By: Mark Fitzgerald
Chicago treasure Studs Terkel is a master of many media. His pioneering “Studs’ Place” TV broadcasts combined serious talk, comedy, song and drama. He started doing radio in the Depression with the federal Works Progress Administration, and for the better part of five decades hosted a nightly nationally syndicated show, talking with the famed and the forgotten in his nasally Chicawgo voice. His books of oral histories, such as “Working” and “Hard Times,” were bestsellers.
But while he played a newspaper reporter in John Sayles’ film about the Black Sox scandal, “Eight Men Out,” newspaper was one medium that Terkel never made his own.
Yet the enormous impact that Louis “Studs” Terkel has had on Chicago newspaper journalism was clear last night, March 28, at the Chicago Cultural Center, where more than 300 journalists, public relations professionals and amateurs, community activists, and assorted lefties such as former Weatherman Bernardine Dohrn gathered to honor reporting in the Studs Terkel mode.
Everyone in the elegant Grand Army of the Republic hall of that old central Chicago library was also there to honor Studs. They sang “Happy Birthday” in anticipation of his turning 95 in a few weeks. With Chicago Tribune columnists Mary Schmich on piano and Eric Zorn on guitar, they sang “This Land is Your Land.”
Looking frail and leaning on a cane, Studs slowly made his way on stage, and then delivered some thoughts on journalism and the Internet in a firm voice with unerring pacing.
“The traditional journalism of radio and television and newspapers has broadened,” he declared. “It’s news now from the bottom up, no longer from the top down.”
But the best example of that reporting last night was from the oft-criticized mainstream media. Chicago Tribune labor and workplace reporter Stephen Franklin was one of three winners of the Studs Terkel Media Award.
“Tragically, I’m one of the very few people who write about work, which baffles me because as far as I know we all work,” Franklin said in videotaped comments screened at the event. He could not be at the event because he is on assignment in the Middle East.
Instead, the award was accepted on his behalf by Tribune photographer Abel Uribe, who worked with Franklin most recently on a serie on the increasing hours owner-operator truckers must drive these days. For the series, Franklin drove with trucker Roger Kobernick from California to Florida, while Uribe rode along on the way back to photograph Kobernick’s increasingly unprofitable way of life. Franklin called Uribe towards the end of his trip, the photogrpaher recalled, to say that he was doing as well as could be expected for someone “who hadn’t had a shower in three days, and was getting no sleeping in a 36-inch-wide space behind an unfamiliar guy.”
“From a photographer’s point of view, he’s a dream to work with,” Uribe added. “He could sit behind his desk and do these stories with phone calls, but he insists on going out here and reporting on the real people.”
Mary Helt Gavin won a Terkel Media Award for her work as publisher of the Evanston Roundtable, a scrappy biweekly that reports on the close-in Chicago suburb. Gavin was introduced by last year’s Terkel winner, Mary Johns, editor of the Residents’ Journal, a newspaper written by and for people in public housing.
“We seem to possess a kindred spirit,” Johns said. “Mary has been working to bring news to people at the grassroots level, just as my paper does.”
Spanish-language radio station WRTO-AM, known as “La Tremenda,” won the third award of the night for its community-oriented talk programming that was largely responsible for rallying some 100,000 people to an immigrants rights march in Chicago last year.
The Studs Terkel Media Awards are presented by Community Media Workshop, an 18-year-old organization that provides communications training to other non-profits, and tries to diversify the sources used by Chicago news organizations.
In his videotaped remarks, the Tribune’s Franklin recalls a book publisher telling him that Studs had called and offered a glowing blurb for a book Franklin was completing.
“To be a labor writer,” Franklin said, “and have (Studs Terkel) say you are the best labor writer is like having Jackie Robinson sitting next to you in the dugout and say, ‘Nice game, kid.'”