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Interviewing the Interviewer: An Evening with Fresh Air's Terry Gross

Terry Gross, host of the long-running National Public Radio interview show, Fresh Air, talks about her life, her radio guests, and her work.

Terry Gross's popular radio show, Fresh Air is always full of surprises. Gross interviews vast numbers of people, famous and unknown, and gets them to reveal more of themselves than most interviewers. A rarity among interview journalists in that she actually reads the subjects' books or listens to their music before the interview, Gross is known for a probing style and for seeming relaxed and conversational almost all the time.

The show began as a local broadcast from WHYY in Philadelphia back in 1975. After piloting national syndication in 1985 with a half hour per week, it went to the current one hour, five day per week format in 1987. The show is now heard on 225 public radio stations,

Gross came to Northampton, Massachusetts to speak and play memorable moments from the show as a benefit for one of those stations--WFCR, a public radio station serving Western New England. And this gave a piece of her audience the chance to interview her. The speech took place at a the Calvin Theater, a former movie house, recently restored as a concert hall for major acts. "What a thrill to see my name on a marquee with Sonny Rollins!"

My own image of Gross was kind of like Cokie Roberts: tall, dark haired (shoulder length), dressed not in the latest fashions but in something stylish. She's quite a bit shorter than I expected, dresses simply, has close-cropped hair and glasses. She's 48 years old, as of April 1999.

Misapprehensions about her appearance are common, she notes. "My listeners don't see me." She mentioned seeing a personals ad for someone who was "stylish and fetching, one part Terry Gross"--and was clearly amused. Even most of her guests haven't met her in person; the interviews are usually conducted over high-tech phone lines of such good quality that it creates the illusion of an in-studio interview.

Other than with politicians, Gross tells her guests to feel free to refuse to answer. "I respect a person's right to draw the line between what's public and what's private." By offering the out, "it gives me the license to ask *anything.* I want people to say things as well as they can," and since the show is pretaped, there's always another chance to make it right. "If it's gone well, it's because I have the luxury of time" both to explore in depth and to edit later. But politicians, she feels, are so internally armored already that the rules are different. "I don't want to give them more skills than they already have" at ducking hard questions.

She also notes that many other celebrities walk into the studio with their defenses up and their agenda carefully planned. The moment I start asking biographical questions, I can feel the celebrities tense up" after running the gauntlet of sensationalist tabloids. When Gross had former First Lady Nancy Reagan on, she tried to focus the discussion on what she saw as problems in the myopic policies of the Reagan administration on such issues as the war on drugs, AIDS, and homelessness. Mrs. Reagan's response: "You seem to be talking an awful lot about drugs and AIDS--but not about the book." Gross resisted the temptation to ask Mrs. Reagan if she'd written the book, knowing full well that ghostwriter Bill Novak had done it for her.

She also doesn't like celebrities who try to ram a cause down her throat. "If I want to talk about the rainforest, I don't get a rock star. I'll get someone who has devoted their life to the rainforest."

And sometimes, when the star can't get things the way he or she wants it, the interview terminates abruptly. Actor Peter Boyle, Monica Lewinsky--who said, "I can't go on with the interview; this is getting too intimate"--and rock singer/songwriter Lou Reed are among the guests who've hung up on her. Reed was particularly irksome, because he'd been the person she'd most wanted to interview. But he refused to answer even simple questions, baited her, acted like a complete jerk, and finally cut off the interview.

Then there are the publicists--some of them. Many, she says, are passionate about what they push, and make her life easier. But Gross once got a letter from a film company accusing her of going off topic. "If this ever happened again, we'd never get a guest from them again." Needless to say, Gross doesn't see herself as an arm of the publicity companies, and didn't feel she'd gone off tropic when her show paints a broad, deep brush--and no limits on subject matter had been agreed to ahead of time. "I try to make connections between the work that we all know and love a person for and the life" that led this person to create the work.

And Gross recognizes that everything she presents is through a filter. "I'm not getting the absolute truth. I'm getting a mix of bad memory, self-delusion, self-inflation, and truth. There's so much I don't know about the guests I interview. When people say, 'oh, you've really captured that person,' I wonder if I have." She once congratulated herself on a really good, probing interview, only to discover later that the guest had deep-rooted and well-known sexual problems that hadn't surfaced in the interview.

Among the hardest guests to get past the outer shell are "comics, who are always in persona. Sometimes a person is totally unavailable to me." Yet her motivation to discover the innermost workings of someone's soul is not to find out 'what makes them tick.' "I do interviews because I like to find out what makes ME tick--and I always find out about myself when talking to other people. Asked if she's in persona when she's on the air, she admitted it was certainly different from having a conversation with a friend. and she noted that her personality changes depending on the interview. "With an artist, I'll be casual, but involved, engaged, and subjective. I'll be more neutral if it's about politics.

She cited John Updike's desire to live "a specimen life," open to examination. Yet, by contrast, she also quoted Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: "'When you're with people, you behave like people. When you come home, take off your clothes...you may have passions of which you're ashamed. You may shock yourself.'" Gross admits to searching for this darker side in her guests, and taking particular enjoyment from interviewing guests whose art reflects that territory.

And she can be confrontive when she feels it's called for. She challenged Bill McCartney, founder of the evangelical Christian men's group, Promise Keepers, on the lack of diversity within its group. McCartney responded, "Hopefully our outreach would influence those that have not yet subscribed to the tenets of Jesus Christ to be saved...the consequences are eternal." Gross, who is Jewish, felt McCartney was saying "it's OK to look a little different as long as they think exactly the same."

In her early days with the show, Gross "thought if I just asked the right questions, they would realize I was right." Now, a guest with whom she disagrees is a challenge. "I can try to figure out--if I disagree--why do they believe what they think? I want to cut beneath the euphemisms that people use to make very ugly political ideas nicer.

Still, the compliment that she found most memorable was from Hustler magazine's Larry Flint: "You really did a terrific job on those questions about the genitalia; the guys don't know about that."

Other surprises: New Jersey Catholic priest Jim McClesky, who's so busy fighting to save innocent inmates on Death Row that he neglects his own spiritual practice...Gross's closet desire to be a lyricist...and her jealousy that when Barbara Walters interviews people, they cry, but when the same guests are on Fresh Air, "we're talking about the tragic parts of someone's life and we're both laughing. What's her own spiritual sustenance? Time with her husband, movies, listening to vocal jazz, and walking.

She got into radio almost by accident, after failing as an 8th grade teacher. "I was totally unequipped. School in 1968-72 challenged authority. Suddenly I was the authority. Teachers would walk in and say, 'where's the teacher?' I knew what they had for lunch because it was flying around the room." Fired after six weeks, she was living in a collective house in Buffalo, New York, and tuned in to hear one of her housemates. "She came out [as a lesbian] on the radio; she hadn't told us yet." Gross was thrilled by the intimacy of radio, and, when her housemate's radio producer lover moved from the feminist show to the lesbian show, she knew there'd be an opening. Her audition was to ask questions about divorce. Since she was going through one at the time, her questions were cogent--"I knew the questions; I'd already asked them all to my lawyer"--and she got the job.

Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, her parents listened to a crooner station playing the likes of Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. She preferred rock; the only woman she'd heard regularly on the air had been Allison Steele, the sexy-voiced "night bird" of progressive rock station WNEW-FM in New York City. "It wasn't until I started listening to public radio that I heard women--or men--with REAL voices. Early on, everyone [in public radio] was college age and spoke like a real person. It was a thrilling time to start," with the dual missions of airing the issues and training women in broadcasting.

Shel Horowitz is a marketing/frugality consultant and author of Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World, Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and other books. Visit Shel's 350+ page Website, http://www.frugalfun.com, for free advice and monthly tipsheets on frugal marketing and frugal fun, as well as Global Arts Review, Global Travel review, and Down to Business magazines.


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