'Working' Then And Now: Studs Terkel's Book Interviews Resurface As Audio All this week on NPR, you'll hear the voices of people Studs Terkel interviewed in his book, Working. Among the interviews you'll hear this week are a telephone operator and hotel piano player.
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'Working' Then And Now: Studs Terkel's Book Interviews Resurface As Audio

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'Working' Then And Now: Studs Terkel's Book Interviews Resurface As Audio

'Working' Then And Now: Studs Terkel's Book Interviews Resurface As Audio

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  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Studs Terkel had a gift for connecting with people and collecting their stories. In the early 1970s, Terkel traveled the country and interviewed ordinary Americans about their jobs. The result was a best-selling book, and the title pretty much sums it up. It's called "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do." It's a lasting snapshot of American life at the time.

Our partners at Radio Diaries and Project& were given exclusive access to the original recordings, most of which have never been heard before. All this week on NPR, they'll introduce you to people from Studs Terkel's archives. "Radio Diaries" producer Joe Richman joins me now to talk about the project.

Hi, Joe.

JOE RICHMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: I'm well. Thanks.

So no one had ever really gone through these recordings before? How come? Why'd it take so long?

RICHMAN: Well, you know, these were just stored in boxes in Studs' house for, you know, 30-some years. And when he died in 2008, people were thinking, well, we got to protect these - got to do something with these. And these are just - you know, they were never meant for broadcast. They were just to be used for the book. So yeah, for almost 40 years, no one really heard most of these. And, you know, for me, it was like, you know, the Dead Sea Scrolls or something like that. It was, like - you know, just to, like, hear, you know, the voices that were on those pages.

MARTIN: Yeah. So I imagine you had a lot of fascinating people - stories you could have profiled. How did you make decisions about who you were going to use in this project?

RICHMAN: Yeah. I mean, there were more than 130 interviews. So we started out looking for people who were still alive. And we also were just looking for, you know, good stories and just good talkers, too.

MARTIN: So can you introduce us to one?

RICHMAN: One that I really loved was an interview that Studs did with a private investigator in Brooklyn. I remember when we actually found Thomas Buscetti (ph), of course, being a private eye, one of his first questions that he asked us was, how did you find me?

(LAUGHTER)

RICHMAN: Back when Studs talked to him, he told Studs about one of the cases he was just working on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUDS TERKEL: What were you supposed to uncover there?

THOMAS BUSCETTI: A theft - they had a theft of butter. It sounds ridiculous, but it ran into quite a bit of money. Seventy-pound cartons of butter were being swiped on an average of once a week. And this was going on for six months to a year, which amounted to something like 4,000 or $5,000. So they sent me in there, and I got a job as a mixer. I was a dough mixer. So I had a week to bust this case.

RICHMAN: I just want to tell you that by busting the case, what he did was he staked out on top of the refrigerator for eight hours a day for a week until he found a guy stealing butter. You know, and around our office for two months, we've been saying a theft - a theft of butter.

MARTIN: And as you mentioned, you went back to some of these folks to talk to them to just get an update on their lives now. How did you decide who you were going to do that with, who you were going to call up and have those conversations with?

RICHMAN: We started researching just to find out who was still alive. We found, you know, probably more than a dozen people who were still around. And, you know, we were just trying to figure out, what were the most interesting jobs and most interesting people to talk about how things have changed or not changed over those years.

There was one that I think was really interesting with a black police officer in Chicago named Renault Robinson, who at the time, the early '70s, was very active in trying to change the issue of race in the police force and between the police and the black community - was trying to push for change. And his old interview from the '70s was just really frank and blunt and honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RENAULT ROBINSON: Certain units have really developed a science around stopping the automobile. In other words, in their minds, if they stop a hundred cars in the black community, the likelihood of them finding one or two or three violations of some sort is highly possible. Now, of course, you've got teachers, lawyers, doctors of just average, working people who haven't broken any law and are very irritated and aggravated by being stopped by the police. And black folks or minority tolerance of that police brutality has grown very short.

TERKEL: Of course they won't accept it.

ROBINSON: They won't accept that treatment. They won't accept that dehumanizing, degrading treatment.

MARTIN: Amazing to hear that tape.

RICHMAN: Yeah. And when we interviewed Renault Robinson, I remember he was - you know, he was really emotional. And I think listening to his words, his own voice from the early '70s when he was really trying to push for a lot of change in the Chicago police force and to hear those words just feel so, as he said, it's like deja vu. That was a really powerful interview.

MARTIN: What do you think it is about this book, "Working," that still has resonance today?

RICHMAN: Well, I think the book was, you know, celebrating the uncelebrated. It was like taking these ordinary lives and ordinary people and just - and kind of putting them on stage in a way that I think, especially back then, we weren't used to. And I think the idea of paying attention to people that have different backgrounds, different locations, different political views, different jobs, that kind of spirit of the book, I think, is still so important.

MARTIN: Joe Richman of "Radio Diaries." You'll hear more stories from the series Working: Then & Now all this week on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on the "Radio Diaries" podcast.

Hey, Joe, thanks so much for talking with us.

RICHMAN: Thank you.

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