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Studs Terkel Gets Digitized

A digital archive plans to make almost every one of Studs Terkel interviews available for free online. Here are a few gems from the collection.

Studs Terkel in 2001.   Photo: Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune

During Studs Terkel’s 45 years as a radio host at WFMT, he amassed an oeuvre of more than 5,000 interviews. Now a collaborative effort, known as The Studs Terkel Radio Archive and led by WFMT Radio Network’s Director of Network Syndication, Tony Macaluso, has made the first batch of interviews available for free online. 

For Macaluso, the interview collection is an untapped resource.

“Most of the stuff in the collection was on reel to reel,” he said. “Almost all of it has not been heard since it was originally broadcast.” Macaluso believes the archive has the potential to become an excellent primary source for teachers to use in the classroom and for journalists and historians.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) agrees. In July, it announced that The Studs Terkel Radio Archive would receive a $60,000 grant. Macaluso says the grant will be used to help bring on part-time staff and keep the project’s momentum going. The archive has already enlisted the assistance of students at Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science to handle tagging, transcribing, and cataloging the collection. 

In addition to the newly re-released Terkel interviews, Macaluso says the team has recruited several "guest curators" to record new introductions to several episodes. So far the early recruits include Chicago authors Stuart Dybek and Alex Kotlowitz.

The current goal is to have 1,000 interviews available by February 2015, and nearly all of the remaining interviews, including original interviews from Terkel’s books such as Working, by 2016. The 400 interviews already online should keep you busy until then. Here are some of the gems from the current collection:

1 The Picasso Unveiling

It might surprise you, but initial reaction to Chicago’s Picasso sculpture was not unlike the reaction to the recent Great Chicago Fire Fest. But the statue has aged well. To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Picasso sculpture in the near the Civic Center, now Daley Plaza, Studs aired a recording he made at the original unveiling in 1968, in which he asked people a simple question: “What do you think it is?” Listen for Studs’ interview with the self-described "oldest man in Chicago.”

2 Nelson Algren

Algren was one of Studs’s great friends and a frequent guest. During this particular appearance on Studs’ show, he discusses his inspiration and writing process for his famous story, “How the Devil Came Down Division Street.” Bonus: Check out this additional interview, where Algren walks Studs through the streets of his epic poem, “Chicago: City on the Make.” Either one is an insight into one of Chicago’s greatest literary minds.

3 Muhammad Ali

One of Studs’ greatest interviews was none other than “The Greatest.” Ali discusses the racism he encountered growing up, his conversion to Islam, and his imprisonment for his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War. Studs called Ali’s daily prison regimen “the best description of a jailhouse routine I’ve ever heard.”

4 Gertrude Abercrombie

Abercrombie was one of the giants of Chicago art and the city’s jazz scene. In this episode, run shortly after her death, Studs notes at the beginning of the show that “this morning’s program, ‘A Tribute to Gertrude Abercrombie,’ will be her service, her memorial.” Abercrombie recalls getting her start in art with the Federal Art Project, when “I hardly knew how to draw.” She also discusses her friendship with Dizzy Gillespie and the song “Gertrude’s Bounce,” which Richie Powell wrote in her honor.

5 The Blizzard

Although the 2011 blizzard still looms large, it pales in comparison to some of the storms that hit the city in the 1960s. In one blizzard, Studs went out into the snowed-in streets armed with a tape recorder and microphone to talk to stranded commuters. 

6 Shel Silverstein

Chicago–native Shel Silverstein was a Renaissance man—writer, cartoonist, performer, poet, and playwright. In this hour-long interview, he reads from his then unfinished first full-length children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. He also expresses his concern that then contemporary artists and writers were becoming more and more obsessed with themselves.

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