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.
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.]
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.