When she landed her first radio gig-hosting a feminist program in Buffalo, New York, called “Woman Power” — Terry Gross never imagined the career path that awaited her. Three decades later, her unmistakable voice reaches 2 million weekly listeners across nearly 300 public radio stations nationwide. As the host of “Fresh Air,” NPR’s daily hour-long program of thoughtful, uncut interviews with the makers of American culture, Gross has interviewed everyone from Charles Schulz to George Shultz, from Aretha Franklin to Monica Lewinsky. Along the way, the diminutive radio host has become a cultural force in her own right. This fall marks the 25th anniversary of “Fresh Air,” and Gross took a break from her interview prep to reflect on her achievements, her politics, and where she might go from here.
How has your approach to interviewing changed over 25 years?
Well, when I started out, I was 23 and looking much younger than that, because I am so short — about 5’1″ on a good day, when I am standing tall and proud. [Laughs.] Everybody I interviewed seemed so much older and wiser, and my approach was based on, “Hey, I’m almost still a kid; share your wisdom, tell us what you know.” I had this curiosity about absolutely everything. Whatever the subject was, it was endlessly amazing and interesting — I had never done an interview about it before.
And then, after you’ve done 200 authors of coming-of-age memoirs, your absolute curiosity about what it’s like for somebody to survive that first part of life intact has subsided a bit. So I’m trying to get deeper, to find out things that weren’t obvious before. That’s what keeps the process fresh.
And yet you avoid getting…
… going beyond what those of us who haven’t read 200 memoirs can relate to.
I figure the interview isn’t about satisfying my curiosity — though I’ll use my curiosity as a tool. I mean, I’ll use whatever it is I have as a tool, whether it’s curiosity or world-weariness. But if an interview gets esoteric, it doesn’t accomplish anything. I may be satisfied, but it doesn’t translate for our listeners.
You’re recognized as one of the best interviewers in the country. How do you approach your craft?
I feel very certain that the show isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about me. When I interview somebody, it’s about them. My job is to draw them out, to challenge them. And the more you know about someone, and the more you genuinely care about them, the more likely they are to trust you with their story.
The most I can do is to prepare beforehand. If it’s an author, I read as much as I can by and about them. If it’s a musician, I listen to as much as I can, etcetera. But there’s a limit to how many hours I have. I always feel underprepared — in spite of the fact that I seem to spend my whole life preparing.
What do you do during the interview itself?
No matter what’s happening in the interview, whether it’s incredibly boring, or whether a guest is shedding a tear — which, I may add, rarely happens, unlike in Barbara Walters interviews — I’m always thinking, “Is this a good show?” and “What do I need to do next to make sure that this is worthy of our listeners’ time?”
Did you venture into politics early on in “Fresh Air”?
Oh, yeah. Early on it was a general magazine show in Philadelphia, and much more political than it is now.
How do you approach a political interview differently from a cultural one?
I have very different roles when I am interviewing somebody who is involved with politics than I do with someone who is an expert in their field or an artist. With an artist, I tell them that if I ask anything too personal they should let me know — and I’ll move on to something else. I do that out of respect.
But I don’t do that with politicians. There are times when a politician’s private life needs to be made public.
When I interviewed Newt Gingrich, I quoted something from Gail Sheehy’s Vanity Fair piece — about claims he had oral sex in a car with his girlfriend. This was during the whole Clinton/Lewinsky thing. I brought this up not to say, “Tell me, is this true or not?” but rather, “This is the Clinton story that your party is so active in perpetuating, and yet you too are being charged with these things. Where would you like to see that line drawn between a politician’s private and public life?”
Tell me about your interview with Monica Lewinsky — the one she ended precisely because she felt your questions [about whether an admitted philanderer could really be her “sexual soul mate”] were too personal.
Monica Lewinsky was a very problematic interview for me. When the scandal was playing itself out, people used to come up to me and say, “What would you ask Monica if you had the chance?” And I would always say, “Thank God I’m not in that position.”
But after her book came out, we got a call offering us the first radio interview. We didn’t accept quickly — I felt very uncomfortable about it. But when we started thinking about how we would feel if she were on another NPR show … [Laughs.] So I was stuck with actually having to come up with questions.
You clearly fell into your political role with Lewinsky.
Any journalist dealing with this story was in an impossible situation. She was somewhere in between — she’s not in politics, but she was responsible for affecting every aspect of it. The whole line between public and private changes when somebody’s private actions change other people’s lives.
But how do you figure out where the line is between voyeurism and journalism? Particularly with Monica. She had already been interviewed by members of Congress and the special prosecutor’s office. What could I possibly have asked that she hadn’t already been legally required to answer? You can see I’m still troubled by the whole thing.
Did you set out to tackle American culture in the comprehensive way that “Fresh Air” has?
All I wanted to do was be good enough so that they’d let me stay on the air. So, no, not at all. If it has become comprehensive, it’s a function of the show’s longevity. But I’m really proud of the archive. When I read in the obituaries that somebody I greatly admire has passed, I am proud that we can share their voice and thoughts again — as a way of paying our respects for what they contributed to American culture.
What do you think “Fresh Air” will sound like 10 years from now when it celebrates its 35th anniversary?
I don’t have a clue. I’ve never had a master plan. I just don’t think that way. I tend to stumble along until I hit a brick wall, and then figure out what I have to do to get to the other side. [Laughs.]