Signing off…

With his final show airing today, longtime radio host Calder Pickett reminisces about 'The American Past'

Calder Pickett never had trouble coming up with ideas for his radio show, “The American Past.”

He had enough topics to fill 1,500 shows over 32 years on the station now known as Kansas Public Radio. He still has enough ideas listed to last him another year, maybe two.

“It wasn’t any problem at all,” Pickett says. “If anything, I was throwing things away.”

But at 84 years old, Pickett says he feels it’s time to end the show.

No reason in particular. Just time.

His final show is at 8 tonight. It’s the last of three retrospective programs, looking back on a show that has offered listeners a slice of nearly every facet of American life.

The hour-long show remains the only radio program in Kansas to have received a Peabody Award, generally considered the Pulitzer Prize of broadcasting.

It’s a bittersweet time for Pickett. He wonders whether he’s making a mistake, giving up someÏthing he loves so much.

Calder Pickett, a former journalism professor at Kansas University who died Tuesday, is pictured in 2005 after retiring from Kansas Public Radio, where he produced the show The

“It was always a pleasure,” he says. “It’s something people have a hard time understanding, maybe. A lot of people asked how I could do it that long, and I’d always say it hasn’t been difficult because it’s something I enjoyed.”

Radio roots

Pickett, a native of Idaho, came to KU in 1951 to teach journalism. He retired in 1988.

Early in his career, he used phonograph records and other material to keep his “history of journalism” class lively. In the early 1970s, KANU director Gary Shivers asked Pickett if he’d use his encyclopedic knowledge on popular culture and understanding of multimedia to host a show on the station.

Through the years, the show’s topics were wide-ranging. He did a show on nearly every year of the 20th century and, as he puts it, “every president who was worth anything.” He did shows on celebrities – ranging from John Denver to Ronald Reagan – when they died. He talked about wars, western expansion, books, entertainers, musicals and dozens of other topics.

Pickett says his favorite show is one he did about the Vietnam War. He weaved in audio from Lyndon Johnson, music from “Hair” and “Apocalypse Now” and Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

“It’s not fun to listen to,” Pickett says.

In an oral history conducted by the university, John Bremner, a legendary KU journalism professor who died in 1987, called Pickett’s knowledge of popular culture and history “nutty.”

“He has learned so much,” Bremner said. “He knows so much. He’s reached the stage where he connects one discipline with another, one era to another.”

‘Strands of history’

That multidisciplinary approach was, in part, a product of Pickett’s education. He didn’t have a doctorate in journalism; he received his Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Minnesota.

“American studies is providing a synthesis of the American experience,” Pickett explains. “It just isn’t the political stuff or the economic stuff. It’s the way people lived, the songs they sang, the plays – and later the movies – they saw.”

That meant, when doing a show about, say, the Great Depression, Pickett would incorporate Dust Bowl-era songs and advertisements into the show, instead of just talking about New Deal policy.

Pickett says he had a fascination with movies since the 1930s, when he regularly struggled to come up with a dime to go to the picture show.

In 1961, Calder Pickett, left, met President John F. Kennedy, right, when he went to Washington, D.C., to receive a Hearst Foundation citation for Kansas University.

“He had great talent for tying together strands of history, culture, politics and public policy and weaving them together into a wonderfully instructive tapestry for what he wanted to get across,” says Mike Kautsch, a former KU journalism dean who’s now a law professor. “I think he was an interpreter of culture as well as of history. He was good at spotting patterns – not only that they existed, but their significance.”

The process

Pickett worked on his shows weeks, and sometimes months, in advance.

Once he picked a topic, he would find songs or audio from old news broadcasts to use, often sifting through the massive archive of books and recordings he keeps in his basement.

Then, he would type the script on an electric typewriter – he never switched over to a computer. Often, the scripts would end up on the back of scrap paper or envelopes to save paper.

He’d tape his portion of the show at the KPR station, then forward the instructions and recordings he wanted to use – at first, phonograph records, later tapes and CDs – to an audio engineer who would put the show together.

Chubby Smith, a Lawrence musician who has served as Pickett’s engineer for five years, says he always enjoyed hearing the shows’ content.

Calder Pickett, a retired Kansas University journalism professor, is pictured early in his career in this undated photo. His longtime radio program, The

“I didn’t do so well in school,” Smith says. “I had an affliction with guitars and girls. Listening to his show, I learn a lot. It’s interesting stuff.”

‘Labor of love’

The program drew a wide range of listeners. The fans included Hal Orel, a retired English professor who grew to be friends with Pickett.

“The range of subject matter on ‘The American Past’ programs was really quite impressive,” Orel says. “God, his memory is very specific and very detailed and encyclopedic.”

Orel says it’s clear Pickett found joy in doing the program.

“When you consider the fact it was over and beyond his teaching duties – that it was a labor of love, he never got paid for it – it’s all the more impressive,” Orel says.

Pickett says he’s not sure what he’ll do to fill his days with the show off the air. He’ll still read at the Audio-Reader Network, a reading service for the visually impaired. He plans to listen to his recordings – and make copies of old shows when he gets a letter requesting one.

He’s proud of the show.

“I think people should do something good in the world when they can,” he says. “I felt that way with teaching, and I felt that way with the radio program.”

Calder M. Pickett

Born: July 26, 1921
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Utah State University, 1944; master’s degree in journalism, Northwestern University, 1948; Ph.D. in American studies, University of Minnesota, 1959.
Honors: Mott-KTA award for best journalism research, 1969; Peabody Award for “The American Past,” 1973; HOPE teaching award, 1976; Chancellor’s Club Career Teaching Award, 1987.
Radio experience: Host of “The American Past” on Kansas Public Radio since
September 1973.
Teaching experience: Faculty member at Kansas University from 1951 to 1988.