Studs Terkel and Radio Diaries
In the early 1970’s, Studs went around the country, tape recorder in hand, interviewing people about their jobs. Studs collected more than 130 interviews, and the result was a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, published 40 years ago. The book became a bestseller– something unprecedented for an oral history collection. Furthermore, it cemented Studs’s place as someone who did more than just interview the greats, but really investigated what it meant to be alive in the hear and now.
After the book came out, the cassettes were packed away in boxes and stored in Studs’ home office. This year, Project& and Radio Diaries have been given access to all the original raw field interviews, most of which have never before been heard publicly. You may have heard the piece they produced on NPR’s All Things Considered (4:20pm or 5:20pm), where they aired one of the lost interviews that never made it into the book: Helen Moog, a taxi driver who happened to drive Studs to the Youngstown, OH airport. But there will be more excerpts from the Working tapes coming soon on the Radio Diaries Podcast
The radio piece is the pilot for an exciting national initiative from Project&, “Working in America,” that includes a large scale traveling photo exhibit with Pulitzer Prize-Winning photographer Lynsey Addario, contemporary interviews with Working subjects and others, and a week-long NPR series that Project& will be co-producing. Over the coming year, they will be digging through much more of the interviews that didn’t make it into the book. In the mean time you can hear Radio Diaries piece on working here:
What strikes me most about the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and Studs in general is his ability to inspire listeners to engage with the world of arts and culture. Through my journey to the past as an intern with the Archive, Studs has led me to discover new authors, classic films, and movements that I never knew existed. Listening to Studs discuss Charlie Chaplin in his interviews with Roger Ebert and Buster Keaton made me yearn to delve into the world of silent films. After hearing Erica Jong discuss her novel Fear of Flying I went to the library to check it out. Prior to encountering Studs I had never known of Abstraction Theater and yet here I am in the middle of reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, devastated that I will never get to see Zero Mostel’s performance!
Of all the programs that I listened to Studs’ great versatility shines brightest in his interview with film critic Roger Ebert. Discussing silent legends including Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Edna Purviance as well as both American and Foreign classics, Studs and Ebert’s conversation easily engages its listeners for the full 2 hour special. At one point in the interview Ebert is so impressed with Studs’ familiarity with film that he exclaims “Why Studs, you’ve seen every movie ever made!” It is the compatibility that Studs finds with whoever sits across the mic from him that makes his show a timeless pleasure.
– Maddie Field
Plays, Characters, & the Meaning of Life
Believe it or not, there were a few moments during my time as an intern for the Studs Terkel Radio Archive when I felt like I was having a personal epiphany. Studs’ interview with playwright Tennessee Williams provided one of those moments. They discuss Williams’ background, his plays, his feelings about Broadway versus off-Broadway or old playwrights versus new, as well as examine the characters he writes and the very personal connection he feels to them. And, in beautifully eloquent language you can’t help admiring, their conversation transcends the discussion of plays and characters, and turns into something else.
Studs and Tennessee Williams talk like old friends. They laugh together. At certain points you can hear the clinking of ice in their glasses. Yet Studs consistently addresses him as Mr. Williams or murmurs his name in full: Tennessee Williams, a sort of chant reflecting his respect for the accomplished playwright. This combination reflects Studs Terkel’s apparent, genuine interest that is present in all of his interviews. He creates an environment where interviewees can open up and produce gems of dialogue such as the ones in this episode, when Tennessee Williams reveals the secret of the best moments in life, of what being a complete person is, and of how to think about living as an American and a patriot of the world. Together they talk about life in a way that I haven’t been able to articulate myself, but could feel singing in my bones as true.
My epiphany feelings ended near the end of the interview, when their discussion turns briefly to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. The dated language they use to talk about it startled me out of my sense that they were speaking timeless truths, and in fact made me feel uncomfortable. Despite this reminder of cultural and linguistic distance, I learned to value Studs’ ability to create moments that feel eternal, moments that are infinitely relatable because they are about the most fundamental topic possible: the meaning of life.
An Absurdest on Reality
My name’s Derek Peters and I’ve been working as an intern this summer on the Studs Terkel Radio Archive project at WFMT. I host a radio show on my college radio station where I interview writers of all kinds about their craft. Listening to Studs this summer made me reconsider how I interact with people, both on-air and off. It might be obvious that I could learn how to better formulate an on-air introduction of a guest by listening to Studs and how I can turn an interview into a conversation. What might be less obvious is how, by listening to Studs and reading his books, I learned how to have a more genuine interest in all different types of people.
There’s currently a crew of construction workers tearing down the building next to mine. They’ve been working all summer—roughly the same amount of time I’ve been listening to Studs. Early in the summer, I’d walk by them on the jobsite in the morning and not think about them at all. I’d walk right by, only glancing at the heavy machinery to make sure I wasn’t about to get showered with debris. But now, after two and a half months of listening to Studs interview everyday people with the same attention and interest he affords to stars like Muhammad Ali and Woody Allen, I find myself thinking every morning about the workers on that jobsite. I walk by each day and see if I can gauge their progress from the day before. I wonder how they might feel about the work they are doing. Are they satisfied with the progress they’re making each day? Is the foreman stressed because they might not finish in time? Do the crane operator’s hands shake, knowing that one bump of the controls could have devastating consequences? These are questions I believe Studs would ask them and they’re questions I’d genuinely like to know the answers to. Everybody has a story. Studs taught me that.
Both Studs and Shel possess the gift of being able to discuss profound themes with simple words. While Studs reveals the human condition in the words of a bricklayer, Shel comments on the folly of man with a cartoon and a caption. It’s clear that they recognize this gift in each other, and from the opening minutes of the interview they have a genuine rapport. Together, the two criticize the softening of children’s stories in the name of political correctness, assess the aesthetic integrity cartoons, and debate the vitality of the younger generation. Often, they appear to be foils, but at the end of their conversation, when Shel makes an impassioned plea for more original voices in the world, it is clear to me that they are similar: both intently driven towards preserving the individuality of vox humana—the human voice.
Feminism Then & Now
Out of the countless interviews I listened to this summer as one of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive’s summer interns, one of the most memorable shows was Studs’ conversation with author Erica Jong. It became, in my mind, an example of the enduring power of Studs’ interview style. Their easy back and forth covers everything from Jong’s outrage at the Smithsonian to the symbolic meaning of menstruation with an immediacy that makes it easy to forget they spoke to each other forty years ago.
Studs caught Erica Jong at just the right moment. Right after publishing her famous novel Fear of Flying, Jong discusses the sensation aroused by the novel’s themes of female sexuality and agency. With Studs, she also reads sections of the book, as well as some of her feminist poetry, and shares her thoughts on being a female author writing about women. Ultimately they together outline the book’s relationship to second-wave feminism without the hindsight to recognize doing so.
Entranced by their conversation, I too lacked the distance necessary for such reflection. Despite the almost half-century remove, I felt that Studs Terkel and Erica Jong spoke purely for my own enjoyment. Their thoughtful and impassioned voices drove me to borrow a copy of the novel, which I read expecting to feel more of the same. But something was different, and it wasn’t just that the swears were removed in the sections Jong read on air. In the printed words, I saw a feminism older than the one I know today, one not more angry but somewhat less inclusive than its succeeding phase would learn to be. It was shocking to realize that the voice I thought was speaking only to me had in fact been part of a previous cultural moment. The book I borrowed had the same scandalous cover I heard Jong describe in the interview, but it was yellowed with age, about to fall off of its binding. Realizing that I had forgotten about the passing of time in such a literal way led me to truly appreciate the power and vitality of the human voice, and the incredible significance of Studs Terkel’s oral histories.
We’re excited to announce that the very popular radio show This American Life will be featuring an excerpt from the Studs Terkel Radio Archive on their coming show Mind Your Own Business. While we don’t want to spoil their show too much, we can tell you that it will be taken from Studs Terkel’s interview with columnist and seminal Chicago writer Mike Royko. In his years at the Chicago Tribune, Sun Times and Chicago Dailey News, Mike became as much a staple of Chicago as Studs was. Here they come together for a conversation filled with humor and insight that covers everything from salted crackers, to a Street Car Named Desire, to morality, to the invasion of privacy.
In 1961, Zero Mostel was in Chicago performing in Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros. Mostel perhaps best known for his role as Tevye on stage in Fiddler on the Roof and as Max Bialystock in the original film version of The Producers; Studs calls him “one of the great clowns of our day.” In this interview, they talk about clowning and acting, art, and life.
A Trip to the Movies
While in Rome, Studs Terkel interviews Italian director Federico Fellini on the set of his movie Fellini 8 ½. The director gives insight into his works, his credo, and his faith in man. Terkel probes into the recurring theme of all his films and delves into Fellini’s creation of the character of Steiner from La Dolce Vita. Along with this interview, excerpts from conversations with the following people are included: Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, French actor Alain Cuny, the writer Nelson Algren, and Fellini’s associate Mario Del Vecchio. All provide their interpretations as to why the character of Steiner did what he did in La Dolce Vita.
Studs & Algren: A Love of Chicago
“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch [Chicago], you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
Studs was a Chicagoan through and through, so it’s no surprise that one of our featured shows is his interview with Nelson Algren — one of the greatest writers in Chicago’s history. It’s even less surprising that when you bring together two men with such a strong shared identity they talk about it. To listen to Studs and Nelson Algren discuss their love of cities, Chicago in particular, click the player below.
Studs, Sacks, & Left Handed Skills
Called the poet laureate of medicine by the New York Times, Oliver Sacks knows more about the quirks of the human mind than most. Thankfully, his great knowledge is equaled by his ability to express complex concepts in an engaging way that anyone can understand. Some of his most popular works include Musicophelia and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
In this 1995 interview with Oliver Sacks, Studs explores the idea of “left-handed skills”, how people adapt to disability, and Oliver Sacks’s book, An Anthropologist on Mars.