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Voice of experience

As the host of NPR's 'Fresh Air,' Terry Gross takes the bite out of sound.

August 29, 2004|Robert Strauss

For the past 29 years, Terry Gross has been interviewing politicians, writers, policymakers and artists of all brows -- from lofty and arched to underappreciated and multi-pierced. Her public radio show is called "Fresh Air," and in an age of clipped sound bites, it is one of the few places listeners can hear an interview subject breathe a bit, ramble some and get more out than just a pitch for his or her latest effort.

Though she has done thousands of "Fresh Air" interviews, Gross, 52, likes to keep herself relatively unknown. The show emanates from Philadelphia, away from the party scene -- artistic or political. Though some interviewees do come through the studios of WHYY-FM, where "Fresh Air" is produced, most of Gross' interviews come disembodied, the subjects in New York or Los Angeles or in Cincinnati or on the road, wherever they might be. Gross has made an art of intimacy with a subject who never sees her.

Having been badgered by publishers for years to compile her interviews and write a bit about her life, Gross has finally succumbed with "All I Did Was Ask," which collects more than three dozen interviews, mostly from the arts, edited and with annotations. In the book, she is reluctant to tell much more about herself than her artistic tastes. But in an interview in her Philadelphia office, she was a bit more forthcoming.

Do you ever get fed up, tired of interviewing the next musician or politician on the list?

The only thing I get tired of is the volume of work. I don't get tired of interviewing people. People are pretty damned interesting. I am speaking to a very select corps of people. They tend to be the smartest experts, the funniest comics, the greatest actors, the wittiest and the most beautiful writers. Who wouldn't want to interact with people like that every day?

You sometimes ask personal questions, and other times just shy away. How do you know when to push or when to hold back?

In the arts especially, the goal is to figure out what shapes their sensibility. So I will ask very personal questions to someone about that, especially if they display their persona in their art. I wouldn't ask those questions to just anybody. I do believe in privacy, but I don't believe everyone requires an equal measure of privacy, particularly some artists who use their lives as case studies.

You have fans who have listened to you for decades who don't even know what you look like. Does that matter to you?

Well, I'm short, and I know that disappoints people. When I meet people who have listened and never met me, there is also some sort of confusion. Sometimes it is confusion mixed with what strikes me as great disappointment. I think a lot of people almost require that a person who seems decent at what they do should be really attractive. Maybe I really flatter myself when I say people think I sound attractive, but I usually feel that the reality of my looks is kind of baffling.

You've had offers to do television. Why haven't you tried it?

People assume that if you are in radio, you don't think TV is worthy. I love TV, but doing TV presents challenges. One of them is looking for clothes. Buying clothes for me is almost like an extreme sport. I can't find anything that fits. It is this depressing process of going from store to store and trying on things that look ridiculous on me. Problem No. 2 is that when I am just listening, my face tends to look flat. On radio, it doesn't matter, but on TV, well

What do you tell young people who listen to 'Fresh Air' and want to be you?

Everyone I know who has gotten into radio has volunteered, so I tell them to go to an NPR station and do that. In some ways, we have shot ourselves in the foot. It is hard to find really talented young people who want to go into public radio, partly because people like me who love it have stayed. But when I meet people in their teens and 20s who have heard the show a lot, I think, like, "Oh, my God, I am the lady whom they were forced to listen to when their dad drove the car pool."

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