About Born to Live with Jim Unrath
Studs Terkel’s Prix Italia Award-winning piece, Born To Live is 50 years old this year. Transom’s Sydney Lewis talked to Studs’ collaborator Jim Unrath about the wonderful things that can happen when you don’t know what you’re doing. The piece holds up beautifully and is a testament to the creative process and wise funders. Studs’ radio home, WFMT, maintains its annual tradition of airing the program on New Year’s Day.
Transom: Set the scene for your working with Studs.
Jim Unrath: I was just 21, and I started at WFMT in November of 1959. I was maybe there for two days before Studs glommed onto me to do one of his programs. I knew he was an important personage. [Chuckles] What can I say? I’d seen some of his TV programs, so I was suitably impressed and also delighted to be able to do those [programs] with him. I felt the more I did the better my chances of staying around would be. The fact is for all of my technical expertise, I didn’t have any at all when I started. I just learned how to do all of these things by rote. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, but I just knew, I don’t know how, how to do it…I did it.
Transom: What had they hired you to be?
Jim Unrath: An announcer. See, we did a regular shift, and if I did the morning shift, then I engineered Studs’s program, which was on at 10 AM. He would come up with a music list, and he’d play music the way he wanted it, and so forth. We learned how to deal with each other that way.
Transom: When he talks about… I say “when he talks,” like he’s still alive. When he talked about Born to Live, he would always say of you, “With the help of… but really he was more than a help, he was a collaborator.”
Jim Unrath: Oh yeah, he was so kind to anybody who worked with him, he was more than happy to share any glory that heretofore was given to him. Well, the fact is that we did collaborate in a certain way. He wanted some things, I intuited what he wanted and I was able to do it. Now that I think about it, it was kind of spooky, the way we used to work. I somehow was able to do what he wanted.
Transom: When he would talk about it, he couldn’t explain it either. He would say, “Jimmy just got me.”
Jim Unrath: Well that was basically it. It was a very weird situation. And I was a kid, you know, I knew nothing. I mean, literally nothing about anything! It took me years and years and years to gain any knowledge about anything, and working with Studs was a major event in my life in that regard.
Transom: As I listen to the program, it’s remarkable to me the variety of voices featured: young people, old people, black, white, men, women. You probably hadn’t even heard of some of the people whose tape you were working with.
Jim Unrath: Oh, absolutely not. I hadn’t heard of most of them as a matter of fact, and I had no idea whether he was thinking about variety in voices, or if it just happened that way.
Transom: He’s been described as a magpie. When I listen, there’s a real trajectory, it’s not just hodge-podged together, there’s a story; it is really well designed. Talk me through the making of Born to Live.
Jim Unrath: By that time we’d already done a couple of little programs. The first was a Nelson Algren program called “Come in at the Door.” We did that in bits and pieces over a period of time, and we liked the way– He liked the way we worked together. And so I felt, Jesus, I was kind of in, you know. [Cackles] I really felt good about it. So anytime he wanted to do something like that, we did it together. We had done several programs when Rita [Jacobs, co-founder of WFMT] said, “You and Jim ought to get together and do this program, for the East-West prize, for the Prix Italia.” So Studs said, “Hey, let’s do this. We can work at night or whenever you’re free.”
I’ll tell you how it started. This Japanese lady talking about Hiroshima moved him very much. At the same time, he found tape of this kid talking to a social worker about this “born to live” thing. It clanged somewhere in his head and he talked about putting those two things together, making them work together. I swear to God, he wrote this as a guy would write a book, from the very beginning. The story was in his mind. These things work together and one thing followed the next. The new voice, wherever it came from, was something he remembered in the background of his experience, having interviewed with somebody, or a tape he had heard somewhere, or a voice he’d come across.
We started by finding these bits and pieces of tape. The thing that I really want to bring out was Studs’ incredible memory, this whole magpie business. His memory [of what someone said] is not precisely the way it would fit on tape, it didn’t always turn out to be exactly what he wanted. We had to work it out to make it fit right, to smooth out the whole business. I spent hours and hours and hours mucking about getting it to fit on tape the way it would make sense.
Transom: This was many years ago, but is there anybody that comes to mind.
Jim Unrath: Oh, James Baldwin. That was very good tape. I don’t know how many edits were made in that Baldwin tape to get him to say exactly what Studs remembered him saying.
Transom: What it meant to Studs, what he held of it in his head, he wanted you to make the person say it exactly the way it had felt to him.
Jim Unrath: As much as I could, yes, absolutely. And after we did it a couple times, then he expected it all the time. [Laughter] So we’d do a 15-second sequence, it would take us 4 days! I remember taking the word Negro out of James Baldwin’s thing because I didn’t want Negro. “How many other black people bought Cadillac’s” would have been all right I guess, but he didn’t say that. And I couldn’t find him saying black anywhere, so we had to do it the way we ended up doing it. It feels a little jerky to me.
Transom: Well, you know where all the edits are. You were working with little pieces of tape. A lot of our Transom visitors have never touched analog tape.
Jim Unrath: Oh, it was just a matter of trimming a little edge off of this and putting it in the right spot. I dunno, I found it easier to edit with tape than I do with digital. Although you can get perfection with digital, and that’s what you’re always after. If I had the ability back then to do what we can do now, I don’t know if the programs would have turned out so well.
Transom: You mean they might have somehow been a little less soulful?
Jim Unrath: Yeah, somehow. There is such a thing as maybe being too perfect, you know.
Transom: Knowing how slovenly he was, would you ever leave him alone in a room with all those little pieces of tape?
Jim Unrath: Well, I found out very early that he was useless about all those [technical production] things, just absolutely useless. I avoided anything that would require his efforts or energy in that regard. Well, I did it once and you know he tells a story about that that’s very funny.
Transom: You’ve told the story too, so please tell it again because it’s such a great capsule of what it was like to deal with him in terms of technology.
Jim Unrath: Well, this was after we’d moved to Michigan Avenue, and we still had our two control rooms, but they were better equipped and nicer and we could do more things. Each control room had a couple of turntables and two or three tape recorders, three or four even in some cases. And so I could tape things and then dub the tape into another tape and add voices and make them segue back and forth and all those sorts of things, and then add something from the turntable, and a sound effect from whatever else have you. I could do all of these things technically that I wasn’t able to do at the other place on Wacker Drive. It was kind of neat. Nowadays, it’s so simple it’s difficult, but in those days it was fun. But there would be days when I wanted to do a little sequence that combined two of Studs’ tapes maybe, and a sound effect, and something else, and it would require my starting a tape on record and recording it at the same time that I’m trying to…I don’t know, it was technically difficult.
Transom: Kind of a dance around the equipment I would imagine.
Jim Unrath: Right. Basically all I wanted him to do is, when I gave him a cue, to press a button that would start the tape recorder by the wall, and he was standing next to the wall. On the tape recorder I had cued up exactly where I wanted it, this thing I wanted to insert. In the meantime, I’m twiddling around with five or six different things to get it to work right. He said it was the Norman Corwin program [Megalove and Overkill], I don’t remember, I don’t think it was. But so anyway, we’re doing this thing and we got to the point where I’m ready to go and I gave him a countdown, I nodded to give him the cue, and he said, “Now? You want me to do it now?” Of course, at that point…
Transom: It was too late!
Jim Unrath: So I had to stop and re-cue everything up, find all the spots in the thing. “Don’t ask, Studs. When I nod my head, that’s the cue. You just press the button, that’s all you have to do.” And so I nodded my head, and he looked at me as if waiting for something to happen. By that time it’s already again too late. So I’m trying to explain to him that when I nod it’s that particular point and it’s extremely important that he get right there and do it. Now we’d practice. All right, so, we did it again and we did it again and we did it again, and I’m going absolutely berserk. I finally said, “Well, Studs, I’ll work this out some other way,” and I just did it by myself by cutting tape again. It was insane. Afterwards of course we laughed about it; there was nothing to do but laugh about it. But at the time I was losing my mind! I could not believe that anybody could be so fucking stupid! All you have to do is press a button, you know. Oh Jesus. [Laughs]
Transom: He used to gild the lily, as he would say, and I love to know the version that he gave is actually true.
Jim Unrath: Yeah, he did gild the lily, and he tells the story much better than I did, believe me. But it was essentially true.
Transom: He said you guys worked till all hours on Born to Live.
Jim Unrath: Those were the days when the station signed off at 1 AM and signed on again at 6. That was when WFMT was on Wacker Drive. We could use the big control room then because we were off the air, and they had better equipment and more of it. Studs and I would work from about 1:30 to about 5:30 or so when whoever was going to do the morning program would show up and we’d have to get the hell out. Then we’d go have breakfast and then I would go back to the station. We had those huge gobos, they were called, the sound things that you put up in the studios to reflect the sound, and they were plywood, and you could go behind them. I slept back there; I had a little bed. We worked hard and long hours. It was almost every night, you know, one thing or another. It took about four months, the whole thing from beginning to end. As I said, just to get 15 seconds of program time sometimes took 3 or 4 days.
Transom: So many different voices and so many different sources. You were working with different sound quality too.
Jim Unrath: Exactly, and trying to make it all sound decent. It was a difficult job, but I loved doing it. I don’t know how Studs stood it either because he had to have an enormous amount of patience. He’d indicate what he wanted, and then because I was busy doing it, I wasn’t able to explain to him what I was trying to do. Sometimes there’d be a half an hour of him sitting there watching me, and he wasn’t able to hear any results. He was very patient.
Transom: And he was not a very patient person.
Jim Unrath: That’s what’s so astonishing about it because he didn’t go bananas, and it’s a wonder that he didn’t.
Transom: Studs always described the piece as a collage montage of voices—
Jim Unrath: We together invented this collage montage business. I’d not heard that kind of thing anywhere. If it had been done, I was unaware of it, so we were inventing as we went along.
Transom: Dennis Mitchell won the Prix Italia for the film Morning in the Streets, and Studs said he learned from him that you don’t have to have a narrator, the tape can just flow along.
Jim Unrath: Oh, I thought that was my contribution. I kept telling Studs, “You don’t have to talk here… We’ll have to explain afterwards what people just heard, or maybe fade out here and put in a quick ID so that people are not lost. But you could do all of that without having narration, we can do this, give us a chance here.” And we would try it until I proved to him that it could be done, and then from then on we didn’t worry about it too much.
Transom: I didn’t know that you were really pushing for letting the tape flow.
Jim Unrath: Well…although it was good to have him in the mix in his narration because he was excellent at it, and it was fun to hear him add what he could to the whole situation. But after we’d done so many programs, I wanted to do something a little bit different with this one, that’s all. We’d done 5 or 6 different programs by that time; it was time to see if we could do something else. I thought as long as we’re working at it….Although you don’t think of those things at the time, really, a lot of this is ex post facto thought.
Transom: Right, you’re just feeling your way forward.
Jim Unrath: Exactly.
Transom: One thing I heard this time that I had never heard before, there’s a segue from Georgia Turner, the southern worker, to Gwendolyn Brooks talking about how you have to fight to live, to Bessie Smith singing “Give me a pig’s foot,” and at the end of that little section, you can hear Studs going, “Oh yeah.”
Jim Unrath: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I don’t know where he got that Georgia Turner tape, that wasn’t his tape. It was something somebody gave him and he remembered it. It was just perfect. That’s the other point: whatever he picked, whatever he chose as the next thing, as the follow-up for the James Baldwin segment, for example, was ideal, it was the perfect thing at that point.
Transom: He had a sort of otherworldly ability to organize things in a way that made sense.
Jim Unrath: It was magical. I didn’t know the magic as we were doing it; we just did it. I thought every genius is like Studs. What the hell? Nothing unusual. We just did it, and it worked very well. And then afterwards, when I thought about how we worked together, it was astonishing. To this day I find it incredible.
Transom: The other thing about him is that he was so much fun to work with. He could drive you crazy, but creating something with him was a happy experience.
Jim Unrath: It was like when you do a little physical exercise, the endorphins are pumping. Working with him, afterwards, as tired as the both of us could be, there was some incredible sense of satisfaction having done something really worthwhile. And dying to get at it again, you know, because you were that far away from finishing the sequence, or getting to the midpoint or whatever else have you. We didn’t even know where the midpoint was. We got to the half-an-hour point and Studs said, “We’ve got another half an hour, we’ve got to do this all over again.” It just worked. It worked because he had it all there, he wrote it, in his head.
Transom: I love the end…You take the listener through this journey about life and passion and art and science and the dangers of science, and end with that mother and child, and the little boy sounds like he’s saying happy, happy.
Jim Unrath: Yeah, and what he’s saying is something about a hat. He’s speaking Swiss, but it didn’t matter, it fit perfectly.
Transom: Any other thoughts you have about working with him on this?
Jim Unrath: Well, you think that Ode to Joy, the Beethoven, was a little corny at the end?
Transom: It didn’t feel like overkill to me.
Jim Unrath: I thought it was a little corny. That was my own problem. I’m the one that suggested it so I always blame myself for it, too. We needed something in the background while we did the credits, and the Seeger banjo led into the Ode to Joy anyway, so I thought let it roll, you know. Get the big dramatic schlumpf here and get it over and done with.
Transom: Once you suggested Ode to Joy he was all for it?
Jim Unrath: Like everything else, when I say it was my suggestion, it probably was his suggestion. So I don’t know for sure. I know we got to that point in the Seeger background where it just naturally led into that choral segment from the Ode to Joy, so I pulled it out and I played it and Studs said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” You know how he did it. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Transom: What was the moment like when you and Studs realized that you had finished the piece?
Jim Unrath: I really honest to God don’t remember anything about it. I guess it was like all such things. You finish a project like that, which was a major part of our life for four months, and you’re kind of semi-sad about being finished. And then you say, “Well, what’s next?”
Transom: I’m still blown away at the range of the program.
Jim Unrath: I never thought about that, but it’s enormously rich, it’s got everything in it, the variety of sounds and voices and ethnicities and everything else. But that’s all Studs, that’s the way he is, you know. And every year when I listen to it, I’m astonished at how meaningful it is, and how it’s perfect. The only problem I have is I wish it were technically better than it is. There are too many little technical things that I don’t like that spoil it a little for me. But then on the other hand, I don’t guess it could ever have been perfect given the equipment and situation we had then.
Transom: You hear it a different way than anybody else would hear it.
Jim Unrath: Yeah, I do.
Transom: When we were working on one of the later oral history books, I once questioned him about a passage, saying: “This sentence sounds like you talking, not them.” And he said, “No, they did say it.” I went back to the original transcript and searched for words in the phrase and sure enough the person had said them, but the words were buried where they’d been said, and Studs took them out and elevated them and put them in a place where they shone.
Jim Unrath: Yeah, he just spotted that stuff, and that’s what made it difficult. Somehow you had to pull that out of the middle of some densely textured bit. He had a phenomenal memory about those things. He’d be talking to somebody, and he didn’t have to listen to the tape, he’d just remember from the conversation where approximately it was and what it was that was said.
Transom: And he would still remember 30 years later.
Jim Unrath: Absolutely. It was insane. And you know what’s insane about all of this to me is, 50 years! [Laughter]
Transom: Happy anniversary!
Jim Unrath: Yeah. [Chuckles] Holy shit.
Want more? Read what Studs Terkel had to say about Born To Live here.
James Unrath is a former Producer/Announcer on Chicago’s classical music/fine arts radio station, WFMT. He produced of Studs Terkel’s prize-winning documentaries and broadcasts of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts. In another life he was a Corps Manager, brass instructor for The Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps and DCI Judge 1959 – 1985.
Sydney Lewis worked as WFMT’s program department administrative assistant during the 1980s, and continued working with Studs Terkel until the end of his life.