Dec 18, 2013

The Reason I Will Miss the Best Show on WFMU

Left to right: Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster
This past Tuesday, Tom Scharpling ended his 13-year stint as host of the Best Show on WFMU. For many, it was a great loss. No longer could people turn to the radio for three hours of "mirth, music, and mayhem." While Scharpling claims that this isn't the end of his hosting career, it is the end of a different thing for me. It is the end of the radio era. While I specifically listened to the show via podcasts, it was distinctly a radio show in execution with plenty of personality and familiar callers. If anything, it was the ultimate satire of radio shows with over 15000 hours of archives to check out.
While I have come to embrace the podcasting community as the future of entertainment, I have held onto a delusional sense that the radio is something special. There is an immediacy to it. It cannot be paused and only during commercials could you risk leaving the room and not missing a thing. Most of all, the personalities presented a universe that was pleasing to the listeners and made you want to tune in.
The notable influences on why I have a soft spot for radio comes from growing up with consistent contact with 95.5 KLOS' Mark and Brian Show and later on Indie 103.1. These weren't just people playing tracks, but also people that created content out of personal connection. They had callers that became regulars and soon the shows grew into their own monsters. Sadly, in 2012, Mark and Brian Show was retired and Indie 103.1 had been long gone. 
The Best Show on WFMU remained my last resource. I first came to the show in a roundabout way. In a sense, I knew who Tom Scharpling was before I knew what the show was. I remember him being interviewed on WTF with Marc Maron, but not feeling driven to give the show a chance. It wasn't until I began turning to the AV Club's Podmass for advice on shows to check out. One week, it clicked.


I remember the first bit of the Best Show on WFMU that I ever heard. It was from the subsidiary Best Show Gems, which highlighted the program throughout its 13 year span. For some reason, in 2011, I read Podmass and became intrigued and obsessed with wanting to listen to this segment called "RB Calls About The Gathering of The Juggalos." Not being a fan of the Insane Clown Posse, I figured at least it would an experience and give me some insight to how the show worked. I listened to it in my car during a drive to work and I was in awe.
The show was exactly what was missing in my diet of content. Tom Scharpling essentially insulted a "Juggalo" for close to 40 minutes. I wasn't aware at the time that Jon Wurster was the man behind the voices. Slowly, I began to dive into the Best Show Gems and became more engulfed in the content. Even if the discovery of Wurster took away some of the mythos, it didn't take away the enjoyment. Especially when paralleled with drives to work during the holidays and suffering from bad spirits, Scharpling's cry of "Heave ho, you creep" became a heartwarming statement.
By the time that I began to listen to episodes of Best Show on WFMU and not just the supplement, I felt the intimidation. This is a world that has built on top of itself and to jump on after over 10 years was daunting. Best Show Gems could only get me so far. I began to notice the cantankerous man who had the power to ignore bad callers and talk about absurdity in the pop culture lexicon. I adored his ability to talk about music in such detail and not care what anyone said. Scharpling may have seemed bitter, but he was somewhat of a genius at it.
I am ashamed to admit that I didn't listen to every episode after discovering it. However, the three hours when I did listen were an innocuous experience. From the various guests that he had on to the recurring characters, I began to embrace the show's community feel. I also just loved that it felt very much like the studio was a character unto itself and Scharpling simply interacted with it. With that much of a time frame, he was able to do extensive rants and take ambitiously long phone calls that deserved every second.
Most of all, he was an expert at build-up. It is shocking to hear that Scharpling and Wurster work hard on their calls every week just because of how free formed they sound. As usual, those are the highlights. The show in general felt like a community gathering and even if it seemed odd that Scharpling rarely disagreed with his guests enough to ignore them, it was a place of open thought. It may as well have been the last great public radio show out there.
As it stands, I mostly listened to the last two months of the Best Show on WFMU because of its retirement. It was also out of regret for taking leaps of absence. The result was what the show typically did well. It mixed bad callers with yelling at A.P. Mike and interviews with all of Scharpling's comedic friends. The Christmas party last week was exceptionally great, as it showed how things could be so free formed and not strict to a code of format. Even Gary the Squirrel, who has felt problematic to me, has some endearment as the show comes to an end. 
It is almost like saying goodbye to the fictional town of Newbridge, in which many of Wurster's creations came from. This was a community that even if I didn't understand, worked as much as satire as it did legitimate radio. If Scharpling seemed bitter that other podcasts were getting attention, he deserved it. He did three hours of free entertainment per week, and that is daunting. He was an expert with a strange pedigree for making great wisecracks about music. While he seemed like the old man at times, he also seemed like the cool guy who you turned to for advice.
Even the final goodbye, in which he slyly played Tom Waits before switching over into Black Flag, felt like an inside joke. That's a lot of what radio DJ's have been to audiences. The more invested you were, the likely you were to laugh. I was on an outside ring with limited exposure, but I enjoyed most of the experience and look forward to whatever he does next. 
But sadly, with the Best Show on WFMU disappearing, it also means that my last connection to the radio format has died. It is a strange experience because even if I still follow Mark and Brian Show's Brian Thompson on the Brian and Jill Show, there isn't that immediacy to it. You get the camaraderie, but you don't get the spontaneity that comes with live entertainment. It is a dying art form, and Scharpling may have been the last genius of it. If I am going to miss the Best Show on WFMU for any particular reason, it is that it managed to transcend radio programming and just became a great show in general that had callers and skits that were hit and miss, but mostly worked because of the mythology behind it all. 

Check out the archives of episodes here.

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