Radio is an intimate medium, but listening to author, Pulitzer prize-winner and longtime radio host Studs Terkel, that intimacy is magnified. In a 1974 interview with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the year their book on the Watergate scandal, All The President’s Men, had been published, Terkel speaks first to the listener.
“All of a sudden something explodes,” Terkel says by way of introducing his guests, “and something in the person of two young investigative reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and the book as you know is All The President’s Men… [The book] involves flesh and blood guys, who are excellent journalists, against what seems to be a machine.” His next sentence is a seamless pivot to his guests. “So when did the case break?” he asks.
And as their story begins, listeners feel as if they, too, are in the room as the pair describe persevering against threats, hostile admin officials and the fear of retaliation, of meetings with Deep Throat, a late-night discussion with editor Ben Bradlee on his front lawn, away from any bugs that might have been hidden in his house.
The initial pull is not the immensity of what Woodward and Bernstein were able to accomplish, or their celebrity, but that the interview has been delivered to you like a personal invite.
That may be one of the reasons Terkel, who died in 2008, stayed on Chicago radio station WFMT’s airwaves for 45 years.
The interviews he recorded in that span of time could form a substantial tome on American political and cultural history: Martin Luther King, Jr., Betty Friedan, Muhammad Ali, Janis Joplin, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan, Sidney Poitier, Hunter S. Thompson, Oliver Sacks and Martha Graham among many many other pivotal figures from the last and current century.
But for Terkel, the big gets, which he got often, formed merely one part of his radio show, which through the decades was populated by guests from all parts of society: members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; supporters of the gay and lesbian community during the early days of LGBT activism; Hiroshima residents who had lived through the nuclear bomb.
In the late 90s, Terkel donated his interview to the Chicago History Museum. Somewhere around the turn of this century, the museum worked with the Library of Congress to began digitizing the interviews, many of which had been on reel to reel tape. In 2014, the museum reached out to WFMT to partner on a project to open up Terkel’s interviews to the public.
Tony Macaluso, the director of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, can’t say for sure why Terkel decided to donate his archives to the museum, but, he tells FishbowlDC via email, “I do have every reason to believe he wanted them highly accessible to everyone and for people to not fixate on the celebratory aspect but regard the programs featuring famous and non-famous people as equally intriguing and capable of revealing aspects of how our society really works.”
And that idea, of opening to the public the worlds captured in Terkel’s interviews, drives the archive. The project aims to archive and make available for public use 5,6000 of Studs interviews. For the next two years, a Kickstarter campaign that ends Thursday seeks funding for a smaller, but still significant task: to archive and make public 1,000 interviews.
The interview posted on FBDC is just one example of what Macaluso and his team hope to add to the 400 interviews currently archived.
The archive is meant to serve not just as a repository for Terkel’s interviews, but as a site that encourages different groups and individuals–everyone from, as Macaluso describes it, “group of Chicago Public School kids” to “the staff of This American Life” to “a Chinese scholar writing her dissertation on changing ways of talking about work in the United States”–to draw on Terkel’s work for their own projects. “We’re trying to let those people teach us how they want to use the archive and let that really inform the future functionality of the digital collection. That in turn helps us strategize with various design and tech companies like Jell Creative, Pop Up Archive, Hyperaudio, Starchive, Vamonde and others.”
The companies Macaluso mentioned will allow users to explore the creative, as well as intellectual, possibilities of Terkel’s radio programs. Hyperaudio, for example, allows users to edit and mix audio and visual elements to create new work.
“We really hope that new generations see Studs’ work as a resource. Not to follow literally or imitate, but as a reminder of how audio, radio, podcasting can be media for ideas as well as stories, a certain vivid theatricality and a very long lifespan rather than being just for the present,” writes Macaluso.
There in Terkel’s work is a lesson, too, for podcasters, and journalists in general. “This audio demonstrates the remarkable power that radical empathy and close listening have to change how people interact with one another socially,” writes Macaluso. The podcasts are a teaching tool for the continual work in progress that is learning how to listen.