Steve Dahl.

steve dahl

One of the great radio broadcasters of all time is back on the air. Well, “air,” if podcasts count. Steve Dahl. I’ve listened to the first podcast (which was Tuesday — he does a new hour from his home basement studio every weekday) and he sounds to me in great form after a forced hiatus from FM. (CBS is paying him to sit out his contract for another couple of years — nice work if you can get it.)

There is no one to whom I could listen do nothing but sit and talk at me on the radio for an hour but Steve Dahl. There once was someone else — his name was Jean Shepherd, and he had a nightly radio show on New York AM station WOR in the late sixties and early seventies that I used to pull in from Philadelphia when I was in college. You’ve probably seen the movie of Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. Shepherd was a brilliant monologist, and so is Dahl. True, Dahl bounces off a couple of studio lackeys that he keeps around for the purpose, while Shepherd gave the impression of being in the studio alone, but I don’t take points off for that.

He talks about issues in his personal life that are bugging him, what he finds funny, the absurdity of the day’s news, his own considerable flaws, whatever. Sure, he’s witty, and there’s little enough of that on the airwaves, but it’s how wit is combined with realness that sets Dahl apart. You never feel he’s pulling punches, but you never feel he’s saying anything for effect, either. When you listen to Dahl, you hear a person, and you feel you may know him better than his own family does. The honesty is so vivid, it puts all else on the radio into relief; you realize that everyone else is faking it.

If art exists to imitate life — if all the arts, on some level, are about creating a recognizable analog of life — then Dahl is a rare artist whose medium is the extemporaneously spoken word. Over time, using only the sound of his voice, he has created a fully-formed realization of a man called Steve Dahl, who lives with you in your car, sits beside you in your office, or hangs out with you in your kitchen. He does have one disciple, a 10-to-midnight weekend guy on WGN-AM named Nick Digilio, who is the best younger hope for radio. When Dahl is ready to hang it up, Digilio (whose intelligence any Dahl fan will immediately recognize) will assume the mantle. Other than Digilio, there’s no one else. I hope Dahl takes care of himself, and lives healthy, because I don’t want him to die before I do.

He’s not a “shock jock,” because he knows that shocking people is easy, and he’s set his sights higher than that. It must be that being yourself on the radio is the hardest thing to do, judging from how few have done it.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, or at Dahl.com.

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