Feeling Tone: Bringing Studs Terkel’s Radio Archive to life


By Tony Macaluso, Director of Syndication
WFMT Radio Network & The Studs Terkel Radio Archive

Studs Terkel is best known in the world of oral history for his many curiosity-driven books (Working, Hard Times, The Good War, Race) that helped popularize oral history among the general public starting in the 1970s. Those wildly influential books grew in many ways out of Studs’ perhaps less well-known day job: for 45 years, from 1952 to 1997, he hosted a one-hour radio program on Chicago’s WFMT in which he gleefully redefined how radio could be used to transmit the voices of both uncelebrated working people and fascinating figures from world culture and movements for social justice.

Unlike most radio programs in prior decades, Studs’ work was carefully saved and catalogued. He left behind 5,600 radio programs, mostly on reel-to-reel tape, when he died at the age of 96 in 2008 (still fully-charged, eagerly awaiting the results of the historic presidential election that occurred four days after he died).

This trove of audio represents a boon to practitioners and scholars of oral history as well as anyone intrigued by the subtle dynamics of attentive and spirited conversation. The collection is in the process of being gathered and organized into an open, online, digital repository that will be accompanied by various new technologies to help Studs’ radio work be highly searchable, shareable and open for creative re-use by scholars, teachers, artists, journalists and the general public.

I’m excited to share a brief history of the archive and sketch out a few of the evolving plans for the future.

When Studs ceased doing his daily radio show in 1997, he donated his collection of tapes to the Chicago History Museum. In the early 2000s the Library of Congress Division of Recorded Sound committed to digitizing all the tapes under the visionary premise that his radio work was a national treasure. In the autumn of 2013 the WFMT Radio Network started a conversation with the Chicago History Museum about finding creative ways to make the radio archive more accessible to the world.

While the WFMT Radio Network’s historic mission has been to produce and syndicate radio programs on the arts and culture to stations around the United States and internationally, with a focus on classical music (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Shanghai Symphony and many others), jazz, poetry and arts documentaries, the network’s extensive connections with radio producers and others working in the media provided a strong platform for making people aware of the existence of the archive.

The rapidly evolving medium of podcasting also poses an ideal environment to introduce Studs’ work to new generations in a fresh context, with the help of guest curators who can connect these oral histories from decades past with contemporary themes. We are planning a future podcast based on the archive as a kind of cross-generational oral history.

With the help of a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2014 we were able to hire an experienced archivist, Allison Schein, and archive assistant Grace Radkins to begin mapping out long-term plans, building a digital infrastructure and testing how various partners and the general public might want to use this rich oral history resource.

What do you do with 5,600 Studs Terkel radio shows? Fervently intellectual, sometimes stream-of-conscious, running against the grain of today’s often sound-bite reliant media, featuring voices of the celebrated (Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Simone de Beauvoir, Louis Armstrong, Margaret Mead and thousands more) plus the many non-celebrated, working people, wrestling with big social issues and discovering new ways of thinking live, in-the-moment, Studs’ archive is a unique collection. These programs are sometimes meandering, always vivid and alive, full of radio “mishaps,” cigarettes being lit against the mic, a sense of exuberance and lack of safety net.

The archive includes audio documentaries made in the field (South Africa, the Soviet Union, Italy, France, China, the Jim Crow South), masterfully curated music or poetry shows, chronicles of a blizzard or the public’s reaction to a new Picasso sculpture in the heart of Chicago arranged by old Mayor Daley and thousands of examples of “oral history” broadcast in real time that provide nuanced insights into how people thought and felt at various times in history. For anyone studying or seeking to better understand the civil rights movement, the Cold War, labor history, the environmental movement, the role of the arts in society, the evolving nature of cities or dozens of other topics, the archive is a rich oral history resource.

One of the most important steps in laying the foundation for the whole project was to form a Studs Terkel Radio Archive Advisory Committee that includes people from various partner organizations who have an interest experimenting with how to use Studs’ audio. These include The Great Books Foundation (they specialize in, among other things, creating marvelous educational curriculum, until now based on written content, but they’re eager to explore what it means to use audio), the National Radio Preservation Task Force (helping us connect with scholars and technical experts around the country), Illinois Humanities (our local state humanities council which organizes public events and helps us connect with long-term cultural programs), Chicago Collections (a brand new consortium of historic archives at various museums, libraries and universities), the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History at the Chicago History Museum, academics from various universities, the Black Metropolis Research Consortium (Studs’ was very much at the forefront of breaking down color barriers in music, culture and society in general), plus a quartet of individuals who worked directly with Studs and who are managing the Studs Terkel Estate: Lois Baum, Tony Judge, Sydney Lewis and Adrian Marin.

This advisory committee has a critical mandate to meet and develop a long-term vision for the archive plus evaluate and advise on key decisions. Part of developing that long-term plan has been to map out four main components of the archive:

1) The online collection itself, carefully organized, divided into 40-plus categories to make it easy and fun to explore. Eventually we’ll have very accurate transcripts (some are already done) so people can search within the programs, and all sorts of interesting tools, some being pioneered on Studs’ archive such as:

+ Hyperaud.io Pad, a browser-based remixing tool that allows for both video and audio manipulation by dragging and dropping selected elements of a program that in turn users are able to embed on the platform of their choosing. Users will then be able to create remixed Studs Terkel programs reflecting their chosen vantage point. You can preview it here: https://studsterkel.hyperaud.io/

+ Trint, an online transcription editor for both audio and video that creates interactive transcripts that can easily be shared and for added convenience they can also be ported over to Hyperadud.io for easy remixing. The highlighting function is extremely important for educators who need quick references points. Sign up now at https://beta.trint.com/register

+ Starchive, a back-end digital management system designed to seamlessly organize all content using metadata ingest templates, create derivatives, allow for access and ingest incoming material from various locations. See their video here https://digitalrelab.com/

+ Vamonde, a location-based audio tool that pins specific audio to a location to create an audio adventure that is downloaded via the Vamonde app (currently available in iOS only but Android coming soon).  We are able to use this tool to bring Studs’ conversations to the neighborhoods he loved talking to people in. To explore Chicago’s adventures go to www.vamonde.com

2) Educational use: helping schools create curriculum based on Studs’ audio, especially around themes and topics – say the civil rights and labor movements, work or community, especially those interviews in which he talks to the everyday people about social issues, wor, or other topics in an oral history style.

3) Encouraging journalists, teachers, scholars, artists, radio producers and other media makers to re-use material in creative new ways.

4) Eventually creating our own new original weekly podcast/radio series, Terkelogues, in which guest curators are invited to pick programs from the archive and create their own audio response / storytelling that connects Studs’ conversations or programs from the past with the contemporary world.

One of the first steps was to start encouraging other organizations to use material from the archive in order to test and demonstrate how Studs’ work could be relevant today. Quite quickly organizations such as This American Life, Radio Diaries, All Things Considered, The Third Coast International Audio Festival, Blank on Blank, Radio France, the Poetry Foundation and many others used material for radio shows, podcasts, films or audio competitions. And coming up: the BBC commissioned two hour-long documentaries based on Studs’ work from an amazing British audio company, Falling Tree Productions, that will be heard globally on the BBC next year.

On the educational front: this year we formed an extensive partnership with Chicago Public Library’s YOUMedia teen program and Chicago Public Schools, especially ChiArts, Tilden High School and Convergence Academy, to get teens exploring Studs’ audio and creating their own original work inspired by Studs.

Work developed by the program, called New Voices on the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, can be seen here https://www.nvonstuds.com.

The curriculum created out of the pilot New Voices on Studs Terkel Radio Archive program by teachers from Curie Metropolitan High and Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy is currently in development with Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia department, Chicago Public Schools and the Great Books Foundation. Our free unit plans will be made available nationally to teachers.

A few other key partners so far include:

+ Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, which has provided interns and support on many levels.

+ The Third Coast International Audio Festival, which made the Studs archive the subject of their annual ShortDocs competition in 2015.  Hundreds of radio producers made short radio programs inspired by Studs.

+  Pop Up Archive, which provides the opportunity to have automatic transcripts created and key words pulled out based on what the algorithm “hears,” thus enabling us to dig deeper into the interviews and provide greater context.

This summer we’ll be partnering with the Oral History Summer School (www.oralhistorysummerschool.com) during a residency in Chicago in June to help participants experiment with ways to incorporate Studs’ archival audio with their own present-day oral history projects. We’ve also recently established ties with the International Oral History Association and are preparing to partner with Radio Atlas (www.radioatlas.org) a new project exploring how subtitled audio can transcend language barriers.

While the Studs Terkel Radio Archive is still very much in the early stages of what we hope will be a long and fruitful existence full of unanticipated new uses, the past two years have opened our eyes to the potential for a carefully curated radio collection. The archive recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $87,000, the largest campaign for an archival oral history project in Kickstarter’s history.

We are intrigued and excited to have more conversations with people working on oral history projects about potential inventive uses for the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and welcome ideas and questions. We are optimistic that this archive can be a place where oral history, radio/podcasting networks, inventive new technology and educational curriculum can converge in exciting new ways and expand the possibilities for how voices from the past can provide context on today’s social issues.

In Studs’ immortal words, we encourage those in the oral history world to “Take it easy, but take it!” and consider joining us in exploring the possibilities for this unique audio archive.

Tony Macaluso

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