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Building the Studs Terkel Radio Archive: Part One

By Tony Macaluso
Director of Network Syndication / The WFMT Radio Network
& the Studs Terkel Radio Archive

Note: Over the course of 2014 the Studs Terkel Radio Archive will begin to be made available to the public via a free streaming website. The process is being led by Studs’ long-time radio home WFMT in partnership with the Chicago History Museum with assistance from many other organizations. This blog entry (and several that will follow) provides a window onto the process of creating this giant audio archive. The project will be discussed during a panel at the University of Chicago’s: “Let’s Get Working” Studs Terkel festival in May, 2014.

Studs Terkel played many roles in his 96 years. Author of oral histories, television actor, agitator for social justice, embodiment of a Chicago attitude toward art and society that was neither apologetic nor boastful (just honestly enthusiastic), to name a few. The role that stuck with him the longest, perhaps, was that of a radio man. He often referred to himself as a disc jockey (although his way of using radio to communicate defies conventional job titles).

Radio was a trade that he plied for eight decades. It started when he was in his 20s and worked as a radio theater actor, primarily playing gangsters. It became a life’s calling in 1952 when, at the age of 40, he was hired to host a radio show, initially about music, for WFMT an upstart, independent radio station broadcasting out of a down-on-its-heels art deco hotel on the far west wide of Chicago (the Hotel Guyon). His show quickly evolved into something much more: a space for long-form, slow, unabashedly intellectual yet profoundly playful conversations with writers, musicians, scientists, social activists, dancers, actors, philosophers, historians and working class people. It literally spanned the globe. And changed radio. This was decades before NPR. Much of the other work that he became known for (including the oral history books) grew out of his radio work. It remained his home-base until the end of his life.

He hosted a daily radio show until 1998. Forty-six years. Every day at 10am (later it moved to 10pm). It’s estimated that he produced at least 7,500 programs, of which around 5,400 survive (for a stretch Studs was taping over the reel-to-reels of old shows until WFMT staff convinced him that they ought to be saved). Here’s how Alex Kotlowitz recently summed up the significance of Studs’ radio opus:

“The interviews he’s done for his radio program are… a riff on the American way of life, striking notes of hope and despair, of laughter and tears, of stubbornness and transformation. They reveal who we are — and who we want to be. Studs had an uncanny ability to scratch away the veneer of celebrities and the crustiness of the alienated so that listening to these interviews is like peering into the soul of this country.”

Most of Studs Terkel’s radio work (perhaps 90%) has been completely inaccessible to all but the most determined scholars. We’re talking about enchanting, historically significant interviews with giants of 20th century culture. To pick a tiny sample: Studs archive contains Martin Luther King discussing civil rights strategies while sitting in the south-side Chicago kitchen of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; filmmakers such as Buster Keaton, Fellini, Sidney Poitier and Jacques Tati chatting about the techniques of their craft; Chinese and Russian artists, activists and common people trying to understand the complexities of the Cold War world; leaders of the struggle to give women an equal voice in society such as Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinhem, Adrienne Rich, Erica Jong, Kate Millet, Maya Angelou, Nora Ephron, Dorothy Parker, Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and on and on.

The opportunity to make the Studs Terkel Radio Archive available is the result of careful planning and persistence, above all by many of Stud’ colleagues and friends. His reel-to-reel archive was maintained and moved first first to the Chicago History Museum (in 1998) and then to the Library of Congress (in 2011) with the help of people such as Lois Baum, Sydney Lewis, Tony Judge (just a few of Studs’ WFMT colleagues who have been especially active in tending to his legacy). The archive was further tended to by Gary Johnson and Russell Lewis (from the Chicago History Museum) and Gene DeAnna (the head of audio at the Library of Congress who oversaw the invaluable process of digitizing) and his staff.

Studs life work has remained vividly present at WFMT in the years since his death in 2008. All of the staff is aware of how he helped shape the place. A few examples: Andrew Patner, who knew Studs since he was a child, keeps his legacy of unfettered inquiry alive with his program Critical Thinking, on which listeners can encounter hour-long conversations with blues historians, architects, poets or the likes of Riccardo Muti from one week to the next. Steve Robinson, the station’s general manager, helped keep Studs engaged with the radio station in his final years and whose vision for radio’ future is as bold and unbounded as Studs’. Louise Frank produces the weekly Best of Studs Terkel broadcasts (heard on Fridays at 10p). David Polk, the station’s new program director and Andi Lamoreaux, music director, both channel Studs’ eclectic curiosity in shaping the sound of the station.

As much as everyone at WFMT feels Studs’ presence at the station even five years after his death, undertaking the project of making his radio archive available to the world was not inevitable. It was helped along when, in the summer of 2013, the station’s long-running, nationally syndicated music appreciation show Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin had it’s entire archive of 900+ hours put online on a searchable streaming website. This project, important in its own right, was a deliberate precedent for putting the even more vast Studs Terkel archive online. Bill tested the water. When the Exploring Music site was deemed a success, we plunged in with Studs.

In subsequent blogs we’ll share some stories about how the Studs Terkel Radio Archive is being built and the wide-ranging plans for how people might use it (and how it will become a catalyst for the creation of new audio art). While the website won’t formally launch until the autumn of 2014, several dozen of the newly digitized programs (thanks to the Library of a Congress and their stunning Culpepper facility inside a mountain outside of Washington D.C.) are already available on a temporary site hosted by our partners Pop Up Archive, an audio archive non-profit based in Oakland. Click here to sample Studs talking to James Baldwin, Simone de Beauvoir, Shel Silverstein, Edward Said and others:

I can’t imagine chatting about Studs Terkel’s radio programs without recommending an favorite excerpt. In fact some of the special features of the forthcoming archive will be monthly guest curators who will share some of their favorite bits, with their own comments, and the ability for anyone to clip their own highlights and share them (or use them to create new artistic audio mashups). I’ll end this blog with one recently discovered highlight. Every excursion into Studs’ radio archive seems to yield a new ‘favorite moment.’ Today’s “soup of the day” just happens to be a brief exchange with Mohammed Ali. In a matter of a few minutes the listener gets a micro-vision of TerkeI’s interview style and methods, including a poetic rift on pain and a fascinating moment when Terkel reacts sharply to being compared to Howard Cosell. I won’t say much more, except to point out that this peculiar bit of dialogue is something of a synecdoche for Studs’ work as a whole.

Listen to the clip here.

There are thousands of other moments in the Studs Terkel radio archive that are equally surprising and revelatory. You can literally dive in anywhere and be almost certain to have your preconceptions upended and horizons expanded.

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We don’t know how the Studs Terkel Radio Archive website will look and work. The design process is just getting started and new partners are joining the process. The list of organizations involved already includes PRX, the BBC, The Nation, StoryCorps, In These Times, The Chicago Humanities Festival, Third Coast Audio Festival and others. One goal for the archive website is to give journalists, scholars, artists and the general public free reign to stitch together their own fresh audio collages drawing on Studs’ work, creating their own audio mashups, cutting, clipping and rearranging snippets of dialogue mixed with their own audio files, whether music, interviews or other acoustic artifacts. We would like to hear a hip-hop song mixing samples of Studs talking with James Baldwin, John Cage or Maya Angelou or an independent film based on the voices of Nelson Algren, Diane Arbus, Big Bill Broonzy or Laurie Anderson. We agree that Studs would have enjoyed nothing more than to be surprised and puzzled to hear what the world might make of his audio treasure trove in the 21st century and beyond.

Stay tuned for more updates on how Studs’ work is prepared to be shared.

Please send comments, ideas and questions about the Studs Terkel Radio Archive to: