Date: Sat, 22 May 1999


Reflections on Shep's radio career

Most people seem to like shows from the era when they started listening.

I only heard Shep once when he was broadcasting, so I may be more

objective. That said, I seem to prefer whatever era I'm currently immersed

in, which at the moment is the Summer of 1966.

The shows I've heard from 1960 have a very mellow style, developed from

doing the overnight shows in the '50s, and also because they were usually 2

to three hours long - a five minute commercial is not uncommon, as are

poetry readings and jazz music for backgrounds. There are more musings and

philosophy and less "stories" than in later years.

I haven't heard much between 1960 and 1963, but the 45 minute format seems

to have led to the style we are all familiar with these days. The deep

smooth "radio voice" gives way to a much more natural sound, and the pace

is considerably faster. The shows often open with Shep singing and

carrying on for a few minutes, cutting up and blowing the kazoo or Jews

harp. "I'm forever blowing bubbles..."

Sometime in 1964, two new elements are introduced. Leigh Brown seems to

be in the studio all the time, and the Limelight shows begin. I can only

speculate on Leigh's influence at that time, but Shep sounds truly inspired

during this period.

The Limelight shows bring us a different side of Shepherd the performer.

The studio shows are intimate, but on the stage he's the class clown, the

rabble-rouser, the cheerleader and orgy instigator (and pretty testy about

hecklers and talkers, too). It's on these live shows that the childhood

stories and Army stories seem to have been developed, and they were

featured nearly every week in the later shows.

Up until July 31, 1966, the shows were simulcast on AM and FM. We are

fortunate that two of the major aircheckers (Bob Kaye and Rudy) had the

good sense to record the FM broadcasts, which sound almost as good today as

they did 35 years ago. I don't know how suddenly the laws changed that

required the broadcasting of separate programming for AM and FM stations,

but in June of 1966, after returning from a trip to Israel, the first

sustained traces of bitterness about being stuck in broadcasting crop up.

Although hidden in sarcasm, Shepherd alludes to the fact that anyone with

any talent has already made the move to FM or even TV. There are several

digs at Johnny Carson, and it's clear that Shep feels his great talents

would be a gift to television viewers. He even has a few veiled remarks

about the average intelligence of

his listeners and fans. Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but it's

sounds very much like the sorts of things he has to say these days about

his radio career.

The tragedy of Jean Shepherd is that he was caught between two eras of

broadcasting. Network radio died around the time he got started, and the

technology for national satellite syndication was developed after he left

the air. As a radio performer, he was a regional phenomenon based on the

East Coast signal area of WOR, and whatever tape distribution system could

be managed (I don't know the details of the Boston and San Francisco

broadcasts, but I assume it was by tape). Playboy articles and book sales,

later PBS and movies got national attention, but there was never a better

guy in front of a microphone than Jean Shepherd, and it's a shame that he

now seems to be so unhappy with that legacy.

__Max Schmid

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