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Shep on the Radio


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Visiting Shep's Studio

Date: 12-24-2006
By: Tony Russomanno

I posted some comments a few months ago about my experience as a guest in Shepherd's radio studio in 1974. Eugene Bergmann later emailed to ask if I could remember any other details. I just ran across this, which may fill in some of the blanks. It was written by my old friend, radio consultant Walter Sabo a few days after Shepherd's death and is posted on Walt's site, Tony Russomanno Sweaty Moments with Jean Shepard. By: Walter Sabo Jean Shepard died and I'm mad. I've been mad for three days since I was e-mailed the obit from Jim Cameron. Today I was driving back from a client visit, up the New Jersey Turnpike, thinking about Jean and the radio scan stopped on 99.5, WBAI and there it was. October 19, 1999 Jean was coming out of my radio while driving on the Jersey turnpike. WBAI was playing old airchecks in salute to the master monologist. The first striking fact is the voice. A remarkable voice. It could have been a formal-announcer voice if he had chosen to use it for that. A great top 40 morning man if he had heard the beat. But he used it to tell stories. American stories. Don't tell me the Wonder Years TV show wasn't based on Jean's stories, that the narration wasn't modeled on his voice. His voice was tricky. It could be that of a 20-year-old or a 60-year-old in the same phrase. It was ageless. A strangely non-judgmental voice. But that's not what makes me mad, certainly not. The stories themselves are not remarkable. They are simple stories about simple childhood-college-army adventures. For the bleachers he'd throw in a few radio-dog stories. There are two that I have repeated often One is his vision of hell: "Doing all nights on a country station with no commercials and no news." The other was his vision of the future. The night that the FCC declared that AM and FM stations could no longer simulcast he predicted that "one day all music programming would be on FM and AM would only have talk shows." Yup, that's what he said in 1968. These stories were told during the great unrest of the 60s. And he would express his views on those events through his stories of the past. The result was comfort. Comfort that in some form, all human events repeat and everyone survives and ultimately it doesn't matter. It wasn't fatalistic, just humble and sweet. Thinking about those stories did not make me mad. But I knew I had to write this column in order to figure out what was so aggravating about his death. Yes, I met him. In 1974, newsman Tony Russomanno and I were seconds out of college when we got jobs at WXLO (WOR FM). Our studios were on the 2nd floor, Jean's were on the 24th floor, and that's pretty much what you need to know about the AM/FM hierarchy in 1974. Believe me, working in New York City at an FM in 1974 was not a big deal. But Jean was, so we got up our courage one night and went to watch him work on WOR AM. What you've heard is true. No notes. One newspaper clipping. No visible plan. He started talking to us before his show and we talked about radio right until the second he had to turn on his mike. Oh, we tried to act so cool. But we were sweating like, like, radio guys meeting Jean Shepard. We watched him reveal an astonishing 45 minute original monologue. Then the moment the show was over, he went back to his conversation with us--right where we had left off. It was as though the miracle had not taken place. It was effortless to him. We wanted to ask him, "Uh, sir, how did you just do that miracle thing?" But it felt completely inappropriate. He appeared more interested in talking to us. About FM. About what it could be. The form of his show would change. Sometimes he told a 45-minute story. Other times, he conducted elaborate bits, forerunners of "wacky DJ antics" heard today. Once, when the sales weasels complained that no one listened to his show, he sent his audience to bookstores to buy a book. A book that didn't exist. Thousands that week demanded copies of the made-up book. The sales department got the message. He was on WOR for 21 years. Some hours were 100% produced, planed for weeks. Once, only once, I heard him take phone calls. All of it masterful. Big deal radio made to sound easy. So easy. There were two common traits: His opinion on the subject was always clear; Every show had a beginning, middle and end. It wasn't until years later that I discovered how rare and precious those ingredients are. My best friend since kindergarten, the late Dr. Charles Weisman, was the smart one in Columbia High school. He was the first to tell me about Jean. It was Charles and Jean who unknowingly conspired to teach me to love Manhattan. Jean was Greenwich Village, he was a Beat poet, he was the rebel you'd invite to dinner. And he might just come. He might. Well, probably not. No drugs, no booze, just the spirit of the edge of the city. He performed every Saturday live from the Limelight night club in the Village. And if you could get in, you were a cool kid. For those 45 minutes a night all the silent students from Mamaroneck, Morris Plains, Mount Kisco and Maplewood got to be cool kids. His urban bedtime stories let us know that no matter how insane Dad behaved today, you still had a shot at being cool because Jean was. And you were always okay by him. The reason I'm mad is this: Someone, someone who has never heard him is going to ask me what he was like. What was so special? What did he sound like? Anticipating the question makes me mad. Mad because regardless of what I write, what I say, it only reminds me that I don't have skills near worthy of describing his gift. Damn you Shepard. Listener sponsored WBAI FM has fund drives. For seventy five dollars you can become a member of WBAI and receive a three hour recording of Shepard's work. Darn fine gift for your friends in the business. And your friends who like magic. WBAI Radio 120 Wall St. New York City, NY 10005, 212 209 2800. Rest in peace you fathead. Flick lives. 1