It’s the birthday of writer, historian, and radio man Studs Terkel (books by this author), born in New York City (1912). When he was eight, his family moved to Chicago, where they ran a rooming house, and Terkel was fascinated by all the different people who came through. He went to college and law school, but he thought it was too corporate, and he wasn’t a very good student. He graduated but failed to pass the bar. He applied for a job as a fingerprint classifying clerk at the FBI, but he didn’t get the job — one of his professors, an FBI informant, had given him a lukewarm review: “His appearance was somewhat sloppy, and I considered him to be not the best type of boy.”
Since a career in law was not working out, Terkel found work writing radio scripts with the Federal Writers’ Project, acting with the Chicago Repertory Theater, and performing in radio soap operas. He hosted a radio show called The Wax Museum, which was mostly a jazz show but included gospel, country, opera, and interviews with artists. That led to a television show, Studs’ Place, set in a diner, with Terkel as the owner and a rotating series of guests chatting with him in the restaurant, in totally improvised dialogue. The show was dropped by NBC; at the height of McCarthyism, executives were uncomfortable with all the left-wing petitions Terkel had signed. They told Terkel that they would reconsider if he claimed he had been duped into signing the petitions, but he refused. For a while, he had almost no income besides occasional book reviews or lectures, and his wife supported their family.
One day, he was listening to the radio and he heard a Woody Guthrie song on a station called WFMT. He said: “I wondered, who plays Guthrie records except me? So I called WFMT. They were delighted to hear from me.” The station had been on the air less than a year, and they invited Terkel to host a show. The Studs Terkel Program debuted in 1952 and aired for 45 years, until 1997. The show included eclectic music and Terkel’s musings, but was mostly interviews with subjects of his choice: blues musicians, labor activists, poets, and actors (he stayed away from politicians). He did intense research on his subjects, and never referenced a book or a performance unless he had read it or seen it.
He was in his mid-50s when he interviewed a British comedian named Eleanor Bron on his show. She was so impressed by Terkel’s interviewing skills that she mentioned him to her friend André Schiffrin, the publisher of Pantheon Books. Schiffrin approached Terkel and asked if he would consider producing a book of interviews with ordinary Chicagoans. Terkel said, “I told him he must be out of his mind.” Eventually he gave in. The resulting book, Division Street: America (1967), was a huge success and launched Terkel’s second career as an author.
His books of oral history include Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (1974), Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992), and Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith (2001).
He said about interviewing: “It isn’t an inquisition; it’s an exploration, usually an exploration into the past. So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?'”