A compelling guest, says Terry Gross, makes a compelling conversation.
The celebrated longtime host and co-executive producer of PBS’ radio interview show “Fresh Air” was my compelling guest during an almost hour-long telephone conversation in mid-January.
For those not among her more than 4.5 million listeners on nearly 500 public radio stations across the country, the show is a weekday magazine of contemporary arts and issues that Gross took on in 1975.
Gross and I have a shared history. We haven’t seen each other or talked since 1968, but sat next to each other in seventh-grade homeroom and were classmates at Sheepshead Bay High School in South Brooklyn. I remember her as smart and creative — outstanding even among gifted students, petite, well-dressed, with chin-length blonde hair in a perky flip.
Of course, I’ve heard the radio icon’s voice through the years, and read her 2004 book, “All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians and Artists.” When I noted that Gross would appear locally at the Music Center at Strathmore, it promised a “compelling” opportunity to reconnect with my own distant past as well as to interview the consummate interviewer.
On Friday evening, Gross will offer entertainment quite unlike the predominantly musical fare typically offered at the North Bethesda arts center. She will share sound bites from “Fresh Air,” each about one to two minutes long, “funny, but embarrassing — to me,” she says, as well as some biographical and behind the scenes chat, followed by a chance to turn the tables on Gross and ask her questions.
In addition to the legions of insightful, sensitive and revealing interviews with celebrated guests that have earned her reputation, Gross has had less than serene encounters with Kiss’ Gene Simmons, Monica Lewinsky and Bill O’Reilly. All three walked out on her.
Gross says her interests in literature and creative writing were nurtured in high school, but it was the extracurricular Sing, a spirited “Glee”-type competitive musical performance each class wrote and staged, that inspired her most. After re-penning the words to Broadway musicals for the class of 1968’s shows, she considered a career as a lyricist. After all, another Sheepshead Bay resident, Carole King, nearly 10 years older, had done it. But, alas, Gross says she was not that serious — and also lacked the resonant singing voice.
At SUNY at Buffalo, where Gross earned degrees in English and education, her classes were not structured enough to direct her toward suitable writing topics or a career. And a post-grad stint teaching eighth grade in an inner city school lasted six weeks, until she was fired. She says the job consisted of not letting the kids beat up each other or their teacher.
“I didn’t teach,” she admits. “And I didn’t like being an authority figure.”
It wasn’t clear what path to follow, Gross says, because “women in our mothers’ generation didn’t work except in traditionally female professions like teaching.”
Shortly thereafter, when her roommate’s lover traded her spot on a radio show dealing with feminist issues for a lesbian-oriented program, Gross auditioned for the slot. The volunteer gig, on the Buffalo NPR affiliate WBFO, seemed like a good idea, since, “radio has an element of writing, but does not depend on it.” Still, she says, the only female in radio she was familiar with back then was Alison Steele, a pioneering disc jockey on New York’s progressive rock radio station in the 1960s and 1970s. Gross was taken with "The Nightbird’s" sultry, smoky voice.
“I loved radio immediately, the magic of all the knobs and dials,” Gross recalls, acknowledging that the comment dates her. “And it combined all my interests, like reading and talking about books. I like asking questions; it’s my natural state of affairs, and radio has just the right dose of theatrical production.”
At the start, Gross says, “I was na´ve and had never done radio.” As a result, her first shows, on the history of women’s undergarments and early women blues singers, were less than stellar.
“I researched and wrote, then read them [on air] like a college paper,” she remembers.
Yet, she gained valuable experience on “Woman Power,” where four women, called “a collective” back in the day, she notes, worked cooperatively, alternating producing and on-air duties, the more experienced training the newbies in recording, editing and broadcasting skills. Gross went on to co-host and co-produce the station’s “This is Radio,” a daily three-hour magazine format for the station’s program director David Karpoff.
Two years later, she joined Karpoff on the staff of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia as producer and host of “Fresh Air,” then a local, daily free-form interview and classical music program.
“It was a real position,” she says, and she proceeded to choose jazz, blues, rock, new wave and punk music, giving the show more of a pop sensibility. As her interview skills grew, her guests became more prominent figures in arts and entertainment, culture, journalism and world news.
In 1985, WHYY-FM launched a weekly half-hour edition of “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” which NPR distributed, and the show began broadcasting nationally in 1987. The speaking engagements came along then, too.
Initially, Gross says, the idea of appearing live was “unfathomable,” but she has learned to be “comfortable on stage — except when I don’t wake up feeling stage-worthy.”
Gross works with four producers who comb through books, magazines and CDs looking for prospective guests and assist with research. They connect during “marathon Friday meetings.” Prior to each interview, Gross does “as much preparation as I have time for. It amounts to two to three hours of reading, and one hour of writing questions.”
Regardless of all the vetting, Gross says her biggest surprise has been “how boring something can be.” Her example: an interview on the history of sex that turned out to “just so dull, so academic.”
Unlike a newspaper article’s lead or a book’s opening sentence, Gross says her first question is not intended for the audience. Instead, her goal is to “start with a warm up, to let the guest get comfortable with me.” She likens her interview to a cocktail party conversation.
In addition to the legions of fans, “Fresh Air” has been recognized with a 1994 Peabody Award, recognizing Gross’ “probing questions and unusual insights.” She also won a 1999 Gracie Award as National Network Radio Personality from America Women in Radio and Television, and a 2003 Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for advancing the “growth, quality and positive image of radio.”
Gross says she loves her work, but aspires to “slightly more life and slightly less work.” She would like to spend more time with her husband, jazz critic Francis Davis.
I wish her continued success, of course, but also fulfillment of her wish to get out of the studio and into some literal “Fresh Air.”
Catch “All I Did Was Ask — An Evening with NPR's Terry Gross” at 8 p.m. Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets range from $35 to $55. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.