included running commentaries on items from the "silly section" of the New York Times, odd bits from various wire services, his life in the two worlds of Manhattan that he inhabited (Midtown and Greenwich Village), and reports from his world travels. What seems to have resonated most with listeners, especially his younger ones like me, were the stories from his youth—first on the South Side of Chicago and then, during his formative years, in the mill town of Hammond, Indiana lying next to Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Members of the Shep cult revere him for his radio broadcasts, but his work has, courtesy of Ted Turner, reached the unwashed masses. Some of his classic stories were incorporated into his first "novel" (Shep would not be pleased with my placing that word in quotes; however, what he considered to be a novel, pretty much everyone else on Earth sees as a collection of short stories), "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" which, in turn, appeared in movie form as "A Christmas Story."

It would be the sort of irony that Shep often mused about if history remembered him only as the lead screenwriter and narrator of a classic Christmas movie that seriously homogenizes and cutifies his work. (Word is that Shep was not pleased with what director and co-writer Bob Clark did with the material.) Fortunately, Shep's radio material is abundantly available over the Internet in raw form (although not entirely unedited). Because so many of Shep's listeners were technically inclined, literally thousands of tapes of his shows were made that survive to this day. MP3s made from those tapes are freely available over the Internet, both in archive and podcast form. Shep also appears regularly on WBAI and makes an occasional appearance as part of WFMU's "Aircheck" series. Fortunately, neither WOR nor Shep's estate have interfered with the free distribution of this material, something that is not the case for the other two oral philosophers in this series.

On and off during the past four years, I have been going back and listening to Shep's old radio shows, just as I imagine other members of the cult have been doing. It is fascinating hearing something you were first exposed to as a younger and much different person. There are many specific incidents and stories that I remember from my first time around with Shep; however, I am mostly struck by how much Shep said that could not have registered on me as a callow youth. One of Shep's major catchphrases—if not the cornerstone of his philosophy—"keep your knees loose" only now makes sense. As a pre-teen I took these words, which is something baseball coaches yell to their outfielders, in a literal way and so considered them nonsensical. This time around it registers on me that he means: "Be ready for anything." (This is a far better saying than the Boy Scouts' "Be Prepared," which has come to mean "always carry a condom.")

I do have to wonder what a young person listening to his show for the first time in the 21st century, if there are any, would make of it. The best of Shep's shows are those from the 1960s, a time of revolutionary change both in society as a whole and in Manhattan specifically. Like my next oral philosopher, Alan Watts, Shep was on both sides of the counterculture at the same time. He was certainly "hip"—a first generation beatnik—but he was also conservative in the sense of having internalized The Who's immortal line "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" before they had even written it.

While Shep was on the air, Manhattan had begun a long, downhill slide that would last well into the 1980s. Although the 1960s began with Greenwich Village as the happening place in the U.S. (just ask Bob Dylan), at some point in mid-decade, certainly by the time of the Summer of Love (1967), that focus shifted to California. This was something Shep noted in his reports from the field and undoubtedly he influenced my decision to go to college out there.

Like most everything in life, some of Shep's shows are decidedly mediocre, but that is only natural given the quantity of material that he produced. Every once in a while, without warning, Shep is simply magical. When he is in the groove, he is an amazing storyteller. There is nothing that I can write that would do justice to how involving Shep can be; indeed, Shep himself had great difficulty translating his stories from the sound of his voice to the written word. The written versions of his stories are certainly entertaining, but nothing close to what Shep did over the radio. While the MP3s lack the immediacy of live radio (not because of technical issues, if any, MP3s from good recordings played over good equipment today sound vastly better than low-rent transistorized sound), Shep has held up quite well.

Given that it is summertime, a prime example of Shep at his finest is this show from June 19, 1970 in which Shep tells of his adventures crashing company picnics with his friends as a kid. It is, as are most of his stories, a cautionary tale.

Next time, I will delve into another radio storyteller. His stories did not come from his own life, but from those of some freaky guys who were walking around Asia more than a thousand years ago and hitting their students over the heads with sticks (too bad the State of New York does not let me get away with that). When I got to California, there was no more Jean Shepherd, but there was Alan Watts.

Copyright 2006 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to