A recurring observation about Studs Terkel is that he never did a boring interview. In the 45 years he spent as a broadcaster with WFMT, Terkel recorded more than 5,600 programs where he conducted nearly hour-long, nuanced interviews with everyone from James Baldwin to teenage students at the former Metro High School in Old Town. With help from the Library of Congress, the miles of tape have been gradually undergoing a digitization process in order to preserve them and make them accessible to a new generation.
Now, on what would have been Terkel’s 106th birthday, the first batch of roughly 1,200 programs will be available free to the public on the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. The Chicago History Museum and WFMT are co-managing the project with the ambitious goal of having the archive full available in the next two years (or so—the condition of some of the tapes is one of the challenges archivists have contended with during the preservation process).
In honor of the archive’s debut, Chicago reached out to some of the Chicagoans who were especially close to and fond of Terkel—or whose work Terkel was known to be fond of.
Sandra Cisneros, award-winning author of The House on Mango Street
“[Studs] was important to my life because my mom would listen to him on the radio. She was self-educated and went to the University of Studs Terkel. She’d say, ‘I heard Studs talk about this poet.’
He was important because he opened my mother’s world and brought poets and folk heroes and writers and thinkers into her world. I wanted Studs to know how remarkable he was in getting a working class person like my mom politicized and educated. He validated people’s lives that don’t normally get validated.”
Alex Kotlowitz, Award-winning journalist and author of There Are No Children Here
“The most meaningful interview was with my dad [in 1977]. My dad [Robert Kotlowitz] was a novelist and worked at public TV. My dad was a really restrained man and Studs got him to open up in ways that I’d never heard before. In fact, he even got him to talk about his time in the service, in World War II, which he later wrote about. I treasure that interview. I had the really good fortune to go on. [Terkel interviewed Alex Kotlowitz about There Are No Children Here in 1991.]
Before that, I knew his books, but I didn’t know he had an interview show. He was a kind of Bo Jackson of journalism: He kind of did everything.”
Alison Cuddy, Artistic Director of the Chicago Humanities Festival and former host of WBEZ’s 848
“There’s one where Studs is interviewing Gloria Steinem for Ms. magazine—I think it was the 10th anniversary of Ms.—and she’s so articulate and so passionate and kind of going through this kind of laser-focus talk of what feminism means, and the whole context out of which Ms. arose, and this really big, long, historical picture. She and Studs are talking about activism in a very intersectional way, and how when Ms. started, there weren’t terms like “sexual assault” and “battered women;” this was in 1982.
There’s a lot that Studs doesn’t understand in what she’s saying, and you can hear there’s a sort of him grappling to understand what she’s saying. A lot of people think great interviews are when people totally get on each others wavelengths. But instead, this was great because it was two people really trying to understand each other in conversation.
Allison Schein Holmes, WFMT archivist for the Studs Terkel Radio Archive
“For me personally, my favorite interview came from 1970 and was with a woman named Elsa K. Thompson. She was sort of Studs’ counterpart on the West Coast and did a lot of her conversations the way Studs did his. And they talked shop. They talked about conversations and the art of listening and how to make the interview feels like, ‘Hey, I’m interested in you. We’re going to allow for the pauses in conversation and let conversations go every which way….’
I love this interview because we’re at an age where were not really listening to each other and no one is paying attention to one another even when sitting together.”
Mark Dvorak, Chicago folk musician and longtime teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music
“There’s only one answer from my perspective: It was the interview with Big Bill Broonzy. When I was a young man trying to figure out the guitar — and in those days music was on LP—you’d read the back of the LPs and see, for example, [the artist’s] references to other musicians. And I kept seeing Big Bill Broonzy. I was in a department store and they had a Folkways LP for a dollar, and it was Studs Terkel interviewing Big Bill Broonzy. My God, I think that night I cried, because it was so beautiful. I had a night job, with sleep patterns that were pretty messed up. And I’d put on that record with headphones and let their two beautiful voices lulled me to sleep.”
Thomas Geoghegan, Chicago labor lawyer and author
I also love his interview with Leonard Bernstein because these guys really riff off each other in a really interesting way. They really know each other. There’s an intelligent and slight daffiness; they’re performing for each other.
Rick Kogan, Chicago historian, Chicago Tribune columnist and host of WGN’s Rick Kogan After Hours
“One that’s just wonderful for to me is the compelling curiosity in Studs’ interview in 1963, with the 21-year-old folk poet, who ‘looks like Huckleberry Finn and lives in the 20th century.’ His name was Bob Dylan. He is certifiably the Dylan we’ve all come to know, but that’s part of the allure of this interview. At one point Studs’ is asking him to play “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall,” part of his new album. And Dylan says, ‘eh, if you play it off the disc, it sounds better.’ And Studs says, ‘No, no I want to you see you play it. I want to see you play.’ You can hear Dylan unpacking his guitar. It’s fascinating. Studs introduced Chicago listeners to Dylan.
The most personal favorite of all of Studs’ shows—it’s January 16,1967—when my father, [the Chicago newspaper man] Herman Kogan and Mike Royko, they surprised Studs by taking over the show and making him their guest on the official publication date of Division Street: America. To me it’s fascinating, it’s so much fun. It’s more than a bit haunting, because these three people had, collectively, had the biggest impact on my life: My father, Studs and Mike.”
Tony Mancaluso, WFMT Radio Network and Studs Terkel Radio Archive Director:
“There’s a [one-time special] program he did with Nelson Algren in 1958 called ‘Come in at the Door;’ kind of like ‘a night in the life of Chicago.’ It’s this compendium, this great, hour-long soundscape hallucination audio piece that weaves in a lot of Nelson Algren’s bits and stories and poetry—and it captures Chicago, to me, in a way that I haven’t heard before. It’s all made in the ‘50s when you had to edit with a razor blade and tape. It’s amazing piece of radio editing and telling stories with sound.
Studs Terkel interviews Louis Armstrong, 1962
Fiesta: A Chicago Happening, part one, 1969
Fiesta: A Chicago Happening, part two, 1969
Discussing the book ‘Yesterday’s Chicago,’ with the authors and journalists Herman and Rick Kogan in 1976