Terry Gross, Radio’s Sweetheart, Profiled in The New York Times

Like many educated and generally informed Americans, my parents listen to NPR. When they used to chauffeur me to school and activities, I would scowl, whine, and swiftly switch the station to music if I could reach the knobs. But I have gradually transitioned to tuning in myself, especially enjoying Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” podcasts. Particularly in times in my life when I am frustrated by “unproductive time” in my schedule, like when I’m completing menial tasks that are not intellectually engaging or suffering through long commutes, I turn to Terry to enthrall me and teach me.

For many years, she has been beloved by both the public and the artistic-intellectual arbiters of culture, many of whom dream of being interviewed by Terry. Yet Terry herself is not covered often in the media. Because of my love of Terry’s style and work, I was pleased to see a profile of her by another radio artist in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, titled “Terry Gross and the Art of Opening Up.”

Below I include excerpts from the article that I found enlightening, but they are mainly for me–I’d recommend you read the full article. And to read more about her relationship more specifically to authors, check out this New Yorker piece from when she was honored by the Authors Guild in 2011 (I certainly have gone to bookstores with a list of the books Terry recently discussed).


On finding intimacy in interviews: “She uses the very public space of the interview to access tenderly personal places….Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy. In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.”

On keeping interviews focused on the guest and leaving herself a blank canvas: “Gross says very little about her own life on the air. ‘I try not to make it about me,’ Gross told me. ‘I try to use my experiences to help me understand my guests’ experiences, but not to take anything away from them.’ Early in her career, she realized that remaining somewhat unknown allows ‘radio listeners to do what they like to do, which is to create you.’ She added, ‘Whatever you need me to be, I’ll be that.’

On the fantasy of being interviewed by Terry, not for the status but for the experience itself of engaging with her: “‘Having the conversation’ — that’s what’s compelling about the wish. It’s a wish not for recognition but for an experience. It’s a wish for Gross to locate your genius, even if that genius has not yet been expressed. It’s a wish to be seen as in a wish to be understood.”

On the evolution of the interview in reporting and media and its relationship to psychoanalysis: “At first the interview was regarded as a particularly American phenomenon — pushy, but fair too, because it involved the cooperation of the interviewee, not just a sneaky reporter. The practice shifted radically after World War II. Television gained popularity — the age of the broadcast interviewer began. And psychoanaly­sis — that other great innovation in opening people up — was being practiced more widely. Gross’s interviews have often been compared to therapy. That’s in part because of her seemingly neutral stance, but also because of the feeling of safety she gives her interviewees. Once in a while, a guest confesses to Gross that he’s confiding something for the very first time.”

On how Terry’s own experiences seeing a therapist have made her a better listener and interviewer: “Gross herself started seeing a therapist several years ago. ‘When she asks me a question that gets exactly to the heart of what I’m trying to say, but maybe haven’t articulated clearly, it just feels so good,’ Gross told me. ‘My ideal as an interviewer is to be the person who gets it. Like somebody can tell you something really personal,’ she continued, and ‘you can ask them something that can help them comfortably move to the next place and go deeper.’”

Terry on the validation we get from literature and the arts and why she finds it satisfying to interview artists: “‘Hearing someone speak really personally, and having that affirm your experience as a sexual person, or as a sick person, or just as a person trying to get through daily life, is really valuable. And I think that’s why we turn to literature, I think that’s why we turn to film, beyond the entertainment it gives us.’ She loves interviewing artists, she told me, because they are ‘the people we designate to open up their lives for examination so we can understand better who we are.’ They offer up their own stories as ‘what Updike called ‘specimen lives,’ ’ she said. ‘Examples of what it’s like to be human.’”

On the pivotal moment that drew Terry into radio as a medium: “One afternoon, about a year after she finished school, she was sitting in her house in Buffalo listening to ‘Womanpower,’ a feminist program on WBFO, the university station. One of her roommates was a guest, and she came out as gay on the air. Gross was surprised by the revelation, but more so by the way her roommate had delivered it: sitting before a microphone in a radio studio.”

“This American Life” creator Ira Glass on Terry’s deft skills of letting an interview flow organically: “Gross brings ‘real questions she personally has been wondering about’ to the kind of interviews that tell us ‘what should we make of the latest news from Iraq or Syria’ — as well as the good editorial sense of when to let an expert ‘march off in unplanned directions.’ He adds: ‘There’ve been times when I’ve relistened, just to hear the order of the questions and to figure out what was planned and unplanned. Like a magician sitting in on another guy’s act for two nights so he can figure out the trick, to steal it.’ Glass singles out Gross’s ‘great improviser’s performance chops. Not surprising that she loves jazz artists and stand-up comedians so much. She’s their journalist peer.’”

On how Terry interacted with her mother during her mother’s treatment for lung cancer, and how an interview with Maurice Sendak played to her relationship with her parents and death: “Eventually her mother’s mind started to go, in part because of the chemotherapy. ‘As she lost some of her cognitive abilities, I thought of myself as having duets with her. I’d have these conversations where I knew that she knew the answers to the questions. I knew we were on safe territory,’ she told me. ‘I knew my part, she knew her part and we could converse that way.’…We were talking about the deaths of Gross’s parents, and I asked about Sendak, in relation to something I’d been wondering about — the interplay between an interview and her private life. ‘‘I didn’t think of this until later,’’ Gross said. ‘‘But the interview that I had with him was in a way the conversation I never had with my parents.’’

Terry on the distinction between interviews as conversations for an audience and reality: “‘I try not to confuse the two. I try not to equate the interview with real life. But at the same time, there’s an intimacy in the interview — like, I’m telling you things that people I work with probably don’t know, because it doesn’t come up. I would tell them if they asked, but it’s just not a part of what you talk about in day-to-day work life necessarily.’’

Photo credit: Jewish Exponent.

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