‘‘From WHYY in Philadelphia, I’m Terry Gross with ‘Fresh Air.’”
Every NPR junkie knows this intro, and the anticipatory thrill as the warm, steady voice of Terry Gross floats through the radio speakers to set up the backstory of “Fresh Air’s” current interview guest.
For almost 40 years, Gross has been conducting compelling, substantive interviews with personalities in the arts and media. Her genuine interest, intelligent curiosity, and thorough research puts her guests at ease, and has turned her into a cultural icon and an unsuspecting tastemaker who is often revered by her subjects.
C-VILLE Weekly spoke to Gross in a phone conversation about her supposed gay agenda, the choice to remain childless, and her dream version of a musical supergroup. She appears at the Paramount Thursday at 7:30pm.
C-VILLE Weekly: How do you get your guests into a comfort zone in which they share so candidly?
Terry Gross: One thing I tell guests before the interview starts (and this doesn’t hold true for elected officials), I tell them that if I ask them anything too personal that they should let me know and I’ll move on to something else because I respect their right to draw the line between what’s public and what’s private, and I can’t presume to know where that line is.
Do your guests ever know the questions in advance?
Most of the interviews are done remotely, but feel like it’s an intimate setting.
It’s funny. I’ve been sitting across the table from people and felt no chemistry at all, and I’ve been thousands of miles away from somebody and felt a really strong connection. And if you’re a bit of a coward, which I am, it’s sometimes easier when you’re asking a challenging question, to ask it when you’re not looking the person in the eye.
How much sharing happens when the microphone is off?
There’s remarkably little sharing before or after the interview. Since most of the interviews are long distance, we are renting studio time at 15 minute increments. It takes every minute of that to let them know things like: we are recording, we’re not live, when we are thinking of broadcasting it, there’s a release form I need to read to them. Usually by the time I say goodbye, it’s the last second that I have to talk before the plug is literally pulled on the other end.
There are a few well-known incidents where guests have cut interviews short. Have you ever stopped an interview?
I’ve never cut an interview short by saying, “this interview’s over” and just walking out on them like some guests have done to me. But I have ended an interview early because I’ve run out of questions, or the guests answers were surprisingly short, or it was surprisingly boring.
Do guests often turn out to be disappointing or even more fascinating than you’d expected?
“Yes, sometimes people turn out to be surprisingly more interesting than you thought they’d be, and other times it’s the opposite. I’d rather not name names in that category. (laughs) We sometimes “kill” an interview. That’s always very difficult because the producer has to call back the agent or publicist and say “thank you, but we’re not going to run it.”
Can you relate one of your “Fresh Air” bloopers?
For years I had wanted to interview Lou Reed. When people would ask, “who’s the person you most want to interview?” My answer would be “Lou Reed.”
I finally got to interview him (this was a few years ago) and he ended the interview, in about six minutes or so, or less, because everything I was asking him, he didn’t want to talk about. He said, “I’m sorry this isn’t working” and he walked out.
Bill O’Reilly walked out of an interview accusing you of political bias. How do you temper your politics when you’re behind the microphone?
I really think it’s my job, in my professional capacity, not to not carry in a personal agenda in politics, which doesn’t mean I don’t want to point out the more hypocritical and incorrect, and when I say incorrect, I mean factually incorrect. You don’t get to make things up because you’d like it to be that way or because it suits your agenda.
I don’t like to interview people who are elected officials because to do a good interview with them you have to follow the beat very closely in order to catch in their distortions and their self-mythologizing.
If you can’t catch those things, I think you are doing the audience a disservice.
What led to your love of the interview format?
Curiosity. Being an English major. If you’re interested in fiction, you’re probably interested in the lives of other people and probably feel that in examining the lives of other people, you’re learning about your own life.
You’re cool and collected during interviews. Name a few guests who have intimidated you?
Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Sondheim, and Stephen Sondheim. Every time I interview him, I’m always uncomfortable and he is always uncomfortable.
Who are “ones that got away” in terms of interview guests living or dead?
If we can go further into the past I would want to do a series of interviews with the great composers of the American Songbook, so it would be the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn. They’d be at the piano as I interviewed them and we’d alternate between interview and performance of their song.
Let’s talk about the “obnoxious” Gene Simmons interview. Were you ever a fan of KISS?
I was never a fan of KISS. I think I was slightly too old. By that time I was into new wave and punk and jazz and avant-garde music. The idea of “I’m gonna rock n roll all day and party all night” wasn’t gonna speak to me.
Did he ever break character?
Nope. He never broke character. In fact, he was in character when I read him the release form.
Do you think Gene Simmons is a misogynist?
That’s my impression. But, maybe a misanthrope as well.
What surprising fact would be revealed if Terry Gross interviewed you?
Terry Gross would not interview Terry Gross (laughing). I would protect myself from that interview.
Maybe it’s that I don’t have children. That was a conscious decision between me and my husband.
Once I found radio I thought, I don’t know how I’m gonna be able to do this and also be a parent. I ended up throwing out, well actually killing, all my plants because I wasn’t paying enough attention to them. So I figured if I couldn’t water my plants, “how am I going to raise children?”
Subsequent to that I think a lot of women have figured out ways to do it. But I was afraid I wouldn’t, so I made that choice.
In your book, “All I Did Was Ask,” you said that celebrity journalism led you to “question whether the autobiographical interview offers the potential for more than gossip or voyeurism. But only on my bad days.” What is a bad day for Terry Gross?
Sometimes I wake up and I’m not feeling that curious, and and I have to come in and get into being really interested in someone else—and maybe I’m not even interested in myself that day. You know those days when everything is just kind of gray.
The nice thing is that one of those gray days can easily change into one of the good days because if the guest is really good, I get really excited about it immediately. On the same note, a bright positive great day can take a real dark turn if the interview goes badly.
You tell a funny story [in your book] about your mother-in-law being confronted with the assumption that you are a lesbian. Do you still encounter this misconception?
I always thought it was hysterical. There’s a website that’s called NNDB. It’s a biographical website and they include gender, religion, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation and radio personality. So, under [Terry Gross’] sexual orientation it says, “matter of dispute.” As if there’s a panel of rabbis, scholars, and other learned individuals who are sitting around studying the great texts and debating with each other what my sexual orientation is.
I read that it was because you hosted so many gay guests on “Fresh Air.”
We had on a lot of gay guests before there was a lot of media giving that much attention to gay people and to gay issues, and we thought that was a really important function to serve.
And when you’re talking about the arts, of course you’re going to have a lot of gay guests on. It was very exciting to have a radio show at the point in time when gay people in the arts were starting to come out of the closet.
Are you puzzled by the nature of your own celebrity status?
Puzzled is a good word. When someone asks me for an autograph, I’m incredibly flattered and slightly baffled.
Do you ever stay quiet so that your voice isn’t recognized?
I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m recognized more and more, and it doesn’t bother me. Public radio listeners are the nicest people. The typical public radio listener, when they recognize me, the first thing they do is apologize.