The host of NPR’s Fresh Air takes part in a wide-ranging interview in advance of a benefit for WHYY, the home of her nationally broadcast talk show.
Maybe it has something to do with the numerous awards recognizing her interviewing skills, including a Peabody Award. Maybe it happened because of the Q effect from having 4 million-plus listeners. Maybe it’s simply the result of having been the host of Fresh Air for the past 39 years, recording thousands of interviews.
Whatever the reason, Terry Gross’ appeal has long outgrown the friendly confines of public radio. She has played herself in an episode of The Simpsons, in the 2012 Mel Gibson film, The Beaver, and, most recently, as “O-NPR-LDY,” one of the caller options on The Colbert Show’s latest Yom Kippur-themed episode to feature the 1-800-OOPS-JEW phone line, where Stephen Colbert’s Jewish friends can call to atone for their sins against him.
If you’re just joining us, Gross, 63, was interviewed in advance of “Off Air With Fresh Air,” a Nov. 2 benefit for WHYY, the home of her nationally broadcast show. During the event, Gross, who lives in Center City with her husband, the music critic Francis Davis, will play excerpts from interviews that didn’t go exactly as planned and answer questions from audience members.
Does the extent to which you have been claimed by pop culture surprise you?
It thrills me. I’m so happy about it, especially to be on Stephen Colbert — I love that show so much.
I also once auditioned for a film. I interviewed Paul Mazursky years ago, and he said, “You should audition for one of my movies!” And I thought, oh God, that sounds like so much fun. So he had his casting person send me a scene and they had me come down and audition for it.
There were all of these actors in the waiting room, and they all had their careers on the line. They actually needed the work. I was just there to learn more. It made me so glad I wasn’t an actor. They go through such hell to establish themselves.
You grew up in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. What was that like?
There was an Italian part and an Irish part, but my part was really Jewish. I really did think that the Catholic family across the street was a minority group, there were so many Jewish people in the neighborhood.
My parents really strongly identified as Jewish. They were born in 1918, they grew up in the Depression, lived through World War II. On both sides of the family, we have people who died in the Holocaust. When we went to the Holocaust museum [in Washington, D.C.], my father started to get tears in his eyes, because there were the gates from Tarnow, in Poland, where his father’s father was from. Everyone from my father’s family who stayed there died. At the same time, I think my father was basically an atheist. He would go to synagogue on the High Holy Days.
Did you spend a lot of time at synagogue?
When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, girls and women were pretty much exempt from going. It wasn’t required, maybe not even welcome. None of the girls in my neighborhood went to the synagogue unless it was for a Bar Mitzvah or something. I fasted on Yom Kippur, I dressed in my new fall clothes for Rosh Hashanah, and I sat around and talked to my friends because you couldn’t watch TV. It was an incredibly boring day to me.
You have mentioned before that you wanted to be a lyricist when you were a child, and that you would want to come back as a jazz singer, and that musicians are your favorite interviews. What is it about music that appeals to you so much?
My favorite kind of music is song. That includes jazz, rock, pop, Broadway and more recently, opera.
I love musical theater, and there isn’t that much of it in Philadelphia, and there is a lot I don’t want to see, like the jukebox musicals. I was feeling a little starved, so I thought, maybe I should try the opera. A friend of mine suggested that I should go to the Met in HD, which is the live simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera. On some Sunday afternoons, if you go to the Rave or the Riverview, you can see the live broadcast from the Met on a really big screen, and I just immediately fell in love with it.
The first opera I saw was a Verdi opera, and it was so dramatic — it just had me. So I’ve been going whenever I can. I’m shocked at how much I like the music. I thought that of all the different kinds of singing, opera was the one that I would never have an ear for. It’s very exciting to fall in love again.
The other interesting thing about opera, moreso than the other types of music I listen to, is that the operas I have been going to are at least a hundred years old, sometimes hundreds of years old. To think that you are sitting there, enjoying something that people have enjoyed for hundreds of years, is an interesting connection to the past.
How often does it happen that you wind up having to scrap a planned show because the interview didn’t work out?
Not very often, but it does happen. I’d say nowadays, it happens every few months. We feel really awful when it does. Somebody has given up their time, they have made the effort to go to a studio, they’ve maybe told friends and colleagues that it’s going to be on — and then it’s not. We feel awful about it and we only do it when we feel it is really truly necessary. But our responsibility is to the audience. We can’t put something on the air unless it’s clear, not confusing, lively, and that we think is really worth hearing.
The vast majority of your interviews are conducted remotely. Have you ever subsequently spent time with one of your interview subjects?
I have met people after I interviewed them and I had no idea what to say. I’ll give you an example. The first time I interviewed Robert Redford, the interview went really well, and afterward, we did an event at the Sundance Festival. I not only met him, but I had a chance to spend some time alone with him in his office. I had no idea what to say! It wasn’t an interview, so I thought it would be inappropriate to ask the kinds of probing, biographical questions I would ask in an interview, so I found myself saying things like, “Do you think it’s going to snow?”
It’s not like he was making me uncomfortable. It was me making myself uncomfortable. I was in a different role. I didn’t know how to behave as Terry Gross the civilian as opposed to Terry Gross the interviewer on the air. I have an agenda of sorts when I’m doing an interview. I know why I’m there, I know what I want to talk about. You take all of that away from me, then what is the right thing to talk about in the setting like that? I don’t know.
You’re a long way from hosting your first show in Buffalo in 1973. Could you talk about what you miss from that time in your career?
That time in my career was like when you’re just falling in love with somebody. You’re just getting to learn about each other, you think about them all the time, and it’s just so thrilling.
Radio was like that for me. It combined everything that I love. I was an English major, and now I had the chance to interview authors. I was — and still am — a feminist, and I had a chance to talk about women’s issues. I got to play with recordings on the air and do shows on blues singers, women in jazz. It combined a little bit of theater – it just had everything.
I still love radio, but it’s not at the falling-in-love stage. It’s more like we’ve been married a long time. It’s a very, very deep love, but it doesn’t have that brand new, thrilling feeling.
Do you ever listen to your shows?
I have to pace myself. I have to listen just the right amount. I have to listen just enough so that I know what it is I need to improve, but not listen so much as to think that I really cannot bear to hear more. Unless something went stupendously well, I’m usually focusing on everything that went wrong or every stammer, “um” and “er” that I made. It’s a kind of often cringe-y experience. I just hope other people aren’t listening to me that way.
Off-Air With Fresh Air
Nov. 2 at 8 p.m.
The Keswick Theater, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside