Have you ever caught yourself listening in on a stranger’s conversation? If we are being honest, the answer is yes. We occasionally find ourselves pretending to toil on our phones while the guy across the coffee shop implores his friend to sit through just one more story about his obnoxious roommate. The point is that eavesdropping is a habitual practice fused with our human need to feel empathy. When you are hearing about the coffee shop guy’s horrible roommate trouble, you are gaining a little insight into his world, however minute that insight may be.
The reason I bring all this up is because for a month or so I have basically been a professional eavesdropper. As a student assistant at Columbia College Chicago’s Archives and Special Collections, it has been my job to listen to and digitize the audio tapes of a 1950s radio personality named Uncle Jim Christie, otherwise known as Clyde Caswell.
Uncle Jim was a good ole boy from the Midwest, born in Minnesota. He got his broadcasting start in Miami, and went on to host radio shows in Indiana, Illinois, Texas, and Minnesota. He became the host of the radio show called Uncle Jim’s Jamboree, which became one of the largest country music radio programs in the nation at that time. Uncle Jim later went on to become Columbia’s Dean of Students while working in the radio department, which is how we came to inherit this collection of tapes.
Now, I know that listening to audio tapes that were originally broadcasted to thousands of people isn’t exactly eavesdropping, however, there were times when Uncle Jim seemed to get along with his guests so well that the exchanges seemed less like interviews and more like down-home conversations between two friends.
There was a particular instance in which country music legend Red Foley flipped the script and started interviewing Uncle Jim because he claimed that the audience had to be tired of hearing about him and would benefit from hearing more about the beloved host of the show. These kinds of exchanges, along with the occasional reading of original poetry, truly humanized Uncle Jim in a way that made me feel like I was tuning into an intimate conversation every time I played one of his tapes.
In the modern age of celebrity hero worship, it could be argued that intimacy is a quality that is overlooked in the vast realms of broadcast and entertainment. It seems like today’s interviewers are only concerned with scandalous and sensational material that will satisfy the lowest common denominator. I think that somewhere along the way, something changed in what people wanted to see and hear when it came to other peoples lives. With TV channels like E! reducing celebrities to either narcissistic whack jobs, or raising them up to the level of untouchable idols, it is clear that what we value as a society has changed. It has been fascinating to me to see what used to matter to people and how that compares to the values of society today. It has been a refreshing change of pace to be treated to a number of real conversations as an unmolested fly on the wall, a stranger greeted as a longtime friend, and a welcomed eavesdropper on a public, yet private conversation.
You can now visit our department’s Digital Commons to listen to the full radio show.
“It requires character and wisdom in this life to lift the spoon of kindness, and put away the knife”. -Uncle Jim Christie