HAM Radio 101

Hams You Should Know: Jean Shepherd, K2ORS, SK: Cowriter/Narrator of A Christmas Story

If you’ve ever lusted after a leg lamp or shouted, “You’ll shoot your eye out” to a bb-gun clad kid on Christmas morning, odds are you’re already familiar with ham radio guru Jean Shepherd, K2ORS, SK, who did the voice-over narration and cowrote the script for the iconic 1983 film, A Christmas Story. But that’s just the start of a long list of accomplishments for this big-name ham.

Born in 1921, Shepherd based the antics of A Christmas Story’s kid-star, Ralphie, on semi-autobiographical anecdotes pulled from his 1966 novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Stories first heard during Shepherd’s earlier stint at WOR Radio in New York City from 1955 to 1977. And his childhood was, certainly, an interesting one.

A kid who liked radios just as much as Ralphie loved listening to Little Orphan Annie on his 1940s Westinghouse 780 X radio, Shepherd’s love of all things ham was notoriously similar. He got hooked on Morse code at the mere age of eight, earning his 40 WPM Certificate at just 12 years old. By age 13, some say Shepherd was officially an operator, but it’s at age 16 that his call sign, W9QWN, showed up—though Shepherd always talked a big game about obtaining it even earlier. He served stateside in the United States Signal Corps before “hitting it big” in the years that followed with his work in broadcast radio.

Shepherd hopped like a pro in his early years, working at stations in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York where he earned a whole slew of call signs including W4QWN, W8QWN, and W3STE (chronology and photos of Shepherd’s licenses). Then came the one that stuck, K2ORS, earned during his 20-some year stretch working at New York’s WOR radio. But he held tenure at these stations first:

• WJOB in Hammond, Indiana, 1945

• WTOD in Toledo, 1946

• WSAI in Cincinnati, 1947

• WCKY and WKRC in Cincinnati, 1948

• KYW in Philadelphia, 1951-1953

• WOR Radio in New York City, 1955

His raucous wit, off-the-cuff humor, on-air antics, and ability to tell a story like no other quickly brought him a following although he was seldom politically correct in any of his pursuits. Hired as a DJ for WCKY and WKRC in Cincinnati, Shepherd was always on the hot seat for spinning tall tales instead of performing the requirements of his hire. But those tall tales would pay off, as Shepherd, who became known as “Shep,” used storytelling to make his mark. On his WOR show he talked for three hours straight, only pausing for commercial breaks that he openly disliked, and frequently poking fun at the sponsors, much to the chagrin of his management and the delight of listeners.

And his antics got his followers in trouble, too, when he tasked them with what he called “hurling of invectives.” Shepherd would tell listeners to put their radios in the open window, turn up the volume, and then he’d scream offensive statements like, “You filthy pragmatists, I’m going to get you!”

Shepherd also wrote articles for Playboy and the Village Voice; wrote four books: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters; The Ferrari in the Bedroom; and A Fistful of Fig Newtons—all based on stories spun on the radio or written in magazines; narrated Rheingold Beer commercials in the 1970s; and was the voice heard on the Carousel of Progress at Disney World.

His films include A Christmas Story and My Summer Story, as well as four PBS movies: Phantom of the Open Hearth; The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters; The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski; and Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. Plus, he wrote articles for Mad, National Lampoon, Grump, The Realist, TV Guide, and Field and Stream. He also performed live shows across the nation at countless colleges, making guest appearances at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Clinton Museum, Dayton Hamvention, the Overseas Press Club, and more.

And as if that wasn’t enough, he also appeared on television shows like I’ve Got a Secret, The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, and Steve Allen and even made three of his own called Rear Bumpers, Jean Shepherd’s America, and Shepherd’s Pie. He recorded six LPs: Into the Unknown; Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles; Will Failure Spoil Jean Shepherd; Jean Shepherd—Live at the Limelight; The Declassified Jean Shepherd; and Jean Shepherd Reads Poems of Robert Service; as well as a series of audio tapes with his short stories.

His work would earn him posthumous election into the CQ Amateur Radio Hall of Fame in 2001 and a tremendous amount of tributes and awards that you can see in totality here.  

Shepherd passed away on October 16, 1999, leaving behind an array of books, movies, and over 5,000 hours of recorded radio snippets from just his New York shows alone.

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