The voice that permeated my childhood was not that of Fred Rogers, Winnie the Pooh or Charlie Brown.
It was Studs Terkel's.
My mother was – and remains – a fan of WFMT, Chicago’s classical music station from which his interview program was broadcast for nearly 50 years. Our house was equipped with in-wall radio speakers in every room, controlled by my mother at a central dial. And so we awoke, dressed, ate and played to the strains of Tchaikovsky and Bach, and the locutions of Studs Terkel.
His interviews, conducted in his trademark warm gravel, were a revelation to my young self: the excitement in his voice, the breathy press of it, the yes, yes, tell me more, what you are saying is urgent and important and worth hearing and placing into its larger context. He was the wise uncle who sat in a rocker on the front porch and struck up a conversation with whomever happened to pass by.
He was a sharp observer, a critic, a man who called things as he saw them. He could be gloomy and disparaging, but at heart he was an optimist. A believer in progress, in goodness, in the promise of the next great thing. His knowledge was vast, surpassed only by his curiosity about everything and his willingness to pursue it.
In our house, his warmth carried from room to room, setting the mood, transforming everything into something thoughtful and worthwhile and utterly, completely, manageable. There is nothing we can’t talk about, his tone suggested, nothing we can’t bring to light, turn over and around and grasp more deeply. In this way we take control of it, make it our own, bridge these gulfs between us.
Studs was renowned as a listener. But he could talk. About race, class faith. Music, art, acting. He took them on with equal zeal. He was funny, irreverent and energetic. He gave voice to ordinary people before the Internet enabled ordinary people to give voice to themselves. He was not interested in them for their celebrity potential, but for their ability to tell us something about our shared humanity. He brought these stories to a wider audience, unvarnished, with little fuss.
“These interviews narrate the cultural, literary, and political history of Chicago and the United States. Discussion topics reflect the interests, passions, and political leanings of the interviewer. The archives are especially rich in interviews with and performances by musicians, singers, lyricists, and composers of jazz, opera, and folk. Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Judy Collins, and many other artists performed.
The list of authors and poets represented in the collection reads like a Who's Who of twentieth-century literature. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Parker, Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, and Mike Royko, are just a few of the authors who read from their works and discussed their craft with Terkel.
Terkel and his guests discussed such diverse topics as nuclear disarmament, the American peace movement, psychology, race relations, ecology and environmental pollution, violence against women, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and labor activism.”
The WFMT website refers to Studs as the “Free Spirit” in the station’s broadcast family. Without Studs Terkel, it’s hard to imagine “This American Life,” “Radio Diaries,” even “Howard Stern.”
Studs knew and admired my mother, Susan Catania, a white Republican feminist state legislator from a predominantly black district on the South Side of Chicago. The feeling was mutual. My mother not only listened to his show and broadcast it through the house, she talked about it, about the guests and the topics, about what was said and who said it, to us and to anyone else who was interested. She bought all his books and had them autographed and gave them as gifts. Our copy of “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II” is inscribed to my husband, Mark, a war history buff. It reads, “To Mark: To always be gnawing at the bone of truth—like a famished dog. Here’s to peace and, Oh God, sanity.”
Studs Terkel played no small part in my decision to become a journalist, and I’d always wanted to meet the man himself. In the spring of 2001, I got my chance: an author Q &A to coincide with the release of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and a Hunger for Faith.” I arrived at his home in Lincoln Park, just a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan and the Lincoln Park Zoo, list of prepared questions in hand. His wife and longtime companion Ida had died not too long before, and he was dynamic, energetic and engaged, if a little sad. He talked a lot about Kurt Vonnegut, art, politics, history and the state of America.
It was a delightful hour, in which I sat in complete awe and near complete silence – I think the photographer asked more questions than I did. At the end of it, I asked him to sign my book (yes, unprofessional, I know, but I didn’t care) and went on my way. That night, listening to the tape, I realized it was all “A” and no “Q.” The consummate interviewer had gone and interviewed himself.
I got a second chance the following spring, when Studs came to L.A. to accept an award from Death Penalty Focus for his work on behalf of abolition of capital punishment. I was hosting an hour-long special on KPFK on the death penalty and this segment was to be included in the show. It was a humbling and intimidating experience—interviewing for radio the man whose radio interviewing I so admired.
He was gracious and loquacious and, again, in the face of my fumbling, wound up carrying the interview pretty much by himself. Any concerns I had about the near-soliloquy were dispelled when I realized, in listening to the tape, that what he had to say was far more interesting than anything I might have contributed. It worked brilliantly.
It’s a shame Studs Terkel didn’t live to see the election of our nation’s first African American president, but on the eve of this historic election, the Democratic nominee would do well to take the advice Studs offered at the close of every show: “Take it easy, but take it.”
* Post-script, Monday Nov. 3:
A reader emailed to tell me that "take it easy but take it" comes from an old Pete Seeger song. I looked up the lyrics and they're even more relevant to tomorrow's presidential election than I thought. The last few lines:
if you don't let red-baiting break you up,
And if you don't let stoolpigeons break you up,
And if you don't let vigilantes break you up,
And if you don't let race hatred break you up,
You'll win. What I mean, take it easy, but take it!