History buffs rejoice! A unique glimpse into 20th Century American life – high-brow and low – brought to us by the deft interviewing skills of Studs Terkel is now available to all to browse and listen to in the WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive. The collection includes over 5000 one-hour interviews spread over a 45-year career at the Chicago radio station. Terkel interviewed movers, shakers, intellectuals, celebrities, musicians and artist, and working folk. Lots of every-day working folk.

Born in 1912, Terkel was curious about people – famous and ordinary – and his focused interest shines through in his interviews, putting his subjects at east. According to the archive’s website, “A young Marlon Brando was so intrigued during an hour-long radio session that he asked for a second hour and took over the show, trying to find out what made Studs tick.”

Terkel was well known for his wardrobe, a somewhat disheveled look that he chose early on: a red checked shirt, a loosened red tie, gray trousers and a blue blazer.

A publisher coaxed Terkel into writing a book compiled from interviews with Chicagoans from all walks of life. “Division Street: America,” was published in 1967 to rave reviews and best-selling success, telling the stories – in their own words – of businessmen, prostitutes, Hispanics, blacks, ordinary working people who illustrated both the unity and divisions of American society. It was a theme that Studs would revisit in Hard Times, his depression-era memoir published in 1970; in Working, the saga of ordinary working people (1974); in American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980); and The Good War, An Oral History of World War II, a book which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985.

Terkel’s books mirrored his radio interview approach: he asked questions and then listened. What people told him was often surprisingly insightful, honest and true.

Never one to rest on his laurels or even consider retiring, Terkel kept writing as he entered his seventies and beyond. Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992) was followed by Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It (1995) and My American Century (1997).

In 1997, at the age of 85, Terkel ended his radio career with his traditional sign-off – “Take it easy, but take it” – and began spending time at the Chicago History Museum, repository of 45 years of radio tapes of his interviews.

Terkel also worked on his memoir, called Touch and Go (2007). Terkel claimed it would be his last book, but P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening came after in 2008. At one of his last public appearances in the summer of 2008, Terkel, age 96, said: “Remember those old ivory soap commercials, ‘Ivory soap, 99.44 percent pure’? Well, I am 99.44 percent dead.” Terkel died October 31, 2008.

Terkel once said: “My epitaph? My epitaph will be this: ‘Curiosity did not kill this cat.”‘

WFMT has partnered with the Chicago Public Library and the Great Books Foundation to develop a series of curricula using audio from the archive to teach critical listening skills for students in grades 7–12.

From the website’s blog:

WFMT Director of Network Syndication Tony Macaluso, who has been overseeing the development of the archive, agreed. He added that he hopes the archive will enhance the public’s historical perspective and sense of humanistic inquiry. 

“Studs often railed against what he called ‘The United States of Amnesia,’ a phrase he borrowed from Gore Vidal,” said Macaluso. ” My hope is that this archive can help spark that curiosity.”

The tapes, which span 45 years of hour-long conversations aired on Studs’ daily WFMT talk show amount to an expansive oral history of the 20th century. They include the voices of some of the most influential activists and artists of that time – including Rev. Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Buster Keaton, Cesar Chavez, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Pete Seeger. They also feature hundreds of less famous but equally insightful “etceteras of history,” as Studs called them — everyday experts, many of whom made their way into Studs’ best-selling books, including “Division Street: America,” “Working,” and “The Good War.”

Visit the archive – The Art of Conversation – for a treasure trove of twentieth century oral history.

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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