In the 1950s, a DJ named Jean Shepherd hosted a late-night radio show on New York’s WOR that was unlike any before or since. On these broadcasts, he delivered dense, cerebral monologues, sprinkled with pop-culture tidbits and vivid stretches of expert storytelling. “There is no question that we are a tiny, tiny, tiny embattled minority here,” he assured his audience in a typical diatribe. “Hardly anyone is listening to mankind in all of its silliness, all of its idiocy, all of its trivia, all of its wonder, all of its glory, all of its poor, sad, pitching us into the dark sea of oblivion.” Shepherd’s approach was summed up by his catchphrase: a mock-triumphant “Excelsior!”, followed by an immediate, muttered “you fathead ”
Shepherd inspired fierce loyalty in his listeners who would tune in to listen to him in the middle of the night. These listeners embraced his term for them, “night people,” and under his direction they would execute one of the biggest and most bizarre media hoaxes of the 20th century. The hoax was meant as a strike against their opposite: “day people,” that is, against phoniness and squareness–all those 50s words–as well as a joke on New York pretension.
In our time of memes, virality, and reality blurring, the hoax Shepherd dreamt up seems extremely modern and prescient in its contours–as does the fact that, eventually, it got out of his control.
The story of the I, Libertine hoax is interesting, and presages a lot of today’s media culture. Shep was a fascinating guy, and I grew up listening to him on WOR in the evenings. His irreverence certainly helped shape my worldview.