Jean Shepherd’s Cincinnati Ties

A classic holiday movie owes more to Cincinnati than you know.

The first time you saw A Christmas Story—the epic saga of Ralphie, the Red Ryder BB gun, and the iconic Leg Lamp—it was probably on a television. The movie’s weak premiere in November 1983 got it shunted to second-tier theaters long before Christmas Day, and it might easily have joined the modern, unrecognizable Netflix titles that make you wonder if your monthly fee is worth it. But instead, slowly and organically, the movie became an eternal American favorite on the small screen. Today, annual 24-hour cable marathons of Ralphie come at you so relentlessly they could put your eye out.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway / Photo of Jean Shepherd courtesy of Mike Martini, Media Heritage, Inc.

I was among those who had originally ignored the film. A few years later when my kids found it in progress on the tube, I welcomed the chance to ignore it again, occupying myself in the next room—until after a few minutes, when I heard a voice. Instantly I raised my head. I know that voice. I quickly got up and joined the kids, now infinitely more interested in this movie than they were. The voice, apparently just a brief off-screen narration, had now disappeared, so I waited.

I was used to this part, to losing the voice and waiting for its return. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, I regularly stayed awake long past my legal bedtime, risking punishment by sitting in the window with my clock radio placed just so, trying to hear that voice coming from the spotty signal of WOR in New York. That voice was Jean Shepherd, my hero.

No matter how many times you’ve watched A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd’s name and voice have likely never registered with you. Chances are even less, if you’re from around here, that you know of his earlier fame on New York radio and in other media. And chances are close to zero that you know this: Before A Christmas Story, before New York, before just about everything, Jean Shepherd lived in Cincinnati. He spent about five years here cutting his teeth in radio and TV. A Christmas Story might have never been told had Shepherd not worked at—and been repeatedly fired from—Cincinnati’s biggest stations.

I knew nothing of this when I was just a kid in Philly trying to tune him in. I had no clue that WOR, 710 on the dial, was competing with the adjacent signal at 700 from WLW in Cincinnati, a city where I would someday live more than half of my life. All I knew back then was that Jean Shepherd was one of my best and closest friends—putting aside the part about him being miles away, twice my age, and not knowing I existed. He conjured up characters and images as rich as A Christmas Story almost every night. Shepherd’s show, just 45 minutes long, had no songs, no guests, no phone calls. He just talked. Drew you into his world like a hypnotist. You grew to know his family, friends, teachers, neighbors. I didn’t really care what the night’s topic was; I just loved the way Old Shep spoke to me.

Everyone called him that: Old Shep, or just Shep, which was an improvement over the nicknames he’d dealt with in his youth. Had he grown up in Paris, a male name of Jean wouldn’t have mattered. But Hammond, Indiana, was not exactly Paris. The song A Boy Named Sue so accurately captures Shep’s childhood anguish, because that very experience inspired his buddy Shel Silverstein to write that very song. Sadly, the lyric’s mention of the father abandoning the family is also true. We’ll get back to that.

Jean Shepherd arrived in Cincinnati in early 1947, just in time to benefit from the complete collapse of the radio business. The medium had thrived in its early decades doing exactly what TV does today: sitcoms, dramas, cop shows, pop stars, news hours, etc. But almost overnight, television arose and stole all of that away. Radio stations suddenly had to fill large chunks of former network programming with local content, giving rise to a new type of personality: the disc jockey. DJs, for better or worse, rescued the industry, but the familiar formulas we endure today took about 10 years to develop. In between was a clumsy period called “platter/chatter,” where personalities had more freedom to play their favorite music and talk more. Jean Shepherd was glad to do the former and born to overdo the latter.

His first Cincinnati gig, WSAI, revealed a problem: not shutting up. Where most local DJs might play a dozen or more songs in an hour, Shep played maybe three or four, filling up the rest with…well, we’re not exactly sure, as no recordings exist from this era. We only know that management frustration with his habit of More Talk! Less Music! appears again and again on Shep’s Cincinnati résumé. He was gone from WSAI within a year.

A few months later, WCKY hired him to do an all-night show called “Night Hawks.” In hindsight, it should have been obvious that after-hours were Shep’s prime time, suiting both his style and his audience. But the too-much-talk factor continued to annoy many. Legendary TV news anchor Al Schottelkotte, then a columnist for _The Cincinnati Enquirer, noted that “Yakity-yak Jean Shepherd has the distinction of running the only disc jockey show in town which features an occasional musical interlude.” Management told Shep to back off on the talk and play more songs, which he failed to do, which got him temporarily fired, which resulted in no change, which got him permanently fired. Again.

Shepherd’s third job of 1948 was at WKRC, and here he continued his streak of ever-briefer employment. After three months as a booth announcer, he was given a half-hour weeknight show at 11:30. The press release announcing this rather absurdly short program quoted him: “There will be no limit as to type and style of music selected, no dedications, as they cheapen the show and appeal only to children anyway, and humorously cynical patter that is definitely of adult understanding.” Adults apparently did not understand; the show disappeared after two weeks, along with the job.

Still, some kind of fan base must have built up during of all of this bouncing around, because a few months later, WSAI took him back (though the press release misspelled both his first and last name: “Gene Shephard”). He stayed put this time for two years, building enough of an audience to allow regular remote broadcasts from restaurants like Shuller’s Wigwam in College Hill and the Sky Galley at Lunken Airport. Finally, for whatever reason, everyone wanted Jean Shepherd to ramble on about whatever he wanted. It’s a good guess that this is when the groundwork was laid for his longform storytelling. Those WSAI shows provided Shep’s first uninterrupted streak of on-air performances, two hours at a stretch. The toolbox for A Christmas Story—its characters, anecdotes, attitude—probably formed here. Long-time Shep fans know that the movie is actually a mix of several childhood adventures he had told and written repeatedly over the years. The WSAI gig provided the laboratory for this technique, for his fully formed radio persona in New York, and eventually the legendary film. At last, he had a steady job in radio. He had sponsors. He got married and started a family. Finally, things were settling down.

Except they weren’t. A Philadelphia radio station suddenly hired him away. Shep worked there for two years, then just as suddenly moved back to Cincinnati. This time he worked for WLW, and also hosted an after-the-bad-late-movie TV show on sister station WLWT. Those who remember Bob Shreve’s Past Prime Playhouse are hereby informed that Jean Shepherd’s Rear Bumper was Cincinnati’s original, snarky, just-how-bad-is-this-movie-anyway late show. One night after an especially awful film, he came on and declared: “Anybody who enjoyed that movie is not going to enjoy anything I’m going to do, so let’s just part friends,” and signed off.

Jean Shepherd’s time in Cincinnati ended for good in 1955 when he got the call from New York’s WOR, and maybe it was just for old times’ sake that he soon got himself fired, re-hired, then fired and re-hired again, all in one week. Shep’s now-perfected style carried him for two more decades on New York radio, followed by numerous books, TV shows, and magazine articles. Then came A Christmas Story, which at first didn’t get much attention, but we all know what eventually happened. It never made Jean Shepherd all that famous, but the royalties did make him rich. In 1999, he died a happy man.

Except he didn’t. Just like Shep, I’m screwing with the details of a Shep story. The man died miserable, frustrated, and lonely, which also seems to be how he lived. He’d wanted his radio career to be a stepping stone to things like acting or film writing and bitterly swatted away compliments about his radio years. His last few public appearances were unfriendly and disappointing to fans. Even sadder are the truths of his personal life. Shep’s father, unlike the one who patched things up in A Boy Named Sue, ran off with a secretary and never saw his son again. And by most accounts, each of Shepherd’s first three marriages ended when the affair with the next-up wife was discovered. Shepherd’s son wrote that as a kid in New York, he used to sit in his bedroom window at night, just like I did in Philadelphia. But he would sit there after the radio show had ended, hoping to see a cab pull up and his dad get out to come tuck him in. It never happened. Shepherd’s daughter has shared similar bad memories. In Shepherd’s last will, here is what he bequeathed to his son and daughter: “I hereby declare that I have no children, natural or adopted, living or deceased.”

This does not make for a good 24-hour Christmas marathon on TBS. Neither does it provide much uplift for me after researching the life of my hero, Jean Shepherd. Most of my desire to be in radio, much of my conscious on-air technique, came directly from him. And I’m only one of countless fans: Jerry Seinfeld says he learned everything about comedy from him, and named one of own kids Shepherd. Donald Fagen of Steely Dan has written extensively of his own Shep teen worship, but also lamented discovering, as I did, the sad truths hiding behind the artistry. How does one process all of that? Maybe like this:

Many of us in radio, who are good at sounding personable, appealing, and empathetic on the air, became attracted to the microphone precisely because we had no clue how to actually share those qualities in real life. We got good at pretending. One-on-one relationships were awkward and threatening for me, but one-on-none? That I could do. Some of us in the biz eventually learned how to turn those skills around and share them with people in our real lives. Others, like Jean Shepherd, never did.

Still, I’m grateful to him. I’m proud to attempt carrying on a broadcasting style in the very town where he invented it. He left me a gift that I learned how to benefit from professionally, and then personally. He also left the entire world a pretty damn wonderful Christmas present.

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