Terry Gross, 67, is the host and executive producer of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” which she began hosting locally in Philadelphia in 1975. She has won numerous awards, including a Peabody for “Fresh Air” and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Edward R. Murrow Award for outstanding contributions to public radio. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband.
So how did you come across radio?
Kind of by accident. I had graduated with an English degree and taught junior high school English for six weeks before they fired me. So, I figured, well, what do you do? You go back to graduate school. One of the women I was living with was going to be on the feminist show on the university public radio station, an NPR affiliate. So, all the women from the house gathered around the radio. And much to our surprise, she came out. Which wouldn’t have been a big deal, except she hadn’t told us yet. Just the fact that somebody could say something so personal on the radio without even having told her roommates was amazing to me. That was more mind-blowing than the fact that she came out. And I realized there’s something very intimate about radio. That kind of mix of impersonal and personal can lead to a level of comfort and honesty. I compare it sometimes to the person sitting next to you on the plane. Do you know what I mean? Who you might tell some things, figuring, well, they don’t know me. I’ll never see them again.
It brought out, I guess, my natural curiosity through a medium that was totally new to me. But that I felt just immediately comfortable in. A place where, I think, being an English major really came in handy. Because when you’re learning to read fiction, when you have a good teacher as I often did in school, what you’re learning, in part, is empathy. You’re learning to be somebody else, learning to see the world through their eyes. Reading between the lines. Like, the character’s saying this, What do they really mean? Is the narrator a reliable narrator? And then also, it gave me this legitimate way of connecting with people who I otherwise would have no opportunity to talk to. They’d have no reason to know of my existence. And if they did, to say a word to me. But now, because of this professional role, I have the privilege of talking to them and asking them things. And that was thrilling.
Most of your interviews are done remotely, and I’m so curious how you’re able to get that level of intimacy and openness with the people you interview without being able to look them in the eye.
I’ve always thought of myself as smaller than life. Like, some people walk into the room and they own the room. All heads turn to them. I was never that person. I take a certain pleasure in being invisible. For several reasons. One is, I live more in my head than I do in my body. I’m not a very physical person. You know, I don’t go hiking and mountain climbing; I was always more of the reader and listener. Also, I’m a naturally self-conscious person. So, you can kind of get rid of all the physical self-consciousness if you’re invisible to your guest and to your listeners. Poof! Gone. I find it to be very intimate talking to somebody you’re hearing in your headphones. I mean, they’re really being mainlined right into your brain. And ditto my voice into their head. And you don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing!
You often talk with your guests about very personal things. After an interview where something big has come out, do people ever say, “Oh my God, I want to take it back”? Or just feel very vulnerable or exploited afterward?
Well, my ambition is not to hurt anyone. And I don’t like the idea of any of our guests lying awake at night and feeling like, What did I say? My life is ruined. It’s different when you’re talking with politicians because there’s a level of accountability we should demand. But private people don’t owe us anything. So I always tell my guests, “If I ask you anything too personal, let me know, and I’ll move on to something else.” This week, one of my guests just broke up in tears. I just said, “Do you need a moment? Do you want to stop?” And that’s what we did. I don’t like to exploit people’s emotions. Like: Oh, yeah, tears! That’s going to be great radio. Let’s keep it going. Because we all have our public self and our family self, and our truly personal self that is off-limits to everybody. I’m hoping for the best candid version of the public self. Not to trick you, or outsmart you, or show you up.
What do people tend to misunderstand about you?
Some people think you just show up and have this, like, great conversation with someone: That must be fun! And I love that part about my job, the conversations with people. And I love the people I work with. The hard part is that the research doesn’t stop; you’re always consuming. There was a Porky Pig cartoon when I was growing up. He loves to eat, and he has this nightmare where it’s like his dream come true: He’s on this conveyor belt, and instead of having to put rivets on something on the conveyor belt, there’s a different kind of food being stuffed in his mouth. And as he goes down the conveyor belt, he’s getting bigger and bigger and sicker and sicker. Like overdoing something that you love. That’s how I picture myself reading, just having to overstuff my brain, crowding it with so much new information every night. But, also physically. I feel like I am living proof that in addition to doing damage to yourself by climbing Mount Everest, you can hurt yourself just sitting in a chair at a computer or in front of a book for too long [laughs].
So many people are familiar with your voice. What surprises them when they meet you?
People used to be really surprised that I was short. Because if you can fill a speaker, they figured you’d be big — that I’d be big. But that level of surprise no longer exists in our culture, because anybody who’s the least bit curious just needs to Google your name, and, like, a thousand pictures come up. And the fact that they’re not surprised by what I look like anymore relieves the sense that I used to have of their disappointment. Like, they expected me to look like this, and I don’t. So, it’s nice to not deal with that. And short women are usually so pleased by the fact that they’ve found a fellow short woman. We have this immediate bonding.
I hear the words of people I’ve interviewed in my head all the time as I go about my life. You’ve interviewed tens of thousands of guests. Can you share advice from any of your guests that has particularly affected you?
Live your life, live your life, live your life, from Maurice Sendak when our last interview ended. Because he knew he was near death. I do that mantra a lot. It’s just so easy to get caught up in the problems of day-to-day life, that you forget to kind of pull back a little bit and put everything in perspective and realize it’s the only life you have and make the best of it. That sounds like a cliche, but it’s just one of those cliches that has a lot of truth in it. Also, I know that Maurice was prone to depression, and that he grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, that his parents got out, but a lot of his extended family didn’t. And it just seemed to me that looking back, maybe he was seeing his life a little bit differently. That he seemed to really be so happy to be alive at the end of his life and so happy to be living in the moment. Just looking at the trees and seeing how beautiful they were. Listening to his favorite composers and thinking how beautiful their music was. So, to hear him, who has lived with all of that, say at the end of his life, basically, “Don’t forget to live your life,” just had such meaning for me. And I couldn’t help but wonder: How many of us are able to do that?
This interview has been edited and condensed.