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NPR’s Terry Gross: Asking the Smart Questions

ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

If interviewing people is like picking locks, Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” holds a master key.

Every week, Gross strives to give her 2.75 million listeners something they haven’t already heard to illuminate the work of prominent cultural and entertainment figures.

“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,” she says, her petite body perched on the edge of a chair in her small, sparsely decorated downtown Philadelphia office.

About 5 feet tall and rail thin, Gross has an almost Lilliputian appearance, yet she commands a deep respect through her deceptively simple yet deeply empathetic questions.

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When she interviewed classical music composer Philip Glass, it meant asking, “Do you ever try to write music that doesn’t sound like Philip Glass?”

When she spoke with actor and conjurer Ricky Jay, it meant posing the question, “Isn’t there a part of every magician, that instead of not telling people how you do things, just wants to brag about it?”

When her subject was NPR’s “This American Life” host Ira Glass, who keeps a killer work schedule, she wanted to know, “What about normal life do you most miss?”

“It was so smart,” Ira Glass recalls of Gross’ question. “I talked about all these things that I’d never really thought about, but clearly there was something there. It was such an alive way to get into it. The sheer ingeniousness of it impressed me.”

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In fact, Gross impresses a lot of people. Colleagues talk about listening to her show on the Web if they aren’t going to be near a radio. And guests actually look forward to the intimate one-on-one conversations, which are part college discussion group, part confidant reflection.

“When I’m with Terry, I know I’m in good hands,” says science writer and three-time “Fresh Air” guest Timothy Ferris. “It’s like sparring with Muhammad Ali. It’s not so much that I’ve never seen anybody throw a jab over the top before. It’s the way that it’s thrown that makes it different.”

A purveyor of the thinking person’s coverage of culture, Gross, 49, is loved for asking the question everyone is thinking or wished they had thought of. Some admirers even call her program the perfect supplement to a liberal arts degree.

In the nearly 25 years she’s been host of “Fresh Air,” produced by Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM, she has interviewed more than 5,000 guests, many of whom any host would salivate for.

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She’s talked with Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, authors and playwrights, including Toni Morrison, Studs Terkel and Elie Wiesel. She’s plunged into analytical discussions with actors and comedians, including Tom Hanks and Jerry Seinfeld. She’s covered social issues with players in the political world, including four first ladies and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell.

Her Favorite Guests Are Musicians

Perhaps her favorite guests are musicians, including Elvis Costello and Neil Young, who have performed on her show and discussed their composing process.

“I love songs. Songs are my favorite things,” says Gross, who confesses that she yearned to be a lyricist when she was in high school. “I find it very fulfilling to hear somebody talk and perform in the same show.”

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Despite her love of the expressive nature of music, Gross isn’t one to volunteer personal information.

“If there’s something you want to know, I’m happy to answer it,” she says, “but I don’t feel like there’s anything anybody needs to know about me.”

In person, she giggles and tells stories about her Brooklyn, N.Y., upbringing and her mother’s disgust at paying money for books instead of borrowing them from libraries.

She even admits to having a “hammy” side that is rarely unveiled on “Fresh Air,” because of its inappropriateness and her shyness.

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But she seems to value the invisibility of radio, which allows her to focus completely on listening to others, and to produce a show that may not boast impressive salaries or TV network viewership, but is worth every hour she and her staff devote to it.

Crammed into the “Fresh Air” office are crates and boxes of movies, tapes and books. Co-producer Amy Salit, who goes through the print offerings in search of guest authors, describes her work as a fast-paced cerebral adventure.

“I feel like I’m sitting in my chair, on the phone, on the Internet, with the mail coming in, and it’s almost like there’s this universal brain of information I’m traveling through,” she says. “I feel like I’m plugged into a neural circuit that’s at race pace.”

“What keeps it so fresh is they still take risks,” observes Glass of Gross and her staff. “They try stuff that they don’t know will work. It always feels like she’s ahead of the culture and not behind it. A lot of it is the people who put the show together have really interesting judgment.”

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The key, says co-producer Naomi Person, is “finding storytellers behind the stories.”

Recently, Person says, she selected one guest while reading an Outside magazine article during a rare lunch break. Another time, she says, a friend who writes children’s books tipped her to a rising star in that industry.

In fact, part of Gross’ craft has been seeking out artists who are just coming into their own. “The excitement for me,” Gross says, “lies not so much in interviewing the hard-to-get famous person, but the person whom you are about to discover. You know, like maybe the character actors who are just coming into their own and you’re realizing how great they are.”

Gross’ radio career started in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1973. She says she “fell into radio” after a six-week crash-and-burn experience teaching eighth-graders. Her liberal style allowed students to walk all over her, and she was quickly fired.

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Later, she got a job with a feminist radio show, which she found out about through a housemate. But after two years, she chafed at the limitations of the feminist niche market and was able to land the job in Philadelphia hosting “Fresh Air.”

Through her decades of experience, Gross says, she’s learned a good deal about the necessity of preparation.

“I learned people are more likely to entrust the story of their lives if they feel that I care about them, that I know something about them, and can comprehend what they’re telling me. So part of the reason I prepare so much is to be worthy of the person I’m interviewing.”

Despite her humility and exhaustive research, Gross says she is still learning. About 10 years ago, she conducted what felt like a deep and probing interview of a poet, only to discover later that he had deep-rooted sexual problems. “I learned that I never really know the true story of my guests’ lives,” she says, “that I have to content myself with knowing that when I’m interviewing somebody, I’m getting a combination of fact and truth and self-mythology and self-delusion and selective memory and faulty memory.”

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This explains much of her philosophy, which seeks “reflective conversations” with guests and not interrogation-style “gotcha"journalism. When dealing with artists and actors, Gross sets up ground rules beforehand that she can ask any question and the guest has the option to refuse to answer the question, which will then be edited out. Gross doesn’t extend the same right of refusal to politicians.

Nearly all interviews are conducted with the guest in a remote studio, oftentimes in New York or Los Angeles, which frees Gross to concentrate on the conversation.

“She’s maximized the potential for talk radio,” Drummond says. “By not interviewing people face to face, it frees her so she can be more detached and playful.”

But that free style has resulted in several guests walking out during interviews.

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Similar to what she illuminates in the guests on the show, her love of culture is exactly what got her into this hyper-paced life producing “Fresh Air.”

“It brings together the things that I love the most--books, movies, music, and it enables me to immerse myself in all of it,” she says. “I’ve always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions.”


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