Terry Gross Makes Conversation Seem Like a Breeze on 'Fresh Air'

Public-radio interviewer Terry Gross, perhaps America's best listener, hasn't had an earful yet.

In fact, "Fresh Air With Terry Gross" celebrates its 10th anniversary May 11 as a national daily arts and issues magazine - in part because its host brings intellect and curiosity, not an appetite for gossip; an engaging laugh, a comforting manner and a probing sensibility, not a look-at-me persona; and a grinding dedication to her task.

And she listens.

"That sounds like an obvious thing for an interviewer to do, and it's amazing to me how few do it," says "Nightline" host Ted Koppel. "She listens to answers."

Though diminutive (5-foot-1), Ms. Gross stands out more than ever these days, since radio's most notable talkers seem to be more concerned about revealing their private parts (Howard Stern) or exposing an ego on loan from who-knows-where (Rush Limbaugh).

"The radio interview program may be the last redoubt of conversation in this country," Mr. Koppel adds. "We don't talk much anymore. An interview takes a little bit longer. And what Terry does is the closest thing we have in conversation in culture anymore."

For her one-hour show, distributed by National Public Radio (NPR) to 190 stations and heard by 2.2 million listeners a week, Gross tapes two interviews daily, most of which are conducted by telephone or satellite hookup. Added to the mix are short commentaries or reviews from a number of contributors. But the main act is Gross herself, who waves the medium's magic wand to create the illusion that you've just dropped in on two people engaged in a leisurely conversation.

"You don't want to give a sense on the radio like, 'Gee, this is hard work. I had to spend a lot of time reading last night,' " Gross says, smiling as she slams her fist on the table in her studio at WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. "So when people think that you've just kind of breezed in and had this really nice, relaxed talk with somebody, I feel good about that."

Behind Gross is a piano, which guests like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello used during their interviews. Along the walls are seven-foot shelves holding hundreds of Frisbee-sized tapes of shows from the last few years. Martin Scorsese. Jimmy Carter. William F. Buckley Jr. Sonny Rollins. John McPhee. Ice T. Ken Kesey. Maurice Sendak. John le Carr. Isaac Hayes. Yoko Ono. Gore Vidal. Wallace Stegner. Alice Walker. Julia Child. And so on, and so on, and so on.

But for her dismal failure as a public school teacher, Gross might never have found her voice on public radio.

Gross is a native of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and grew up as a bookish kid who read Camus and Sartre in the hallways during high school. Between undergraduate and graduate degrees in education at State University of New York in Buffalo, she took a job teaching the eighth grade in a tough, inner-city school. She lasted six weeks, unable to control students who towered over her and needed structure and a sense of security from a teacher who never considered herself an authority figure. It was her toughest audience, but one she worries about to this day.

"Oh yeah, it was the only audience that threw things at me," Gross says. "The radio audience - no matter how much they hate the show - they can't throw their lunch at me."

After a stint as a Kelly Girl - "It was the ultimate in alienation," she says - Gross found radio. Ultimately, she hosted a magazine show at the campus station in Buffalo, before she moved to Philadelphia in 1975 to become the new host of "Fresh Air," then a three-hour show broadcast locally. Working in the building where Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" held sway for so long, Gross not only conducted interviews, but booked the show, hailed cabs, and labored at a desk directly beneath a leaky ceiling. (The station and "Fresh Air" have since moved to a complex a few blocks from Independence Hall.)

By 1985, a weekly version of the show began airing nationally. And in 1987, the daily edition premired, as a lead-in to NPR's "All Things Considered."

By then, Bill Siemering, who had preceded Gross at the Buffalo station and conceived "All Things Considered" in the early '70s, was station manager at WHYY and helped propel "Fresh Air" onto the national stage. He recalls guests like Kurt Vonnegut coming out of Gross's softly lit studio, eager to return for another show.

"They'd say: 'She's the best interviewer I've been with. She's really good!' " says Mr. Siemering, now president of the International Center for Journalists in Washington.

"What I try to do in my interviews is make connections between somebody's personal life and their work," says Gross. "And when I say their personal life, I don't mean the secrets they are trying to keep from people. I mean the things that formed them and created the sensibility that reveals itself in their approach to acting, in their style of writing."

Some have walked out on her, including Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, actress Faye Dunaway, and musician Lou Reed. Dr. Ruth Westheimer stayed, says Gross, but later called the president of NPR to complain.

And former first lady Nancy Reagan wasn't pleased Gross wanted to talk politics and venture beyond the margins of her memoir.

"She kept asking me, 'Have you read my book?' What I felt like saying to her was, 'Have you written your book?' " says Gross. (Reagan had help from a well-known ghostwriter.)

If Gross has her critics, they complain she shies away from the "tough" question. Washington Post radio columnist Marc Fisher disagrees.

"She's intellectually tough," says Mr. Fisher. "She's not falsely aggressive in a Sam Donaldson kind of way. But she has real intellectual rigor. And I don't know of another person on radio who does that."

The show remains "a jealous beast, and it will take every spare second that you have," says Gross, who at the end of the week lugs home three bags of books, CDs, videos, and other reading material to prepare for a new week of interviews.

But the workload has eased a bit, with the Friday "archives edition" culled from previous shows. In a warren of offices, she works collaboratively with a professional staff of eight others, including co-executive producer Danny Miller, who help pick guests, provide research, edit the interviews, and produce the show.

And while her devotion to - some would say obsession for - the job leaves little room for a personal life, Gross was married last fall. What's more, her parents no longer have to hop in the car and drive around to find a "Fresh Air" station. Since the show went daily, a station closer to Anne and Irving Gross's home in Florida airs the show.

"They also got a better radio, I think," adds Gross, smiling.

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