Home » Comments about Shep » JEAN SHEPHERD-Talk Radio and Playing a Part (1)

JEAN SHEPHERD-Talk Radio and Playing a Part (1)


classic shep image

Shepherd’s work belongs in the general category of “talk radio.” But, considering what talk on the radio by its most popular practitioners has essentially become in recent decades, he represents a contradistinction. He would not want to be categorized with those other talkers. Or by Alan Berg, a talk show host, an inflammatory and (unusual for most) a Liberal commentator, who paid the ultimate price for his style/attitude by being assassinated by neo-conservatives (white supremacists?) in 1984. More about Berg later.

Asked in 1998 if he’d consider returning to radio, Shep commented that he would not want to work in a medium in which one of the most flagrant, with his very high talents, broadcast (pandered) to hordes. Content of these talkers encompassed lewdness, racial prejudice, reactionary vitriol–riling them up like demented Neanderthals. A “shock jock” is a type of radio broadcaster who entertains listeners using  melodramatic and confrontational exaggeration. Nasty, offensive, and corrosive, with their hundreds-of-thousands of rabble eager to be emotionally aroused—equivalent to fans of wrestling and demolition derbys of minds and emotions. (I’m not an expert on that form, but I think I get the general drift.)

Jean Shepherd entertained by being amusing, by commenting on the passing scene and human foibles, by advancing our sensitivities and knowledge in a mostly gentle and polite sort of way by what he said and how he said it in stories and other forms. Even though over a period of careful listening one might put together, from his rare implications, curmudgeonly grumpiness and surprising negativity, he could be anti-social, but he was by no means what one might consider corrosive.


Sometimes silly—definitely not corrosive.

Much of the following is inspired by something enthusiasts of Shep have been aware of: My EYF! puts it this way:

“Yet, biography is only grasping at an entertaining and probable hunch—especially unreliable if combined with an attempt to analyze a creator through comparison with the creator’s work. Even more perilous when trying to understand the slippery relationship between truth and fiction, as they interweave in what Shepherd gave as his life story.”

I continued by commenting that Shepherd seemed to have three aspects of his being. First, the biographically based Shepherd (As I wrote, virtually unknown). The second “persona was the storyteller who artfully conflated bits of the true Shepherd into the concocted biography of his life. Third, “the Shep who spoke on the air, the perceived here-and-now Shep, whom his listeners knew, giving real ideas and perceptions through his on-air persona.”

Recently I encountered online an essay from The New York Times, by Frank Rich (published 6/29/86). The Rich piece greatly augmented my ideas on the subject, and I quote his piece extensively in PART TWO

Where does Jean Shepherd leave off and

“Jean Shepherd” begin?

What do Lily Tomlin, Penn & Teller, Dario Fo,

Spalding Gray, and Eric Bogosian

have to do with all this?


Stay tuned for PART 2 of 3.




  1. mygingerpig says:

    Shepherd was a story teller. His main turf was American life, ordinary, average American life. Radio was a perfect medium for him, since he could create images in the minds of his listeners that surpassed any that could be fabricated on film. He tried in long form movies with modest success, excepting the monster popularity of A Christmas Story. His television was attractive to his fans, but i doubt anyone unfamiliar with his ouvre would have been hooked by his tv work. His writing was a very skilled translation of his radio stories into print. His misfortune was that movies and television had drawn much of the audience away from his form of story telling on the radio, and he was not young enough to make the transition. Too me, his art is as istory teller, and the medium used is secondary.


    • ebbergmann says:

      I agree with most of what you say. But, for me, Shepherd’s genius was in his wide field of interests that he expressed on the radio–with storytelling–it’s my rough guess–being only about a quarter of the time of his on the air–that he expressed that genius. For me, it’s his entire mastery and style of radio talk that makes him so great.

  2. mygingerpig says:

    I think we are saying the same thing, Gene. Radio was his medium and his genius was, as you write, his mastery and style of radio storytelling. I’ve not yet heard his equal.

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