National Public Interrogator

by Suzanne Schriener & r & As anyone with even a glancing exposure to Spokane Public Radio has heard, Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, is coming to the Met on Tuesday to talk about her book, All I Did Was Ask, and to look back over some of the bumpier moments of her long career. In the universe of National Public Radio luminaries, Terry Gross is a kind of Alpha Centauri, burning oh-so-brightly, right up there with Garrison Keillor or Click and Clack, the Car Guys. Some would even call her outright famous. But that doesn't sit well with Gross -- she hurries to point out that even though people do sometimes recognize her on the street these days, "it's a kind of low-grade fame."

Still, she has interviewed legions of the famous, just about anyone of any renown from politics to pop culture to the arts -- which is sort of a strange line of work for someone who claims to be shy. Yet Gross says "actually, it's the perfect thing for a shy person. An interview is not a social event. I'm not getting judged on my looks, my clothes or my ability to make conversation. The microphone gives you the liberty to ask questions. It ain't about me." She thinks it's probably the same for a lot of women, for whom personal insecurities go away "when functioning as their professional selves."

One of the hallmarks of Gross's interviews is exhaustive preparation. But mention the word "workaholic" and she hastens to credit her staff, which does all the other stuff, leaving her free to just ask the questions. Nonetheless, her workdays tend to be of the 12-hour variety. She writes in her book: "Each weeknight, I work straight through the evening preparing for the next day's interviews."

Oh well, as problems go, it's a nice one to have, she admits. "Those of us who do work that we love are often cursed with too damn much of it." Make no mistake, she is passionate about art, and that fuels the work. "Unless you have passionate feelings about art, art is pointless -- it doesn't make us smarter. But if you're passionate, it's what you live for." She adds, "It would come under the category of masochism to work this hard every day and not love it."

Almost 20 years on, her labors have not gone unrecognized. Prizes and awards by the gross (sorry) have been showered on her and Fresh Air: an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame and a Peabody Award, to name a few. Of course, she has had plenty of practice. Now 54, Gross first hit the public radio airwaves in 1973, on WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y. She recalls sounding like a "feminist Minnie Mouse." Two years later, she came to WHYY-FM in Philadelphia as producer and host of Fresh Air, then a local, daily interview and music program. By 1987, the daily one-hour national edition was on; now it's familiar to more than 4.5 million listeners.

Gross's early ambition, though, was to be a writer. But when she got to college, she has said, "I realized I didn't have my own stories I wanted to tell. When I found radio, it was a way of combining reading, telling stories and learning -- the whole world was filled with stories waiting to be told." Add to that "a small element of show business," and you have Terry Gross Radio Theater, better known as Fresh Air. Those famous people in the arts contribute to that, of course, but Gross cautions that celebrity for its own sake is not something Fresh Air is chasing. On her bad days, she writes, she even questions "whether the autobiographical interview offers the potential for more than gossip or voyeurism" -- but only on her bad days. Her goal is to try "to find the connections between my guests' lives and their work (the reason we care about them in the first place)." That is, "how Chris Rock got to be so funny, how Dennis Hopper developed his screen presence, how John Updike became a great writer."

Even the talented and the personable, however, do not guarantee a good interview. Gross defines a difficult interview as one where the guest's conversation is "uncommunicative, uninformative, tangled or confusing." Though Fresh Air is taped and edited for broadcast, she acknowledges "there is a limit to what you can do with editing." If the producers deem it unusable, she says, "Sometimes we'll kill an interview."

Then there are the interviews that go so badly they enter the realm of legend, where the impossible guest meets the immoveable host, where worlds collide. Those are called ... Bill O'Reilly. It went like this: She asked him whether he used The O'Reilly Factor to settle scores with his critics. He got mad. She followed up. He launched into a tirade, told her she should find a different line of work. Finally, he bailed on the interview and flew out in a burst of flame.

Geez, get a grip, Bill. All she did was ask.

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