The Past, Present, and Future of Working

Librarian and oral historian Kae Bara Kratcha has contributed to the Working 2050 podcast, which draws inspiration from the landmark Studs Terkel book, Working, adapting the speculative fiction genre to imagine work in the year 2050. In this guest post, they share the premise for the podcast, and tease their recent OHR review of two other podcasts that draw on the contributions of Studs Terkel.

By Kae Bara Kratcha

Imagine with me the year 2050 in the Midwestern United States. Climate change has remade the geography of the region and the country at large. Infrastructure and government collapse has displaced millions of people. Those who have survived are rebuilding and creating new ways to live. And amid all of this, a trans teenager named Jules joins a youth oral history training program that builds on the legacy of renowned oral historian Studs Terkel. What would it take to build a future in which oral histories from the 20th century are still relevant, instructive, and generative for young people in 2050?

This is the world of the Working 2050 podcast, and Jules is the protagonist of bodyhome maker, the companion project I created for Working 2050. bodyhome maker is a 40-minute audio piece that alternates between clips from two oral history interviewers I conducted with queer and trans tattoo artist Georgia McCandlish in 2020 and fictional voice notes from Jules in the year 2050. Working 2050 is a speculative oral history podcast inspired by Studs Terkel’s book Working that takes ideas from interviews with workers today and projects them into the year 2050. When I think about what it would take to make this future of oral history a reality, I of course think about the archival work of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. WFMT, the radio station on which Terkel broadcasted his interview show for 45 years, has made many of those conversations available digitally on their website, and they encourage visitors to reuse the audio for new projects.

In that vein, I also think about podcasts that have used the Terkel archive to create new work. I reviewed two such podcasts, Making Gay History Season Eight and Bughouse Square with Eve Ewing, for the latest issue of the Oral History Review. In its first seven seasons, the Making Gay History podcast focuses on creator Eric Marcus’s archives of interviews with queer historical figures. In the show’s eighth season, however, Marcus uses the Terkel archive as material to tell queer histories. In Bughouse Square, host Eve Ewing partners with the Terkel archive and the Chicago History Museum to place Terkel’s archival interviews in conversation with writers and thinkers of the 21st century.

My initial interest in Making Gay History and Bughouse Square stems from my own work on bodyhome maker and Working 2050. Working 2050’s creator, H Kapp-Klote, conceived the show as a way for busy and often burnt-out activists to hear from fellow workers in their own words, while imagining a hopeful future and the means of getting there through short speculative fiction pieces. The show’s speculative fictions aren’t utopian or dystopian. Instead, they’re cautiously hopeful. They depict a world in which horrible things happen but where people are working for years to come to fix problems, make a living, and care for each other. In most of Working 2050’s episodes, Studs Terkel appears only as a reference in the title, but his subtle presence in the future serves as a reminder that people have been struggling for justice, making art, and broadcasting to each other for years and years. It’s worth continuing to do those things today so that people can keep doing them in the future.

For me, works that pull from audio archives like Making Gay History and Bughouse Square answer a question that I found hard to reconcile as I recorded interviews for and worked on bodyhome maker throughout 2020 and 2021: What is the point of taking the time to preserve my work for the future when it feels like the world is in a constant state of emergency? The point, for me personally, is that there are queer and trans people living today, and there will be queer and trans people living in the future. It is important for us queer and trans people to broadcast to each other now. But it is also important for us to be able to layer our own stories over the stories of our predecessors. In their own ways, this is what both Making Gay History and Bughouse Square do with the stories they tell. These shows allow listeners to deepen their experiences of today by contextualizing them in the past. When I feel overwhelmed with false urgency to find ears for my work today at the expense of preservation for tomorrow, I think of how time and reuse have added meaning to the Terkel archive, and I hope that through care, patience, and slowness, my own recordings will enjoy the same future.

Kae Bara Kratcha is the Entrepreneurship & Social Science Librarian at Columbia University Libraries and a candidate for a Master’s Degree in Oral History at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Their research interests include oral history as speculative literature, transgender and queer history, and oral histories of labor. Previously they worked as the Job & Business Academy Librarian at Queens Public Library. They received their MLS from CUNY’s Queens College