"Going through these tapes was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls," Joe Richman, the founder and executive producer of the podcast Radio Diaries, says about the interviews Studs Terkel recorded while writing his influential oral history, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
In the early 1970s, Terkel traveled the country and taped interviews with more than 130 everyday people about their jobs. When he died in 2008, at the age of 96, he left behind boxes of those tapes in his office. The Library of Congress and the Chicago History Museum began an effort to digitally preserve and catalog the interviews in 2010, and Radio Diaries, which along with Project & gained exclusive access to the tapes, began producing audio portraits about two years ago. This week, NPR will broadcast the results.
"Now everyone can publish their own stories," says Richman, whose nonprofit gives people tape recorders to record stories about their own lives. Terkel’s Working, when it was published in 1973, provided a rare look at the mundane lives of everyday people. "For me personally, this idea of celebrating the uncelebrated and taking what we think of everyday people and the most mundane part of their lives, their work, and elevating it to something we should pay attention to—to me, at that time, that felt like almost a revolutionary act."
Producers at Radio Diaries, when possible, contacted the interview subjects in the 40-plus-year-old tapes. The juxtaposition of their then-and-now interviews speaks to how much times have changed, and how much they haven't.
In the 1970s, one woman who worked as a switchboard operator at Illinois Bell told Terkel, "You get to feel just like a machine." Even then, she agreed that a machine could do her job, but added, "It would have to be some machine, though. Because if people knew how funnily they talked, how badly they enunciate, how hard it is to understand some people, [they would see that] a machine would have a hard time."
Obviously, that job no longer exists, though the fear of being replaced by a machine still does. The woman notes in her follow-up interview with Radio Diaries, "We’ve all been in that situation when all you want do is talk to somebody, and all you have is a list of menu options. I tell my kids to push zero."
One Chicago police officer, Renault Robinson, told Terkel in the 1970s that about 60% of police-citizen contact started around traffic situations:
"Certain units have really developed a science around stopping an automobile. In other words, in their minds, if they stop 100 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, after you’ve stopped 1,000, you have 900 people who are very pissed off. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, or just average working people who haven’t broken any laws and are irritated or aggravated about being stopped by the police. Black folks or minority tolerance of police brutality has grown very short. They won’t accept that treatment—they won’t accept that dehumanizing, degrading treatment. That’s why more young kids are being killed by the police than ever before."
Today, Robinson says, "Fifty years later, whether it’s Chicago or Baltimore or Detroit, the same thing is happening in all of these cities. It just feels like déjà vu."
The "Working Then and Now" series will air across NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Weekend All Things Considered, and in upcoming episodes of the Radio Diaries podcast.