After years giving voice to the voiceless via radio and lauded oral histories, Studs Terkel tells Huw Richards he still can't work a tape recorder
You know," said the elderly black woman he found staring at a shop window, "until you asked me your questions, I never knew I felt that way."
It is no surprise that Studs Terkel should regard this anecdote as one of the highlights of his 45-year broadcasting career. It epitomises a quest to give a voice to the voiceless, to record those who would otherwise go unrecorded, that has made him, in academic and broadcaster Laurie Taylor's words: "The anthropologist of hidden America."
The fruits of that quest, about 9,000 hours of taped interviews, now sit in the archives of the Chicago Historical Society. "Tape's fragile, so they're putting them onto CD. I have to categorise them," Terkel says in the rasping tones familiar to Chicago public radio audiences since the early 1950s. Even critics unimpressed by his politics - Terkel retains the vigorous radicalism that got him blacklisted in his first career as an actor during the McCarthyite witchhunts - acknowledge an ability to extract evocative interviews from ostensibly unpromising subjects.
How does he do it? "There's one word - listening. I never have a prepared list of questions. The point is to listen to what the other person has to say. Now and then I might interject something like 'that happened to me too' or 'I goofed up that way as well'."
If that sounds a little passive, it is misleading. If Terkel has built his reputation around that ability to listen, he is also a volcanic, world-class talker, his conversation an idiosyncratic stream of consciousness bristling with anecdote: "If there's no one else around I talk to myself. For that I always have an extremely appreciative audience," he says. He even called his memoirs Talking To Myself.
Whether as interviewer or interviewee, he conducts conversations rather than interviews and likens the process to the jazz that has been one of his passions since he first heard it in Chicago clubs in the 1920s: "A good conversation is like jazz - you improvise, but there is a pattern to it - theme and variation, call and response."
His distinctive theme and variations were heard daily on Chicago's WFMT station until the end of 1997. But his fame has been spread far beyond the Windy City by his books on American lives - starting with Division Street America (1966) and including Working (1974), The Good War (1985), The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream (1988) and Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession (1992). He has been called the US's leading oral historian, although he is wary of labels. When a questioner at his James Cameron Memorial Lecture, delivered recently at City University, referred to him as a journalist, Terkel retorted jokingly that he considered himself a disc jockey.
Terkel is preoccupied by the importance of history and memory. He argues that there is nothing especially innovative in what he does: "One of my idols is Henry Mayhew, who captured the voices of the chimney sweeps, the seamstresses and the other working people of 19th-century London in his chronicles London Labour and The London Poor. I work by myself, with a tape recorder. He didn't have a tape recorder, but he did have helpers."
Although he admires some academic historians, acknowledging kinship with practitioners of "history from below" such as E. P. Thompson, he is less enamoured of academic detachment: "It can take some pretty horrible forms. It was intellectuals who, in the Vietnam War, devised Operation Phoenix and the idea that you had to bomb a town to save it."
For Terkel has been driven by a series of deeply, openly held passions. Not least of these is for Chicago, the city he has lived in since moving there as a child of eight in 1920 and which has given him the core of his material and his name - his baptismal name was Louis, but the nickname by which he is recognised comes, appropriately, from Studs Lonigan, J. T. Farrell's trilogy of novels set in the city.
He even reckons that moving cured his childhood asthma: "I don't think I could have done everything I have done anywhere but Chicago. It isn't like New York, which is a mix of lots of other cities - a bit of Dublin, a bit of Rome, something of Tel Aviv. Chicago in 1920 was a great blue-collar city. But it was also the city that invented skyscrapers, that had architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, people such as Jane Addams who started the settlement-house movement, writers like Ring Lardner. The 'Hog Butcher for the World' image was out of date, but the steel mills were at their height and there were 1,000 trains a day passing through the city." In short, sprawling, diverse and combative - rather like one of Terkel's anecdotes.
Another passion, perhaps the most important, is for ordinary people and their lives. Except that he dislikes the "ordinary" label: "There's nothing ordinary about any of them. I prefer non-celebrated."
He has interviewed celebrities - people such as Arthur Miller, Buster Keaton and Tennessee Williams, who reflect his early background as an actor - but his preference is for the unpretentious folk who populate his books. He acknowledges what he calls "the exquisite irony" that he is "celebrated for celebrating the non-celebrated". The risk of celebrity status is that it might awe the potential interviewee, but Terkel believes his almost legendary incompetence with any form of technology (demonstrated at the end of this interview when, attempting to let me out of his room, he managed to lock us in) has helped prevent this: "They see this old guy goofing up with his tape recorder, and they realise I'm no more competent than them - less competent in fact."
His reward, he says, comes not from fame but from his listeners' increased understanding of other people's lives: "When people say to me 'I'll never treat a waitress the same way again' or 'I won't think of truck drivers the same way' after they've heard an interview with those people talking about their lives, their hopes, fears and worries."
Some of the most vivid interviews have come from chance encounters, like the woman Terkel found gazing into the shop window. More have come from chatting in bars, in neighbourhoods, looking for the person who can articulate what others feel: "They aren't just anybody," Terkel points out. Florence Scala, the woman whose story opened Division Street America, was a good example: "People kept on telling me, 'you've got to see Florence, she'll tell you'. There's always 'somebody' who has a way of saying things, that tells you what others think and know but can't quite find a way of saying."
Now 86, Terkel's politics remain undimmed. President Clinton's acceptance of Republican-driven welfare cuts angers him as much as the triviality of much modern journalism: "There they are at the White House on the day when it looks as though we're going to bomb Iraq. And what's the first question? 'How do you think Monica Lewinsky's father feels at the moment'?" As he recalls that scene, it is a measure of Terkel's feeling that he is, although only momentarily, lost for words.