Flip it and reverse it
Turning the tables on acclaimed interviewer Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air
For millions of people across the country, Terry Gross is comforting.
As they are stuck in traffic at the end of another workday, their radios tuned to National Public Radio, the 52-year-old Gross’ voice resonates with experience and warm curiosity from the popular program Fresh Air, featuring her insightful interviews with prominent personalities in film, music, publishing and politics.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Gross began her career in 1973 at public station WBFO in Buffalo hosting a diverse, three-hour magazine program that aired daily. Since 1985, she has been distributed nationally by NPR, with the one-hour Fresh Air now airing on 294 stations (locally on KCHO and KFPR). The show has won numerous accolades, including the prestigious Peabody Award for “probing questions, revelatory interviews and unusual insight” in 1994.
The News & Review phoned Gross on Presidents’ Day ("we’re running a tape for today’s show” she noted) as she sat at home in Philadelphia while a blizzard raged outside. As the interview progressed, it was obvious that Gross’ own personality is a little different from her embracing and unflappable on-air persona. She sounded smaller and less intimidating than I imagined, more fallible. Yet, as we continued, her characteristic humor and vitality began to surface—so much so that I wanted to keep talking when our time was up.
Gross comes to Chico State University’s Laxson Auditorium on Thursday, March 6.
CN&R: Excuse me if I’m a little nervous. Interviewing you is like meeting the Jedi master.
Gross: [Matter of factly] Don’t be silly.
I’ve read you don’t like doing interviews.
Well, I certainly prefer asking questions rather than answering them, but I’ve gotten more used to being on the other end. And I’ve certainly learned a lot from being interviewed.
Do you enjoy these tours, or are they mainly for publicity reasons?
The interesting thing is that I sit alone in a room doing the [Fresh Air] broadcast. The person I’m talking to is usually in a room in a remote location in another city. It’s almost easy to forget that there are listeners in every conceivable setting because I’m so isolated. When I travel and see listeners in the mountains, near oceans, small towns, big cities—you get a sense of the diversity of your audience. It’s a really good reminder.
What will your talk be about in Chico?
I cull a lot of funny sound bites of things going terribly wrong. People yelling, you know, like Lou Reed walking out on me, Gene Simmons being incredibly obnoxious, Monica Lewinsky. They’re all short bites with a longer story and some moral about interviewing. I play those, talk about the show, about myself and then take questions from the audience.
Concerning your audience, do you have an ideal listener in mind?
I don’t. … In a way I’m operating with two brains at one time. One brain is thinking of all the listeners and what they need to know and what they might not know because they haven’t read the new book or whatever—I’m always trying to fill in the blanks. Then there’s another part that’s just thinking about making this as interesting and engaging as possible. I go in with a structure arranged in some kind of narrative arc. But I don’t want that to be a prison that prevents me from exploring the more interesting things that guests might be bringing up.
Do some guests have their guards up?
Well, I guess sometimes someone will come on the show and they’ll think, “Oh, this is NPR” or “She’s supposed to be smart.” And they’ll feel this obligation to be pretentious [laughs]. … They feel like they have to sound smart, and of course they don’t. I just want them to be themselves, whatever that is. I feel like saying, “Hey, get off it.” You know, keep it casual.
I heard about the infamous Gene Simmons piece from last year.
He had this preconception [that] oh, it’s NPR, therefore they’re snooty intellectuals who couldn’t possibly be interested in his music anyway. He said things like, “If you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’ll also have to welcome me with open legs.” [Both of us laugh.]
The reason we wanted to have on Gene Simmons is because he grew up in Israel until age nine or 11 and moved to the States still wearing a yarmulke, went to Yeshiva [University]. His mother was a Holocaust survivor. The distance between that and KISS is an enormous distance to travel. I thought talking about from there to here would be interesting.
I noticed on the Web site that most of the staff at Fresh Air are women.
I know! Sometimes when I meet people who listen to the show and have heard the credits, they give me this, “Yeah, sisterhood!” [Laughs.]. It’s not about that. We’ve actively campaigned to hire a man before. But for several hires, the best person for the job has been a woman. We think the secret to having a good show is you hire the best people you can.
Are you involved with the feminist movement?
I definitely consider myself a feminist and think that it really changed my life back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m not involved with any groups though. But I’ve been very shaped by feminism. It shaped how I talk to people, what I expect from them too.
When you meet your public, do people’s expectations of you affect you personally?
I’ve gotten a lot more used to it. It was weird in the beginning because people always have this picture in mind of what you look like, and of course, when they meet you, you never fit that picture. How could you? People are usually wildly wrong [laughs]. I’m very short.
I love this remark: you once said that as a child, people were always saying that you “looked like you were lost.” Sounds like you were an imaginative child, true?
Yes. I was usually lost in thought—not physically lost. I think my face just goes slack when I’m thinking; and I’m preoccupied with something all the time. The adults who would say that would look so worried [laughs]. I’d almost be worried because they looked so worried.
Your current job must be all-consuming. How do you nourish yourself?
I try to go to the movies and listen to music when I can. I read so much for the show—I never have time unless I’m on vacation to read for pleasure. I have to read at such a fast pace for the show, it’s not the way one usually reads for pleasure. And I take a summer vacation to hopefully do other things.
You and your husband [Atlantic Monthly jazz critic Francis Davis] probably have a lot of promotional materials at home. Do you ever feel like you’ve accumulated too much stuff?
Oh, you should see the place we live. It’s like books and record shelves with a table, couple couches and a bed. It’s just all shelving.
You two were together 20 years before getting married.
I had lived alone for years. I like living alone. I think it worked well for us. There wasn’t a whole lot of time after our work. I think sometimes it’s good for relationships to be apart and to be together. … At some point we decided to get married [after a hospital scare for Davis]. While we don’t need anyone’s permission to grow old together, there are certain things, like visitation rights in hospitals, health insurance, that you only get when you are officially family.
Having developed such a focused ear as a listener, has that taught you any wisdom about communication or human nature?
I’d like to say it has, but I don’t know. Of course I can hear tension in people’s voices and can tell early on if someone’s got a sense of humor. … I’ve heard so many people talk about losing a loved one or dealing with sickness, and I think that’s helped me a lot. I can’t say how exactly, but I just know that a lot of people have gone through this—and others have been able to describe it in a way that helps me clarify my experience as I’m living through it. … My mother died a couple years ago.
Your own voice has been praised a thousand different ways for its soothing, emotive qualities.
Which is of course not how it sounds to me [laughs]. … I think my voice really has changed over time. When I listen back to early tapes I hear a big difference. Now I speak more slowly, my voice has deepened—partly from age, partly from being more relaxed. When I get nervous, my voice tends to rise about an octave. I’ve learned how to breathe more.
And jazz is one of your favorite forms of music.
The part I love the most is jazz singing. To me it has everything: music, harmony and words. Jazz players usually know how to bring out the interesting aspects of the harmony, of the chords. A good jazz musician will make it interesting. I don’t know—it speaks to me. I think part of it is almost in my genes. When I was growing up, my parents used to listen to WNEW in New York, and I hated it as a child. I wanted to listen to rock ‘n’ roll. But it was music—Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole—that I now realize is great. Even though I didn’t like it when I was young, it somehow feels like home to me now.
Having been a child of the ‘60s, what do you think about activism today—like last weekend [Feb. 15 peace rallies]?
I don’t think there’s ever been anything like that in history, where so many people around the world turned out in such numbers on one day. I thought that was pretty remarkable. I don’t really like to talk about my own political views because I think it’s my job on the air to be as fair and impartial as I can. My job is to give everyone else a fair hearing.
OK. After 10,000 interviews of our best and brightest, you obviously have a unique impression of American culture. Where do you see us currently?
I’m not good at making big pronouncements. But I think pop culture doesn’t give the generational connection that it once did, or to the same extent—though I guess MTV might. Pop culture is so fragmented, so many subgroups within rock, hip-hop; so many channels on TV. When I was growing up, everyone was watching and listening to the same thing. Now the good news is we all have more choices, but the bad news is that we don’t share the same stories and music to the same extent. I’m not complaining about diversity, but things are just different now.
Another thing: It’s impossible to keep up with pop culture. Anybody can put out music or publish a book these days. Now you always have to struggle to keep up and just content yourself with the fact that there’s always more there than you’re ever going to be able to see.