According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, Herb Jepko was born in Hayden, Colorado to a single mother named Mary Irene Parke.  He was originally named William, but when he was adopted by Metro and Nellie Jepko of Prescott, Arizona, they renamed him Herbert Earl Jepko. Metro and Nellie's marriage was not a happy one. After they divorced, Metro got custody, but he was a wounded World War I veteran, and he soon took ill. With his father unable to care for him, Herb had to spend time in foster care off and on. He attended school in Prescott, but then his father got healthy enough to take care of him again, and in 1949, they moved to Phoenix. Herb graduated high school there, and briefly attended Phoenix College, which was then a small two-year college and is today flagship of the Maricopa Community College system.  He hoped to become a doctor, but soon ran out of money and was drafted into the Army. (1) It was during his time in the military that he discovered his life's work—radio, working in Radio-Television Operations while serving in the Korean War.
After completing his military service, he found work in radio at several stations around the Western United States, including KVNA in Flagstaff, AZ and KFI in Los Angeles. It was while he was the promotion director at KFI that he was influenced by a popular late night host named Ben Hunter, whose overnight call-in program was called the Night Owl show. Hunter's work was getting a lot of positive attention, and Herb was impressed with how loyal the late-night audience was. He stayed in LA throughout the rest of the 50s, where he married Patsy Little Brown (listeners would later know her as 'Pat'). Herb, Patsy and their five children from previous marriages moved to Salt Lake City, her home town, in the early 1960s. They later had one child together, Herb Jepko Junior (Jep or Jeppy). By all accounts, they deeply loved each other and their relationship was a strong one.
Herb was hired by several Salt Lake City-area stations, including KCPX, where he played jazz for the late night audience; and a new station, KANN in Ogden UT, where he did the afternoon drive shift. Then, in 1962, Herb joined radio station KSL first doing mid-days, and then in April 1963, becoming the station's morning show disc jockey, a shift he held throughout the rest of 1963. Despite being in a very visible shift, Herb was puzzled that KSL signed off at midnight, even though it was a 50,000-watt clear channel station whose booming signal reached most of the western half of North America. He knew how successful Ben Hunter's show had been, and he believed there was a similar late night audience in Salt Lake City that was not being served. On 11 February 1964, Herb's late-night show aired for the first time. It was an open-mic call-in show, initially known as "The Other Side of the Day," and later named the "Nitecaps" in a contest for a new name held among listeners early in the show's first year. On November 4, 1975, the show was picked up by the Mutual Broadcasting System and became the first nationally syndicated call-in talk show. One of the stations that carried it via Mutual, WHAS in Louisville, was a 50,000-watt "flamethrower" like KSL. The two stations' combined power brought Nitecaps to nearly all of North America.
Jepko's groundbreaking syndication is often cited as the pioneering kick-start for nationally broadcast talk-radio that allowed for the prominence of such hosts as Larry King and Phil Donahue. Ironically, when Jepko's Mutual contract was terminated on 29 May 1977, he was replaced first by Long John Nebel and Candy Jones (a husband and wife team), and then six months later (following Long John's untimely death) by Larry King. (Jepko had evidently been offered a chance to stay with Mutual if he would become more controversial and try to attract a younger audience, but he adamantly refused, feeling he had an obligation to his existing, largely rural and older listeners.) (2)
"The Herb Jepko Nitecap Show" was idiosyncratic, never focusing one any single topic. Carrying a laid-back atmosphere inherent to its then unusual 12:00 AM – 6:00 AM time slot, the show consisted entirely of listener call-ins: any subject the listener wished to talk about, no matter how big or small, was allowed, and the only forbidden topics were politics and denominational religion. Later, as the show became more popular, callers were limited to one call every two weeks of no more than 5 minutes. Jepko would run a recording of "Tinkerbell," a music box rendition of the song "Never On Sunday," to indicate that the caller's time was done.
Many of the listeners were elderly or shut-ins, or long-distance truckers, but a number were insomniacs who enjoyed hearing a friendly voice. And in a world of angry talkers, Jepko, whose listeners called him "Herbie," was known for being friendly, warm, and thoroughly non-controversial. He told an interviewer in 1965 that he hoped his show would contribute to "good will and understanding," and that his listeners would feel they were part of a family. (3)
"Nitecaps" was more than just a radio show. It was a club — the Nitecaps International Association. Local members formed chapters, called "Nitestands." Members took Jepko's message about good will to heart, and volunteered their time to the elderly, ill, service men and women and shut-ins; Nitestands were not only for socializing with other fans of the show, but they were an opportunity to do charitable work in each local community. And sometimes, Jepko would come to town and do a live broadcast. Additionally, Herb and Patsy sponsored an annual convention for members, giving them an opportunity to meet each other. That sense of community was especially important, and Jepko promoted it whenever possible. The Nitecaps show had its own magazine, called "The Wick," and its own theme song — written by listener Della Dame, and performed by local musician Don Ray; it can be heard here. . (The song was chosen by listeners from another on-air contest of listener-created songs.) Jepko also created a Nitecaps travel agency, and an insurance company, as well as compiling recipe books from recipes sent in by listeners. In fact, any Nitecaps listener could find a variety of merchandise that was available for purchase, often marketed in the pages of the Wick. (4)
The show had many regular callers, some of whom became celebrities of sorts among the listeners. They included "Maggie," an organist from California who often played songs for the listeners, a retired beekeeper named Leon, and a young caller from the East Coast known by the pseudonym "The Slasher." At a Nitecaps convention in Hunt Valley, MD, "The Slasher" delighted many (including Mr. Jepko himself) by making a personal appearance. After Jepko was dropped by Mutual in May 1977, his fans were very upset and insisted that he somehow stay on the air. Jepko cobbled together fourteen stations, including the powerful KSL, which became the new "Nitecap Radio Network." Unfortunately by this time (unlike the early 1960s), Herb had plenty of late-night competition including cable TV, 24-hour radio stations and the increasingly popular Larry King, who replaced Jepko and Nebel on Mutual. When KSL dropped the show in late 1978, Herb continued the show on a handful of stations, eventually bankrupting his personal assets in an effort to keep going. Several attempts were made to resurrect the program, including one with clear-channel WOAI in the early 1980s, but none proved successful or long-lasting.
Despite his popularity, Jepko did not significantly profit from his work. According to a former colleague, his Nitecaps show had been financially successful, but his deal with Mutual was not to his advantage. Where he and his staff had done all the selling of commercial time on the KSL program, Mutual insisted on doing the selling for the syndicated show. There were problems almost immediately, resulting in on-going friction between the way Mutual wanted things done and how Jepko thought things ought to be. Jepko ended up convinced that Mutual did not understand his unique audience. Mutual, on the other hand, faced with challenges gaining affiliate clearances for the show (only around 70 of Mutual's over 500 affiliates ever carried the show) decided Jepko's audience was too old, unsophisticated, and not large enough to bring in a profit for the network. As Jepko perceived it, Mutual betrayed their original contract with him and gave up on the show. By the time Jepko's contract ended, Jepko had lost whatever money his original Nitecaps show had brought him. (5)
Jepko's youngest son, Herbert Earl Jr., died of AIDS in 1992. Jepko's health sharply declined after that, and there is anecdotal evidence from former colleagues that he had a drinking problem (6), which escalated during this time. The cause of his death was given as "liver failure." (7)
Some of his former listeners still recall him fondly as proving that a talk show could be kinder and gentler and still attract a wide audience at a time when radio was becoming more controversial and talkers more angry.
Herb Jepko was posthumously inducted into the Utah Broadcaster Association's Hall of Fame in 2003, and there is an effort to establish a Memorial scholarship fund in his name at the University of Utah, see www.nitecaps.net link below.
(1) Hilly Rose. "But That's Not What I Called About." Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1978, p. 48.
(2) Lynn Arave. "Utahn Helped Shape U.S. Radio." Deseret (Salt Lake City) Morning News, 16 February 2007.
(3) James Bapis. "Utah Radio Program Rekindles Human Values, Listeners Say." Ogden (UT) Standard-Examiner, 25 July 1965, p. 16.
(4) Mitch Broder. "Small-talk Show is Big Draw in Wee Hours." New York Times, 23 February 1975, p. D29.
(5) Michael Keith (editor). Sounds in the Night. Ames IA: Iowa State University Press, 2001. (quoted material comes from pp. 96–8)
(6) Keith, p. 218; see also Mark Fisher. Something in the Air. New York: Random House, 2007. quote comes from p. 117)
(7) "Herb Jepko, Friend of Insomniacs Across the Nation, Dies at Age 64." Salt Lake City (UT) Tribune, 2 April 1995, p. B3.