Studs Terkel broadcast an hour-long program on 98.7 WFMT Chicago each weekday from 1952 until 1997. The Studs Terkel Program featured interviews with ordinary people as well as towering figures of the 20th century—people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Tennessee Williams, and Bob Dylan to name a few.
Terkel’s 5,400 broadcasts are being made available online at The Studs Terkel Radio Archive. Tony Macaluso, WFMT’s Director of Radio Network Marketing & Syndication, is overseeing the project. Macaluso spoke to Storied Chicago about the archive and Terkel’s legacy:
In the radio world today, Studs is as close as there is to a founding figure of pod-casting and radio storytelling. Again and again, people say “you know Studs is the reason that I got into radio.”
For a lot of people, it was what he’s known for in terms of Working, being just as interested in talking to an un-celebrated working person as Louie Armstrong or Martin Luther King Jr.
For some people, it was his eclecticism, being equally interested in classical music and blues and science and poetry and politics. When he started here in 1952 the fact that he would go from playing a piece by Bach to Big Bill Broonzy and then on to folk music or jazz—that was fairly unusual.
A lot of people here who are around the station worked with Studs. One story that I love is Rich Warren, who does the Midnight Special, talked about how he had memories of going into the bathroom and Studs would be sitting in there because the acoustics were good. You know, sitting in one of the stalls practicing for the interview that day and doing both parts of the conversation.
That’s where that theatricality comes in. It wasn’t just about asking smart questions but about making it an important moment, whoever it was that was being interviewed that day.
One of Studs’s favorite concepts was “feeling tone.” By that he meant the ineffable quality of someone’s voice. That’s not about just the literal meaning of their words, but what else you learn just by hearing someone else’s voice in terms of the timbre of the voice or the way that they pause or the emotion in their voice.
Those things give people different ways of connecting with the past. What did it feel like to be scared of nuclear war when it’s 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis is happening? It can put you back in that situation in a way that sometimes a photograph or even a film can’t.
When you’re listening to someone’s voice, in an odd way, there’s sort of a ghost being brought back from the past.
Ira Glass talked at this Studs Terkel festival a couple of years ago. We gave him some of the clips from the archive. He did this really interesting analysis of how Studs worked.
One of the things he said was that “Listening to Studs, he’s not interested in telling a story, but instead he’s interested in making these connections across cultures, across disciplines.”
It’s an interesting observation because I would have said before that Studs is kind of a storyteller, but then as I went back and listened I was like no, it’s not really about telling a story or creating suspense. It’s about associations of ideas.
Ira Glass also said “Listening to these programs it’s kind of like Studs was intentionally making these little time capsules, making these things for the future, like he was building an archive as he was doing the show.” In a way, he was setting up each program with an awareness of what this conversation might mean for the future.
We’re thinking of using the archive to create a new podcast. We’re going to call it Take It Easy, But Take It, which was this phrase that Studs liked to sign off the show with.
It’ll be a podcast where every week someone gets invited in—it could be a famous person or it could be a Chicago Public School teacher—and they get to pick something from the archive that they think is relevant right now and dive in.
For us it’s important that the archive isn’t just about looking back. What do these voices from the past tell us about our world today?
If you’re talking about gun violence in Chicago, what were people saying about fifty years ago? Sometimes it’s really striking to hear someone talk about an issue fifty years ago and realize nothing has changed—or maybe to realize how much has changed.
With that, the hope is to make it not only about Studs but the people he interviewed.