Working With Studs -
A Transom Radio Special
with help from Jay Allison and Viki Merrick
In the coming months on PRX, Transom will be distributing four new hour-long radio specials. The first is a tribute to our patron saint, Studs Terkel, on the eve of what would have been his 98th birthday.
For many years, Transom editor Sydney Lewis worked side by side with Studs on his radio show and his books. For this hour, produced in a seamless blend of documentary and reminiscence, Syd brought together a crew of Studs’ co-workers who, in turn, brought great stories, along with wonderful previously-unheard tape of Studs himself. Sydney is an oral historian, and like Studs, not a skilled technician, but she overcame her fear of digital recorders and ProTools in order to craft this lovely eulogy to American’s greatest listener. –Jay A
About Working With Studs
Back in the 1980s, long before coming to work at Transom, I’d been working with Studs Terkel at WFMT Radio. Despite exiting ’FMT in ‘91, and leaving Chicago in 2001, I continued working as Studs’ transcriptionist and editorial helper for the rest of his life.
Last year, during a planning meeting for a Transom radio special series, Jay Allison said, “OK, Syd, you have to produce an hour.” Until then, the extent of my audio work had been making Sonic IDs (WCAI’s 60-second station ID breaks). I’d never produced anything longer than 90-seconds, and I hadn’t even touched a Pro Tools session in 6 years. Knowing I had the creative and technical support of my Transom community kept me from being paralyzed with fear.
My original idea, prompted by a conversation with Samantha Broun, was to use audio made during my work on his memoir Touch and Go. I had a box containing 30 cassette tapes of Studs talking about his life and work. Where to begin?
Jay wisely urged me to focus the piece on working with Studs rather than on his work, and offered structural suggestions. Viki, knowing how self-conscious a writer and reader I am, made a great suggestion: instead of writing a formal narration, I should make notes and simply talk to her rather than read her the narration.
Everyone at Transom gave great notes on early drafts –– gratitude for all they contributed in the making of this hour.
For the piece, I chose to interview others who had worked closely with or around Studs. From WFMT, three former colleagues: Lois Baum (Associate Program Director who’d worked with Studs for over 40 years), former WFMT sales manager Tony Judge, (who’d become a friend to Studs and accompanied him on long distance interview trips for the books), and George Drury. George started out as Assistant Librarian and became Spoken Arts Curator before becoming a teacher. His archival nature and memory were essential to this project, and he generously shared audio and ideas. Studs’ publisher André Schiffrin was the natural choice when discussing the oral history work. And I included Tom Engelhardt, an editor I’d bonded with when he worked on two of Studs’ later books.
For me, the opportunity to talk with the others about our old friend close to a year after his death was a joyful experience.
Of course, my original plans went kerflooey. For starters, much of my Terkel tape wasn’t usable. He was frail when we worked on Touch and Go, recovering from a lengthy hospitalization and a raft of ailments. He didn’t sound like himself. Fortunately, in 2001, Jay had asked me to interview Studs in Chicago for a Transom manifesto. That tape was perfect for my needs.
George Drury suggested I get in touch with German documentarians Hans-Ulrich Warner and Uli Swidler who kindly shared audio from television and radio documentaries they’d done on Chicago and Studs years back. Jesse Hardman heard about the piece and volunteered tape from Studs’ 90th birthday celebration. Studs’ son, Dan Terkell, dug out and sent tapes I requested from the house. Russell Lewis of the Chicago History Museum and Steve Robinson of WFMT graciously gave me permission to use material under their respective purviews. But there’s only so much you can pack into an hour, and much of what I gluttonously requested was eventually put aside.
Thanks to Sara Chapman and Tom Weinberg of Media Burn, Jyothi Natarajan of the New Press, David Krupp, and those interviewed for helping me get my hands on the photos.
At first, spending so much time hearing Studs’s voice was an emotional roller coaster. But making the piece helped me move through my deepest grief and became an act of closure and celebration. For me, this piece is a kiss of love and gratitude, blown out to the ether where I believe Studs exists somewhere, still listening.
I don’t know from tech. Ask anybody at Transom. Until they got their hands on me, I’d recorded solely for print purposes. My concerns: Is this thing recording, and can I hear all the words? OK, good.
For the 2001 Terkel Transom interview I was sent a Sony TC-D5M, along with a Beyer mic and godsend of a manual. I used the same equipment for my 2005-06 interviews with Studs for the book Touch and Go. I liked the Sony; it didn’t make me nervous. But for this piece I entered the 21st century. Viki loaned me her Marantz 620 and I borrowed a Beyer MCE58 mic from our office for the two interviews I recorded.
The Schiffrin interview was a tape synch in Paris. I don’t know what Sarah Elzas used, but it worked just fine. A group tape synch was held at Chicago’s WBEZ, where Mary Gaffney, who’d also once worked at WFMT, engineered.
I have no idea what equipment was used for the archival material and other tape generously sent me by those thanked above. Both Viki and Sam introduced me to the world of digital recording, and Viki gave me a crash course in Pro Tools, I’d forgotten a lot in six years.
About Sydney Lewis
Sydney is the author of three oral histories, and for close to thirty years transcribed for and otherwise assisted oral history maestro Studs Terkel. She co-authored his memoir Touch and Go. Sydney currently works as a freelance editor, and at Atlantic Public Media and Transom.org where she is an editor and curates the Transom Review.
Bonus tracks from “Working With Studs”
Sydney Lewis, Lois Baum and George Drury on Studs Terkel’s most important audience, his wife Ida.
George Drury on Studs’ fleet feet.
Studs Terkel on “Born to Live,” which won a Prix-Italia Prize in 1961