Sitting down with a famous (or not) person and asking questions–and recording them– might seem like the most natural thing in the world these days. We have talk shows, podcasts, radio interviews. We read them in magazines, newspapers, online. But this was not always the case, certainly not before the invention of modern media in the 20th century. And one of the main people to start interviewing folks was Studs Terkel. He called it “guerrilla journalism” because it was direct and live and the journalist was not an intermediary.
“I realized very early on,” he said, “that the conventional way of approaching an interview was useless; that taking in a notebook full of questions, for instance, only made people feel interrogated.”
And now The Studs Terkel Radio Archive (STRA) is set to go live on the Internet, a huge collection of his interviews. Between 1952 and 1997, at his hometown radio station WFMT in Chicago, he recorded a whopping 5,600 programs. The archive is being unveiled on what would be Terkel’s 106th birthday, May 16, 2018. (He passed away at 95 in 2008.)
His list of guests is formidable: Martin Luther King, Simone de Beauvoir, Bob Dylan, Cesar Chavez, Marlon Brando, Toni Morrison, Ted Turner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it’s the list of unknowns, the common folk, that make his work rise above. A good socialist, he gave voice to those who might never have considered speaking up, in books like Working, Race, or Coming of Age. Here was the story of America, from poor to rich, and Terkel had time, and a listening ear, for all of them. He was interested in civil rights, workers’ rights, the promise of America and the sins of America.
The STRA has five components: the digital platform (where people can access his interviews), the “Digital Bughouse” where other broadcasters and such can license his works; an educational component to be used in the classroom; the “Bughouse Square” a podcast intended for younger listeners; and a series of upcoming live events in Chicago and around the world.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.