Terry Gross: Interviewing the Interviewer

It's 3 p.m. on any given weekday, and public radio listeners across the country snap to attention as the sounds of a pithy string-and-piano piece and a soothing, familiar voice fill the airwaves: "I'm Terry Gross. And this is Fresh Air." The words "Fresh Air" are drawn out in an onomatopoeic drawl, and Gross launches into an introduction of the day's interviews, culled from a lengthy list of literary, entertainment, educational, community and political figures. Whoever they are, Gross will entice the guests to reveal a side of themselves seldom seen or enlighten her audience on a topic rarely discussed. Gross' knack for intelligent questioning and gentle prodding, fueled by thorough research and genuine compassion, have earned her rave reviews and loyal audiences. In 20 years, she has taken Fresh Air from a local, half-hour interview segment on WHYY in Philadelphia to a daily, hour-long, internationally aired production, still based at WHYY and distributed by National Public Radio to more than 170 stations in the United States, and to foreign audiences through the World Radio Network. Gross and I discussed "Fresh Air," her journalistic career and the lessons of a harried, six-week stint as an inner-city schoolteacher, a position from which she was fired before she landed her current gig.KP: What was it like your first time behind a mic? Gross: The first time I actually interviewed somebody in a radio studio, it was a psychic. [Laughs] It was a psychic who was being used by the police to find missing bodies and solve crimes. I didn't particularly believe in her. What I remember thinking as I was interviewing her, that what I really wanted to ask her was, "If you have all these extrasensory gifts, how come you have such a lousy bouffant hairdo?"KP: It strikes me as interesting that you didn't believe in her, because I listened to your interview with [author] Amy Tan. She was discussing the ghosts that she sees and her premonitions, and you not only seemed to understand it, but you knew a bit about the cultural basis for that. Gross: If there's a psychic who's selling her services and basing her services on claims, then you wonder, "Is this person a fraud? Are they getting money for something they can't really deliver?" Amy Tan's not making any claims about [hiring] her to communicate with my dead grandmother. She's just saying, "In my world, these are some of the more inexplicable experiences I have." And because I know her as a writer, then I see no point in challenging what she's telling me about them. I believe that she believes it, and whether that's a part of my world or not, I believe it's a part of hers. KP: The other thing that struck me about that particular question is that you can pull things out of a hat like that. You know so much about different cultures and I know that comes from endless, endless research and I imagine that you don't sleep much. Gross: Oh, God, you're right.KP: How many hours do you get a night? Gross: Well, I aim for seven. I'm really not good if I don't have seven, but I cheat. I cheat, and I often get six and a half or six and three quarters. Less than that, I'm useless. I might as well not leave the house.KP: Do you have a preference for interviewing guests over the phone or in person? Gross: I like them both. Sometimes when I'm interviewing somebody I'm particularly in awe of, I think maybe it's a little easier to do it long distance, because you're not dealing with being in their presence. I find the more in awe I am of somebody, the more my equilibrium is upset. I don't like being in awe of people who I interview. And I learned that I really had to keep that in check. That when I really loved somebody's work a lot and I tried to communicate that and I started gushing before the interview, it would make them really nervous. KP: Does it affect you at all personally? I'll interview over the phone, like a musician, and then see them in concert and feel like, we had this huge conversation, I know all these things about you, but you wouldn't know me from Adam. And maybe you'll go up and introduce myself and then you don't know what to say and you feel like an idiot! Gross: Exactly! I think you just hit on one of the strangest thing about our profession. We talk to strangers often who we haven't even looked at, we've never been eye to eye, and ask very personal, even intimate things, and you don't know each other and you could meet on the street and you'd be strangers. And even if that person really liked the interview and has asked to meet you, you're still both tongue-tied! You're not going to have that kind of intimate talk outside of the professional constructs of that interview.KP: It's almost like it never really happened. Gross: Well, it's a professional thing! It's not personal, it's professional. Tom Boswell, a sports writer, once wrote that he was trying to figure out why people sometimes trust an interviewer with things that they wouldn't necessarily even tell a friend, and he decided it's a professional thing. If you trust a professional psychiatrist or psychologist, you'll tell her things that you wouldn't tell a friend. If you trust your clergyman or your rabbi, it's a professional relationship. You can trust them with the information. I think when things are going well, that's how somebody would feel about a journalist, that this is something you've thought about and you can trust them with it, and because of that, I really want to be worthy of their trust. I don't take that trust lightly.KP: I was reading that one station in Roanoke dropped the show, citing monetary reasons, but also they said a significant number of listeners were offended by the content. Gross: Particularly the amount of homosexuality [discussed on the show]. Now, one person I spoke to there said that was blown out of proportion. However, that issue had come up with me in individual meetings. They had spoken to me a couple of years ago about what they saw as too high a ratio of gay guests, and they had told me that they had gotten complaints from listeners. Our response was, "Of course you've gotten complaints. People who are racist or homophobic are often not shy about expressing themselves, but that doesn't mean you need to honor their phobias."KP: Is this the only station that has raised this issue? Gross: No, we've heard that from several other stations, mostly stations in the South, that they get a lot of complaints from their listeners. The way the complaints are often phrased to me, it makes it seem as if I was inviting a lot of people on the air and we were talking about, "Tell us in as graphic terms as possible how you people have sex with each other," which, of course, isn't what we do at all. And I always make it clear to the stations, let's talk about what really happened here on the show. When I talk to somebody about homosexuality, it's not "Hey! How do you guys do it?" I'm talking to somebody whose book or whose movie or whose music has to do with their sexual orientation. How could I not bring that up?KP: Did the experience of teaching help you as the host of "Fresh Air?" Gross: Absolutely! It has helped me in ways I couldn't have imagined. Those are six of the most valuable weeks I ever spent. I wouldn't have missed that experience for anything. I was an abject failure, but I believe people often learn more from their failures than anything else. And that's why, in my interviews, I often ask people about their weaknesses and their failures and what they perceive as their flaws and their defects, because I believe those are the things that make us who we are.

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