Jean Shepherd - on the air

Jean Shepherd - Before Lake Wobegon we had tales and foibles.

Jean Shepherd - on the air
Jean Shepherd – Before Lake Wobegon we had tales and foibles.

Jean Shepherd – WOR, New York – Army Thanksgiving – November 23, 1972 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –

Jean Shepherd – Most people these days know him as the guy who wrote and narrated A Christmas Story, but Jean Shepherd was an institution. Primarily in New York throughout the 1950s all the way to the 1970s, but over the years his shows have become syndicated and heard throughout the country and his short stories which periodically appeared in Playboy and were later published in a series of best selling books.

Jean Shepherd began his broadcast radio career in early 1945 on WJOB in Hammond, Indiana, later working at WTOD in Toledo, Ohio, in 1946. He began working in Cincinnati, Ohio, in January 1947 at WSAI, later also working at Cincinnati stations WCKY and WKRC the following year, before returning to WSAI in 1949. From 1951 to 1953, he had a late-night broadcast on KYW in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after which he returned to Cincinnati for several different shows on WLW. After a stint on television there, he returned to radio. “Shep”, as he was known, settled in at WOR radio New York City, New York, on February 26, 1955, and on an overnight slot in 1956, where he delighted his fans by telling stories, reading poetry (especially the works of Robert W. Service), and organizing comedic listener stunts.

The most famous stunt was a hoax he created about a nonexistent book, I, Libertine, by a fake author “Frederick R. Ewing”, in 1956. During a discussion on how easy it was to manipulate the best-seller lists based on demand, as well as sales, Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of I, Libertine, which led to booksellers attempting to order the book from their distributors. Fans of the show planted references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to claims of it being on The New York Times Best Seller list. Shepherd, Theodore Sturgeon, and Betty Ballantine later wrote the demanded book, with a cover painted by illustrator Frank Kelly Freas, published by Ballantine Books.

Among his close friends in the late 1950s were Shel Silverstein and Herb Gardner. With actress Lois Nettleton and them, Shepherd performed in the revue he created, Look, Charlie. Later, he was married to Nettleton for about six years.

When he was about to be released by WOR in 1956 for lack of sponsors, he did a commercial for “Sweetheart Soap”, not a sponsor, and was immediately fired. His listeners besieged WOR with complaints, and when Sweetheart offered to sponsor him, he was reinstated. Eventually, he attracted more sponsors than he wanted—the commercials interrupted the flow of his monologues. Former WOR engineer, Frank Cernese, adds, “The commercials of that era were on ‘ETs’—phonograph records about 16” in diameter. Three large turntables were available to play them in sequence. Shepherd preferred the engineer to watch and listen to his stories. That left little time to load the turntables and cue the appropriate cuts. That was when he started complaining about “too many commercials”.

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 Martin Luther King Jr. 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.

So, to help celebrate what must be going down as one of the strangest Thanksgiving’s in memory, here is a slice of Americana as presented by Jean Shepherd in 1972.

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