A century of Studs Terkel: Life, delight and a fair shake for everybody

A look back at the life, work and legacy of the late writer and broadcaster

May 16, 2012

Listen to Hour 1 of the Afternoon Shift:

 
 
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During his long career in broadcasting, Studs Terkel was most commonly associated with WFMT, the Chicago-based classical music station that was his radio home for 45 years.

But beginning in the late 1990's until his death in 2008, Studs also enjoyed a long association with WBEZ.  He was a fixture in our studios during that time, working closely with producers Tish Valva, Mary Gaffney and Gianofer Fields, among many others.

Studs arrived at our Navy Pier studios in those days as he did always, in a cab, fresh with a story of his latest encounter with one of Chicago's many immigrant taxi drivers. Then, his attention would turn to the interview at hand.

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Before those conversations, Studs often seemed buoyant.  While waiting for the guest to arrive or the studio to be readied, Studs chatted up seemingly anyone who passed by.  Even then, he was eager to connect with people - and to share his own sense of excitement about the pending inteview.

"We've got the great Catherine Malfitano today!," Studs would marvel to a colleague before his latest encounter with the legendary opera singer. 

"Where's Garrison?! Is he here yet?," Studs would ask as his eyes darted in search of Garrison Keillor. "I can't wait to ask him about that Shaw poem!"

At some point, Studs then would ask his producer if she'd found a recording of a specific piece of music he'd chosen to play during the conversation, as he often liked to use music to draw out themes, parallels or simple reactions from his guests.  And as he was increasingly hard of hearing during those days, I recall much time spent in the recording studio fiddling with volume levels - often hilariously - all to make sure the sound in the headphones was turned high enough so he could hear clearly. 

Then, it was on to the peformance at hand. I say performance because watching Studs interview was akin to witnessing a virtuoso conductor lead an orchestra: the way he leaned forward to engage his guests, laughing at jokes, gesturing to a producer, checking his notes, pursuing a tangent, probing a curiosity, or simply letting a profound thought breathe.  If the conversation was with an author, the entire book would be marked up - front to back - with scribbles and notes he'd make in his trademark felt-tipped pen, the librarian's nightmare. 

Studs passed away in October of 2008, leaving some 18 books of his own behind, along with thousands of hours of audio interviews. Together, they chronicle the hopes, dreams and struggles of ordinary and extraordinary Americans.

His insatiable curiousity and his love of the human voice - vox humana, as he liked to say - remained strong throughout his life. It also inspired legions of other documentarians and oral historians, including award-winning audio producer David Isay, founder of Storycorp, the national project that's recording oral histories of Americans in its mobile recording booths.

Studs would've turned 100 years old on Wednesday, and across Chicago and in communities far beyond, people marked the occasion with tributes and remembrances.

And on the Afternoon Shift, we paid tribute as well during a special two hour program we called Life, Delight and a Fair Shake for Everybody

The title comes from something Studs wrote on a photo for one of our colleagues here and, we think, it captures the essence of the man and his work.