Words and other sounds were Shepherd’s only
tools on the radio,
he was a master of their use–and he knew it:
“You guys just don’t realize you’re dealing with a pro.
You don’t! My work is highly complex.
It really is. Weaves in and out.“
LISTENING TO SHEP
From his earliest days, right through to the end. Listening for the sound, listening for the word. The sounds of Shep—always exciting. Listeners to Jean Shepherd are a varied sort. The pre-New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia crowd and the one to five-thirty a.m. WOR night people—very few of these listeners have come forward and the ones who have remember very little. Few remember his Sunday night shows from summer 1956 to 1960. I’m one of those lucky ones.
Those who began listening in the 1950s were, probably, almost all adults, including some college students. The earliest listeners were indeed, by inclination or profession, creatures of the night—jazz musicians, artists, writers, Beats, hippies, late-shift workers, insomniacs–and students finishing up their homework.
Listeners in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t hear the overnights or Sunday from nine p.m. to one a.m. programs, but heard the mostly forty-five-minute programs that ended before midnight, the earlier times more acceptable to parents of school-age kids. These fans were more likely to be college students and younger, including many high school and some grammar school students, many with small, inexpensive transistor radios. (The newly developed transistor sets, available by 1954, only became cheap enough to become common by the end of the 1950s and early 1960s.) These radios were widely remembered by listeners as having been hidden under the covers to avoid detection by parents trying to wrangle kids to sleep early on school nights. So common, amusing, and nostalgic to contemplate was the transistor-under-the-pillow image that it became the cliché for describing Shepherd’s listeners. I feel left out, as I began listening on Sunday nights during the mid-to-late 1950s in the kitchen after homework was done while my parents watched TV in the living room.
Just like the one I listened on, with AM and FM
stations on the big simulated gold dial.
All those listeners from the mid-1950s to April Fools Day, 1977, had the special experience of hearing Jean Shepherd in real time—when Shepherd would be there live talking to them (or seemingly live but occasionally taped because of a trip out of town). Listeners who only hear him on recordings are also greatly entertained, but they can never have the special feeling that a man was creating and giving them new and unpredictable moments of radio, of genius, right before their very ears.
More to come