Studs Terkel, the gregarious, cigar-chomping oral historian, used to say of his birth that, “when the Titanic went down, I came up.” Born May 16, 1912, Studs hosted The Studs Terkel Program on WFMT for 45 years. During the run of his legendary interview show, Studs moved like a comet, illuminating great political and cultural upheavals of his time and spotlighting an eclectic array of voices including James Baldwin, Dorothy Parker, Stokely Carmichael, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, and Maya Angelou.
In his characteristically relaxed, conversational interview style, Studs asked cogent, well-informed questions and then gave his guests the space to make their way to a profound observation. In that space, audiences could see the intellectual labor that went into a guest’s opinion, whether he was speaking with Jack M., a porter Studs met and talked to when he was in London, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
With Studs’ death in 2008, however, the danger of that work being lost to time was a very real one. That is, until the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, launched one year ago on Studs’ birthday, stepped into the breach. A partnership between WFMT, the Chicago History Museum, the Library of Congress, and the National Endowments for the Humanities, the STRA is in the process of digitizing Studs’ entire WFMT audio record — around 5,000 hours of conversations — and making it freely available to the public.
The archive showcases the range and depth of Studs Terkel — in the year since the Studs Terkel Radio Archive’s launch, Studs’ conversations with Lorraine Hansberry, Buster Keaton, Hunter S. Thompson, Lily Tomlin, and Muhammad Ali are among the most visited.
The STRA cannot wait to share more of Studs’ incredible conversations. But in the meantime, let’s remember Studs’ self-appointed epitaph, which guides the work of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive:
“Curiosity never killed this cat.”
Happy Birthday, Studs.