The Studs Terkel Radio Archive provides an entry point into his wide-ranging and influential work
By Avery Gregurich
“I find the tape recorder on the steps of a housing project far more revelatory, you know, than I do, say, in a studio because that person, the old Black woman, or the old Appalachian guy in Chicago or that little street kid, who is a statistic, who’s one of them, suddenly becomes a person. And it’s very liberating. For me too, as well as for him.”- Studs Terkel, in conversation with Elsa Knight Thompson, 1970
I don’t think I had ever read an honest word about America until a friend gave me a copy of Studs Terkel’s Working. The book’s full title expresses its contents a little more exactly: Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel seemed to find them all or they found him, from spot-welders to doormen, pharmacists to school teachers, children’s nurses to grave-diggers. I bent the cover off that copy and the owner let me keep it, stealing all the story ideas I could and learning more about the country I’d pledged allegiance to for most of my life from it than any third-hand textbook. Terkel died in 2008 at the age of ninety-six, leaving behind eighteen books of oral American history–sprawling, unflinching texts about American Dreams, the Great Depression, war, religion, race, and work. Honestly, I thought talking to everyday people was his life’s work. Turns out it was his second job.
In 2018, the Chicago History Museum and WFMT Radio Network announced the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, a digital platform featuring the radio programs that Terkel created during his forty-five-year career at WFMT in Chicago. Through this archive, he’s grown a new generation of listeners (many have pointed to his interviewing style and subjects as a precursor to many modern day podcasts). Work on the archive is supported by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016, and began after the Library of Congress had digitized the thousands of hours of audio recordings.
Allison Schein Holmes, the Director of Media Archives at the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, has spent the last decade listening to, transcribing, and organizing thousands of hours of Terkel’s daily show on WFMT, which changed names over the years, but was most fittingly once called The Wax Museum. She marvels at the permanent relevance of most of the conversations that she has heard in the archive, despite the decades between the broadcast and the audience. “It’s really freaky how it’s pretty much the same,” she says. “Everything in the archive is applicable today. I think it’s because he tapped into that everyday person’s mindset and culture, and that resonates today.”
Holmes says that over the course of the pandemic she was able to double the amount of material available on the site. The archive now holds almost three thousand radio programs spanning more than four decades. It features interviews with a who’s-who of influential human beings of the twentieth century right alongside local Chicago community leaders and activists, religious clergy, and a variety of uniquely American characters.
Now that the work of archiving the programs is nearly complete, Holmes’ ambitions for the archive are the same as Terkel himself, the same as any preserver of the detritus that is contemporary American history. “I hope that listening to (the archive) gets people interested in talking to their communities and talking to their family members, talking to people that they maybe wouldn’t talk to, and be interested in the vox humano, right? That’s what I want them to come away with: I want pure enjoyment, and also eye-opening and ear-opening experiences.”
Studs was born Louis Terkel in New York City, but grew up in a hotel that his parents ran at the corner of Wells and Grand Avenue in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, but failed his first bar exam. After producing radio shows for the New Deal-era WPA Federal Writers’ Project, Terkel started acting in radio dramas, often as the villain who inevitably got nabbed in the end. (That’s when he grabbed his nickname, from the main character in the Studs Lonigan trilogy of novels written by Chicago author James T. Farrell.) From his radio acting, he began getting work as a news commentator, a sportscaster, and, eventually, as a disc jockey. In 1945, Terkel introduced The Wax Museum, which combined music broadcasts with impromptu interviews.
By 1949, he was given his own television show, Studs’ Place. Set in a small Chicago diner, the show was an unscripted sitcom apart from a short plot summary, allowing for the improvisational conversation that came to dominate his later work. The show was canceled after Studs was investigated by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to give evidence against other left-wing activists or retract his support for what he called “unfashionable causes.” (Terkel often said, “I never met a petition I didn’t like.”)
He went to work as jazz columnist for the Chicago Sunday Times and a stage actor, then eventually returned to broadcasting in 1952 with “The Studs Terkel Show” on WFMT, the day job he held for the next forty-five years. The interviews were raw, spontaneous and full of genuine curiosity, covering some of the most important subjects of the century.
“Studs was a guerilla journalist for the books–and for the radio stuff, he was like what somebody said, this kind of ‘Patron Saint of Podcasts’, with the creativity and eclecticism that he brought to his radio work,” says Adrian Marin, who works as the Archivist for the Studs Terkel Estate. “It all gets more and more relevant, you know? The same culture wars are raging, and I think it’s very important that the relevance is seen in distinct ways.”
Approaching the archive today is like stumbling into a crowded diner where every conversation is one you wish to eavesdrop on. It can be explored by broadcast date or by topic (examples: “Pacifists, Peace Activists, & Anti-Bomb Activism”; “Race Relations”; “Myths Stories and Storytelling”). My favorite way is to choose the category of “People,” which, in true Studs Terkel fashion, is broken down by the work they did. Here’s Allen Ginsberg contemplating who should shoulder the blame for Vietnam (“I would be almost willing to say everybody’s bankrupt. Nobody was right. You know, why not leave that much space for everybody to be wrong and start all over?”). There’s Studs, an early fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, talking to Margaret Atwood about what was then still considered “speculative fiction.” There’s James Baldwin remembering listening to Bessie Smith sing “Back-Water Blues” while writing Go Tell It on the Mountain in Switzerland. Maybe you’d like to hear Muhammad Ali’s philosophy of life and boxing, or Martin Luther King Jr. remembering his “I Have A Dream” speech while sitting in Mahalia Jackson’s home. Over there is Marlon Brando talking about American exceptionalism, and asking for another hour of conversation at the conclusion of the show, which Terkel gladly gave.
Prior to the pandemic, Marin, who also worked as a coordinating producer for the 2009 HBO documentary Studs Terkel: Listening to America, had been working in the home Terkel shared with his wife Ida in Chicago, digging through a lifetime of journalism and advocacy. There were thousands of pages of manuscript material and hundreds of interview tapes that Studs had collected while writing his books, along with a wide-ranging collection of phonograph records from Studs’ time as a DJ and many books and periodicals. “It’s really an incredibly broad representation of progressive life and an informed citizenry for the twentieth century.”
When Marin listens to Studs, he says he still hears what he’s always heard: an “artist at work.” “He knew how to pace and breathe and read and enunciate. And he knew how to do it so well that he could do it without even trying so that he was a natural,” Marin told me. “I think it’s like music to the ears.” He’s decided to devote his life to preserving Terkel’s life and work because he sees Studs’ story as a sort of valise stuffed with hundreds of other stories. “His life is about all these other people’s lives,” he says.
For all of his talents as an orator and interviewer on the air, Studs devoted nearly all the space in his books to his subjects, save for a brief introduction for each, like this one, from his interview with Herschel Ligon from his book American Dreams: Lost and Found: “On a farm in Tennessee. It is on the outskirts of Mt. Juliet, fourteen miles from Nashville. ‘I’m just an average farmer, livestock. Cows, hogs, sheep…’ He’s a big-boned man, face furrowed by a hard acquaintance with the hot sun. He’s out of a John Stewart Curry painting.”
Otherwise, Terkel presented their voices in the first person, omitting his own questions. He’s always present, though, hiding in the text, guiding his subjects to profound and vulnerable realizations and memories about their lives. At their best, Marin sees Terkel’s books as everyday encyclopedias, written by Americans about themselves. “It’s not just his interviewing. He’s really a great writer, and he knew how to structure the books and how to structure the interviews,” he says. “In a sense, they’re like the kind of literature that people are going to be referring to forever to learn about a time and a place in a similar situation.”
Take his introduction to Working, for example: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body…It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
One of the first pieces of Working I ever read was Terkel talking to Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker who’d been at it “for almost thirty years.” “Years ago it was more friendlier, more sweeter. Now there’s like tension in the air. A tension in the store. The minute you walk in you feel it. Everybody is fightin’ with each other. They’re pushin’, pushin’ — ‘I was first.’ Now it’s an effort to say, ‘Hello, how are you?’It must be the way of people livin’ today…I know some of these people are lonesome. They have really nobody. They got one or two items in their cart and they’re just shoppin’ for an hour, justy dallying along, talkin’ to other people. They tell them how they feel, what they did today…”
One of my favorite interviews in the archive is Terkel in conversation with Elsa Knight Thompson, a radio journalist and documentarian who was a leading figure at Pacifica Radio and KPFA in San Francisco. At one point, Terkel says: “The microphone is merely a medium, it’s a means…How can a person reveal himself? I’m talking about revealing his thoughts, not invading privacy but revealing his thoughts that he wants to or sometimes doesn’t want to reveal, but at times I find a person says to me, “You know, I didn’t think that I felt that way ‘Til I just said it.’”
The entire conversation is a masterclass in interviewing, and conversation in general. Near the end of their discussion, Terkel says these sort of prophetic words: “I’m very excited about the non-editing, even the hawing and the hemming. That’s also part of that person, fumbling and sort of thinking out loud, in contrast, say, to being on a network TV show where you’re told you got three minutes, you know… It’s a question of recovering a certain history that was lost and so there is no rule, almost anywhere. You have to more or less keep your antenna high and that’s about it.”
To me, that’s still about as good advice as any, and I think that’s how he always approached his work: as a hotel kid talking to strangers as guests into his ever-curious headspace, often at-length and with abandon. His radio interviews exist as a form of oral history captured in medias res, his books as textual harvests of memory, of regrets, and of American hopes. All told, they catalog a lifetime spent listening to people from the headlines to the classifieds.
Do yourself a favor and go listen to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. Many of the conversations feel surprisingly relevant in our current moment, which tells me we still haven’t figured out all that much. But Studs was trying to understand what it meant to be alive during his slice of time, and maybe spending some time with him now can help us try to understand our own. ■
Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River and has never strayed too far from it.
Cover image of Studs Terkel by Studs Terkel by Thomas S. England/Getty Images.
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