Studs Terkel, oral historian and author of the forthcoming memoir Touch and Go, talks about broadcast technology and finally turning the tape recorder on himself.
Why did you decide to write about yourself after a career of writing about other people?
My publisher, André Schiffrin, suggested the idea while I was recuperating from a bad fall. Between not being able to get out and about, and not being able to hear—I’m very hard of hearing, nearly deaf—there was no question of me working on a new oral history. He thought people might be interested in hearing something about my life over the course of the 20th century. I was born two weeks after the Titanic sank. Make of that what you will.
What motivates you to keep working?
My curiosity keeps me going. My epitaph is all set: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.” I took a vacation once—it involved a beach—and to tell you the truth, I had no idea what to do with myself. It was torture. Work is life. Without it, there is no life.
How do you get your interview subjects to open up to you?
I’m just myself, a somewhat slovenly, gravel-voiced guy. I come to talk and I’m alone, no camera crew, no handlers. I’m just a guy with a tape recorder, who is so technically incompetent that often the person I’m talking with has to help me deal with the equipment. They feel equal, and they feel needed. What I like best is when someone I’m talking with has a revelatory moment. They discover something about themselves in talking to me. That’s satisfying.
How do you feel television programming today compares to the medium at its inception?
That whole period of early television was exciting. There was a sense of freedom, a feeling that you could do anything. Live TV meant live, at that very moment. I’m not saying there’s nothing good on TV now, but today’s programming is artistically tamer, far more predictable and solidly wedded to commercial interests.
Do you recognize any echoes of TV and radio’s early days in new media technology such as YouTube and Internet radio?
I’m not acquainted with all the new stuff. I mastered the electric typewriter and hung up my gloves, so to speak. I have only the vaguest idea of how the Internet works, of how e-mail gets from one place to another, of how YouTube and Internet radio work. I just hope they manage to stay free of corporate influence and increase free speech. We need more of that and less of the other.