Closer Readings Commentary

Celebrating Studs Terkel – Interviewer of America

Studs Terkel, an avid chronicler of 20th-century life in Chicago, participated in the earliest Bughouse Square Debates in the 1980s and 1990s.
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Studs Terkel, an avid chronicler of 20th-century life in Chicago, participated in the earliest Bughouse Square Debates in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I want people to talk to one another no matter what their difference of opinion might be.”

—Studs Terkel

No one captured oral history like Studs Terkel. He was a one-of-a-kind radio show personality, a fixture in Chicago broadcasting, where he held court at WFMT for four and half decades, from 1952 to 1997, engaging in conversation with some of the greatest minds and artistic lights of the 20th century.

I had the good fortune to be in that listening audience in Studs Terkel’s heyday. Many a morning in the mid-1980s, as relief from the grueling 300-page-a-day reading requirement of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, in the kitchen of my third-floor walkup, with my coffee cup in hand and little transistor radio tuned to 98.7 FM, I would be transported to the inner life of his most amazing guests. No matter whether they were regular folks, philosophers, writers, musicians, artists—the show exuded welcome insights amid the velvet tones and mindful banter of the host—melting away the isolation of that lonely graduate student.  

Studs Terkel was born May 16, 1912. Through much of his jam-packed life till his death in 2008 at the age of 96, he was fondly known by his radio station moniker, “Free Spirit!” The New York Times obituary called him “Listener to Americans.” Indeed, he is still captivating his public through the fine art of conversation, because, fortunately, the voice and irrepressible life force of this champion interviewer have been preserved. The Best of Studs can still be heard on select Friday night archived broadcasts on WFMT, and many more are available in an online repository of broadcasts within the NEH-sponsored Studs Terkel Radio Archive.

This online archive is a labor of love initiated by WFMT and the Chicago History Museum and the Library of Congress, which provided technical expertise in the digitization of many of the tapes. The existing collection of broadcasts can be accessed through the Pop Up Archive platform. This site, now under development, promises to feature over a thousand shows and provide background and educational content, as well as offering a robust record of the dramatic changes America experienced over the course of the 20th century. 

For what Studs revealed and many of his listeners came to understand is that no one’s life is ordinary. He lived by the principle that “ordinary people have extraordinary thoughts—and that ordinary people can speak poetically. Also that no one else speaks like that and that there is no other person like that in the world.” Everyone he talked with had a story worth listening to.

No subject was taboo. Studs’s frame of reference was staggering—holding his own with the truly diverse roster of personages from every walk of life and luminaries from many disciplines. No matter what one’s political leanings—right, left, or center, or along the artistic fringe—everyone found a welcome at his microphone. Politics was never the central focus of these discussions. Oh, it would rear its head occasionally, but Studs did not allow political views to intrude upon the principal objective of these conversations, which as he stated was in finding out “what it is makes people tick.”

Krista Tippett, 2013 NEH Humanities medalist, interviewed Studs in 2004 for her own radio show, On Being. Tippett re-issued that conversation after his death to share his accumulated wisdom around the matters of “Life, Faith, and Death.” In response to her inquiry as to the secret of his success with respect to the interview process, Studs stated, “It’s as though we’re both on a journey in a way. You might say we’re both on a sort of journey.”

An NEH Humanities magazine article, “The Greatest Thing about Studs Terkel Was Studs Terkel,” celebrates the contributions he made during his extraordinary life. The article comments on the “blank spot where the author should be” in Terkel’s works, and notes that “restraint was not actually what Terkel was known for.” I would disagree. I think his genius lay in his ability to take himself out of the equation, requiring his guests to arrive at their own epiphanies about themselves. And as much as Studs talked, his ability to listen—to really attend to what the other person was saying, then to draw them out even further—is unmatched.

During the 2015 Jefferson Lecture, performer Anna Deavere Smith entered on stage at the Kennedy Center in the guise of Studs Terkel, channeling him as she began her performance-lecture, “On the Road: A Search for American Character.” As Studs, in character, Deavere Smith poses the question, “What is the defining moment in American history?” She/he continues the performance, pining for the “human touch that is disappearing.” This lack of human connection is a societal concern that stands to grow and accelerate as our world becomes increasingly mechanized, as we hover on the cusp of a transformative AI revolution. Anyone looking for an antidote to the coming automation will find it in these remarkable broadcasts preserved for posterity with that most gracious companion, Studs Terkel. 

In browsing in the current archive, many subjects that could be used by teachers crop up, ones that could supplement the study of literary texts, historical figures, and civic themes in the curriculum. For example: Access Studs Terkel’s fascinating conversation with American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, a firsthand account of her intentions behind writing A Raisin in the Sun, as she articulates her broader artistic philosophy in “Make New Sounds: Studs Terkel Interviews Lorraine Hansberry.” After listening to the interview, ask students if they think Hansberry’s ideas are still relevant to American life over a half-century later?