In 1975, Muhammad Ali came face-to-face with another pioneering heavyweight, Studs Terkel. The two didn't meet in the boxing ring, but rather in Terkel's home turf—the recording studio. In audio clip below, master interviewer Terkel subtly guides the veteran boxer from topic to topic, letting Ali speak for himself. Near the start of the clip, Terkel asks Ali what drives his devoted fans. It may seem like an odd question, but it sets up Ali for a thoughtful meditation on the value of the underdog in American culture. He notes,
“Whether they be black or white, the masses of people are hardworking people… and they see themselves in there, they don’t see me, they don’t see color. They see themselves in there, fighting against untold odds.”
In another gem of a moment, Ali's description of the dullness of his life behind bars (a result of his refusal to fight in Vietnam) elicits a raucous laugh from Terkel, who deems it "the best recollection of a jail routine I've heard."
This interview with Muhammad Ali is just one of over 5,000 unique recordings in the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, a project based out of Chicago's WFMT Radio Network that hopes to use cutting-edge digital audio archive technology to share Terkel's brilliant, personal interviews with a new generation. Never heard of Terkel? You're not alone—but chances are your favorite interviewer or radio personality is a huge fan. As Marc Maron, host of popular podcast WTF put it, "THIS guy was THE interview guy."
Tony Macaluso, WFMT's Director of Network Syndication and the head of the project, says that what makes Terkel's archives so precious is that "he was such a legendary listener—we don't even think of them as interviews so much as conversations, because it isn't really about him asking a series of questions." This approach let Terkel get to the heart of issues important to the many everyday Americans he interviewed—and revealed surprising new sides of his famous guests. As Macaluso explains, an interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. is a prime example of how precious Terkel's recordings are.
"Studs's interview with Martin Luther King was recorded in the house of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in 1964 or '65. King had been in Chicago doing some work on housing and he was friends with Mahalia Jackson, and Studs was also good friends with her, so it was just the three of them. Mahalia is cooking and they're drinking whiskey, and King's lying on the couch, and they're just having this very behind-the-scenes conversation with their guards let down. King's so much more relaxed and intimate than I've ever heard him be."
Archive manager Allison Schein had heard Terkel's name in passing as a broadcasting intern and a freelance audio engineer, but had never sat down to listen to his recordings until she became involved with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. She told me that she continues to be surprised by how relevant Terkel's interview style remains.
"Programs from the '60's could have easily been recorded today, though they would not have the media outlet today that they did then... Listening to the programs makes one long for the return of the conversation that is not preplanned."
Want to help the Studs Terkel Radio Archive fulfill their vision of a fully searchable, dynamic archive of interviews that capture unique slices of American life? You can donate to the project's Kickstarter until the end of next week.