Archive Retrieves Golden Interviews With Studs Terkel

The Studs Terkel Radio Archive is being designed to allow the creation of audio clips with specific start and end times from thousands of interviews that the Chicago radio host conducted over the span of 45 years. The goal is to make it simple enough for people to build their own multimedia projects. The Library of Congress and the Chicago History Museum are involved. CLICK ON THE IMAGE of Copland to hear him voice skepticism about electronic music – “Let’s give the boys some rope!”

CHICAGOThe affable WFMT radio broadcaster Louis “Studs” Terkel was part of my weekday routine as a Chicago student in the early ’70s. He interviewed artists in opera and classical music, of which he was a particular fan, but also leaders in jazz, architecture, poetry, politics, and social change — really the A-list of the culture at large.

“Studs” Terkel, in a highly characteristic pose, with cigar, at WFMT.
(© Mike Greenberg)

The thing about Studs, who died in 2008 at age 96, was that he could talk to anybody. If you squirmed to hear him ask a question that was a little off the mark in your area of expertise, you had to admire the gusto with which he dragged you into all sorts of fascinating subjects you knew little about.

And everybody talked to Studs. Tennessee Williams, Luciano Pavarotti, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Robeson, Lotte Lehmann, Georg Solti, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Jon Vickers, and Buckminster Fuller come to mind among those gone now but were in their prime when they sat with him at WFMT. By the time Studs left the station in 1997, he had amassed more than 5,600 reel-to-reel interviews and mixdowns filled with insights he teased out of his guests from 45 years behind the mic.

It is startling to hear these voices come alive again, and in a form that the public at large can use in hands-on scholarly and creative contexts, thanks to a massive digitization and catalogue effort underway. More than 1,200 of these interviews are already available in the online Studs Terkel Radio Archive with the eventual intent of making almost all of them public — not only as audio, but also with transcriptions and tools to help you snip, share, and manipulate the material into web or multimedia projects of almost any kind. Still in development is a simple mixing tool that works in conjunction with transcripts from the interviews.

When he quit WFMT, Terkel took his tapes with him, eventually depositing them for safe-keeping at the Chicago History Museum. Managing that massive collection of tapes on the public’s behalf proved difficult for the museum during the first decade after Terkel’s death, although the material was made available for occasional scholarly research, documentaries, and the like. Indeed, the interviews have significant historical value:

Here is Solti, the late music director of the Chicago Symphony, on being a 26-year-old Jew in 1939, getting out of Hungary just as Jews were being purged, and obtaining a Jeep ride into bombed-out Germany after the war at the invitation of an Army buddy who got him positioned at the Munich Opera:

And Jerome Hines on doing Boris Godunov in Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis, and discovering none other than Khrushchev in the audience:

As a practical matter, this trove of oral history has been all but inaccessible to the public at large, falling out of mind as the tapes, increasingly fragile, remained subject to decay. Then the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and local philanthropists joined the museum and the WFMT Radio Network to design a multi-million-dollar digitizing and archiving project, the stunning first fruits of which are sprinkled throughout this article.

A Wiki-style volunteer effort is creating word-for-word transcriptions of all these radio programs; more than a hundred are ready now. This subset of interviews can be further manipulated by users at the “Hyperaudio Studs” dashboard, where one can highlight a phrase or block of text and hear it, then pull the relative audio clip for re-mixing into podcasts or videos or other web pages and apps. Additional tools for simple fades and titling are available as well. [See a screenshot of the “Hyperaudio Studs” dashboard, below.]

Although the creation of an audio snippet is not entirely intuitive, nor is it easy to create lengthy segments, the interviews are wonderfully varied, in good shape sonically and often surprising. With a little mentoring from WFMT Radio Network’s patient archivist Allison Schein Holmes, I began to make my way around:

Here is former Chicago Symphony principal French horn Dale Clevenger, in 1980, on the breakthrough that led him to develop a serious jazz habit:

And soprano Lotte Lehmann, in 1967, on the Marschallin as the best career counselor she ever had:

And I was struck to hear the famous Chicago critic Claudia Cassidy using a musical insight to explain her  immediate connection to Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh, a masterwork that did not at first win ready audiences :

Unfortunately, the musical excerpts in the radio programs, which were largely drawn from LPs, are mostly edited out of the Studs Terkel Archive because of copyright issues, although you can hear them if you visit the History Museum in person. Tony Macaluso, director of the WFMT Radio Network’s marketing and syndication who has overseen the project, says obtaining as many rights as possible will be an ongoing focus:

“For the Mahalia Jackson estate and other artists who were especially close to Studs, we hope to prioritize those,” Macaluso said in a telephone interview prior to the archive’s unveiling in mid-May. “Let’s face it, for a Bob Dylan, whose music is readily available, it’s going to be less important than for a Win Stracke, which would be a huge lost opportunity.” (Stracke was an American folk musician with a booming bass voice who co-founded Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and was known nationally as “Uncle Win,” until his syndicated children’s TV show was blacklisted in the ’50s.)

Even without the music, the Terkel radio show material is a reminder of how much is lost as each generation passes. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear soprano Rosa Raisa tell how she sought out Puccini to apologize after Toscanini had insisted that the composer leave his rehearsal of Boito’s Nerone, which was closed to all but the performers — and her surprise when Puccini took the opportunity to tell her that he was writing an opera with her in mind. He would not live to complete Turandot, but Raisa did indeed star in the premiere:

Other fascinating voices from the Terkel Archive included Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg finishing each other’s sentences; a young Peter Sellars, who had directed in Chicago since his mid-twenties, on why he believed in the historical opera genre, including contemporary historical opera; and certainly John Cage, explaining with equanimity how his Venetian blind music came about:

Finally, my fellow critics may be amused by the separation between church and state that apparently did not exist between the powerful newspaper critic Claudia Cassidy and those musicians whom she adored. She confided that Serge Koussevitzky and William Kapell routinely called her on the telephone minutes after her deadline to ask, “How was it?”

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.