Remembering Studs Terkel, the Radio Personality Who Found Social Justice in Conversation

The following is an excerpt from the new book Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation by Alan Wieder (Monthly Review Press, 2016): 


One of three sons of immigrant jews from Bialystok, Poland, Louis “Studs” Terkel was born on May 16, 1912, in New York City. In 1922, Studs moved with his parents and his two brothers to Chicago, where he lived for the rest of his life. Actor, disc jockey, author, raconteur, husband and father, Studs is probably best known as host of the The Studs Terkel Show from 1952 to 1997 on Chicago’s WFMT. The program earned him the title of “Mr. Chicago” and many people in the city have said they always knew it was between ten and eleven in the morning if they caught an earful of his radio program.

Studs has been described as “one of the greatest listeners of the twentieth century.” As an interviewer, Studs provided a microphone for the voiceless, or as he put it, “the uncelebrated.” His friend, guerrilla journalist Jamie Kalven, describes Studs’ gift as “a sense of people whose stories, whose character, whose presence, the changes they’d gone through, enlarged the sense of human possibilities. He was modeling a way of being in the world—a way of treating other people—a way of engaging with other people in conversation. I think what he did with a great deal of heart he embodied the possibilities of the conversational engagement of citizens.”

Studs lived through the Depression, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and often said that he never met a petition he didn’t sign. He did his daily commute to his radio job at WFMT by bus and engaged his fellow passengers in his passion: conversation. His commitment to conversation was in effect a quest for social justice.

Formative influences for his progressive politics and passion for discourse were the debates held in the lobby of his parents’ rooming house, the Wells-Grand Hotel, and the legendary Bughouse Square debates at nearby Washington Square Park. Noted Chicago radical Franklin Rosemont, who with his wife, Penelope, helmed Charles H. Kerr Publishing—the nation’s oldest labor press—once described Bughouse Square as “the most celebrated outdoor free-speech forum in the entire country, where leading soap-boxers harangued eager crowds that often numbered in the thousands.” Studs’ distinct conversational style was established as he listened to these speakers, a diverse group of union members, non-union workers, Wobblies, immigrants, scabs, progressives, conservatives, and religionists. He learned the art of dialogue, but perhaps more importantly, he fine-tuned his capacity for listening.

Bill Ayers provides an apt description of Studs’ unique ability and how it serves as an important connection between conversation and politics:

"An organizer takes on faith that if you knock on the door and somebody answers it, that person has a brain and an experience and a culture and a language that has to be taken into account. A good teacher does the same thing, and Studs did it every day with his radio show, with the interviews, with the books, and with the encounters on the bus. He always believed there was wisdom in the room."

Studs emphasized that his method was to “listen, listen, listen.” He understood the importance of patience and was attuned to what is said in silence.

The day after his death, The Guardian ran a piece on Studs by Ed Vulliamy. In it, Vulliamy refers to Studs as “a master chronicler of American life.” Referring to the impact Studs’ passionate listening had on his audience, Vulliamy writes: “As you listen, you know in your bones that each person has never told their story as cogently or as fully before and will never do so again, for that was Terkel’s art. He was maestro of that most precious craft in the practice of both journalism and history: listening. He was the world’s greatest—and loudest-mouthed—listener. He even called his 1973 autobiography Talking to Myself.”

Curiosity, interest, and knowing the potential of human beings were most valuable for Studs. He often asserted that there were no rules to conversation and that it was important to experiment. Studs viewed his conversations as exploration. He said of his approach, “I want them to talk about what they want to talk about in the way they want to talk about it, or not talk about it in the way they want to stay silent about it. I’ll keep them to the theme—age or the Depression or work or whatever—but that’s all.” The truth for the person Studs interviewed often proved to be as equally enlightening for the speaker as it was for Studs and his audiences.

How did Studs encourage these possibilities with his tape recorder? He spoke on the topic with Tony Parker: “It’s exciting—and it’s scary, it frightens you. It frightens the person you’re going to interview too. Remember that. Where in the radio interview you start level in confidence, in knowing where you’re going, in the one-to-one interview you start level in the unconfidence, in not knowing where you’re going.” Studs went to great lengths to explain that on his radio program he was not interviewing people but rather having a conversation. He had great regard for the people who appeared on the show. He elaborated on the importance of respect in his conversation with Parker:

"What’s the first thing I do? I pay him respect. And how do I do that? I pay him respect by reading his book—and if he’s written others before this one, by reading those too, or at least I have a look at them. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do that elementary thing. You can hear them on other talk shows, talking to authors whose books they haven’t read! Can you believe that?"

The people Studs interviewed remember the experience well. They speak of his interview preparation and how they sometimes felt that Studs knew their work better than they did when they came to his program.

Victor Navasky, longtime editor of The Nation and author of various political and historical works such as Naming Names, visited The Studs Terkel Show numerous times. He recalls the experience of appearing on Studs’ show during a book tour and discovering that Studs had underlined all the passages in his book that interested him with a yellow highlighter. He juxtaposes this to other promotional appearances on his tour, where it was clear the host had not read the book; they “hadn’t done their homework.” He recounts his interview with Studs as follows:

"He starts in and he says listen to this, listen to this, it’s page thirty-seven and he reads thirty-seven in a way that he reads all kinds of meaning that you didn’t know were in there and it’s a brilliant new insight that he credits you with. He knows the book inside out, and he can make references forward and backwards."

Studs’ approach was not the norm for most radio hosts. Yet he was astounded that this attention to his guests was seen as exemplary. He spoke about his approach to interviewing authors with fellow oral historian Ronald Grele:

"I go through it pretty thoroughly. . . . I don’t memorize what I’ve read but I have an idea generally, and a phrase or two might come to mind. He says something and it reminds me of something I’ve read. I call it, the phrase that explodes,” whatever it might be."

In conversation with author Denis Brian, for whom Studs was the subject of the last chapter of his book Murderers and Other Friendly People: The Public and Private Worlds of Interviewers, Studs explains:

"To me, interviewing is equivalent to being a craftsman or being a slovenly workman. You could not conceive of a carpenter coming to the house without his toolbox, could you? You couldn’t think of an electrician coming without his fusebox. . . . I mean, do you say a carpenter is remarkable when he comes with his tools? Basically, I must respect the person I’m interviewing: there’s no point to it otherwise, life is much too short."

His listeners’ responsiveness to his approach eventually led to Studs writing his numerous oral histories.

Studs is celebrated for his oral histories, which he began writing in 1967 when he was fifty-five years old. An interview with a London theatre troupe, “The Establishment,” inadvertently led to Studs writing his many books. One of the group’s members, Eleanor Bron, who was friends with Lena Schiffrin, the wife of André Schiffrin, editor-in-chief of Pantheon Books, suggested that André contact Studs. Following Bron’s suggestion, he read some of Studs’ radio interviews that were published in Perspective on Ideas and the Arts. As Studs recalled, these were published transcripts of his conversations with Marlon Brando, C. P. Snow, and Bertrand Russell. André phoned Studs in 1965. He told Studs that Pantheon was producing Jan Myrdal’s book Report from a Chinese Village and asked him to do an oral history of Chicago as an “American village.” Studs was skeptical. Two years later, the book, Division Street America, was published. This project initiated Studs and André’s long-term collaboration and deep friendship. While all of Studs’ oral histories are commendable, his three most known titles are Hard Times, Working, and “The Good War,” an oral history of the Second World War for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize.

Interviewing people for his books, transcribing, and editing often occurred simultaneously. The oral history process actually began with selecting people with whom he would speak. Studs asserted that he was greatly influenced by the filmmaker Denis Mitchell who was “looking for the ‘hurts’ in people, the hurts.” He talked about his process with oral history scholar Ronald Grele, in an interview printed in Grele’s book Envelopes of Sound (1981):

"How do I select? Sometimes an individual—in that individual is more than one person, you know. In someone who might be the archetype, is the anti-archetype. . . . There has to be someone who, in his own way, has an articulateness but at the same time is not so atypical as to be so different."

Studs’ conversations with the individuals who appeared in his books propelled the process. Step two was the completion of a full transcript of each of the interviews. Studs often listened to the interview before he handed the tape to the transcriber.

The main transcribers over the years were three women Studs worked with at WFMT—Cathy Zmuda, Kathy Cowan, and Sydney Lewis. Studs would read and reread the transcript when the draft was delivered. Using a mining metaphor, Studs touched on his transcription process with Grele:

"I get sixty pages. Now then, I sift. This is the water, this is the dust. Out of the sixty pages—the essence: five–six pages, whatever. You get the truth and cut out the fact. I’m like the prospector, I’m cutting whatever they cut out . . . I can look for a form and that’s part of it. And after the form you edit it again. And there is the book, you think. But there are still your own thoughts that have got to be put down; that’s the Preface, Introduction. And finally it comes out. So I say it’s prospecting for gold."

Studs’ process was a collaborative effort in the sense that he integrated Cathy, Kathy, or Sydney’s ideas as well as André’s and other editors. There was an ongoing flow—interviews were conducted while others were simultaneously being transcribed and revised.

As Studs was editing and re-editing the original transcripts, he was also crafting sections and the placement of particular oral histories within the book. He was in constant contact with André who would do the same editing at certain points in the process. The opening paragraph from a letter that Studs sent André as he was organizing Hard Times reveals their collaborative efforts: “Thought I would try to lay out a tentative framework—obviously, there is much repetitive stuff— much, much editing and cutting ahead—yet I thought I’d do it in this manner—so I can get a feel of the overall—I’m a gestalt man myself.”

André understood and honored Studs’ work. “We really did get rid of all the extra stuff. The books were very clearly the delineation of what was the heart of each interview, and of course, that did not affect the content of the interview.”

Studs provided insights into turning his conversations into books in various interviews. He spoke about Senator Russell Long of Louisiana when he talked with Michael Lenehan about how he constructed his books:

"But generally speaking, I shift things around. An interview is not written in stone. You can adjust the sequences. But never altering the words—the words are the words of the person, that’s clear. . . . See now there, you see, you gotta be as truthful as you possibly can. At the same time you don’t want to embarrass the guy either. There’s one guy who asked me—the only person in all the thousands I’ve done—asked if I’d change the grammar, and that was Russell Long, the son of Huey Long, he was a senator. And Russell Long said look, my English is not that great, I want you to—and I said don’t worry about that, I will, I’d alter it, see. But you want that language. I wouldn’t change goin’ to going, or ain’t to aren’t."

Russell Long’s request transcended grammar. Always sensitive to respecting privacy, Studs was also careful throughout his process—conversation, transcribing, and constructing—of preventing embarrassment for anyone he interviewed. He invited five academic oral historians to his show in 1973 and ethics was one of the many issues that were discussed. At one point, after sharing two stories about struggling on whether or not to include certain oral histories, Studs concluded, “It is a question of not hurting people.”

Studs’ technique in “prospecting” or “gold mining” transcends craft. His unspoken plea to the people he met—“Amaze me”—corresponds to his spirit of interest and curiosity. Kalven explains:

"I often think of Studs in conversation in a kind of musical context. His pleasure was in that syncopated moment where the cliché would carry you in one direction, and there’s some pleasure in the expectation of that, but then it goes in another direction and you go, that’s just so pleasing. And I think he was looking for those moments."

“Amaze me” might well have guided Studs toward authentic conversation—talk that included what Jacob Bronowski referred to as the “impertinent question,” those questions that lead to people discovering their own deeper truths.

Studs’ interviews, however, did not just provide a microphone for the voiceless. Instead, he taught interviewees as well as his listeners and readers that we were not impotent, that we had much to say, and that our voices and our actions, not a savior politician, could change the world.

Many of this book’s insights into Studs come from people he knew throughout his life. Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, But Mostly Conversation includes more than one hundred conversations with Studs’ family members, friends, colleagues, comrades, and other people whose lives he touched. I also listened to his shows, watched videos of his talks, and watched documentaries on his life. I read and reread, sometimes many times, his books and countless articles. Tony Parker’s book Studs Terkel: A Life in Words was especially helpful. Finally, there were the hundreds of articles written about Studs, interviews with Studs, and the numerous boxes of his papers in the archives of the Chicago Historical Museum.

Numerous times as I was interviewing people for this book, I was asked why I was writing about Studs. In actuality, I had been scripting Studs’ story in my head for many years. Ten years after he published his first oral history, Division Street: America, I was completing an oral history for my doctoral dissertation. The year was 1977. Despite the fact that the academic world already had an Oral History Association—the organization was established one year before Division Street: America was published—I was convinced that the only reason I was encouraged to be an oral historian was the popularity of Studs’ work. I still believe this to be true.

There is much that remains to be learned from Studs Terkel’s life in 2016. Historian Michael Frisch reminds us: “The emphatic ear and the moral heart are what lifted Terkel’s listening above the ordinary.” Studs taught us that we are more than we even realize. He taught us that we have power if we speak out and that, collectively, we have strength when we wed conversation and action.

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