Elsa Knight Thompson discusses interviewing guests
BROADCAST: 1970 | DURATION: 00:56:33
Content Warning: This conversation includes racially and/or culturally derogatory language and/or negative depictions of Black and Indigenous people of color, women, and LGBTQI+ individuals. Rather than remove this content, we present it in the context of twentieth-century social history to acknowledge and learn from its impact and to inspire awareness and discussion. While visiting KPFA, a noncommercial radio station in Berkeley, CA, Studs Terkel was being interviewed by Elsa Knight Thompson about how he goes about interviewing his guests. Both Thompson and Terkel agree that they do not write out or plan their questions ahead of time. Thompson also explained that, like Terkel, she knows listening to the guests is a big part of a good interview.
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Elsa Knight Thompson I'm in the studio with Studs Terkel, and I've done a lot of interviewing on this station and Studs Terkel has been interviewing people for many, many years in the east and I thought it might be fun to talk about the, about our trade a little. And I'd like to ask you, because I'd be fascinated to know, how do you go about doing an interview, and if you know you're going to interview so-and-so next week, what do you do about that?
Studs Terkel That's a difficult one. It depends who the person is or what I have in mind. Sometimes it isn't next week. It might be that improvisationally, that moment. But let's assume it is next week and it's a writer. Let's assume it's Dan Wakefield, his new novel "Going All the Way." I read Dan Wakefield's book. I also read some of his early journalism so I know who Dan Wakefield is. To interview someone on the station, say WFMT in Chicago, I'm sure as you do, Elsa, here at KPFA, it's, you indicate a respect for the person. And how can I respect a person who's a writer when I haven't read his works? You know, how can a carpenter come to a house without his tool chest, without his saw? So basically I think one of the horrors, why perhaps you are unique as an interviewer and why the station is, is something's happened to a sense of craftsmanship too, you know. Interviewing, radio interviewing and certainly TV interviewing, is relatively new and so we have interviewers who are non-craftsmen. That is, they don't come with their tools. That's number one. And second, I think is listening to what the person says and sometimes, oh sure, I take notes on the book and I think I remember the book, you know, but often he says something and it puts me onto another track, so it's conversation rather than interviewing. It turns out to be that, really, which makes it a two [unintelligible.]
Elsa Knight Thompson And what do you do? Do you talk to the person and sort of lay it out all ahead of time?
Studs Terkel No.
Elsa Knight Thompson Neither do I.
Studs Terkel No,
Elsa Knight Thompson I won't do that. I can't do it. I cannot sit and ask a person the same question ten minutes later that I've had an answer to before we went into the studio, because then, not only with amateurs, I find that if you do that, they look at you as much to say, you know, "You darn fool. I answered that." But I can't do it without it sounding funny. You know?
Studs Terkel More than that, Elsa, of course you can't nor can I. See, suddenly it becomes straight-jacketed and suddenly it's no longer as you and I are talking right now. We didn't talk. I had no idea what you were going to ask me nor do you know what I was going to say. But suppose we had a plan and laid out. I know you being you and I being I would not have followed that framework anyway, see. But as it's done, unfortunately too often, because the questions are laid out, the person who laid out the questions isn't really listening to what the person is saying.
Elsa Knight Thompson No, they're waiting to answer, ask the next question.
Studs Terkel Of course. So it doesn't matter. Something quite revelatory might happen. Something I call the revelatory phrase. It might be a pause.
Elsa Knight Thompson And something you want to go off on a completely new tangent and then you've got a rigid thing here. You can't possibly do that.
Studs Terkel But even that, even that pause, I might say, "Now wait a minute. You just paused. Now you said something. Now why did you pause?" and so he says, "I didn't want to." "What was it that made you pause?" All of a sudden this silence is revelatory too. You and I are talking right now. The microphone is, is merely a medium, it's a means. But we can talk across, as we are talking across the mike, without the microphone. We're having a cup of coffee, say, or a drink and we're talking. This is the only possible way to [unintelligible]. 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"
Elsa Knight Thompson Yes, yes.
Studs Terkel [Unintelligible] and in that sense too.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, one finds I think, at least it seems to me, that your best weapon in a studio is really whatever general knowledge you have and a genuine curiosity. It has enthusiasm to know what that other person knows; what they want to say; what they think about it. So that you're listening. When a person answers your question, you're listening with much more than your, than your conscious mind, and you frequently spot this fact that there is something else they want to say or something that they're, that they're unsure of, and it's kind of a business of putting yourself at the disposal of the other
Studs Terkel And something else too. Remember talking to Ralph Gleason here on the station for three hours. We were talking about Billie Holiday, and the one thing that always impressed me about her was her vulnerability and thus because she is vulnerable she affects me and makes me aware of my mortality and vulnerability. So too in talking to someone, say when I use a tape recorder, I am not very good mechanically. This is truth. As soon as I goof up, not deliberately but I do. Now that person, let us say not a celebrated person; let us say not an academically-trained person; say not a writer, not a clergyman, not a teacher or not an actor, actress, it doesn't matter. But let's say someone of the anonymous many, so-called, an ordinary quote unquote person who's afraid of the microphone. But he sees me goof up. He feels needed. To feel needed is terribly important, you know. 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, you see.
Elsa Knight Thompson Oh.
Elsa Knight Thompson There's nothing more, nothing more, well, exhilarating than realizing suddenly that you have released something in the other human being and that they're, that they're able to talk. I found that particularly in the first years that I was at the microphone in this country with Black people. Because the first people that we had were mainly from the South and the hostility with which they entered the situation was, you know, was very great and was quite justified. And when you could ride that and get through, and suddenly you saw this look change in the eyes and they were actually starting to tell you about what had happened to them and what was going on. It was, you know, those are among the most thrilling moments that one ever has.
Studs Terkel You see, two things happened as you describe that moment, Elsa. Two things happened, something to you and something to him. What happened to him is he saw in you someone who was really interested in him and really felt he had something to say. I have a funny story to tell you about. This involves a Black man while working on an earlier book, "Division Street America," which is a result of tape recordings of the Depression book "Hard Times," mostly with people who are non-celebrated. I'm in this housing project in Chicago. Old people, some white, mostly Black people living there. And this old Black man, whom I called Clyde Fulton, is a retired boner, very skilled craftsman for Swift meat packing. He's 85 years old; he's ailing; he's got everything wrong with him. And he's, "I could still be a boner. I could still be out there and doing it. I'm so skilled," he says, "but those gol dang doctors and that woman," pointing to his wife, and you see her and she's going, "Oh Lord have mercy. Here he goes again." But the significant thing is we end the conversation and he's, his, his offerings are very rich and very colorful and very thrilling. The end he says, "You know what. You haven't asked me something." I said, "What has happened to me, to my great surprise, it's happened to me three times in my life." I said, "What are they Mr. Fulton?" I'm just about to pack the tape recorder, to pull out the plug. He went, "Well, the first," and it's the third one that's the interesting thing. "The first time was when I, a 'darkey,'" as he put it, being an old Black man, an old man. He uses the word "darkey". "I, a darkey, chosen by Swift and Company as their prize craftsman at the Chicago World's Fair of 1934. My second surprise is being on the streets of Tampa, Florida. It's Good Friday. I'm looking out the window and I see an Easter suit and a white man comes off, 'This sidewalk is mine.' And I want him. So I socked him. I gave him the sidewalk and I ran off to the train to go north." And I'm laughing and he's very funny and I'm about to leave. He says, "You haven't asked my third great surprise." And I say, "What's that?" He says, "You coming to see me." I said, "Why?" "You mean I got something to say?" I said, "Wow. Have you!" It's that feeling of so many people that they have nothing, and you, facing this person, felt he had something to say. And of course he opened.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, it's a, it's a different, it's a different kind of human relationship, somehow, it seems to me at the microphone, because most of one's life, whether one is willing to admit it or not, it seems to me one's very conscious of one's self and one's own insecurities. But you sit across the microphone from somebody who may never have seen one before and your concern that they get a chance to say what they want to say and that you understand them and that some way or another you can help to bring this out, becomes so great that you forget about yourself.
Elsa Knight Thompson I have the experience many times that if I hear one of my things on the air, by accident I may add, I'm usually as surprised at what I say as I am at what the other person says. It's as if at a certain point, particularly if it's an extremely interesting or moving thing that somebody has to tell, that I, I don't know at the end of it exactly how we've gotten from one place to the next.
Studs Terkel Well there again, you see what happens. It's a paradox at work here. We need technology. Obviously you and I are talking right now, and a great number of people may be hearing us, thanks to this microphone in front of us. At the same time, that microphone becomes something terrifying to someone who hasn't seen it before. So our own interest in ourselves, as well, as in this person, both, our own mutual interest overcomes for the moment the bad aspect of technology -- that thing, that machine between us. At the same time, it's our means of reaching others. So it, it works two ways, like the atomic, the splitting the atom. It can liquidate all mankind at the same time as a new energy in the world that can liberate man. So either way. So we have
Elsa Knight Thompson I don't think we're bright enough to be liberated yet. At least that's my [theory?] of it.
Studs Terkel It's our hope, isn't it?
Elsa Knight Thompson Yes. Is there anything else from your own standpoint about interviewing that, that you find not only a fascinating thing to do but that is in relation to your, to your approach to the thing?
Studs Terkel Again it would depend on the circumstance. I have no rule. There is no rule. Once I found myself in a Ku Klux Klan tavern in Montgomery -- fortunately I was drunk, otherwise, I'd have been scared stiff -- during the Selma-Montgomery March and I met these two Klansmen out on the street. I start talking baseball with them and they talked to my tape recorder and something strange was happening. They were Klansmen; they were two barbers. At the same time you recognize their complete alienation from themselves and they disagree with Sheriff Clark. They finally said, "No, I never said never. Oh no, no." And then bit by bit you realize the bleakness of their own lives. This is coming out in the conversation. All three of us were drunk and that was I say in my favor at the time. What was coming out in the conversation was the fact that their own lives are bleak and empty and dull. What they really are saying, if, I hate to use their phrase, the very celebrated and horrible phrase, "If I ain't better than a nigger what am I better than?" You see, how poor are used against poor so often. Today we have it, of course, with so many blue collar people, so many ethnic groups, you know, whose own lives, their own personal lives. So it's to get into that, not deliberately, just casually in conversation. Our connecting link in that case was interest in baseball. I wound up in the tavern with the guys and I almost had a great thing going 'til the owner spotted me and it was kind of ticklish moment for me. But there is no rule. I didn't come prepared. I just came and that was very funny, that Selma-Montgomery March, a good experience. I think, I wasn't sure what I was going to do. Cover the people in the march or use my tape recorder at the gas stations and the grocery stores and I decided the latter, much more important because the Black people and their colleagues that day so long, long ago when Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of George Wallace's mansion and Dick Gregory cracked jokes there and nuns and priests and celebrated people, historians and others were marching. In a sense the Black people, now that know who they are. But the white, lower-middle-class white, that guy, suddenly we're seeing a myth he lived by being shattered. A Black man talking like King, a wit like Gregory with little George Wallace peeking from the window, the myth he lived by, that there's someone less than he, shot that moment, shattered. Viola Liuzzo, you remember, was killed the next night. Well, I had to be there because that's where the revelation, the moment of revelation was, you see.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, of course, that, that operated in Europe, on the dictatorships, too. That you saw sort of, you know, in descending order, the people and what they had power over, until you got down to the people who, who snatched your passport out of your hand on the trains.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Elsa Knight Thompson But we're all aping what they conceived to be -- Hitler, Mussolini and all -- taking it out on the grade that was, was lower. And I think that the attitude of the so-called rednecks in the South is probably very similar to that.
Studs Terkel I'm glad you said so-called rednecks. That's very interesting. You said, you didn't say [redneck?], you said so-called redneck, you see. Because, yeah.
Elsa Knight Thompson You know, I mean if you know enough about any person or any group of people, all you can have, I think, is, is a sort of sorrow about it. That doesn't mean that you don't have to fight them--
Studs Terkel No. The point is, you see, the word,
Elsa Knight Thompson If they're doing the wrong thing. But it's not the individual.
Studs Terkel No. It's during that same trip I met this very fascinating woman who came from a poor white family, a very enlightened woman by this time and she says the word is an offensive word to her and it's the word that George Wallace uses so well, of course, you see. The very phrase red-neck - it's red from working in the sun, you see. But the very, it's as an offensive word, she says, as the word nigger is, you see, and I have never used the word since. You said so-called, which indicates your own thoughtfulness here, you see. We have this tendency, we in cities or those who think they're more enlightened, now to forget who that, what has made that person. That's why I was interested in the Klansmen, you see. What made this guy do it or what made this guy in Germany do it what he did. We know they're not unique for a long [unintelligible]. They are unique. They're not unique. Are they? It could be here, couldn't?
Elsa Knight Thompson Ooh, hoo, and couldn't it just? We have very, very far along the road in that direction in many ways.
Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking of the subtitle of Hannah Arendt's book, you know, "Eichmann in Jerusalem." She subtitles it "The Banality of Evil" to indicate that Eichmann was not a beast but a banal man. And I think here we're seeing something, if I could reverse the phrase, "the evil of banality," the banality of it. And so we have the banal man that, that in itself was evil. The commercial we see that denigrates those performing in it as well as those watching it. Those whose energies, 50,000 bucks, 60,000 bucks, money spent doing it, whether it's a cigarette commercial that's offensive or one or another or seeing the situation comedies that demean or some of the talk shows that demean, you know, and in a sense that banality must result, it seems to me, in Nixon, Agnew and Reagan. So you have the blue-collar guy sees in Agnew his colleague because he really sees him as no, no-one was putting him down. He is him, himself,
Elsa Knight Thompson Oh sure, sure. Well, they, they claim that people get the government they deserve. And I think, in the last analysis, that they may well do just that. It's only a question of when you get to that last analysis. And I think in this country, I don't know how it is in Chicago right now, but I think things are stirring everywhere. We haven't come to the final yet, by any means. We're in a tremendous process that will outlast all of us, I imagine.
Studs Terkel I think, it's obvious at the time we live. You know, the old phrase used so often. Now I first heard Arthur C. Clarke use it, the science fiction writer, you know. The Chinese curse has been visited upon us, you know. You know, "May you live in interesting times," you know.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, that we can't complain about.
Studs Terkel But coming back to "the government they deserve," again we have to consider the conditioning of so many. Mass media has failed, KPFA being so notable an exception, unfortunately so rare, that the very nature, you know, of what we call objective journalism has never been objective really. The only true journalism is advocate journalism because the objective journalist has always been, always has some objective, is pro-status quo. A man is controversial. Now you've been called controversial no doubt. OK, well that's obviously, I say that's a compliment. When, if you're non-controversial, you are dead. The very nature of life or nurture of nature itself is growth, development, cracking down, cracking up. So if you're non-, the only non-controversial state, the natural state, would be death. Then you're no longer controversial. Just a silence is, silence, the silent majority appeal is abhorrent, horrendous appeal because you're telling people.
Elsa Knight Thompson If they're silent, they certainly shouldn't be. I mean it, it's no compliment. I would, I would hate to feel I belonged.
Elsa Knight Thompson To a silent majority. And, of course, there is that wonderful poster which Kay Boyle has in her window and it's a picture of a cemetery. It's black with white tombstones and underneath it says, "The silent majority." Well, you have never been silent. Nor, I'm afraid, am I, have I.
Studs Terkel I didn't know you have.
Elsa Knight Thompson Here on this station, and, I suppose, on yours, I think we feel and rightly so, that the communications media not only has an enormous job to do but that by and large taken as a block it doesn't have, and yet that that Agnew's remarks are considerably beside the point. And yet I have a further feeling about it, which I'd love to have your comments on. I think that the person, the individual who is attracted to the media in the first instance is apt to be a fairly good and honest person because most people know if they go into that field they're never going to make a million dollars out of it. That isn't the route to take. And I think if you sent the average cub reporter out to cover a story, that he's going to do his best to cover it and that the flaw in the media is not at the intake end now. That's my experience. We have volunteers, youngsters around here - 17, 18, 19. You get something like the People's Park or, or one of these other things and you can send those people out with their [ewers?] and they're just like cameras. They stand in the middle of these things and they just tell you what's happening around them with no, you know, no, not even a suggestion of an effort to cover it or slant it or think about it, you know. They're at the corner of so-and-so and so-and-so is doing such-and-such. And this seems to me, now that, I think, is objective reporting, the sort of camera thing. It's when the slant comes in, which comes from some other level, that you get onto the business of the real corruption of the media.
Studs Terkel A good example of that, if I could cite the Chicago convention of 1968.
Elsa Knight Thompson You could.
Studs Terkel "The New York Times" in Chicago has three excellent, excellent young journalists at work. And their complaint is a deep, deep one and a bitter one, about what happens to their stuff when it reaches a man named Rosenthal in "The New York Times," you see, and how [unintelligible] the key complaint happened in the conspiracy trial. How things were altered and changed. How it said "Judge Hoffman said." But the original comment was "Judge Hoffman hollered." And the kid originally wrote, "Abbie Hoffman mumbled." and it came out "Abbie Hoffman screamed." Do you see? So you have, of course, you're right, the young journalist, and of course there's a new breed of young journalist, I'm happy to note too. And more and more young journalists who are quite marvelous but what happens to their stuff when they work for a metropolitan paper or a huge network is something
Elsa Knight Thompson And one wonders often if there's anything that personnel in the media can do to defeat this. I mean there are revolutions going on every place else why not in the, in the media? Because I think that, that more and more people, I noticed it during some of these trials, particularly the Huey Newton trial, that the actual people from the press corps who were there in that courtroom, by the time the thing ended, there was simply no question where they stood on this case.
Studs Terkel Of course. And that's the way it was. That's where was.
Elsa Knight Thompson And I imagine the conspiracy trial is Chicago was the same thing.
Studs Terkel I
Elsa Knight Thompson And yet there is this barrier to getting it, to getting it through.
Studs Terkel There's the bottleneck. There's always the matter of this bottleneck.
Elsa Knight Thompson And that's been going on for years. I can remember during the war the "Time" and "Life" magazine people in London going out of their minds when they saw what had been done to their reports out of London.
Studs Terkel You know, as we're talking, there's something you said earlier [unintelligible] about people get the government they deserve. I might have just, [unintelligible] could talk about that a minute. What have they been taught? What do they know? See, I'm thinking now of the blue collar guy who called me the other day. We can't help but think about 25 years of Cold War and what it's done and labels and names and of course McCarthyism. And so this guy calls me. He's a steel worker and for some strange reason he called me. He was sore at something. I said, "Then why did you call me?" "It's because [you see] the only one I know in Chicago who still thinks of me even though I disagree what you said." He misinterpreted something I said. He's, "I'm, I'm coming, will you come to my house?" He lives in Cicero and Cicero is a pretty rough place, has been, politically. Cicero is a very strong sort of George Wallace country, and he says, "Would you?" I said, "Sure." And he paused. He said, "You will?" He said, "I thought you were going to hang up on me. I thought you want, you want to hang around intellectuals only." I says, "I'll be there, with a six pack." He said, "Bring a six pack." I said, "OK." He's, "I'm inviting Eva Jefferson." She's young Black girl who's the leader of the student body at Northwestern, quite brilliant. Well, she couldn't make it that session, something happened in the campus and I saw him and he was astonished that I showed up and I says, "You see something. You've got a stereotype too. Me this kind of guy. And yet you see, you're sore because people think of you as a stereotype. You're a victim of it too." Well later on I called him. About a week passed. I says, "Eva Jefferson can't be there this week. How about September?" "Now I want to ask you a question." This is the young white steelworker; he's talking about this Black girl Eva Jefferson, "Does she respect me?" I said, "Of course she respects you." "Do you respect me?" I said, "Sure I do, I was there, wasn't I?" He said, "Yeah." And it's this wanting to be respected. And I think often those who call themselves quote unquote liberal, whatever that means, or people of the left, whatever that means, often lose track of the fact this guy is somebody. Jesse Jackson, Reverend Jesse Jackson used that phrase in all of his Operation Breadbaskets. Somebody, you see. And the guy really feels he's nobody. When a guy feels he's nobody. He's got to be part of something number one. So he says, he could be the guy driving the cab, or this guy, "We got to win in Vietnam, because we're number one," because he's not anywhere near number one in his own life. He's going to be part of something that is big, and I say, "You don't have to be number one nor do we, nor does any country, you see." But that's not it. When a guy feels like he's nothing, he's going to be part of something he thinks is the most muscular, the strongest, the biggest there is, something compensatory for his own emptiness, you see. This guy's got to be reached. I haven't figured out a way yet but he's got to be reached, you see.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, it's surprising to me that, that people think that it's so difficult to reach people. KPFA is supposed to be a minority audience. And I think it is but it's the most curious minority because it cuts across all the normal lines. You walk through the lobby of a great big parking place in San Francisco. And here's this little man with a news, you know, and chocolate bars and things, kind of newsstand thing. And I hear KPFA's news bulletin blaring away and I can't resist. I go over and I say, "Do you have this station on often?" And he looks at me and says, "I never listen to anything else." And then he calls me by name. Now this is not the mental image that most people have of a KPFA listener. Cab drivers. All kinds of people.
Studs Terkel That's
Elsa Knight Thompson You know. It does not. It is a minority. But it's a minority made up of people who are genuinely avidly interested in the world that they're living in.
Studs Terkel I think you've got something else here that's very exciting, as I listen to you talk, Elsa, it's, it's. Also those who feel, "Hey, there's something going on there." It's not the usual banal stuff, and this guy might be very much to the right, too. It's interesting, need not be always one persuasion, you see. I subscribe to Nicholas Johnson's approach. You know Nicholas Johnson, that marvelous young communications commissioner.
Elsa Knight Thompson Yes.
Studs Terkel And he thinks that since radio, the air does belong to the public -- and we forget this, that the man who said it was Herbert Hoover, you know that Hoover said, "The air belongs to the public" -- that the owners of stations only have a franchise. And he says everybody should be allowed on them. I love the idea of a station [unintelligible] in which all opinions, I don't care what they are, are expressed, having enough faith eventually in listeners, enough faith eventually that people hearing all things will come to their own conclusions. If everything is offered.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, would you agree with this. You've interviewed hundreds of people, I imagine. My feeling is that you approach the audience with the knowledge that they may not have any facts. It's part of your obligation is to give them the facts. But you never approach the audience with the idea that they're stupid, because they are not. If there's anything that I cannot bear, and I think it's done awful lot over the year, is this nice "Baby, eat up the farina and somebody will tell you a bedtime story." You know, the talking down to the audience. We, we try to avoid that here and get the reputation, I suppose, of being pretty far out because we do. But I think people like.
Studs Terkel Oh,
Elsa Knight Thompson The genuine article, even if there may be parts of it they can't, they haven't the background to follow, like if you have a scientist talking about something or something like that. But to try to water down things for what the intellectual person who is involved conceives to be the mental stature of the common man, whoever the hell he is. It was like at the BBC. They used to hold committee meetings about what questions they were going to ask the man in the street and try to dope out his answers before they would send a crew out. And I used to sit there and say, "Well, if you want to know what he thinks about so-and-so, why don't you just ask him?" But this was too simple a process.
Studs Terkel Since you mentioned BBC, see we were talking earlier about do you or I prepare questions and lay it out. BBC, of course, I remember being on as a guest a few years ago, and I was so horrified, so shocked. And then finally they, I said, "Let's drop it," and this, I will say to the credit of this one particular interviewer, he did drop it. But they're so accustomed to the pattern of having it all [raised?], you know ,the questions laid out in advance and naturally the same, the same mentality would say let's lay it out for the quote unquote common man. Of course. Because it's, and that's, it's really their own lack of knowledge about what makes a human tick, whatever it is, or curiosity, or what makes a guy tick,
Elsa Knight Thompson Because I, I have a firm conviction that, that no matter how, I mean people are emotionally very mixed up many times. They have all kinds of prejudices and all kind, we all have in a sense, we're conditioned as you mentioned earlier on. But I think that people from a rational standpoint much brighter than they're given credit for being.
Studs Terkel I remember being, this is on this very point, I used to play a gangster in soap operas in Chicago and "Ma Perkins" and "John's Other Wife" or "Helen Trent Can a Girl Find Love after 35,"[sic] and later on I had, I made some suggestion to one of the agency guys, "You know what, these are." He agrees pretty, he's, "Well, you know the average listener in the [West has a?], mentality of a 12-year old," the usual cliche and the stuff is horrible.
Elsa Knight Thompson Good God, they did have the mentality of the average 12-year old. How lucky could we get?
Studs Terkel Of the contemporary 12-year old, yeah, but the stuff was pretty horrible. I suppose you tried a romantic. Now suppose you tried "Wuthering Heights" or something of Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen. Suppose you tried [no love?], suppose you tried good literature on the theme instead of "Ma Perkins" or instead of "[Mary Marlins?]". "Oh, they wouldn't dig it." The fact is of course, of course that woman would dig it. The first day she was conditioned, that's what I mean by the banality, conditioned to banality and thus becomes banal, you see, but again it's a matter of to what are you exposed, you know. Does a kid love Mozart the first day he hears him, I don't know, you know. I don't know if he does or not. But hearing Mozart and then and you know and getting with and not being force-fed Mozart either, that's the other point that Ralph Gleason has made so often, you know. But it's the question of, the possibilities in man, of course, are incredible and the underestimation of the viewer, of the listener is what's so horrendous, of course.
Elsa Knight Thompson I think it's, I think it's insulting and unnecessary and in some sense, it's the responsibility of the people who do it. The amount of sheer arrogance which is involved in, in the, in the oftentimes very cheap people who propose that they're capable of taking the decisions from the rest of society, and what they're able, equal to intellectually and so on. A lot of these people who are taking the decisions are themselves not that much.
Studs Terkel There's also selling involved. We forget this, the media, again the exception being KPFA and your colleague stations. It's, it's a sales medium, selling, and the feature is really secondary to the commercial. This is the point. Far more love, far more energy, love, perverted love is spent on the commercial than on the feature. You know, I don't know you're aware, but on TV the volume is turned up on a commercial.
Elsa Knight Thompson Now I noticed you can always hear the commercial whether you can hear anything else or not, not that I listen that often.
Studs Terkel That's right. That, that is that is deliberate. You see, that's deliberate. That the volume is higher during a commercial. It's a [unintelligible] it's a nuance or so. So there's a nuance there but it's definitely higher. And because that is more important really to the guys who run those media.
Elsa Knight Thompson But don't you think that an awful lot of people don't listen to those commercials in any active sense. I know they sell their products but I think they probably would anyway. You have to buy something when you when you go to get something. But I find those voices, most of them, just like, well, you know, a shell without any egg in it. There's no real thought.
Studs Terkel That may be but you see the fact is the repetition, day after day, the irritant nature of it, unfortunately, I'm afraid, does have an effect. And so it is something you remember [horrible maps it does?]. I hope it doesn't but, you see, I don't think they'd be spending these millions and millions and millions if it weren't delivering for them. That's the horror of it, you see. Again we come to the conditioning of man, you see, particularly in watching. I know many visitors, European visitors sometimes are astonished, watching a television show. It might have a serious theme and all of a sudden the commercial comes in and the commercial is just as important as the theme. Therefore the theme of life and death becomes secondary, just as significant as that deodorant detergent, do you see. You see, so therefore,
Studs Terkel It loses all meaning.
Elsa Knight Thompson One of the things that I've thought about for years.
Studs Terkel Sure.
Elsa Knight Thompson Is this business of, on news bulletins and so on, doing some item which is really of fantastically moving or important or something. And then in exactly the same voice talking about toilet paper or some other damn thing and it's just unbelievable that people are supposed to take their minds and wrench them back and forth.
Elsa Knight Thompson From this one level to the other level and still remain in one piece. I should think everybody in society would be schizophrenic.
Studs Terkel A classic, a classic case was, you know, before TV and radio days, during the war, Gabriel Heatter, the commentator offering "news tonight," you know, and the voice had great urgency about the war. At the same time it also did about whatever the hair tonic he was selling. The exact, identical, precise urgency, because that was just as important as whether or not Dunkirk was won or lost, you see.
Elsa Knight Thompson As far as the voice was concerned, yeah, and the method of delivery.
Studs Terkel But it also then makes life and death just as insignificant as that commercial. That's the point. We come back to that again. We come back to the guy. Who, who is this man? There is no one man. There are different individuals, of course, but an overall conditioning, what it can do. We come to 25 years of, I say, since, since Winston Churchill [spoke?] the Missouri speech, since Harry Truman dropped the bomb. So much has happened.
Elsa Knight Thompson Oh, yes. It's, it's a totally different, a totally different world. There's no question about that. And how much of the validity of that world is actually being mirrored in the, in the media is, is a troubling question because I, I don't myself feel that it is. It's as if as far as what people are allowed to listen to is concerned they, they have never turned the clock forward in most it. And yet. Now how do you account for this, as long as you're accounting for things? How, how come that the kids have simply turned their back on it because nothing in the upbringing or the conditioning that was intended by our society has been achieved. So somebody must have gotten tired of the Gabriel Heatters of the world and of that approach to reality. I mean, why can't a station like this stay on the air for 21 years?
Studs Terkel Of course that's the
Elsa Knight Thompson Completely at the mercy of the voluntary cooperation of its audience. There must be something intrinsically and identifiable. You see, I think a lot of people function as listeners subconsciously rather than consciously. And if the thing is phony, I believe that at some level of consciousness they know it. They might not be able to explain it but I think they really do know it.
Studs Terkel Because this is the hopeful note, the very fact that KPFA is here and how you've had difficulties, of course, but the fact is you're here and that is true. It may be a minority but, I think, to use a Jack Newfield phrase, a prophetic minority, which leads to the young, he's thinking about the young. Now he have this great development, of course, the young. And it, paradox may be at work. In a way, it concerns what I was working on this book "Hard Times," the Depression, two values, setups are involved here. The Depression survivor still has the scar, what Carolyn Bird calls "the invisible scar." He, except for the rebels, those called the agitators in the '30s, most people blame themselves. They never question society slipping on a banana peel, you see. And so when a guy lost his job, he thought it was a sense of personal failure was involved and his head hung low, you see, part of the Puritan ethic. If you don't work something is wrong with you, you see. Now, now comes relative affluence. I'm not talking now about the deep valleys of poverty among the Blacks, old people, Appalachian people, Indians, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, those disenfranchised.
Elsa Knight Thompson About a third of us.
Studs Terkel Well, a third, but I'm talking about the two-thirds now, relatively affluent now. Their kids meantime have gone to school. He hasn't had this annoying pang that his parent has had. And so he's now, he's learned things and suddenly the kid says, "Wait a minute." And the parent meantime is gathering the buck to avoid the possibility of it happening again, because he doesn't want to blame himself anymore, never questioning that society, you know, stripped its gears in '29 with the crash, you see, and so, the kids says, "Maybe there's something more than a buck, there's something else to life." You have the phrase "quality of life." And so you have two different life experiences involved here. The guy says he's got the lawn, he's got the set of golf clubs, he wants status. He's got all this, a new car, conspicuous consumption and waste. And the kid is saying that's not, that's not what life's all about. And so because this kid's been raised, "kid" is, I didn't mean to be denigrating but for lack of another word, "young people." So you have them come along and they know this is phony. They don't believe things, as Ralph Gleason has pointed out so often in his pieces and articles, and they find new poets. And so they find Bob Dylan and Judy Collins and Tom Paxton.
Elsa Knight Thompson Yes, and they find new ideas. They, it's an across-the-board rejection. That's the thing about it that I find so intriguing, because there you have your political activists, of course, but you also have people who, to all intents and purposes, are, are, well, they're not only called dropouts. But this is a sort of across-the-board rejection of the society in which they're reared. It affects every single aspect of their lives and their sex mores on a, you know, and their political ideas, and their, the things they want to listen to in terms of music, that the activities they want to engage in. And yet here was a whole society bent on turning them out entirely different than that. So maybe the mass media and the pressures of society were not so skillful nor so successful as they thought they would
Studs Terkel You know what it reminds me of, it's paradox at work. There's paradox at work. I'm reminded of something I found myself -- it's too long a story to go into -- I found myself in South Africa in 1962, interviewing the late Chief Albert John Luthuli, who was the lead.
Elsa Knight Thompson I think you know that we did play that here on KPFA. I got some of your tapes. They're just delightful.
Studs Terkel The reason I raise that is because Luthuli said something that stuck in my mind. He reminded me of something Frederick Douglass wrote about in his autobiography. It's about paradox. You say maybe the mass media haven't been a skillful as they thought. Frederick Douglass remembers his childhood and the lady who owned him, the mistress, taught him read the Bible, which was her great mistake. She taught him to read and her husband, his master, bawled her out and then she shut it. But it was too late. The window was open. Luthuli says mission schools came in to take them away from their own indigenous religions, to force Christianity on them, but he went to this mission school and learned English, do you see, which is a sort of franca lingua [sic] today, you see. As a result of which, they double-crossed themselves. He got to know too much, do you see. And so you have the mass media with all the junk, with everything else at the same time. Remember some people [on the left in?] the community of Chicago who were changed because they saw what happened in Selma, on the bridge that day, and never been quite the same you see. So these, here is paradox, the beauty of it and the horror of it, both, you see. I look for the beauty, of course, naturally, and the hope that's there. But it's, it's fascinating. So there's that microphone that you and I talk through right now that could be horrifying, that's done some terrible things. At the same time you and I are right now reaching, I trust, very, very, very many people who listen to KPFA.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, we trust, hope and believe so. Either--is there anything you would like to ask me about? Anything that goes on here that might interest
Studs Terkel Well, very much, of course, about Pacifica, about KPFA and the nature of, it's a non-commercial station and how, I want to ask [unintelligible], how're you doing? I ask this because I'm a, I'm a Depression figure, you know, and it's leading up to asking you how you're doing. We had this hotel. My mother did and she lost it in the Depression in Chicago. But we always, the rooms were always filled. There were no vacancies, do you see. And then after the crash, the men were in the lobby more and more often and we had to put up, my brother and I put up a vacancy sign for the first time. And so 40 years passed, when I'm on a highway and passed a little motel, not the Holiday Inn type, but the kind of Ma-Pa motels and I see in faint pink neon the sign "Vacancy," I still get that little twinge. And so when I go in and I ask the lady who looks like my mother, everyone does, And I ask her, I says, "How're you doing?" So I'm asking you, Elsa, my sister, I says, "How're you doing?"
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, it, it varies. I think that we're dependent on something which is bigger than we are. I always have the feeling that the operation at any given point is greater than the sum of its parts. Some kind of an entity does build. I think the place was founded on the right ideas and that those ideas have managed to survive all kinds of changes in management, in board, in staff. There's some kind of tradition. And some kind of rootedness in the, in the purpose of the thing which overrides individual mistakes or, or hazards or deficiencies or even successes, because we've lost many big very good people down through the years because we've never been able to pay enough money and many times we get these very bright younger people who only stay for a few years, maybe two years, maybe three. Well, so what, we've, we've had them, the audience has had them and they're going to have a family or they've gotten a chance for another job and they go on. And that is an enriching thing as far as the, as the station is concerned. People come here and just go to work, you know, whether they're going to get paid or not. And they don't always even get very well treated because the staff is too busy. And, "yes if they can do it that's fine; if they can't do it, I haven't got time to stop" kind of attitude, you know. And yet somehow or another through this, and we suffer from eternal grubbiness and things are always just on, it seems, on the verge of catastrophe and yet somehow or another we're on the air 17-20, 21 hours a day, 365 days out of the year. And for all our faults, and there are many, there's a very marvelous audience there, you know. I mean it does take two people to even try to tell the truth.
Studs Terkel Have you sensed and your, I know your audiences is there, have you sensed in your audience anything as far as age is concerned. Is there is a steadiness? Is there.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, I think that the changeover has been difficult for some of the older listeners. The political thing tends to be, I think, a bit shocking. Some of the music, some of the art forms, the growth in the use of obscenity, for example. [An oh, I?] kind of thing. I think that this caused a kind of shock to go through the audience as it has grown on them, but most of our people are pretty adventurous people and they've kind of weathered that and we have an audience that I believe stretches across a very wide range, from an age standpoint. For example, during our annual marathon, when we raise money, one of the things we, we do is to ask people to underwrite student subscriptions. And if somebody calls up and says I will donate so much to underwrite so many student subscriptions, they're gone every time just as fast as the phones can be answered. Which means, and then too, it varies, in a time of crisis. Now like during People's Park. The National Guard was tuned into the station. The police were listening to the station and the demonstrators were listening to the station to find out what they were doing because each individual was only in one place and KPFA became the kind of overriding, you know, source, and our audience at that point and then all the people who were afraid to be on the streets, as well they may have been, were listening to find out what was going on. So that you get peak audiences which are absolutely enormous during, during a crisis period and also that become a kind of vote of confidence because if you haven't kidded them and if you have told them the truth under those kind of circumstances. If you've had all the city council meeting all school board meetings all the demonstrators, the mayor of the city, the councilmen, all at your microphone and they've had a chance to see that it's being played straight then if they tune in and there's a KPFA marathon on, they're apt, even if they're not regular listeners, to think, "Yes, this is something which is worth keeping here."
Studs Terkel Well, this is, this is very exciting. This is exhilarating. You're describing the, the phenomenon of the event, say People's Park and the role KPFA played obviously far more profound and, in a sense, liberating than any of the big stations. In a way it reminds me of what [unintelligible] used to work at BBC during the war, during the Blitz,
Studs Terkel Features came into being with Lawrence Gilliam and what was so tremendous about that was it became also the buoyant thing that kept people [unintelligible] even though they weren't involved in the event, as you said, they were in People's Park, they knew somebody else was, something else going on and somebody is thinking what I'm thinking, and somebody has experienced what I'm experiencing, you see, and suddenly the person is not alone, which of course is a fantastic feeling.
Elsa Knight Thompson Oh yes. Oh yes, and we get that kind of comment frequently from the audience that it is at those periods where they are, you know, most grateful that they feel that if they tune into the station that they're part of a community, that they're not so isolated as they were before, or are so frightened as they were before, and they, they can feel that they're pooling their thinking and their experience, I think, in a different way because, of course, we do allow things to run their course. I mean we don't do snippety-type things. Now that can lead to dullness on occasion and does. But nevertheless it also means that you don't get this thing that you get on most, in most places where somebody starts to answer a question and he gets, you know, just launched into the part you think is most interesting.
Studs Terkel And the commercial
Elsa Knight Thompson And then the person asks him another question and then he's either, somebody says thank you to him when he's obviously clear, right midstream or else it's interrupted for a commercial or something like that. We'll, we'll let that same person talk for 45 minutes.
Studs Terkel Of
Elsa Knight Thompson And maybe we don't have time to edit it down to a half an hour , so somebody may get 10 minutes or five minutes that could be cut out, if somebody had the time to work
Studs Terkel I'm, of course, I'm crazy about the unedited stuff, you see. To me unedited, it becomes to me exactly. I have the opposite reaction. I'm very excited about the non-editing. Even the hemming, 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, three minutes. This is what we'll do. You got six minutes and then commercial, you got two spots, two spots, the word spot itself. Of course it's ridiculous. Nothing happens. Nothing ever does on those. That's my point. If it does, it's by accident, the accident of eventually something happening at the end. Well, KPFA to me, I'm, I'm delighted, you know, to visit these [unintelligible] been here on this mike. It's very, I think it's a unique.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, it was a privilege for us, of course, to have you and Ralph Gleason here in the studio, Studs Terkel, and using our equipment and being kind enough to offer us the chance to use the resulting tapes, which I know are going to be fabulous to hear. And I only heard the last hour because I was in a meeting. But if it's all as good as what I heard and I'm sure it was.
Studs Terkel Well, Ralph was incredible.
Elsa Knight Thompson Yeah, we've got some, we've got some wonderful people in this community. And of course it is one of the, of the dividends of overwork, long hours and underpay which the staff here suffers from to, to know that you've been able to open the door for people who could not have had their hour in the sun or explained their new idea or whatever, unless this microphone was here.
Elsa Knight Thompson It is, it's a big dividend because you know every organization, every group, every committee, everybody that's got a gripe of some kind, you know they show up at KPFA as if by right and in a sense it is
Studs Terkel Of course, we come back again to Nicholas Johnson's comment and to, believe it or not, Herbert Hoover's comment that "the air belongs to the public." It is their right. And you offer the open mike and of course that's why.
Elsa Knight Thompson Now, of course, I think that, you know, you have to choose when you've got masses of material. And I believe that the editor, the person who takes the decision "yes this and no that," whether, on what you're going to cover and so on, and that it requires an awful lot of background in the field in order to do that adequately of course. But I always figured that, that I don't have a right, we don't have a right, to judge a man's thinking. We do have a right to judge whether or not he is thinking. We have no right to interfere with what he says but we do have a right to judge whether or not he said it.
Elsa Knight Thompson And those are, you know, those are ways that I think that you make your way through. It's not true that everyone who wants to go to the microphone is capable of, you know, of conveying something, and if they aren't then it is an injustice to them and to the audience to, to do it. But you can usually find articulate people who are full of their ideas and their, and their needs. And many times in the most unexpected places. Some of the most wonderful interviews that we've ever had on the station were from the most unlikely people. Kids back from Vietnam, and one I remember who had been in a mental institution for some time because he'd cracked up completely on the basis of, from some little Midwestern town and his story of how and why he got into the Marines and what cracked him up, would crack a stone up. And yet when he walks in, you know, you have no idea what's there.
Studs Terkel Then of course there's the excitement.
Elsa Knight Thompson How do you go about getting the people you interview or do they just sit on you in such a steady stream that you can take
Studs Terkel No rule. As far as writers are concerned, publishers and representatives call up.
Studs Terkel And some, it's a question of I like some, I don't like others and I say no. But as far as people who are, again, the non-articulate, whatever that means, I think everybody is articulate one way or another, you know, some less than others. An event may be happening on the air with a tape recorder or someone tells me about this kid who's got a story to tell. I have to weigh in, as you do, whether it is or isn't, you know. And so no rule. In working on the, say the book "Hard Times," that I knew I wanted to find out, that I was going to, you know, put to bed the myth that violence and demonstrations and picketing began with this generation, of course. So in the '30s I found embattled miners in northwest Iowa who threatened the judge, almost lynched him, in Le Mars, Iowa. He was sort of a premature Julius Hoffman, this judge. He was very insensitive too, he's foreclosing the farms that they worked on all their lives and so I was there, or seeing anti-New Dealers, pro-New Dealers, Alf Landon in Topeka, Kansas, a very surprising and astonishing experience. He was, he liked Roosevelt, he was for the New Deal, he was for the admission of China of the U.N. and this is the Roosevelt's opponent in 1936. So 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.
Elsa Knight Thompson Yes. Well, I'm, I'm interested very much to hear you say that because that's the way it seems to me to happen. It's much more, it's a much more rich experience, if you never know when the phone rings or you open the envelope or you meet somebody on the street, whether or not this is going to result in a program.
Studs Terkel In a way, if I could just, since I was talking to Ralph and I wanted Ralph to talk, Ralph Gleason, for about three hours on your station and that since Ralph was interested in jazz and I was, and still am, it was like jazz. See the beauty of jazz is it's improvisational air - there's a beginning, a middle, an end. We began, there was a middle somewhere to our conversation, we're going to end soon but in between was improvisation and the variations on a theme. The theme is communicating with other humans and so it's, you and I have been engaged in a jazz talk, in a sense, as Ralph has for three hours.
Elsa Knight Thompson Well, I thank you very much for engaging in it, Studs Terkel, and I hope this won't be the last time that we see you out here at Berkeley because Berkeley is a fine place.
Elsa Knight Thompson To come to or be in.
Studs Terkel Well, I hope to return. I found this pretty delightful and rewarding for me.
Elsa Knight Thompson Thanks an awful lot.