Turning the tables on Terry Gross

Salon gets personal with NPR's Maestro of conversation.

Published June 22, 1998 4:42PM (EDT)

Last March, in his now-defunct New York Times column, cultural critic Greil Marcus argued that the voices of National Public Radio were stale, mechanical and out of touch. Linda Wertheimer and Ann Taylor "share the remarkable ability to look down their noses while talking through them"; Robert Siegel is "terribly earnest, while at the same time suggesting he's not very interested"; and Bob Edwards of "Morning Edition" "drones with little broadcasting tics to keep your ear attuned to the blanket of syllables issuing from his mouth." Only one member of the NPR crew was spared Marcus' vitriol: Terry Gross, host of the daily, hour-long arts and culture program "Fresh Air." "Gross is characteristically eager, but not naive," wrote Marcus. "You hear enthusiasm in her voice, but also experience and skepticism."

Marcus isn't the only journalist to swoon over Gross -- other colleagues speak of her with reverence, as do her listeners, many of whom say "Fresh Air" is their favorite part of the day or the only thing that gets them through a long commute. And her guests declare her unrivaled among interviewers. An icon of the intellectual elite, Gross elicits great new information from overinterviewed celebrities and public figures. She's a sympathetic, intelligent listener who can also push hard when necessary.

Through Gross' intimate show -- which is part autobiography, part documentary and part kaffeklatsch -- her fans come to feel as if they know her. Her voice is vivid, her emotional range so vast that it is possible to imagine the hand gestures and facial expressions of her and her guests. Through her inflections, giggles and curiosity, she manages to sound more human and sincere than most television broadcasters look. And it is her humanity -- the sense that she is insecure and fallible just like the rest of us -- that one is struck with upon meeting her.

Gross is not glamorous or gregarious, and she is not warm -- at least not
right away. When we talked at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a guest lecturer in the spring, she
was somewhat stiff until the tape recorder was turned off. While she is terribly reflective about her work and at times quite revealing about
her personal life, she seems deeply uncomfortable with -- in fact, barely tolerant of -- being asked the questions. "Often real life is boring and problematic," she told one Berkeley audience. "I love the edited version of it."

About 5 feet tall, rail thin and bony, Gross is a wisp of a
woman. Her jewelry and clothes -- black pants and a blazer -- are fashionable but simple, as if to avoid drawing attention to
herself. With her cropped gray hair and sharp features, she
has almost a birdlike quality.

Her humor and penchant for self-deprecation are two of Gross' traits that come across more strongly off the air than on. She was almost apologetic about her appearance on several occasions during her stay at Berkeley. "I am literally smaller than life," Gross told one audience. "I am an unextraordinary-looking person. I've seen
people trying to hide their disappointment when they meet me, and I have to
watch them get over it."

The idea of invisibility is one that Gross returned to at several appearances that week. "I work in a medium where I get to be totally invisible and I get great pleasure from that, being a pretty self-conscious person," she told a roomful of journalism students. At the beginning of her career, Gross even refused to have her photograph taken, as a way of honoring the invisibility of her craft. "I know that everyone who listens to radio creates you in a visual image that they need you to have," she told one interviewer. "Whatever that is, I thought, let them have it. Let me be who the listener needs me to be and let me not contradict that with the reality of my photograph and risk disappointing them."

Eventually, though, Gross was forced to give in. As "Fresh Air" grew into a daily, national program, journalists began requesting interviews, and the public wanted to know more about the woman who, some journalists argue, has the best job in the profession. "Finally [I accepted] the reality that I wasn't living in a closet, that I was actually living in the world and that people would see me," she says. "I think I also started to accept myself more. That even if I contradicted a listener's view of who I am they would have to live with it. That I am who I am, for better or worse, and we'll all get over it."

Yet, for the most part, Gross is granted her invisibility. The people she keeps company with every day on her show -- musicians, actors, playwrights, authors, politicians -- rarely come face-to-face with her. "They can't expect a smile or a nod to convey anything to me," she says. "Anything we need to convey to each other has to be in the voice, so the listener will hear it too. In the best of all possible worlds, our voices will carry as much information as possible because it's the only dimension we have to communicate."

While guests sit in a remote studio, Gross sits in her "little box" at WHYY in Philadelphia -- a setup that provides a kind of faceless intimacy not unlike that of confession or psychoanalysis, where the patient and practitioner face away from each other, under the theory that the obscurity will allow thoughts and fantasies to flow more freely. Perhaps that is what lures her guests into such a revealing mode. Or perhaps it's simply because she does her homework.

- - - - - - - - - -

In May, Gross taped a live show in San Francisco with sleight-of-hand master and actor Ricky Jay. "So, you were once arrested by a sheriff for doing your act," she commented.

"What have you been reading?" Jay gasped. "Where did you find that out?"

"Compared to other people in broadcast who make a living talking to people, she does what she does better than anybody I can name," says William Drummond, who teaches radio journalism at Berkeley and is an NPR correspondent. "There are only a few people in journalism who actually read the books before they interview the authors."

Gross does indeed read the books, watch the movies and listen to the CDs -- usually the evening before she conducts an interview. "My feeling is that I don't have to be an expert on the subject, I can't possibly be the expert on the subject," Gross says. "What I need to do is frame the subject so that the expert will have a good structure. If I can't do a good job in framing it, we're going to have a jumble of information."

Gross has different rules for different guests. If you're an artist, she will tell you off-air to tell her if you are uncomfortable answering a question, and she'll back off and move on. "I respect their right to draw that line," she told a group of journalism students. "And by doing that I have the right to ask them anything because the ball will be in their court to tell me when I've transgressed." If a guest blabbers on and their point becomes muddled, Gross allows them a chance to clean up their mess. "It is my job to help them be as coherent as possible and as true to their thought as possible. If I can give them tools to do that, then I want to." While no hard-nosed reporter would agree to such an arrangement, Gross does not see herself or her show as being about "gotcha" moments and scoops, but about the arts and the mind.

Yet she can also play hardball -- mostly with politicians, those trained to be media savvy and sound bitable. And then the rules change dramatically. "I'm always afraid that politicians will take advantage of me," she says. In a now-famous interview with Nancy Reagan, who was on tour promoting her ghost-written autobiography, Gross pushed the former first lady to discuss social issues, such as AIDS and homelessness, that languished during her husband's presidency. Reagan, clearly unprepared to answer questions that didn't deal directly with her book, was left nearly speechless.

"You seem to be talking a lot about AIDS and drugs and not about my book," Reagan stammered. "I'd be happy to talk about my book, but I will not talk about politics."

"I thought she would have been so well-coached for the interview," Gross recalls, "but she was just falling to pieces. She was totally unprepared to answer questions, particularly challenging ones. I later read in her daughter Patty's book that she had a really bad -- I think it was Valium -- habit, and I really had the feeling that she had neglected to 'just say no' before the interview."

Because she keeps herself relatively concealed and makes few television appearances, what people gather about Gross' personality is detected through her distinctive -- and some say delicious -- voice. "Before I met her, I was convinced that at some point in her life she was close to someone who was an alcoholic because she questioned alcoholics with such sensitivity," says Ira Glass, host of NPR's "This American Life." "In fact, I think she hasn't been, but you try to piece together her life from her voice."

Lloyd Schwartz, "Fresh Air's" classical music critic, says he is asked often what Gross looks like. "I didn't meet [Gross] until about a year after I started doing the show, but I loved her voice -- it is real, with a very distinct timbre that didn't sound like she'd been to broadcasting school. I had a very vivid image of her, of someone very tall, with dark short hair, very bright eyes and a very sensuous mouth. When I finally met her, I was surprised. I liked what she looked like, but it was quite different. And it wasn't until I met her two or three times that my old image faded. There is something about her voice that goes to the imagination -- that even the reality of meeting her didn't erase the image."

"She has an extraordinarily sexy radio persona," adds Timothy Ferris, author of "The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report," who has been a "Fresh Air" guest several times. "I've never met her, though I feel like she's a friend. But when you are in that booth and her voice is being digitally beamed into the studio -- well, it is an incredibly sensuous experience."

Gross, of course, is characteristically self-deprecating on the subject of her intoxicating voice. "Early on I was sure -- and I am still sure -- that I was able to stay in radio in spite of my voice," she says. "In my early days in radio, when I was really nervous, I think I sounded a little bit like Minnie Mouse doing a feminist program."

Gross tells of a classified ad in a San Francisco newspaper that read: "My ideal woman combines Juliet Binoche and Terry Gross. Ages 27-33. Must be stylish, fetching and funny. Nice eyebrows a plus." "I thought it was very funny that they were using me to define their ideal and yet I didn't fit any of their qualifications," Gross laughs. "I'm in my mid-40s, and I'm not stylish and fetching. You can be the judge of the eyebrows."

On the air, Gross may be like Oz -- an invisible, powerful and enigmatic voice -- but like him, she is a person most at home behind a curtain. In an interview with Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, an expert on China and a frequent "Fresh Air" guest, Schell asked if she ever longed to escape her little booth, to explore the world instead of hearing about it from her guests. "I like to debrief people coming back from adventures," she said. "Physically, I'm a coward. I like a comfortable chair, a decent bed, my own bathroom." Though the evening was billed as "a conversation" between the two, she clearly had trouble relinquishing control and took every opportunity to lob questions Schell's way.

In the more than 10,000 interviews Gross has conducted during her career, a few guests have been offended by her frank questions. Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner walked out on her when she asked him if it was true that he had inflated the number of subscribers in the magazine's early days in order to lure more advertisers. When she asked the notoriously curmudgeonly Lou Reed how he felt "transformed" in middle age, he shot back: "As one middle-aged person to another, what can I tell you that you don't already know?" When Gross tried to move on, asking Reed whether they could listen to and then discuss some of his early recordings from his Velvet Underground days, Reed said, "I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear any of that shit. This isn't working, OK? I'll see ya."

"Lou Reed is someone I'd wanted to talk to for years," Gross sighs. "I felt bad that I had done something that had managed to bug him so much that [he] walked out. On the other hand, I truly don't think I did anything wrong. He didn't want to talk about anything. I don't think he really wanted to be interviewed. I think his publicist probably bullied him into it."

Gross' radio career began in 1973 at a small public radio station at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she attended college. With other women, Gross hosted a feminist radio program on rarely discussed topics such as childbirth and menstruation. From Buffalo, she headed to WHYY, where "Fresh Air" began in 1975, airing an exhaustive three hours a day, five days a week. When the show went national in 1985, it was scaled back to an hour.

Yet the daily schedule is still tiring. "The biggest strain in my life is having to keep up with all that information. Sometimes I really resent having to keep up with so much. I have to know a little bit of everything. Sometimes it's thrilling and exhilarating, and sometimes it's like, Do I really need to know what's happening in that part of the world today?"

One of Gross' great strengths as an interviewer, says fellow interviewer and New York Times contributing writer Claudia Dreifus, is that she chooses great subjects. "And she doesn't let her own ego and personality overwhelm the subject," Dreifus adds. "With some broadcast interviewers, who shall remain nameless, the interview is really about them."

Occasionally, however, even Gross can't hold back her ego and bias, such as during an interview with "Northern Exposure" actor John Collum, whose elderly television character was dating a young woman. "For some reason she got on a track with him about what it was like being paired with this young blond chick," says someone who heard the interview. "I don't think she approves of May-December romances. And she kept trying to get him to admit he did something wrong."

"Sometimes I feel like I'm two different people. I'm the person I am regularly. That person tends to be shy and self-conscious," Gross says. "And then I'm the person I am when I'm functioning in my professional capacity with my microphone, and that person tends to be a lot more forward and bold and willing to ask nearly anything if it seems appropriate."

"If I was at a dinner party with John Updike, I wouldn't be talking to him about his stutter and his psoriasis and the language he uses to discuss sexuality," she goes on. "If I'm interviewing him, it's all fair game. In a way I have a lot better time talking to someone in the interview and I'll ask much more personal things. In fact, when I was at a dinner party with John Updike before an interview, we talked very politely about this and that. But then onstage, I had him read this very explicit sexual passage from his book and had him talk about sexual things."

In fact, Gross is one of the few interviewers who approaches sex without sounding like a voyeur or a clinician. Her frank discussion of pornography with Hustler publisher Larry Flynt led to the most unusual compliment of her career: "You really did a terrific job on those questions about the genitalia," Flynt told her after the taping.

Gross says she is lucky that her passions -- jazz, film, literature -- are intertwined with her work, especially since she rarely has free time to enjoy them. She and her husband, jazz critic Francis Davis, live surrounded by her material for the show. At home, she is almost always at work. "I often have not found balance in my life," she admits. "When I found radio, I wanted it so badly I thought, I will do anything to stay here and keep this. And it's meant giving up a lot of personal life."

"I was interviewing [fashion designer] Isaac Mizrahi -- luckily he couldn't see how shabbily dressed I was -- and at some point he said something about 'a nice, fun black dress for when you come home and you're going to be going out,'" she recalls. "And I said, 'What planet are we talking about? I don't even own a dress anymore.' He said, 'Surely you must! It's not possible.' I never come home and dress up to go out again. I put on sweat pants or a T-shirt and then I get to work."

As a result, Gross says, she lives a very insular life. "If I'm preparing for tomorrow's interview and a friend calls, I'm going to have to hang up on them in a few minutes so I can prepare for the interview," she admitted to one Berkeley audience. "The paradox of my life is that while I'm home preparing to be a sensitive interviewer, I'm a lousy friend."

What keeps Gross going at such a frenetic pace, what keeps her show, well, fresh after 25 years? "There are some things we don't really tire of -- like food, good conversation," she says. "A good mind is something that never loses its value, no matter how many good minds you have the luxury of encountering."

Onstage in San Francisco, in a faux living-room setting, Gross sits beside Ricky Jay in an armchair, looking positively Lilliputian beside his rotund, imposing frame. She holds notes in her lap, shuffling them nervously throughout the evening. In person, Gross seems more therapist than journalist, especially when she asks Jay to tell her about his childhood. Jay seems genuinely surprised at the memories her questions are eliciting. "Here's a story I haven't thought about for years and years," he says. Gross' eyes crinkle in concentration and she leans forward to listen.

"When I was young, people would come up to me and say, 'What's wrong, dear? You look lost,'" Gross admits. "I seem to have that kind of face. When I'm not laughing, when I'm just listening -- which is what you do if you're an interviewer -- I'm just kind of not in my body. I'm just a big ear."

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------