Hers for the asking
Terry Gross' collection is a conversation piÂece de resistance After more than 30 years in radio, Terry Gross has come to terms with the surprised look of listeners who meet her face to face. While her voice may loom large, the whisper-thin, 5'1" Brooklyn native is in her own words literally smaller than life. The host of NPR's Fresh Air, a weekday newsmagazine of contemporary arts and issues beamed to more than 4 million listeners on 400-plus stations nationwide, Gross allows new acquaintances a moment to process the fact that she is, indeed, the woman behind the microphone. They just have this look of total confusion, like, This can't be possible. Some terrible mistake has been made!' But there's no mistaking Gross' credentials. In 1994, Fresh Air received the prestigious Peabody Award for its probing questions, revelatory interviews and unusual insights. Gross began her radio career in 1973, after an unsuccessful stint teaching eighth grade. She first hosted a feminist radio program at Buffalo's WBFO-FM ( before anyone even knew what public radio was ), then two years later joined Fresh Air, a local show at Philadelphia's WHYY-FM that became nationally syndicated in 1987. Although Fresh Air frequently focuses on current affairs, in her first collection of interviews, All I Did Was Ask, Gross shines the light on artists writers, actors, musicians, comics and visual artists. Timely interviews can become dated very quickly, she writes in the book's introduction. The pleasure we gain from the finest books and movies stays with us. So does our interest in the people who create them. Culling the thousands of interviews (including those before 1997, which hadn't been transcribed), she realized that what makes for good radio doesn't always make a good read. I wanted to be respectful of the writing medium, says Gross, who whittled away at her list until some three dozen selections remained. Among those who made the cut: Nicolas Cage (who describes eating a cockroach, in excruciating detail), legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen (who scolded Gross for daring to discuss the craft ), bass player Charlie Haden (who resumed his singing career at Gross' encouragement), and KISS rock star Gene Simmons, whose reprehensible on-air conduct earned him Entertainment Weekly's Crackpot of the Year award. Absent, of course, is escape artist Bill O'Reilly, who stormed out on Gross in October 2003 when asked if he used his Fox News program to settle scores with detractors. (O'Reilly provided an answer on his own show later that night, featuring Gross' interview on his regular segment, The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day. )In the course of her career, Gross has logged more than 10,000 interviews with authors, artists, journalists and politicians. Since the show is produced in Philadelphia, nearly 95 percent of her guests are hundreds or thousands of miles away, at a local NPR affiliate station. That's fine with her. All you are on radio is a mind and a disembodied voice, says Gross. I've always felt physically unassuming, so radio works really well for me. I like being invisible. Gross works at a frenetic pace, prepping for and conducting seven interviews per week. It's an exciting life, says the self-deprecating host, whose crammed schedule leaves little time for extracurriculars or even chats with close friends. Phone calls from confidantes must be cut short Monday through Thursday night, when she pores over the reams of materials gathered by her hard-working research staff. Sometimes I feel like the worst friend in the world, says Gross, who is married to The Atlantic music critic Francis Davis.
In every interview, Gross displays the ability to elicit from guests the weaknesses or shortcomings that so often shape their lives. But she also takes pains to respect their privacy. When I interview a painter or a writer, I don't feel like they owe me anything, she says. Clearly, I want an interesting interview, I want my listeners to walk away feeling that they've learned something about this person's writing, their life, their inspiration, she says. But if something's too personal, that's their prerogative. I might be frustrated, I might be disappointed, but that's really my problem. When Gross interviews politicians, however, any question is fair game. Let's say a politician is anti-abortion, but I've learned that they had a girlfriend, and they funded her abortion, she says. While that may be very personal to them, Gross feels it's worthy of being made public. They're trying to force us to behave in one way, yet they're behaving differently, she says. Gross encourages artists and performers to take advantage of the fact that her interviews are recorded and edited for broadcast. It's very reassuring to know the shows are taped, and we can go back and edit. I take advantage of that, and I encourage my guests to take advantage of it. Politicians, alas, aren't allowed a Take 2. Politicians are so in control when they do interviews, she says. I don't want to give them any more tools to be more in control. Hosting a show about contemporary culture can be all-consuming, says Gross, whose journalistic radar remains attuned even on her days off. Whether she's listening to a legendary jazz musician or watching an actor's onscreen debut, the same burning question runs laps around her brain: Do I want to talk to this person? Should the artist make Gross' revered roster, legions of Fresh Air listeners will be hanging on every word. Allison Block tunes into Fresh Air on KPBS-FM in San Diego.