Sounds in the Dark: Two New Late-Night Talk Shows Embody Old-Time Radio in the Digital Ageby Jed Lipinski
On a recent Monday afternoon, Dave Perlis and Andy Theodorou were interviewing a 106-year-old Polish parapsychologist named Dr. Alexander Imich in his apartment on the Upper West Side. A soft-spoken man with a wizardly streak of white running through his gray hair, Imich was sitting amidst stacks of New Age magazines (Life Extension, The Fortean Times) and a small pile of cutlery, bent—allegedly—by the gaze of Uri Geller, the famous psychic. “I recently met a Chinese woman who could ripen a green tomato by holding it in her hand,” Imich said into Perlis’s Realistic CTR-68 cassette recorder. “She magnetized two coins to my forehead. Once, she even brought a dead shrimp back to life!” Theodorou grinned skeptically. Afternoon light is not kind to tales of the paranormal. When the interview airs weeks later in the dead of night, however, the stories may be easier to believe.
Perlis and Theodorou are the hosts of a new paranormal call-in show entitled Night People on WFMU, a non-commercial, listener-supported radio station in Jersey City. The show airs every Thursday between two and six in the morning. Last May, Ken Freedman, WFMU’s station manager, held a one-minute on-air audition for new overnight programs—“the radio equivalent of speed-dating,” he calls it—and liked Perlis’s pitch. Since then, Night People has built a local following of around fourteen hundred, according to Arbitron’s radio ratings. (For comparison, Joey Reynolds, the number-one syndicated overnight host in the city, gets about 100,000 New Yorkers per night.) But Arbitron doesn’t measure Night People’s web stream, podcast, or archive listeners, many of whom are outside the u.s. Already the show has devoted fans in Belgium, Germany, Amsterdam, and Beijing.
The phrase “Night People” was coined by Jean Shepherd, the infamous late-night DJ, author of the film A Christmas Story, and model for Howard Beale’s mad radio announcer in the film Network. Shepherd, who died in 2000, used the phrase to distinguish the insomniacs and skeptics awake at 3 a.m. from the so-called “Day People.” The mood of WFMU’s Night People, though, was equally inspired by Art Bell’s paranormal-themed show Coast-to-Coast AM, which dealt with topics like UFOs and the end of the world. Both Perlis and Theodorou, now in their early thirties, listened to Bell frequently in high school. “I’d often find myself sleepless and getting the chills from some story a caller or Art himself was relating,” Perlis recalls, “only to find it completely unscary come morning.”
Wary of being thought staunch paranormalists, Perlis and Theodorou try to cover unexplained phenomena more broadly. “That includes anything that’s unexplained to us,” Theodorou says. This makes for eclectic programming. Topics range from zombies and dreams to false advertising and the half-life of batteries. On one show in February, they spoke with a British expert in metallurgy who related new archaeological evidence that the first metals used by humans came from meteorites. Meanwhile, online commenters responded to earlier threads of conversation by quoting Borges’s short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and comparing the ingredients of Cheerios with Shop Rite’s Tastee O’s.
Night People’s callers are a distinctly nighttime crowd: newspaper deliverymen, tollbooth operators, Bigfoot scholars, ghost hunters, cops, drunk people, truck drivers, midwives on their way to home births. Once, a man renovating a prison kitchen called “on his way to jail.” An asthmatic, home-schooled, fifteen-year-old boy with a passion for astronomy, known as Little Joey, calls from time to time while his parents are asleep. “He’s really intelligent and curious about space and other worlds,” Theodorou says. “We’re sort of breeding him to be the first man on Mars.”
Such callers help account for Night People’s surreal, half-awake vibe—which is all the more stirring if you’re only half awake yourself. “It’s similar to a dream or a nightmare,” Perlis says. “It has this ethereal, emotional quality while it’s happening that doesn’t necessarily translate to the archive. I’d prefer the archives were gone, that the residue didn’t exist.” Then again, he adds, “they do allow more people to hear the show.”
Moreover, the archives enable listeners to recreate the atmosphere of the original broadcast, should they choose to. In Europe, the program airs in the daytime. Europeans can show their allegiance by listening to the podcast at night, rather than the live show over breakfast. A few weeks back, a repeat commenter named Sam from Amsterdam wrote in an e-mail, “I mostly seem to listen to the podcast in the middle of the night, on my commute home. So there’s some sort of solidarity there! Just on different nights in a different time zone.”
Allowing more people to listen is one of Frank Edward Nora’s main concerns. His weekly late-night program, The Rampler (a Scottish spelling of rambler), debuted on WFMU on February 20 from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. “I wouldn’t do it if it could only be heard live,” he says. “My audience is in the future.”
The Rampler consists of live talk interspersed with field recordings. These recordings are made on Nora’s route to and from his advertising job in midtown. He holds an Edirol r-09 wave recorder in his hand, and for a half-hour each way he comments on things he sees and thinks. “People in New York City are generally okay with you talking to yourself,” he says. “But on the subway, people tend to stare, and I have to lower my voice a bit.” Back at home, he uploads the MP3 files to his website, The Overnightscape Underground, in unedited form. A daily companion to The Rampler, this stream-of-consciousness audio blog is heard by 2,500 to 3,000 people daily. But Nora saw an advantage in tapping into WFMU’s built-in listenership of around 49,000.
Ken Freedman brought The Rampler aboard after discovering Nora’s archives online. “He had a great voice and a very interesting mind,” Freedman says. “In the background you hear all the city sounds. Sometimes he walks up to people on the street and starts talking to them. It was addictive. I couldn’t stop listening.”
The Rampler’s origins can also be traced to Jean Shepherd, whom Nora, now 43, became aware of in 2000, after stumbling onto a site offering eight hundred hours of his radio material on burned CDs. “It was an absolutely life-changing experience,” he says. “It’s an amazing archive of information, but also his style is classic late-night radio, a lone voice in the night. Each show is an adventure. He’s not some corporate shill trying to jam stuff down your throat.” Shepherd’s broadcasts gave Nora the confidence to do hour-long monologues. Asked how he’s able to talk—coherently and interestingly—for an hour straight, Nora says, “It’s like leaving a really long message on somebody’s answering machine.”
An avid technophile, Nora nonetheless grants a certain romance to old-time terrestrial radio. He cites one of Jean Shepherd’s final broadcasts before he quit for good in 1977. “The mere fact that I’m here and it’s only going to be heard this moment gives it, I don’t want to say ‘preciousness,’ but a certain urgency,” Shepherd said. Yet it was radio’s pre-internet ephemerality that convinced Shepherd to quit in the first place; he didn’t like that his show disappeared each morning. Today, Nora stores everything he records on archive.org, and makes it available for others’ use through a Creative Commons license. He’s thrilled by the latest gadgetry, and claims to have been one of the first thirty or forty podcasters on the web. “I tend to gravitate toward creative technology that you can control yourself. It just took a while for radio to become one of those.”
Having control of technology enables Nora to do what he does well—that is, ramble. The topic lists that accompany his audio blog look like lively games of exquisite corpse. An excerpt from March 6, 2009, reads: “American Idol, the hydraulic hiss, urinals, swing, peanut problems, Franklin Gothic, USA, innocent fleeting feelings of elitism, daydreams of fame and fortune, macaroni-and-cheese lunch, scaffolding.” His midtown meanderings are fraught with unpredictability. On one show, a fight breaks out in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and Frank provides commentary. Another show finds him in a rainstorm brooding on the death of Andy Kaufman, when a gust of wind suddenly inverts his umbrella. He struggles mightily to repair it, cursing the manufacturer as amplified raindrops pelt his recorder, until finally the five-dollar umbrella rips and crumples in his hands. The sequence is riveting. Perhaps because, although you’ve experienced such travails yourself, you rarely hear anyone articulate the feeling in real time. It’s as if you’ve tuned into a random pedestrian’s private frequency.
“Talk radio is the most powerful medium on earth in my opinion,” Nora says. “It must plug into that primal form of communication of ancient storytellers sitting around the campfire.” Of course, most talk-radio today deals strictly with politics, and syndication has pretty much killed off the kind of freeform programming that reigned in Jean Shepherd’s day. WFMU, which doesn’t pay its DJs, is an anomaly on the dial. But for what it’s worth, technology continues to provide ways of circumventing the established order and keeping us in touch with one another, even if it’s not face-to-face.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.