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Remembering alternative radio pioneer Larry Josephson

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

We're going to end today's show by remembering Larry Josephson, a pioneer of listener-supported radio. He died last Wednesday. He was 83. Starting in 1966, several years before NPR existed, he hosted a free-form morning show on the noncommercial radio station WBAI in New York. As his obit in The New York Times says, he helped shape the station into a vibrant, eccentric, alternative radio haven. He later hosted shows that were carried on many NPR stations including the "Bob & Ray Public Radio Show" that brought the comedy duo back to radio, "Bridges," a, liberal-conservative dialogue - Larry was the liberal - and "Only In America," the story of American Jews in which one of his interviewees was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In an email from Larry's daughter Jennie, she wrote that he grew up listening to the radio, and when she arrived at his side Wednesday night shortly after his passing, there was static on the radio by his bed.

Some of us on FRESH AIR got to know Larry back in the days when we often sent our guests to his home recording studio in Manhattan to record their end of the interview. Larry loved to tell jokes, old jokes with punchlines, and to send emails with jokes. Name the subject, and he'd probably know a joke about it. We're going to remember him by listening to the time he told a few on our show back in 2001. On that episode of our show, we had on the author of a book about the history of circumcision, and then I spoke with a mohel. A mohel is a Jewish man who performs the Jewish rite of circumcision on baby boys a few days after their birth. We knew we could count on Larry for some good mohel and circumcision jokes. So we asked him to tell a few to conclude the episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Larry, do you know lots of mohel jokes?

LARRY JOSEPHSON: Yeah, I know lots of - I have been able to recall six or seven of them, but they just - they keep on coming.

GROSS: Well, give us a few.

JOSEPHSON: All right. A ribbon salesman is about to retire, and he calls on a buyer at Bloomingdales. And he tells the buyer that he's never been able to sell Bloomingdales any ribbon, and would the buyer just buy some to kind of cap his career? And the buyer says, sure, I'll give you a token order. He says, send me enough ribbon to go from the tip of your nose to the tip of your penis. Next day, a truck backs up to the Bloomingdale's loading dock with 3,000 miles of ribbon. The buyer calls the salesman and says, what's going on? Salesman says, well, the tip of my penis is in Krakow.

GROSS: (Laughter) It took me a while to actually get that (laughter).

JOSEPHSON: Yeah. Some of these are sort of delayed. They have a delayed fuse on them.

GROSS: OK, joke No. 2.

JOSEPHSON: OK. Joke No. 2 - a man goes into a store to have his watch repaired. The owner says, I don't fix watches; I'm a mohel. The man says, so why do you have a watch in the window? The mohel says, so what would you put in the window?

(LAUGHTER)

JOSEPHSON: All right.

GROSS: OK.

JOSEPHSON: Here we go. Two men were standing at adjacent urinals in a men's room of the Waldorf-Astoria, and one of them turns to the other says, you're from Cleveland, eh? The guy says, yeah, how did you know? He says, Temple Beth Shalom? Yeah, yeah. Rabbi Schwartz (ph)? Uh-huh, uh-huh. How did you know? He says, well, Rabbi Schwartz is very nearsighted. He cuts on the bias, and you're peeing on my shoe.

GROSS: (Laughter) Where did you hear these?

JOSEPHSON: I've collected them over the - actually, I did some research. I called Marty Goldensohn, who called a friend of his, who called - and who is a Wall Street investment banker. And he reminded me of some of these 'cause what happens is that I have punchlines in my head with no setups or have setups with no punchlines or sometimes, the internal details are missing. So I actually did quite a bit of research for this.

GROSS: Well, Larry, thanks for the good jokes.

JOSEPHSON: My pleasure. Call anytime.

GROSS: That was Larry Josephson recorded on our show in 2001. Thank you, Larry, for your jokes, your friendship and your many contributions to radio.

This month marks one year since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. It's been catastrophic for women. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with Ramita Navai. She went undercover in Afghanistan to film her new "Frontline" documentary about how women are being controlled and punished by the Taliban. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY GIBBS' "PAPIROSSEN")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I am Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY GIBBS' "PAPIROSSEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.