Since becoming the host of “Fresh Air” in 1975, when it was still a local show out of Philadelphia, Terry Gross has talked with everyone, it seems, from politicians to movie stars.
One interview in particular, with Gene Simmons of KISS, gained national attention, pitting public radio superstar against rock superstar in a conversation that was a far cry from the usual.
CEM: I read your book, I finished it last night, and really enjoyed the interviews in it…
TG: Thank you.
CEM: The first question I wanted to ask is – what surprised me was that in the introduction you call yourself a coward –
TG: A physical coward.
CEM: A physical coward? A physical coward – how would you describe that?
TG: A physical coward?
TG: [laughing] I’m afraid to – I mean, I don’t take physical risks. I don’t go mountain climbing, or hiking, or – my idea of a real challenge is you know, say, interviewing Bill O’Reilly, you know, not skiing! I skiied once, I chipped a tooth, you know, I just don’t do things like that – I’m too clumsy.
CEM: I can understand. So you’re not afraid with people ever?
TG: Well, even if I am afraid, I – I move on. I do it anyway.
CEM: Ok. When you were a child or a teenager, would you have expected to do what you’re doing now?
TG: No, in part because I didn’t know what I’m doing now existed. You know, I didn’t hear an interview on the radio until I was nearly through with college.
TG: Uh huh.
CEM: So when you heard it, was that when you decided, or what did it take to get you into it?
TG: Well, it’s kinda roundabout. I mean, the radio I heard growing up – I listened to Top 40, and this was in the ’50s and ’60s, and then, you know, quote, “progressive radio,” and then my parents listened to WNEW, which was the, you know, part good stuff like Frank Sinatra and part Perry Como? [laughs]
So who knew that there were interviews on the radio? I did not.
And I stumbled into public radio not because I thought, “oh, interviews on the radio, I want to do that” – I stumbled into it because I had a friend who had a friend who was leaving the feminist show at the college station, at the NPR college affiliate where I was in Buffalo, and I had wanted to get into media, but I didn’t know what I meant by that, so when my friend’s friend left the women’s show on the college station, she said to me, “there’s probably going to be an opening, so why don’t I give you the phone number of one of the producers staying behind, and you can call them.”
CEM: And it went from there.
TG: And it went from there.
CEM: Well, what was the first interview you heard, then?
TG: First interview I heard… uh, I don’t think I’d be able to remember that. I can’t – I can’t – I remember the first one I did, I think, but I don’t remember the first one I heard.
CEM: And that was my next question.
TG: First one I did?
TG: Give me a second, ’cause I realize the one I was gonna tell you was not really my first.
Why don’t I just tell you among the first that I did? Since I don’t really remember which was the first…
I will say that the first interview – the first program that I hosted for the women’s show was on women’s undergarments. Like, I really wanted to do a show on the history of bras and girdles, and figure out who created this stuff, you know? [laughing]
It didn’t occur to me that what I should do is interview people who had written about this and who knew the answers. This is how inexperienced I was. What I did was, since I was used to being a student, I basically wrote a paper – you know, I went to the library, took home every book I could find that might have information on it, and basically wrote a really long paper, read it on the air and played records about clothes – songs about clothes in between. Really, when you consider it, a terrible, dreadful show.
CEM: So you didn’t interview anyone on that one?
TG: No, my first show I didn’t interview anyone. My second show was a history of women in blues, and didn’t interview anyone for that either, you know, again, I played a lot of records and read things in between…
CEM: When did it occur to you you could get another voice in there?
TG: I think show three, I knew, this isn’t what it’s about. And then I wanted to do a show on sadomas- … women and sadomasochistic imagery in popular culture. When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, westerns were really popular, and I loved westerns. And in westerns, women were always getting kidnapped and held hostage. And of course the person holding them hostage would always tie them to a chair with their arms tied behind their back and they’d be kind of wriggling around in such a way so that their breasts would be jutting out in very prominent… [laughs]
TG: So it was this constant bondage imagery, basically. And I knew that something was going on that was supposed to be sexual, when I was a kid, but I couldn’t quite get it, so when I grew up and I understand, “oh, this was the only way you could really show bondage imagery on TV,” I wanted to do a show on it.
But now that I was going to do interviews, I couldn’t find anybody who knew anything on the subject. I couldn’t find anyone who had anything to say about it [laughing].
CEM: I can’t imagine!
TG: So, I interviewed people who weren’t very good at talking about it on that show.
CEM: Well, what did you learn then, from that?
TG: What did I learn? That it wasn’t worth doing unless you found the right people.
TG: You know, that you had to have the marriage of a good subject and a good guest to make a show worth doing.
CEM: When did you get it right, then?
TG: I was trying to remember what I did after that…
Well, you know I was working with a group of women – I was hardly the only person on the show, it was a kind of cooperatively run group of women, and we’d alternate who was hosting and who was engineering, and we set out to do all kinds of shows on Women And Marriage and Women And Divorce, and every show was like, “Women And…” You know, Women And Marriage, Women And Divorce, Women And Childbirth. But these were the kinds of subjects where it was much easier to find people who were very knowledgeable. So things started working out better.
CEM: So how did you, in terms of what you did, and in terms of how you interacted with your subjects, then and now, how is – what are the biggest differences? You interviewed differently then than you do now, I would assume.
TG: Oh, sure. First of all, when I interviewed then I had never done interviews before and I was… I don’t know, 23? When I started, 22, 23? So I was very young and inexperienced, and everyone seemed like such an expert to me. So I was able to do a lot of interviews just based on pure curiosity. And I think my interviews now are much more research-driven, and also I have much more background to build on – ’cause I’ve lived a lot longer, I’ve read a lot more, I’ve done a lot more interviews, and if I had a functioning memory [laughs] think of how much I’d know!
CEM: But the curiosity, it sounds like, it’s still there, it sounds like…
TG: Oh, oh, the curiosity’s definitely still there, but I have things besides curiosity, you know, to draw on, like experience and more knowledge.
CEM: Do you still occasionally go into an interview not feeling as prepared as you’d like to be, and how do you work around that?
TG: I’m always going into interviews that way because I do two interviews a day most days, and that might not seem like a lot to people, but when you’re trying to come to terms with somebody’s whole body of work…
You know, when you’re interviewing a novelist for the first time and this is their fifth novel, you want to know something about their new novel and about their earlier novels. When you’re interviewing somebody about a nonfiction book, you wanna read more other than what they’ve said in their book, you want to read what other people have had to say about the subject. So it’s an enormous amount of reading.
If I’m interviewing a musician, I don’t want to just listen to their new record – I want to listen to their new record over and over, and I want to listen to their earlier records too. So it’s – coming to terms with someone’s body of work is challenging.
CEM: One of your more notorious interviews, perhaps – the Gene Simmons interview – I wondered if you ever regretted having done that, and if –
TG: Oh, no, no! I owe him, I think [laughing].
TG: Oh, yeah. I feel like he did me a favor because in being so obnoxious on the air, and in kind of playing, or toying with me the way he did, this show got so much attention – I mean, we were written up in so many places – it got such a huge response. And now I have a great sound bite of it to play at my speaking engagements.
TG: So no, I feel like I owe him.
CEM: Have you talked with him at all since then?
TG: No, no, no.
CEM: You’re not – I mean, one thing is that you’re very considerate of your guests. I was reading you always tell them if there’s a line that you don’t want to cross, tell me – so – you’re a politely confrontational interviewer, I guess, in some ways…
TG: But see, that rule I only use when it’s of like a personal – when it’s an interview with somebody who’s not in politics.
CEM: Right. Exactly.
TG: In politics I don’t do that.
CEM: So do you enjoy that confrontation? In the Gene Simmons interview, you got confrontational – I mean, you were kind of able to tell him really what you were thinking. Did you enjoy that?
TG: Well, it uses a really different set of muscles than most of my interviews do, so in that sense I did enjoy it. I mean, to me, that kind of interview is real – it’s theater, you know. And so on that level, yeah, I was kind of – it was fun.
But I had no idea if we were going to run it when it was over. ’Cause we couldn’t tell – we knew it was a strange kind of disaster, you know – we knew that it was – we knew it was a disaster on some level, but that it was great radio on another level, and we couldn’t tell which level we should come to terms with it on. So we let it sit on the shelf for a few weeks and we listened back and we thought, “you know, this is really good radio.”
And it’s so different from what you usually hear on public radio, or on our show, you know? It’s not a probing, sensitive interview. It’s two people being very obnoxious with each other.
CEM: Would you have done it any differently? With hindsight – if you had somehow known the way it would have gone.
TG: I hope I would have had even better retorts to the things he was saying, but I don’t think I would have handled him differently. If I could have scripted it in advance I would have tried to be funnier. But beyond that, no.
CEM: I thought it was interesting too that some of your interview subjects don’t really understand what you’re doing with an interview, which I hadn’t thought about, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that, and how you manage to keep a thick skin when you know, someone walks out of an interview, or cuts you short.
TG: Well, I figure it’s not about me. I mean, most of the people who walk out – they have no idea who I am – I don’t mean “they don’t know who I am!” I mean, you know, they’ve never met me, they’re not passing judgement on me as a human being, ’cause they don’t know who I am as a human being, they don’t even know who I am professionally.
Most of the time when people walk out, they’ve never heard the show, they may have some kind of stereotype of NPR, but they don’t know the show, they don’t know me, so I don’t take it personally.
CEM: What are some of the more… memorable… walkouts, I guess?
TG: Well, let’s see – Bill O’Reilly terminated the interview. Gene Simmons, you know, stuck in there [laughing], you know, for the whole thing, but not Bill O’Reilly – he terminated the interview. Um, Faye Dunaway terminated it – she walked out.
CEM: What happened there?
TG: You know, I asked her about “Mommie Dearest.” Apparently she hates talking about it – she hates talking about the hanger scene. Which I had asked her about.
And then right after that, I asked, I said something to her like, “you know, your male contemporaries are still getting lead role parts, like Jack Nicholson, but you know, women don’t get leading roles at that age – they don’t get romantic roles.” And I think she took that personally in a way that it was not intended. This was a few years ago. But I – and she kind of left right after that.
You know, I was, I thought, sympathetic to the position that she and other actresses are in. I think it’s ludicrous how actresses don’t get leading parts after maybe 35, or certainly after 40, you know? But I don’t know, I thought her reaction was as if I’d said that she was an old hag or something. Which was hardly what I was saying or thinking or anything – you know what I mean? It wasn’t about that at all. It was about how basically, how Hollywood has a double standard.
CEM: Have you ever been able to set things right with any of these folks?
TG: Nah. I mean… even when things go terrifically well, it’s not like, oh then we go out to coffee, you know? When it’s over it’s over. It’s an interview, it’s not a friendship.
CEM: Being in the field, being in radio, being an interviewer – has being a woman impacted you negatively or positively – has it been an advantage or a disadvantage?
TG: Well, it’s a little hard to say. I will say that I got started in radio working on a women’s show, you know, working on a feminist program. And it was a very exciting way to start in radio because those of us hosting the show – and this was 1973, 1974 – we had this real mission to do good consciousness-raising programming and to bring other women into radio because there were so few women at that time in media, in electronic media. So it was a thrilling time to get started because there was this sense of mission.
And for better or worse, I think women, particularly of my generation, and I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, were maybe taught a little more than men were to be empathetic, you know? So it’s kind of like a sixth sense with a lot of women in maybe a way that it’s not for men because of the way we’re brought up.
The down side of that is that, you know, the producer part of me, particularly when I was working alone and the show was local before I was working with other producers – the producer in me needed to tell people you know, no, you’re not going to be a guest on the show, or no, this interview’s going to be really short, it’s not going to be long.
But the way I was socialized was to be liked, you know – you should be nice to people so that they like you. And when you have a radio show, you know, you’re saying no to people all the time off the air. You’re saying no to far more people than you’re saying yes to. And that was a hard skill to learn.
CEM: Who do you have to say no to these days?
TG: Oh, we say no to people all the time. We say no to authors and actors and directors and people in health, politics, religion – I mean, you name it – because we only do two interviews a day, you know, and there’s a lot of people who have new books, movies, records, theories… whatever… who would like to be on the show, and they’re not all going to get on.
CEM: How do you judge that? What criteria?
TG: Well, it depends on what kind of person they are. If they’re a musician, part of the criteria will be how great that we think their music is, and will they make an interesting interview. Because finally what you’re left with is somebody’s ability to speak in the interview. So we want somebody whose work we really respect, and who can also speak in an interesting way for the interview.
CEM: You wrote that you’re not, that you don’t play an instrument, and…
TG: I have played many instruments badly over the years [laughing].
CEM: Oh, ok! Which ones?
TG: Um, piano, French horn, clarinet… during the folk scare era, I learned, you know, a few chord progressions on guitar… and, this doesn’t really count, but we had to learn to play flutophone when I was in sixth grade – we had to learn how to play Stephen Foster songs on flutophone… [laughing]
CEM: Oh, that’s wonderful!
TG: Yeah. I think that’s it.
CEM: You interview a lot of people in artistic disciplines, though, that you don’t have experience in. I wondered what discipline do you feel the most connection with – is it music?
TG: Oh, I love music. And, you know, I have to keep coming to terms with the fact that I’m a much better listener than I am musician. But playing instruments badly has really helped me as a listener. I hear all kinds of things I never would have heard had I not learned something about the piano, and the clarinet, and the French horn. You know, I know – I just know all kinds of things that have deepened not only my experience as a listener but my ability to understand music as an interviewer.
CEM: One other thing you mentioned in your introduction is that your interviews with gay subjects have gotten you into “a lot of trouble,” I think you put it, with some radio stations. Were you aware that Roanoke had dropped “Fresh Air” for a while?
TG: Yes, yes, I was. Very aware.
CEM: How do you respond to prejudices that cause that kind of reaction?
TG: Well, I mean, I’m amazed that people call to protest that there are gay guests on the air, or that somebody would drop the show because there are gay guests.
And what I think is that no one – no one – would feel comfortable saying, “there’ve been too many African American guests on ‘Fresh Air’ – we have a lot of white listeners who aren’t interested in African American affairs, therefore we’re going to drop the show.” Or “you had on too many Jewish people,” or “you had on too many women.” You know? Like, no one would have the chutzpah to do that. You can’t get away with that.
But you can still get away with, in some places, saying, “hup – too many gays. Our listeners don’t like it.” And that shocks me.
CEM: What’s your take on the repeated complaint that we hear from the right that media’s become too liberal?
TG: Well, I’ll speak directly to NPR. I think NPR’s reporting, and political coverage, is just incredibly fair. And a lot of conservatives feel that if you’re not pushing a conservative agenda, therefore you’re liberal. And that’s not true.
CEM: Your book – the interviews that you all chose to open and end it, Nicholas Cage to start it, and Maurice Sendak to close it – I wondered how you chose those interviews and were they favorites of yours?
TG: Well, all the interviews in the book are favorites of mine, and – we wanted – when I say “we,” I work with my friend and colleague Margaret Pick on the book – she was the first producer of “A Prairie Home Companion” and has a public radio production company, and if I had just worked on the book by myself, I would have had to take a long leave, so I asked her to collaborate with me. So when I say “we,” that’s who I mean – forgive me for that digression, but…
We wanted to start the book with someone who was kind of familiar and lively, and we wanted to end it on a really reflective note, and Maurice Sendak, at the end of the book, he’s both very funny, but very reflective about growing up during the years of the Holocaust with Jewish parents who fled eastern Europe – not all their family got out. You know, he thinks about death, he was a death-obsessed child with death-obsessed parents and it was both a really funny and reflective way to end.
CEM: Who do you still want to interview that you haven’t yet?
TG: I’ve kind of given up thinking that way. When the show went national, ’cause it started off as a local show, we had our whole wish list of the big names we really wanted to have on, and we’ve subsequently had on most of those people. Some of them were great, and some of them were real disappointments.
You know, often those really big-name people who you always dream of getting on the show are so tired of being interviewed that when you get them, they don’t particularly want to be there, and there’s hardly anything to ask them that they haven’t been asked. And sometimes they’re very tired talking about their lives. And I hate to put somebody through something they’re not comfortable doing.
So now, I mean, there’s lots of famous people that I’d like to have on, you know, when I love their work, but we don’t spend our time with a wish list of famous people that we’d like to get on. ’Cause a lot of the excitement is finding people who are emerging or people who have been forgotten whose work is really great…
Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy interviewing really famous, big-name people – I really do – when I love their work.
CEM: Makes sense.
LTG: Let me put it this way. For years, one of the people I most wanted to interview was Lou Reid. I finally got him, after years and years, and he walked out. [laughs]
He walked out because he didn’t want to talk about his music, and he didn’t – all he wanted to say was – nothing, basically. I think all he wanted to talk about was that he was on tour, or something. I have no idea what he would have been comfortable talking about, but every question I asked, he completely resisted me, and then he just walked out.
CEM: Are there times when that happens when there is a breakthrough, you finally hit the question that breaks the ice, I guess?
TG: Sometimes. I mean, what I’ll usually do is, I’ll just keep trying. I’m very persistent. So if somebody is uncomfortable with something, or if there’s a part of the interview that’s not going well, I’ll just keep shifting gears and trying out all kinds of things until I feel like I’ve hit on something that the guest will be comfortable talking about, and interesting talking about. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we won’t run the interview. But of course, if they walk out, there’s not… there’s usually not a lot to run.
CEM: You’ll be in Roanoke in May, and I was wondering what audiences can expect?
TG: Well, it’s almost like a “Fresh Air” bloopers show. I play a lot of things gone terribly, horribly wrong – people walking out on me, people getting angry with me, people arguing with me – and each of those little sound bites has a larger story that I can tell about the craft of interviewing. So there’s a lot of that, and then I talk a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes of the show, talk a little bit about my own life, and then open things up for questions so that the audience can give me a taste of my own medicine.
CEM: Is that difficult?
TG: No, no. I’ve been on the other end of the microphone enough times now that I enjoy the Q&A with the audience. I tell the audience that they can play by the same rules I play by, which is, you can ask me anything. If it ends up being too personal, I’ll let you know – and I’m not sure I ever got a question that felt too personal when I was doing public speaking. People are just so respectful. I enjoy answering questions – it’s not hard for me anymore.
NPR’s “Fresh Air” can be heard on WVTF public radio.
Fresh Air: www.whyy.org/freshair
Thanks to WVTF Public Radio for assistance in producing this interview.