I only met the master interviewer Studs Terkel, who died Friday at 96, once but that occasion remains a high point of my 35 years as a journalist.
And the funny part is, although I was a reporter, I didn’t meet him in that role, but rather as interviewee.
It was 1992, and I was in the middle of a two-week author’s tour Bantam Books had set up for my first book, “Marketplace Medicine,” an investigative book about the for-profit hospital corporations that were buying up community hospitals all over the country and turning them from care-giving institutions into “profit centers.”
Over the course of the prior week, I had been interviewed by hosts of TV programs and radio programs in the New York and Washington media markets. Most of the program hosts had obviously not read more than the liner notes on the dust jacket before having me on. In Chicago, I’d even gone to one radio station where the host met me outside the studio and said, without a hint of embarrassment, “Can you give me a couple of questions to ask you? I don’t like to read the books of the authors I have on because I like to ask the kinds of questions my listeners would ask.”
Studs was something else entirely. When the car service driver dropped me off at the building where WFMT, the station that broadcast the long-running interview program that had made Terkel into a Chicago landmark, was located, I found him waiting for me in the lobby, inside the building’s revolving door. A short, energetic man of 80, with a shock of white, slightly disheveled hair, Studs stepped forward to greet me, shaking my hand vigorously and steering me towards the elevator. “Dave, great to see you, great to see you!” he growled in his raspy voice. I noticed he was carrying my book in his other hand.
“This is a terrific book!” he said enthusiastically as we walked into the elevator. “A great book!” He began flipping intently through the pages, which I noticed were black with markings done in a thick marker pen. Passages were circled, there were exclamation marks and asterisks in the margins, and comments scrawled in a big sloppy hand. “There’s just one thing I want to ask you.”
He flipped through more pages, all black with his marker handiwork, and came to the page he wanted. I can’t remember the question he asked, but I remember he wanted a clarification of a comment I had made about some incident involving the actions of one of the hospital chains I had been writing about.
I confess, I was just in awe at the prospect of being interviewed by this guy.
He led me into a studio room, offered me something to drink—coffee I think—and motioned me to a chair at a large table. He sat down too, and continued the conversation. I gradually relaxed and was looking forward to the interview, when Studs suddenly said, “Well, that was great. Now all we need is a wrap. Could you just read this paragraph from the book?”
I was dumbstruck. “You mean we already did the interview?” I asked him, incredulous.
“Yeah,” he said, laughing. He pointed up at the microphones hanging from the ceiling, unnoticed by me. “Didn’t you see the engineer over there?” he asked, pointing to a glass window, behind which an engineer sat, laughing silently.
No, I hadn’t. I had thought we were just shooting the breeze, waiting for the interview to begin. At most of the studios I had been at, engineers had attached mikes to my shirt, done sound checks and generally fussed around for a while before starting to record or broadcast a live program.
How long had we talked, I wondered? It had seemed like only a few minutes to me, but it turns out we’d done the whole program.
I read the passage from the book that Studs had requested, and then he leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Ah, that’s what I call a back porch interview,” he said.
I was still in shock. His interview had been so smooth, so casual, his interest in and knowledge of the material in the book so thorough, and his questions so easy and on target, that I had never realized that it was happening. I had thought we were just chatting.
The amazing thing is that we were just chatting. But when I took the tape of the program home and played it, I was astonished at how incisive and articulate I sounded. The truth is, I had never sounded so good, before and probably ever since!
What was it that Studs had done in that interview? I’ve listened to that tape many times trying to figure it out. He was completely conversational. He never cut me off, allowing me to answer questions fully, and if he wanted more, he knew exactly what he wanted and was able to gently ask a leading question that sent me in the right direction without my ever feeling steered, pressured or manipulated into answering. Most important, he was genuinely interested in what I had to say. It really was like he said, that we were two guys relaxing on the back porch conversing.
And that, I believe, not just his incalculable contribution to the understanding of America, is what was Studs Terkel’s greatness as a journalist. He was not interviewing a subject. He was conversing with a friend.