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Question Authority

Terry Gross
Gross National Radio Product: Terry Gross, question queen of NPR, takes a break from hosting "Fresh Air" to share some ideas with Metro Santa Cruz.

Photo by Jim Graham

Hailed as one of the world's best interviewers, NPR's Terry Gross brings intimate conversations with the famous and the infamous to 2 million listeners a week

By Michael Mechanic

"THE GOOD THING," says Terry Gross of her career with National Public Radio's Fresh Air, "is that anything you could possibly be interested in has a potential connection to the show. The bad thing," she continues, "is that anything you could possibly be interested in has a connection to the show."

Indeed, in 21 years as a producer and host for the interview program that airs daily on more than 170 NPR affiliate stations nationwide, Gross has raised listeners' expectations to the point where fulfilling them has become a nearly 24-hour job.

More than 2 million people a week tune into Fresh Air expecting not only an informed interview, but a sense of intimacy rarely found elsewhere. More often than not, Gross delivers.

In preparing for public conversations with the world's leading figures in politics, music, sports, writing and the arts, plus countless unknowns, Gross devours books, movies, records and whatever else it takes to help her get inside the minds of her subjects.

Through high-fidelity telephone conversations with people she has never met, Gross brings bigwigs and celebrities down to the level of mere mortals and introduces listeners to fascinating characters they never knew existed. For the first time, people may get a sense of how Jay Leno, John Updike or Sandra Bernhard really feels, or listen as an orchestra of crummy musicians convened by ambient pop icon Brian Eno belts out a passionate, bastardized version of the William Tell Overture.

"She has the best interview show on any medium in the U.S.," says William Drummond, a Berkeley-based NPR correspondent. "She actually reads [her subject's] books. With many talk shows, you're lucky if they read the liner notes. She's also not afraid to ask a completely naive question, but often it's the question everyone wants to know the answer to."

"I love the guests she has and how she talks to them, how she doesn't interject herself in it too much," says Linda Schact, a veteran TV news reporter at KPIX in San Francisco. "Too many reporters have their own agenda and charge ahead with their questions without listening to what the person is saying."

Gross, 45, was an English major in college and fell into radio serendipitously after a disastrous attempt at teaching eighth grade--ending with her being fired. After a period of despair and odd jobs, she took over a slot on a feminist program on the University of Buffalo station. Two years later, she followed the station's program director to WHYY in Philadelphia, where she was hired as host and producer of Fresh Air, then a live, local interview show.

"It's a wonderful medium for conversation and for all things related to language, whether it's a reading or even a song, because there is nothing visual to distract you," says Gross, asked what she finds special about radio. "You're not thinking about somebody's hairdo or whether you like their clothes. You are just engaged in what they have to say."

When Gross began her career during the early 1970s, there were few women in radio and practically none in positions of authority. She has since seen the field open up dramatically. "I think public radio is the first form of radio that accepted women's voices as being, quote, 'authoritative,' " she says. "Women's presence in journalism has changed the way certain issues are defined. When the women's movement started, for instance, men in editorial positions were defining what the Women's Movement was about. And I think that was one reason people assumed it had to do with bra-burning as opposed to, you know, the real issues."

At WHYY, Fresh Air producers and staff sift through massive numbers of books, records and films in search of potential guests, and track down interesting people from news articles. In response to a faraway civil war, Gross may interview an author or journalist from that country who can cast light on the conflict's cultural backdrop, giving a wider perspective than politics can provide.

Quite often, her guests have some new book, record or work of art to tout to listeners, which Gross considers fair game, although it sometimes creates problems. Nancy Reagan, for instance, refused to discuss her husband's career and only wanted to push her ghost-written "autobiography."

"The point of the interview is not to, quote, 'sell product,' it's to have an interesting conversation," says Gross. "We're not going to just sit there and promote the new product, and we get very annoyed with the people who think we are."

Defensive Disasters

THE DIFFICULT GUESTS make it on the air, however, unlike the real disasters. "Lou Reed walked out on me recently. Jann Wanner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine--that was the shortest interview I ever did. He was out in, I think it was two minutes 15 seconds," Gross laughs. "I had been reading [a book in which the author] said Wanner had faked his first subscription list to give to advertisers and I asked him a couple of things along those lines, and so he just said, 'Well, I have another appointment and I think I should be going.' ... When you consider all the investigative pieces Rolling Stone has published, it didn't seem like I was going for the jugular."

Gross is tough, but doesn't aim to badger her guests for personal information. Her strategy is to ask away and give the guest leave to speak up if she goes too far. "I think people have the right to decide what's personal and what's not, and I can't presume to guess in advance where they are going to draw the line," Gross says. "I've interviewed people who are sick or disabled to whom I've asked incredibly personal questions, questions that I'm very uncomfortable asking friends of mine who are sick."

Gross won't extend the same right of refusal to politicians, who she feels have made a career out of evading people's questions. The famous and media-savvy generally rate among any interviewer's toughest subjects. Many have been interviewed hundreds of times and are filled with stock answers, tired anecdotes and secondhand analogies, or they are reticent to show their cards to the dealer.

It's the interviewer's job to reveal the person behind the shellac, and it is difficult even for Gross, who has interviewed nearly 10,000 people during her radio career.

"It's not easy to be a celebrity in the United States today. People don't treat you like you're human," she says. "What makes news in the tabloid press and some of the celebrity press is when the journalist is able to reveal something humiliating about the celebrity, so they come to interviews often with all their defenses up. It makes it very difficult for me to interview them."

In an ironic twist, Gross herself has become a celebrity of sorts, obliging her to occupy the hot seat now and then. "I tell you, the more I'm interviewed, the more respect I have for my guests," she says. "I feel that I demand so much of the people I interview on the show. I expect them to be really informed and yet really casual and off-the-cuff, to impart a lot of pithy insights and yet be really witty, and tell something we didn't know before, but put it across in a really breezy way that's easy to digest.

"I mean, please! What a lot to ask of somebody!"

Terry Gross Live!: The NPR interviewer speaks on Tuesday (8pm) at the Steinbeck Forum, Monterey Conference Center. Tickets for this UCSC's Arts and Lectures event cost $15 (general), $12 (students/seniors) and $7.50 (UCSC students).

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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