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First in the Hearts of Your People

A pioneer of storytelling shows us the way

“My mind, as is so often the case these days, was totally blank.” — Jean Shepherd, 1966


Exactly one hundred years ago, a beacon of communication and entertainment was born.

On December 1, 1921, the U.S. Department of Commerce set aside a single wavelength, 360 meters (833 kilohertz), for radio stations to broadcast “entertainment” programs.

Bamberger’s Department Store in Newark, New Jersey applied for the license, and, on February 22, 1922, began broadcasting with the call letters WOR from the sixth floor, with a makeshift microphone made from a megaphone attached to a telephone mouthpiece.

It might seem odd that a department store would operate a radio station, but it was the perfect alignment: Bamberger’s wanted to sell more radios.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, WOR was a full-service radio station, broadcasting news, talk, and music. The morning show was Rambling with Gambling, hosted by three generations of the Gambling family, ran from 1925 to 2000.

But one of the most controversial — and entertaining — hosts was Jean Shepherd, who spent 22 years at WOR.


Shep Lives

For the first six years, Shepherd was on the air nightly from 1:00 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., then in 1961 settled into nightly shows of 45 minutes. During the span of those hours, he told stories. [There’s a sample of one of his broadcasts below in which he discusses some truly timeless concepts. I urge you to listen to the 45-minute broadcast.]

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Perhaps “told” is too mild a word. He wove ornate tapestries out of little details he seemed to take from his childhood, placing his listeners with him some 30 or 40 years before. Or, as he described his father’s (the Old Man) invective in A Christmas Story:

“My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.”


Shep also liked jazz. And from his apartment in Greenwich Village, he had access to some of the best jazz bars in the city. He found inspiration in jazz.

Recognizing the wonder and power of the improvisational style in the music, he used the same concept to hone his storytelling: find a central concept and build on it, creating new sounds and feelings, wildly departing from the main theme but eventually returning to it.

Soon he was improvising on topics in the booth, adding details and getting into side stories that embellished his main topic. His monologues were “a slow, casual, laid-back, free-floating association of ideas, philosophy, and bemused commentary,” according to his biographer Eugene B. Bergmann.1

In essence, Shepherd became the jazz artist of the monologue. And like jazz, he had committed fans who understood and spoke his language.

And this led him to pull one of his greatest practical jokes.


I, Libertine

The power of his impact was directly tied to the relationship Shep had with his audience, whom he affectionately called “night people.” These aren't just those who work the third shift; John Crosby in The New York Times in 1956 quoted Shepherd on night people:

“There’s a great body of people who flower at night, who feel night is their time. Night is the time people truly become individuals, because all the familiar things are dark and done, all the restrictions on freedom are removed. Many artists work at night—it is peculiarly conducive to creative work. Many of us attuned to night are not artists but are embattled against the official, organized righteous day people who are completely bound by their switchboards and their red tape.”


One evening, as he was talking to the night people, he observed how day people liked lists, because lists conferred a sense of authority, direction, or truth. Bestseller lists were overrated, Shep thought. Merely a construct made up by the day people.

So what if, he pondered, the night people were to go to a bookstore and ask for a book that wasn’t on any list?

Not just a book that wasn’t on a bestseller list; a book that wasn’t on any inventory lists. A book that didn’t even exist.

Listeners called in with suggestions for titles, and eventually I, Libertine was selected, by fictitious author Frederick R. Ewing, a “former British commander and civil servant in Rhodesia, known for his BBC broadcasts on eighteenth-century erotica.”

He and the audience together improvised this book and then listeners went to bookstores in droves, asking for the title.

Bookstore managers checked with distributors, distributors checked with publishers, but no one could find it. They were perplexed, since so many people were asking for the same title, yet that title didn’t appear on any lists.

Demand became so great that Shepherd teamed up with science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon to write the book as nom de plume Frederick R. Ewing under the Ballantine Press imprint. The New York Times called it a “bebop minuet” and Publisher’s Weekly termed it, “the hoax that became a book.”


This Is the Way

And therein lies the power of a storyteller: someone who works in words and mental images the way some artists work in clay or marble.

As he told his stories, he used words very carefully, even though he was speaking extemporaneously. In the broadcast we have in the links below, he demonstrates with two examples:

“If you believe what someone says, he’s a wise man; if you don’t believe it, he’s a wise guy.”

“If you don’t like what people are doing, it’s called payola. If you like what they’re doing, it’s called a contribution.”

As Shep created imagery with words, he built a relationship with his audience. And through the power of this relationship, he created a sense of camaraderie, of togetherness, of trust.

And this is a common trait of leaders.

They engage their people with stories, causing them to be roused with emotions, willing to take on the world.

Another figure associated with February 22 did this extraordinarily well: George Washington, who, according to his eulogist Henry Lee, was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Leaders know that stories are the way to the hearts of their people.


“Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.” — George Washington

Why George Washington Has Two Birthdays

The father of our country was born on February 11, 1732. But he turned 20 on February 22, 1752. How is this possible and why do we celebrate his birthday on neither of his birthdays? (The Washington Post)


Flick Lives

Fans of Jean Shepherd will recognize the name Flick. That’s the kid who stuck his tongue to the flagpole in A Christmas Story. The fan site Flick Lives is “dedicated to the historical preservation of the modern raconteur,” and contains everything you need to know about Jean Shepherd. This is a fascinating time capsule (timeless in some ways): a Shep broadcast from the 40th anniversary of WOR on February 22, 1962.


“Excelsior, you fatheads.” — Jean Shepherd

The Science of Storytelling

Humans are storytelling animals. The brain has evolved to think in terms of stories through change, cause and effect, moral outrage, eudaimonic, and “the God moment.” In this TEDx talk, Storr shares the insights that can make us better storytellers. (YouTube)


Did You Hear the One About the Product Manager?

Processes, methods and deliverables receive the heavy focus of product management training. But without a compelling story, they can all fail. (Jeff Gothelf)


“There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.” — George Washington, 1790

🎧 The Moth is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it. Every week, The Moth is a masterclass in storytelling.

📚 Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is a  richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his life. What we get is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people, and whose complexity and emotions are brought to the surface.


Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.


Excelsior, You Fathead! is available on Amazon

Timeless & Timely
Timeless & Timely
Scott Monty