Gross is a consummate interviewer, having built Fresh Air from its humble beginnings as a program on Philadelphia's WHYY nearly a quarter-century ago to its current status as one of NPR's most popular syndicated programs. Here the 53-year-old Gross talks about her show, her recent collection of interviews, All I Did Was Ask (Hyperion), and this past fall's confrontation with FOX commentator Bill O'Reilly.
Q: You've said that there is an advantage to the structure of your Fresh Air interviews, which often take place with you and the subject in different studios.
A: First of all, people assume that you have more rapport because you're in the room together, and that's not necessarily true. The rapport has to do more with the two people than with physical proximity. Also, when you're talking long distance, there's no opportunity for visual communication, for body language. I can't smile and let the other person know that their joke is funny. I can't nod my head and let them know that I'm listening. So anything I want to let them know or anything they want to let me know has to be communicated through the voice, which means that the listeners are in on it, too.
When we went national, the format was the first half hour was live in the studio and the second half-hour interview was edited and pre-recorded. So we figured we'd have the best of both worlds there. And during that first half-hour live interview, if somebody went on a tangent, instead of being the sensitive interviewer, I'd want to jump across the table and grab them by the collar and say, "Can't you see? The clock is ticking and you're wasting time? We're not going to get to the good stuff." And now I can just relax because if they give a long-winded answer or go on a tangent, (the producers) can edit it out, and I still have more time. It's not real time. I can just relax. (Laughs).
Q: Talk about some of the disadvantages when you are in different time zones.
A: Well, sometimes it is true that you're in a studio together and there is something special when that happens, being across the table from somebody. It can really increase the chemistry level. It doesn't necessarily. We on Fresh Air miss out on some of the fun of meeting some of our favorite actors and musicians and writers in person.
Q: I've also found a subject can be really distracted when you start realizing that you have to take down notes to prepare for another question, and they're looking at you, like, "Dude, are you paying attention to me?"
A: I was just going to say that. I completely agree with you. I don't have a great memory. I write up notes before an interview, and I need those notes. Sometimes I didn't realize I'd want to refer to a certain fact, and I do want to refer to it, but I have to figure out, "Where is it?" And it absolutely looks like you're not paying attention to the guest. In fact, I feel if I break eye contact at all, they think I'm utterly distracted, and I'm not. But I'm afraid to break eye contact, and I therefore lose out on some of the benefits of all the notes I've taken.
Q: Of all the challenges of a live-broadcast interview, steering the conversation has to be one of -- if not the -- most difficult. When I listened to an excerpt of an early interview where you challenged John Dean, you seemed slightly more timid. How have you worked to be both congenial and authoritative all at once to maintain control of the interview's flow?
A: One of the things I think you're picking up on with the John Dean interview is that my voice itself sounded more timid. I think my voice was somewhere higher in range and tentative -- not whispery exactly, but it wasn't a full-throated voice. And I think it was a sign of several things. One, just feeling more tentative about being on the air and feeling less authoritative and less experienced and knowing less about the human voice. Part of it I think was just growing up a girl. I think for a lot of us it takes a while to literally find our voice.
Q: One of your greatest strengths is the desire you mentioned in your interview with Ira Glass (on the CD The Terry Gross/Ira Glass Interviews) to avoid the novelty question and also get your subject to expand on answers to previous questions. Still, do some subjects resist revisiting what they feel is a stale topic?
A: The first time I interviewed Steve Martin, I wanted to do the autobiographical, career retrospective interview. So he started talking about his early comedy, his stand-up, the magic, his early movies, and at some point he said to me -- in the nicest way -- "Please don't make me do this anymore. I just don't feel like I can go back and tell these stories again." And that leaves me in a really difficult situation because I know that when somebody's told stories over and over again, they feel like the whole world has heard the stories, when in fact the whole world hasn't heard the stories, and I had the feeling most of our listeners had not followed his career that closely.
I just moved on at that point, because sometimes the actors want you to change the topic because they feel that you're not adequately promoting their new thing. This wasn't that. This was just totally feeling depleted in his ability to talk about that.
Q: He does come across as a thoughtful, introspective person.
A: Very. And really smart and somebody who actually has an inner life.
Q: But there's no crime in encapsulating and summarizing for the subject, correct? When you hit that wall with somebody like Steve Martin, can't you then flip around and said, "OK, I'll tell your biography, and then I'll try to ask you a really cool question"?
A: I do that a lot in regular interviews, but when someone feels like they just can't discuss that subject any more, sometimes they really won't, and if I proceed -- if I as The Good Journalist soldier on because you can't let the guest boss you around -- I've learned sometimes either they will just walk out or just totally clam up, that any hope of any rapport is totally lost. And that when it comes to talking about somebody's life, it's not Watergate, it's not impeachment, it's not the war in Iraq -- you have to accept the fact that they have the right to say, "I really don't want to talk about it." And there's not much that you can do about it. And it's frustrating, sometimes really aggravating, but they don't owe you anything. And they don't even owe you the truth of their lives. The president owes us truth; Donald Rumsfeld owes us truth; everybody in politics owes us truth; Clinton owed us truth. But is Madonna really obliged to tell me how she constructed her persona?
Q: And her British accent.
A: Oh, my God. (Laughs.)
Q: Another one of your most noted strengths is your desire and ability to focus the attention on your subject and not on you. When do you think you struck the right balance between focusing on your subject but developing your own voice?
A: I think that in some ways that I've let myself expose a little bit more of my personality on the air. Instead of just the question being, "Here is the question," just make it a little more conversational. It's hard for me to explain exactly --
Q: You can use a personal frame of reference without it being about you.
A: Right, exactly, exactly. I mean, I don't like it to be about me for a bunch of reasons, including that I think it would just be tiring if the show were about me. The show isn't about me. And I'm not the kind of person who could support that kind of program. I don't mean financially. I'm not enough of the anecdotalist, I don't have enough incredibly interesting experiences to share that it would be, "Oh, let's tune in to see what happened to Terry today!" That would be a remarkably dull show. Because what happened to Terry today was she sat around and read a lot of books.
Q: You've said one of the most important questions you can ask a subject is when they feel like they became who they presently are, which serves as an excellent jump-off point for other questions. Talk about when you felt you became who you were and the circumstances surrounding it.
A: You know how it is when you leave your friends and family and go to a new place? People who know you, if you change, they think you're being phony or that something's wrong. And sometimes, particularly when you're growing up, that holds you back because you feel yourself changing, you feel your interests changing, you feel your personality changing, you're getting more extroverted or more introverted or whatever. And people won't let you do it. And so you go to an out-of-town college, and suddenly you start changing into how you feel like, "This is who I really am."
So that happened to me in college, and I thought, "Now I know who I really am." But then, years later, I realized they were both who I was. A lot of the things that I renounced when I went to college I thought, "I'm not really that person," that I am. I'm both of those people. When I was in high school, I was like the "good student." I had a really high (grade-point) average, really good grades. When I went to college, I hardly went to class. I was so tired of being the good that I hardly went to class. I got a great education culturally, but it was all going to repertory cinema screenings and poetry readings and concerts -- avant-garde concerts, jazz concerts, rock concerts. There was a really strong anti-war movement on campus. It was a very politically engaged and argumentative campus. I'd go and listen to all of this. The women's movement was very strong. But it wasn't like in the classic stuff, and I wasn't a studious person anymore.
So now what do I do every night? I go home and quote do my homework. People are always saying, "You really do your homework!" You know? (Laughs.) So I'm not sure if I'm being clear enough, but when I thought I became the real me, some of the things that I changed were things that still were the real me. So I think all of that has come together now in a more, shall I say, holistic way. (Laughs.)
Q: When did you believe you began hitting your stride with Fresh Air?
A: Every time I keep thinking, oh, I can't believe I didn't ask this, or I didn't do that. But there are several places where I guess that happened. One was in 1978, when Danny Miller started working on the show, who is the executive producer of the show and who started as an intern. But the moment he came, I thought, this is a great partner to work with. Suddenly the show became a lot more fun in every way, and a lot better in every way. And we've been working as radio partners ever since, and I'm really lucky to have that. And then, when the show went weekly national in 1985, it felt like, wow, we're doing something national. Then when it went daily national, in May of '87 -- May 11, Irving Berlin's 100th birthday
Q: One of the most impressive moments in your book comes when Uta Hagen appears unwilling to discuss the craft of acting because she seemed to feel it was pointless and artificial. You handled it very deftly, not taking offense and moving forward. Had you had similar challenges like that that prepared you for that moment?
A: I've been in other situations but not with a question like that where somebody says, "I can't answer that," or, it's too this or too that. So that's often what I try to do is realize that this is a flashpoint, so it doesn't mean I'm going to keep boring in and keep re-asking it, because again, if we haven't elected you into office, you don't really owe us anything, so I can't like demand something of you. But if you're so sensitive about it, it probably means something, so let's figure out what it means.
So in Uta Hagen's case, I was talking to Ira Glass about this, and what he said and what I thought -- this was great -- is that that answer challenged the very premise of our show. (Laughs.) The premise of our show is, it's really interesting and valuable to talk to artists about their art. And when she says, "No, it's none of your business," then, what's our show tomorrow going to be about? Why are we doing this?
Q: But she spoke to an artificiality about these programs that no matter how valuable they are, that artificiality is still going to be there, and it's a weird dynamic that you're working with there, it seems.
A: As an audience, as somebody who thrills to great acting performances, it's not because I fancy myself an actor. It's not like once Samuel L. Jackson has kind of illuminated how he did a scene, I feel like I can do that scene. I think it's rather that, and this is what I was trying to explain to her, the more I know about somebody's approach to acting, the more I enjoy the performance, the more I understand.
Q: I think considering no matter how you slice it, you the interviewer are in a position of power and control. You're an interrogator. But what I always find interesting is when the interviewer doesn't take offense or get defensive when the subject gets defensive. You can talk about a "f--k-off" answer. This now can become an interesting topic for conversation.
A: You know what else? I don't take it personally. If somebody gave me the f--k-off in person, who knew me, I might go home and weep or something. (Laughs.) You know? But on the air, Uta Hagen doesn't know who I am. It's nothing personal. I'm not saying I'm the most secure person in the world, but I have enough confidence in my skills as an interviewer and in the show that we put on every day that when Uta Hagen challenges a question, it's not going to crush me. I don't need to take it personally, therefore I can just stand back and say, "What is this about, and what is an interesting way of approaching it now?" without feeling like, now I have to attack her back. Nor do I see it as a personal attack.
Q: And as people who love drama as conflict, it's always interesting to watch some conflict without it being exploitative.
A: Exactly, exactly. And that's the other thing. When somebody comes back at me that way, instead of feeling offended, I'm kind of thinking, "This is going to be good radio. How do I make this work?" Because I'm not a confrontational interviewer usually, but I don't shy away from that kind of conflict when it happens. And I know it's good radio, and I know it's good drama. So I don't wanna milk it. On the other hand, if it presents itself to me, I want to use it.
Q: On the Ira Glass CD, you talked about preparing for Stephen Sondheim, whom you greatly admired, and how poorly it went. What lessons do you learn from interviewing people who you admire, and it's just not clicking?
A: I think the lesson I learned from that interview was that self-consciousness is a kind of self-perpetuating cycle. I'm a self-conscious person by nature, and Sondheim in an interview is so self-conscious of every word that he says. So his self-consciousness made me more self-conscious, which made me stutter more, which made him more uncomfortable. We just kept kind of feeding on each other's discomfort. (Laughs.) There was this mirror or feedback image of discomfort. Which is why I try -- don't necessarily succeed -- but I do try to not let my discomfort show too much because it just succeeds in making the other person uncomfortable. Which is another reason why I try to be circumspect about my admiration for somebody because if I just gush, I think it makes them self-conscious and uncomfortable.
Q: I think it would be tougher to deal with somebody who likes you than somebody who's maybe a little more challenging and ready to ask you questions differently.
A: People want to be in the hands of a professional and not a fan who's on the verge of becoming a stalker. (Laughs.) And so you want to sound like a professional more than like the head of their fan club.
Q: I want to talk about some of the issues that are facing NPR today, and one of them is related to one of your own interviews. The NPR ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, who is also president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, says he received about 5,000 emails when he wrote in his column that you were "unfair" to FOX's Bill O'Reilly, that you were perceived as a "partisan" of Al Franken and that you used what he called an "unethical technique" of asking a question after O'Reilly had already stormed out of the studio. How do you feel now about that altercation, and were any of the criticisms about how you handled it justified?
A: I'll stand by the interview. I wish I'd asked things more gracefully. But I'll stand by all the questions that I asked, including the quote empty-chair question that Jeffrey Dvorkin criticized me for. I respect Jeffrey a lot, and I totally respect his opinion, but I disagree with him on this. I think it was perfectly appropriate to ask challenging questions to the interviewer who prides himself on being the toughest interviewer in America. When you decline to be on his show, you become "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day" that night. And he criticizes you for being too cowardly to come on his show. And he'll say things like, "They're hiding under the table because they're afraid to face my tough questions."
So if somebody who is as controversial as he is and who prides himself on asking tough questions can't be asked a few himself, then what's the point? And I thought it was truly disingenuous of him to act surprised and wounded by a few questions that I asked.
Q: My memory of that interview was that one of his complaints was that he was being asked challenging questions, but that you hadn't challenged Al Franken. If that's true, is it reasonable to ask more challenging questions of Al Franken, who has now become more of a political commentator and not just a humorist?
A: To quote somebody who I know Bill O'Reilly respects -- Bill O'Reilly -- when asked a similar question about a couple of his interviews, in an email at the end of the show, he said, "Different interviews require different strategies." So I would argue that the O'Reilly interview and the Al Franken interview, although they're archenemies, my interviews with them were different, and I think that was perfectly acceptable. I interviewed Al Franken a year ago this past September, so it was months before Air America was on the air, he did not have a daily microphone, he had written a book that was very funny and also based on research. Not all the questions were political, not all the questions were about O'Reilly.
Al Franken's been on our show off and on since the '70s, since the early days that he was a writer on Saturday Night Live and a performer, and I've always thought of him as a satirist, and I think he's very funny. As he's gotten more and more political, we've had him on with other people, with comics from other points of view. When we had him on before the 2000 (presidential) election, we did a show with Franken, Bill Maher and Christopher Buckley. So you had comics and satirists from three different directions. When we had him on for this book, we had on O'Reilly, and O'Reilly had his chance to say whatever he wanted to. And I quoted some things that Franken said, and he had his chance to say, "That's not true."
Q: But did you challenge Al Franken to a degree where you can defend challenging Bill O'Reilly?
A: The thing is I wasn't challenging Bill O'Reilly about his politics. I was challenging him about his style. My challenging questions to him had to do with, does he use his microphone, does he use his power as a broadcaster or cable-caster, to settle scores with people he feels have criticized him. So in other words, if you give him a bad review, is he going to insult you on the show the next day or ridicule you? That was my challenging question to him. I wasn't challenging his politics. And was there an equivalent that Al Franken was doing? You could argue his book was the equivalent, but maybe I just didn't see it that way. But I didn't feel like he was abusing the power of the microphone in the way that, I think it's possible to ask about O'Reilly.
Q: But the question becomes were there criticisms of the book that you can research and then come back to him and say, "I was reading this review by Bill Kristol, and he complains that this was wrong." You see what I'm saying? Any book is going to get a negative review. Would you feel just as compelled to raise that? It all boils down to having challenging questions for every interview or with every subject --
A: But I don't. I don't have challenging questions for every subject. I'm not that kind of interviewer. I sometimes do, and I sometimes don't. But I don't have challenging questions, usually, when I interview actors and writers. They're on, usually, because we respect their work. The challenging question isn't an essential part of every interview I do.
Q: Public broadcasting in general and NPR in particular seems to be at a kind of crossroads. The listening audience has expanded greatly over the past five years, and there has been a serious revenue injection courtesy of Ray Kroc's widow. But criticism of NPR also seems at an all-time high --
A: I just want to stop and say one more thing about the Al Franken thing.
Q: OK, sure.
A: This was before Al Franken was weighing in every day on the radio with the subject of talking about politics every day. Like I've said, we've had on Franken for years, and the reason why we've had him on is because he's funny. We haven't had him on as a political pundit. We've had him on because he's funny, and there were funny things in his book, his satire book. So we had him on because he's funny, not to kind of tell us how to vote. You know? Now, some of that is political, but, when we were talking about he read a letter that was actually very funny that he sent around about "abstinence heroes." (Laughs.) I don't know if you read his book or not.
Q: No, I didn't.
A: "Chastity heroes," or "abstinence heroes," and without letting on that he was being funny, making it seem like a real serious letter, he wrote highly placed people in politics asking them to tell their favorite abstinence stories for a book about abstinence. It was just funny. But I did ask him, "Is it fair to send this kind of thing to people?" I'm not sure if it was in the final cut or not. But is it fair to send this kind of letter without them being in on the joke? So that's the kind of question I'd ask, as opposed to asking him challenging questions about whether abstinence education is the appropriate way to go or not.
Q: And I think as you ask Bill O'Reilly about his process, which is obviously a lightning-rod for attention, you can rightly ask Al Franken now about his process, which has been evolving over the past five years.
A: And we've talked about that a lot. We've talked a lot over the years about what it's like to go from Saturday Night Live funny to writing speeches for Al Gore. We've talked a lot about political humor and how it works, and how it compares to other humor, and what kind of jokes go over and what's the difference between a joke about a politician, a self-deprecating joke that you can write for somebody that they can take than one that's more insulting than self-deprecating and goes too far. We've talked a lot about the mechanics of humor. We've talked a lot about that in another interview, his tour with the USO in Iraq and Kuwait. We've talked a lot about humor and how he uses it. Again, here's someone who's actually risking his life to entertain the troops.
Q: Let's talk about the criticism that NPR has a liberal bias. What do you think about those criticisms of NPR and public broadcasting in general?
A: I think sometimes when people make that charge, what they mean is that there is an absence of a conservative agenda. I think sometimes that some conservatives confuse the absence of a conservative agenda with a liberal agenda. I think NPR doesn't have an agenda.
Q: Let's talk about Tavis Smiley's departure from NPR because I think that's a more timely subject right now. What does his departure say about NPR, about him and his show and its place at NPR, but also what does it say about NPR, the inability to keep him?
A: I would almost like to decline to talk about that only because this is the kind of story where I'm sure that the public debate isn't what's really going on. There's the public side of the story and there's the behind-the-scenes part of the story. And I don't really know the behind-the-scenes part of the story, but I bet it's slightly different than the public part of the story.
So, um, Tavis is a busy guy. He's got a daily PBS show and a daily NPR show -- or had a daily NPR show -- so I don't really know the reasons why he left, and I just feel like I don't really know enough to give you an inside answer on what happened. I could talk more generally about demographics for NPR or something. But I don't feel real comfortable getting involved in the middle of the whole Tavis thing. I hope you don't mind. I don't mean that in any kind of attitudinal way, but I'm really not comfortable with getting in the middle of that dispute between NPR and Tavis.
Q: And it is, for the record, a dispute that has had more input from Tavis than it has had from NPR. NPR seems reluctant to respond to his criticisms. Most of the stuff that I've seen on the NPR Web site and in print has been, "He's great; we wish him well." My question is does losing him make the challenge greater for NPR to achieve more diversity in its listening audience?
A: No, not necessarily, because they'll find another host. The show isn't disappearing. The show will change; it won't be The Tavis Smiley Show. But I think they're determined to find a new show, to find a new host who will be African American and address, among other things, issues of particular interest to African Americans. I don't want to speak for NPR, but I think that's what they're planning to do.
Hopefully they'll find somebody else, and I'm sure they will, and maybe that show will be even more popular.
Q: Do you believe it's accurate to say that there is a perception that NPR could be more diverse, and if you agree there is that perception --
A: Are you talking about being diverse racially, age, politically? Which kind of diversity are you talking about?
Q: I think on a couple levels. I think that there is a perception that from All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and the hosts of shows, the actual employment -- and I hate to say the public face of NPR, the reporters and anchors and talk-show hosts, or hosts of any show -- but it does seem like the public face of NPR is European and white.
A: One of the hosts of All Things Considered is African American.
Q: But do you agree that there is a perception?
A: Oh, sure, yeah, and my guess is NPR would probably like to be more diverse, too. (Pauses.)
Q: Judging from your schedule, you sound like a workaholic. Do you consider yourself a workaholic? Did the show make you this way?
A: I don't like the word "workaholic" to describe myself because "workaholic" is the language of recovery. It's like there's some kind of defect as to how you're wired that's forcing you to work for all the wrong reasons. You're addicted to it. I think when you're doing a daily show, if you want it to be worth turning on, if you want it to be worth your listeners' time, you've got to work hard.
Q: Who are your favorite interviewers of all time?
A: (Long pause.) OK, I'm going to mention Scott Simon and Ira Glass, even though I wouldn't necessarily describe them as interviewers. Scott is a reporter who also does interviews, but when he does an interview it's always great. And Ira isn't exactly an interviewer because he just does all this other stuff. But when he does an interview, he has a really disarming way of speaking to people. And it sounds like real talk except at this incredibly elevated level. When I say "elevated," I don't mean pretentious, but I mean just getting to the heart of things. Ted Koppel, because he's just so good at the political interviews. He doesn't have an agenda, but he doesn't let people get away with crap. You have to answer his questions. And (the late) Barbara Frum of the CBC for the same reasons that I mentioned before, the whole idea of being respectful and informal all at the same time.
Q: Was reading your interviews instructive and did it help you learn lessons at all? A: Reading my interviews, among other things, made me realize I have to speak with more punctuation. (Laughs.) Just so many long sentences. I think maybe the problem with doing radio interviews is that everything is inverted because it's questions, and sometimes you're talking before you know what it is you want to say. So you get trapped in this sentence that has to end in a question. And by the time you get to the inversion of the question you're forgetting whether it started with a single or a plural subject. So your verb isn't agreeing with the subject, and reading that is just painful. We fixed it for the book.