Studs Terkel on Finding Good Stories

Lately I’ve been brushing up on a the fine art of storytelling, a subject about which I know very little. More precisely its radio storytelling I’m exploring. For anyone whose even googled anything to do with the topic, be it what recorder works best, or what makes for compelling radio, they quickly find themselves on the website, Transom is a public radio website that empowers aspiring storytellers, providing them with a wealth of information on the craft presented from some of the industry’s top talent. There’s also an extensive library of podcasts, excellent short stories and full length documentaries produced for radio.

Browsing the content I came across the name Studs Terkel.  For the uninitiated, Studs Terkel was an absolute master of radio broadcasting and journalism.  Upon first hearing him, especially in his latter years, you’d be forgiven if you’d dismiss him as a cantankerous old man, a colorful grandfatherly figure who’d reminisce breathlessly and with great flourish about the past. But within five minutes, you’re transfixed. For there’s an unmistakeable depth and mastery of the craft.

Its no stretch to say he can be described  as an American treasure. Studs Terkel’s career, as a writer and broadcaster, spanned more than 60 years.  Known as “Mr Chicago,” his longevity and great energy were legendary. His one hour program, titled The Studs Terkel Program, enjoyed a remarkable run from 1952 to 1997. Terkel was a legendary listener, and an audio historian of the highest order.  He authored numerous books including his seminole piece, “Working,” a series of profiles of American workers.  Terkel died in 2008 at the tender age of 96, and worked nearly until the end.

Studs Terkel’s life has been duly celebrated on the Transom site, with numerous stories about and from the legendary broadcaster. I quickly honed in on a wonderful retrospective piece entitled “Working with Studs, A Transom Radio Special” and immediately found the inspiration I was looking for.

If there was one theme to his work, Terkel long championed the dignity of the common man. And it was the everyday people, not the elites of business and government, whose stories truly mattered in the understanding of our shared history.  In his own words, he urges storytellers to dig deeper to find the good stories.

 “If I were to ask people who built the pyramids the immediate reaction would be well, the pharaohs did. The pharaohs didn’t lift a finger. Mr. Pharaoh’s hands were as immaculately manicured as Elizabeth Taylor’s in Cleopatra.

“When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch?

When Caesar conquered Gaul, there was not even one cook in the army?”

And the big one is when the Spanish Armada sank. I remember the year 1588 as well as I do 1492 and 1776. ‘Cause I was told that’s when Sir Francis Drake conquered the Spanish Armada. He did? By himself? And so Brecht writes, “When the Armada sank, we read that King Philip of Spain, King Philip wept.” Here’s the big one: “Were there no other tears?”

Now to me, public radio as well as history should be about those who shed those other tears. And about who makes the wheels go round.”

OK, now I’m inspired to go out there and find some great stories!  Thank you Mr. Terkel, thank you Transom!


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