This is for all the lonely (radio) people
Thinking that life has passed them by
Don't give up
Until you drink from the silver cup
And ride that (tower) in the sky
Eventually, other lonely radio guys are gonna discover my blog and it won't just be the three or four of you. That's progress, the evolution of things.
For now, though, since it is just us, we can talk about thinking, like Bread, that life has passed you by...
It's easy to do, especially if you live near a large city with large radio personalities who make a lotta money. But what if you are one of those large radio personalities making a decent amount of money. Would that make you feel any less that life has passed you by?
And what if you were perhaps the biggest radio personality in the biggest city in America (at least at the time). That's what it looks like happened to Jean Shepherd.
He left Hammond where he was working at WJOB and went to Cincinnati where he worked at ... and then wound up at WOR in New York City, a nightly folk hero heard up and down the Eastern seaboard. By pretty much any means of measurement for the three or four of you... and the occasional lonely radio person who happens on our pages... Shep is a total radio success.
But not for Shep. Look at what Donald Fagen says in Slate.com a few weeks ago.
...as the years rolled by, Shepherd rankled at being confined to the ghetto of radio and must have come to see his crown as King of the Hipsters as a crown of thorns.
Shep never lived up to the ideal that he set up for himself. Perhaps, though, he really was confined to the ghetto of radio. It was a different time. Television was coming to be king and those left in radio were left behind. Sixty years later it's hard to see through the clouds and trees and a whole lotta time. Maybe back then if you were the most popular nighttime host in New York, it really wasn't jack shit.
Or is it something else? Is it something about Jean Shepherd himself... about where he came from? As the three or four of you know, the Calumet Region where Shep grew up ain't the paradise on earth that it's cooked up to be. We have now, and had during Shep's youth, steel mills and oil refineries and Chicago was and is the mother ship. Except for our little old WJOB, Shep probably listened to Chicago radio as a kid. They hardly mentioned Indiana, and when they did, it was as it is now, usually not in a very good light. Corruption, pollution, murders, traffic accidents. That's us... at least in the eyes of the bigshots in Chicago.
It would be easy for Shep to develop a negative self-image just for where he lived. I see it every day on the radio. Caller after caller with the anger, the sense that he or she just isn't as good as everyone else. Maybe it's what I attract. Maybe it's what there is in our neck of the industrial woods.
But I don't get the sense that it's where Shep grew up that made him ripe for never being able to live up to his own ideal. I know this is a lot of psychoanalysis on a man who's been dead for almost 20 years and who, after he left WJOB and Hammond in the mid-1940s, didn't live here or even visit all that often.
But it is precisely one of those visits that helped me discover Jean Shepherd. As I've mentioned previously, local lawyer Gary Bell told me that once Shep came back into town in 1981 to receive an award as one of Hammond's favorite sons... and by the time he left it was pretty much good riddance. Obnoxious, drunk, maybe even squeezing a few asses. Bell's mom was on the Hammond school board so I take it as pretty good intel. Also, Bell gave me his mom's copy of All Others Pay Cash... the book that A Christmas Story is based on.
And that somehow led me to listening to Shep's rambling recordings from 1956 and 1965 and times before and after. He was a blowhard. A brilliant bigmouth from the Calumet Region. They're all over the place. I'm probably one, at least the blowhard part.
But more than just a fanciful fascination... listening to these really old tapes has given me something else. And to you two or three lonely radio people who stumble on My American, Radio Life, you'll understand this.
Here's how Fagen describes what Shep did on the radio.
Shepherd frequently read news clippings that listeners, his "spies," had sent in
And this goes to the structure of what Shep did. He didn't have a co-host. It was usually just him for the whole one hour show every night. But was it really just him?
There were these spies out there sending him intel. He read the intel on the air, one time doing it for something that Donald Fagen the future Steely Dan phenom sent in. It was these spies who supplied just enough of the role of a co-host.
I have a similar structure. For a good portion of the early morning, it's just me rambling. Not a lot of morning radio hosts do this, just sit there and randomly go through the day's news stories or a story from when I was a union laborer or one about a Polish wedding where there were a bunch of fights. I have no idea if this is how I'm supposed to be doing radio, and I started doing it long before Gary Bell turned me on to native son Jean Shepherd. In a weird way, now, since Shep did radio solo, rambling, stumbling over himself... I feel a little stronger about doing it that way, by accident.
Here's how Fagen described what Shepherd did.
Fans of A Christmas Story will be familiar with the basic comic tone of his Depression-era tales, elaborations on his experience growing up in Hammond, Ind., a Chicago suburb in the shadow of the U.S. Steel Works on Lake Michigan. ..Then there were the stories culled from his three years in the stateside Army during World War II (a juvenile ham radio and electronics freak, he was assigned to the Signal Corps). The third hunk of material was informed by his adventures in postwar radio and TV. He seems to have done every possible job, from engineer to sportscaster to hosting live cowboy music broadcasts. Finally, there was the contemporary stuff, comments on the passing scene.
In between, he'd sing along to noisy old records, play the kazoo and the nose flute, brutally sabotage the commercials, and get his listeners—the "night people," the "gang"—to help him pull goofy public pranks on the unwitting squares that populated most of Manhattan.
.... I was just about to say that there are three things in this Fagen description that apply to me. Yes, I have lived most of my life in Hammond and Munster, Indiana, in the shadows of steel mills. And I've had a ton of different jobs from auto parts delivery driver in Oakland, California, to sewer dweller in Gary, Indiana, as a construction laborer. From futures trader in the pits of Chicago to full-time counselor at a live-in home for people with chronic mental illness.
But I won't tell you about this. Not right now. It's a pretty self-indulgent thing to compare myself and what I do in any minor way to Shep of international fame. I'm a morning radio host on a small AM station just outside of Chicago. If anyone should feel like he's confined to the minor leagues of media, it should be me.
Right now, though, none of this matters. I have had a caller named Karen from the North Shore who has been with me for more than a decade. Back when I did the afternoon show, she'd call in and tell me and the three or four listeners at the time that she just swept the kitchen and Swiffered it (that's when those miracle cleaners were just becoming popular).
Karen would call to rescue me, you know, in those moments in the middle of summer when you feel like nobody's listening and there's nothing going on in the Region and you'd rather be out golfing.
Hi, it's Karen from the North Shore...
Later, when I took over morning duties in 2007, Karen came with. She was perhaps the most regular caller, right there with Walt and Joe from Highland and Marsha Haney. Karen talked about her son and how he eats so much food during football season and how cool it was to live in Whiting with all the stuff going on. Eventually, I met her and her husband and I wound up going to their house before Pierogifest to have a few drinks on the way to marching in the parade dressed as an old Polish woman.
Karen's husband, Ron, also marches as a member of the Precision Lawnmowing Team. We make quite the sight - two hairy beasts walking down an alley in Whiting/Robertsdale... wearing old women housecoats pushing decorated lawnmowers and drinking beer from cans. Welcome to the Region.
This would be a good memory, if not for... No. I can't go there yet. You, if you're a local radio person, know that these people who give to your show and make it better... sometimes they become your friends outside of the show. And Karen Lubas and her husband Ron, they became my friends. Every year, they store my lawnmower until the next Pierogi parade.
So there are hearts breaking right now outside of the second largest oil refinery in America. As I'm writing to you, laying in a bed of my own self-grandiosity, comparing myself and what I do on a small scale to what Shep did for the whole Eastern seaboard... all sorts of people are blowing up my phone. Here's what Lori from Merrillville, also a loyal and consistent caller (spy), said in the first Facebook post that came to me.
Female dies after falling from Skyway
Do you see where this is going? Have you driven the Skyway before? It's this massive structure that rises over the southeast side of Chicago, blocks from Robertsdale and Whiting. Every day, Karen from the North Shore could see it from her kitchen window. The Skyway, the lights, the huge beams, the cars, trucks, busses, vans... all day and all night.
Here's what the Chicago Tribune says:
Woman dies after falling from Skyway Bridge to river in apparent suicide
I can't imagine what Karen was thinking as she held her phone - a corded phone, connected to the wall by the kitchen table, I've seen it - and sat on hold while I did traffic and came to her next. She and Ron built this amazing deck on the back of their house. It overlooks an alley but on the other side of the other side of the street, there is the Skyway, rising above all the industry, the casino, the beach on Lake Michigan, the old Commonwealth Edison plant.
A 54-year-old woman was pronounced dead Monday after she fell about 200 feet from the Skyway Bridge over the Calumet River in an apparent suicide... Police were called to the bridge about 12:55pm after a vehicle was found abandoned on the bridge.
(The river) was frozen. Coast Guard officials retrieved the victim from the surface and transported her to the bank of the river.
The woman is identified as Karen Lubas of Whiting, Ind. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
I suppose it's a bit insensitive to keep writing after this devastating piece of news. Not so much for me and producer Ryan and our listeners and callers and people in Whiting... but for her husband Ron and their son(s). And it seems at her house there were always other relatives and friends. Hearts are breaking in the Region and all I can do is type in bed next to my wife who's playing Scrabble. She knows not to bother me. We all deal with bad shit in our own way. Me, I write in my journal. Sorry about that. After my mom died, I wrote 10,000 pages in a few months. Alexis laid in bed next to me for a lot of that.
For once, I wish that the three or four of you could talk, because I have a question and it's not a rhetorical one.
How did this fucking happen? Please tell me. I want to know. Karen from the North Shore. Pretty Karen with the beautiful Whiting home and family. Missing something here. Once she told us about working as a waitress in Nashville or Atlanta and hanging out with some guy who turned out to be an infamous serial killer. She made it through that. The guy didn't kill her. The Skyway did.
I didn't do the radio show today. It's Martin Luther King Day. I JEDgolfed in four degrees below zero temperature with a windchill of 22 below. It was great. Sunny and alone and golfing. And then I worked out and went to Whole Foods for groceries and Oberweiss for fresh milk and eggs and then Alexis and I went for a nice dinner date at True Barbecue. We hadn't had a date in more than a week. It's a high-maintenance relationship. At least one date a week or things go awry.
During the date, I had forgotten about the sadness that I was already set to deal with on tomorrow morning's show. Here's how Channel 7 news puts it:
A former radio talk host and her daughter found dead
It looks like a handyman strangled to death Val Taneff, 86, and her daughter, Lana Taneff, 63. Gruesome double murder. Here's what The Times had to say about Val:
Val Taneff was well known in the Region. She was involved in Democratic politics for decades... She also hosted a political talk radio program called "The Real Deal with Val Taneff" on WLTH as recently as 2010.
Verlie Suggs, WJOB radio host, was station manager at WLTH when Taneff worked there.
"We were so very close, and this is very hard," Suggs said Monday. "Val called me twice on Saturday and left me voice messages, but we never connected."
Recalling Taneff's radio show, "The Real Deal," Suggs said, "Val was an amazing woman. She was very feisty, very politically savvy and very opinionated and knowledgeable. Everybody loved her, unless they hated her — unless they were catching the brunt of what she was saying."
Suggs also spoke with Lana Taneff this weekend and described her as "an angel." "She was the sweetest person," she said.
........... Sad everything. It's below zero and there's really nowhere else to go except inside this warm computer.
Jesus Christ, JED, you can still write for like an hour and a half, Alexis just said. You, the three or four of you who never speak back to me, you still haven't answered my question.
How could this happen? How could Karen from the North Shore just park her car and walk up the Skyway Bridge... and then just jump? It doesn't make any sense. The river is frozen. She was just laying there on top of the ice. What is happening here?
And Val Taneff, who like Verlie could get under your skin with her questions and deep knowledge of how things work around here. How could some handyman "with a violent past" (allegedly) just go off and kill Val and her daughter. I'm listening. You haven't explained it. Please, I'm waiting.
... Alexis and I just watched the Channel 7 news clip. Verlie's at the house, telling everyone how sweet Val was. And there's the house, and Sheriff Buncich telling all the details... and...
I haven't said or written this in a long time. But I don't have any more words. Not a lot is making sense... except for an observation that Alexis just made.
Karen hadn't called the show in a while. A long time, actually.
Condolences to Ron and the rest of the Lubas family. Same for the Taneff family. Please let us know if there's anything at WJOB that we can do for you.