The Art of Listening

Sharon Carson |

This year, our NDQ blog nod to Pride invites you to cool off in the seasonal heat by venturing down some elaborate audio rabbit holes, along paths created via a collaboration between WFMT radio in Chicago, the Chicago History Museum, and those talented archivists dedicated to making something regenerative and wonderful for the rest of us. It seems especially important to take this archival dive during a time when the political heat is up everywhere.

For your heart and mind, we present the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, stuffed with archival audio preserved from Terkel’s decades of artful radio interviewing of a remarkable range of thinkers, writers, artists, activists and citizens.

Many NDQ readers will already know of Terkel, his radio work, his books and journalism, his years of labor to document the creative, political and working lives of Americans, but if you are new to Terkel, the archive website offers a good bio and you can also watch Eric Simonson’s wonderful 2009 documentary about Terkel’s life and work, Studs Terkel: Listening to America, which is available on a number of streaming services.

The site creators for the Studs Terkel Radio Archive have done us all the additional service of clustering some of this archival audio art into topics. Just to list a few: Literature (652 recordings); African-American History and Culture (255 recordings); Education (229 recordings); Healthcare, Medicine, Mental Health (245 recordings); Journalism and Broadcasting (426 recordings) ; Law, Crime, Prison (209); and hundreds of other programs under diverse music and arts categories, along with hundreds of programs dealing with social issues and political history.

Here’s the “topics” page. We know. You might not come back.

The link for “LGBTQ Culture and Rights” pulls out 31 fascinating recordings from the 1960s-80s in which activists and writers address specific issues and historical moments in the mid-20th century gay rights movements. I use “gay” in a broadly inclusive sense in this context. The thoughtful intro to this topic page is written by historian Timothy Stewart-Winter, emphasizing via his (and Terkel’s) reference to writer James Baldwin the overlap among categories (and identities) within the archive itself:

“Among the eminent broadcast journalists of his generation, Studs Terkel may well stand alone in his consistent compassion for lesbian and gay people and curiosity about their lives. During the forty-six years that his program ran on WFMT radio, there was no Ellen Degeneres, no Anderson Cooper, and no Laverne Cox. Yet Terkel interviewed numerous gay activists, artists, and writers—and the arc of these broadcasts, between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, offers a powerfully compelling portrait in sound of the emergence of gay visibility in America.

Terkel first broached the theme of homosexuality on the radio elliptically, in conversations about literature. In 1962, he interviewed James Baldwin about his just-published novel Another Country, which centers on the social and sexual world of a New York City jazz drummer, and whose graphic portrayal of interracial and same-sex intimacy shocked some critics. Baldwin observed, “People seem to think of it as a very harsh and bitter book,” but said, “It’s meant to be bitter, when it’s bitter, the way medicine is bitter.” In an observation that clearly resonated deeply with Terkel, the writer explained, “It’s really a book about the nature of the Americans’ “loneliness, and how dangerous that is: how hard it is here for people to establish any real communion with each other, and the chances they have to take in order to do it.’”

Terkel’s 1962 interview with Baldwin is here, and it’s important to emphasize that Terkel interviews a very wide range of LGBTQ persons within the full archive, many of whom are included (and categorized) elsewhere in the archive, but the “LGBTQ Culture and Rights” page helps us see some of Terkel’s contribution to a progressive framing of “gay rights” as a specific topic in this era.

For example, Stewart-Winter’s intro mentions Terkel’s interview with members of Chicago’s Mattachine Midwest Society in 1970, and that program is a fine place to start listening. It offers an hour covering a remarkable range of topics and of special interest related to Midwest gay history.

Just to hint at the nuance in these archives, Stewart-Winter reminds us that even in the relatively progressive winds of the post-Stonewall era, the realities of America’s lavender repressions persisted and the damage of the closet was both an explicit topic but also a condition of the interview itself:

“The group interview with members of Mattachine Midwest marked a new phase in which Terkel interviewed a wide array of openly gay people and took interest in the flourishing of gay culture. He understood the significance of people now coming out of the closet. “In the case of Henry and in the case of Jim, there’s no need for pseudonym,” he said—not realizing that Jim Bradford was, in fact, the pseudonym of a man whose real name Jim Osgood. (Osgood did not correct him.)”

The specific programs on the “LGBTQ Culture and Rights” page, as well as other interviews in the archive, offer some welcome tonic as we endure the current and truly nasty strategic deployment by right-wing extremists of anti LGBTQ+ animus in American politics. But it’s good to prepare also as you listen for a sense of the enduring challenges in all forms of human rights work: some of the conversation segments could have been recorded yesterday, with a tweak here and there to account for time passed and outbursts of genuine progress.

What may stand out as most striking for we click-bait-weary media listeners today, whether we start with the “LGBTQ Culture and Rights” page or roam around other archive paths, is the thoughtfulness and directness of these interviews, the sustained focus on ideas, the extended time made for debate and fact-informed arguments, Terkel’s very obvious depth-prep on all topics, and his (and others) ability to intently listen to other people as they speak, and to then pursue unanticipated directions in discussion. This is the art of interviewing in full flare: dialogue, sustained attentiveness, honest confrontation, mutual exploration of ideas and experience. In other words, the art of interviews (and stellar journalism) as the art of shared social and political life.


Sharon Carson is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota and the reviews editor (and former editor) of North Dakota Quarterly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at
%d bloggers like this: