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STUDS TERKEL

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If you can imagine Walt Whitman hosting a Midwest radio talk show, wearing a checkered shirt and drawling like a movie gangster, you've conjured up America's greatest oral historian.

Armed with his Sony reel-to-reel and a voice of purest gravel, Studs Terkel, people's poet of the airwaves, has spent the last three decades broadcasting the foibles and dreams of the nation.

For his weekly ''Studs Terkel Almanac'' on Chicago's WFMT-FM, he has interviewed Joan Crawford, Bertrand Russell, Federico Fellini, Billie Holiday, and other glitterati spanning numerous continents and fields of interests. When Studs listens, the world talks.

Terkel, a radical democrat with a small ''d,'' prefers, however, the quiet company and modest wisdom of the hoi polloi - rednecks and loggers; nurses and strip miners; cab drivers, waitresses, and switchboard operators - the nation's unsung working-class ''heroes and heroines,'' he says. They rarely make the headlines; they will always make America.

As a documentarian, Terkel thinks ''ordinary people are more exciting to talk to. With celebrities, you always know what they are going to say. With somebody who's never been interviewed before, it's unexplored territory - like Columbus hitting new shores, discovering new lands.''

Over the years Terkel has assembled these adventuresome interviews with America's Everyman in such best-selling books as ''Division Street,'' ''Hard Times,'' ''Working,'' ''American Dreams: Lost and Found,'' and his autobiograpical ''Talking to Myself.'' Now he is quietly at work on his new book , shouldering his recording equipment into the historical trenches of World War II.

Terkel has already completed two-thirds of what he expects to be 300 interviews for the book, and he recently stopped in San Francisco to talk with several veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, idealistic Americans who fought with the loyalists against Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, a contest many historians see as the dress rehearsal for World War II.

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