The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The History of Forgotten Phenomena: RIP Cliff Doerksen

Cliff Doerksen, who wrote for the Chicago Reader and contributed to This American Life, died last month at the age of 47. Doerksen covered all kinds of topics — film, fatherhood, the wonders of old newspaper clippings — but his epic reports on long-forgotten phenomena read unlike anything else you’ll encounter in a newspaper. Here’s Ira Glass on Doerksen’s storytelling style:

Hanging out with Cliff for an evening meant that now and then he’d ease his way into a long story. It could be the history of some movie, or some cultural trend. It could be something from the history of radio, about which I knew nothing and Cliff seemed to know everything—he even wrote a book on the subject. Often it was just a story from the office, all the characters rendered with a great eye for detail and a delightfully mean ear for dialogue. He was a far better storyteller than me. Sure, on the radio, with the benefit of editing and background music, I could hold my own. But in person, after dinner, it was no contest. He kicked my ass. He could kick yours too.” ~ Ira Glass

Each of Doerksen’s long features is worthwhile, but start with these two:

“When Zion Ruled the Airwaves” tells this history of WCBD, one of the most powerful stations in the country during the early days of radio. WCBD broadcast from Zion, Ill., a fundamentalist Christian enclave just north of Chicago, and built its audience with “programming that combined faith healing, classical music, sentimental Victorian parlor ballads, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preaching, and zealous advocacy of the notion that the earth is flat.”

“The Real American Pie” is an award-winning history of mince pie. Once considered more American than the apple variety, mince pie was a culinary staple despite the fact that nearly everyone who ate it agreed that the dish “reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.”

For more of Doerksen’s writing, check out his Chicago Reader archive.

Max Linsky is a journalist, the co-founder of, and an enthusiastic supporter of Jewish professional athletes.

Published January 6, 2011




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