Terkel was born in New York City. He was educated at the University of Chicago, and has spent most of his life in Chicago, Illinois. He worked in radio, ranging from voicing soap opera productions, announcing news and sports, presenting shows of recorded music, as well as writing radio scripts and advertisements.
Terkel published his first book Giants of Jazz in 1956. He followed it with a number of other books, most focusing on the history of the USA, relying substantially on oral history.
Studs Terkel got his nickname because he reminded people of Studs Lonigan, of James T. Farrell's trilogy. Terkel has never learned to drive.
Studs Terkel won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for his book The Good War, about World War II.