August 1, 1975 – Jean Shepherd – Daily Show – WOR-AM, New York – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Sadly, most people know the name Jean Shepherd via his immortal holiday tale, A Christmas Story. Even if you only knew him as an author, you’d know exactly who he was and what he was all about. He was prolific and he was brilliant.
But if you were lucky enough to be growing up in New York anywhere from the 1950s to the late 1970s, Jean Shepherd was a nightly fixture, a master storyteller who would weave verbal tapestries of life and the sometimes dubious pronouncements of living in the times. He was a regular fixture on WOR from 1955 on.
His last WOR broadcast was on April 1, 1977. His subsequent radio work consisted of short segments on several other stations, including crosstown WCBS, and occasional commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered. His final radio gig was the Sunday-night radio show Shepherd’s Pie on WBAI in the mid-1990s, which had him reading his stories uncut, uninterrupted, and unabridged. The show was one of WBAI’s most popular of the period. In addition to his stories, his shows also contained humorous anecdotes and commentaries about the human condition, observations about New York City life, accounts of vacations in Maine, and travels throughout the world. One striking program recounted his participation in the March on Washington in August 1963, during which Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and another program that aired on November 25, 1963, covered the burial day of President John F. Kennedy. His most scintillating programs, however, were his often prophetic, bitingly humorous commentaries about ordinary life in America.
Throughout his radio career, he performed entirely without scripts. His friend and WOR colleague Barry Farber marveled at how he could talk so long with so few notes. During a radio interview, Shepherd claimed that some shows took weeks to prepare, but this may have been in the planning rather than the writing of a script. On most of his Fourth of July broadcasts, he did read one of his most enduring and popular short stories, “Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb that Struck Back”, about a neighborhood drunk and his disastrous fireworks escapades. In the 1960s and 1970s, his WOR show ran from 11:15 pm to midnight, later changed to 10:15 pm to 11 pm, so his “Ludlow Kissel” reading was synchronized to many New Jersey and New York local town fireworks displays, which would typically reach their climax at 10 pm. It was possible, on one of those July 4 nights, to park one’s car on a hilltop and watch several different pyrotechnic displays, accompanied by Shepherd’s masterful storytelling.
To get an idea of a typical broadcast, here is one from August 1, 1975 as it was aired on WOR in New York.