Terry Gross has mastered the quiet craft of listening. As the host of National Public Radio's Fresh Air, she's conducted more than 10,000 on-air interviews, and she faces everyone -- artists, pornographers, international war correspondents, Tammy Faye Bakker and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog -- with a willing ear and loads of data. Gross often reads as many as three books a night and consumes enough newspaper clippings, magazine articles and journals every day to qualify her as the most culturally well-rounded person in America. She leads a kind of meta-life: If she finds a book, or a song, or a movie, or an idea that she likes, she can summon its creator. This seems like a satisfying proposition for a naturally engaged and curious person such as Gross. But she hesitates to call her gig a dream job.
"It never ends," she says from her studio at WHYY in Philadelphia. "If I go on vacation, I don't necessarily have a stack of books that I have to read, but if I do stumble upon something that I think would work, I'll take note. It's a very different way to experience culture: You're constantly filtering, trying to keep up. Sometimes I try to read dead author's books so that there's no possibility that I'll be looking for ideas for a show."
A Brooklyn native, Gross tried teaching before she found radio. Unable to connect in the classroom -- "I was a swift and spectacular failure," she says -- she reached out to a wider audience on the air at WBFO in Buffalo, New York; her first hosting spot was on Women Power, a news show with a feminist bent. In 1975 Gross moved to WHYY, and a decade later took over as host of Fresh Air. Now airing on 160 NPR affiliates, Fresh Air is one of the most popular shows on public radio.
Gross's warmth, extemporaneous intellect and empathy are among the qualities that have earned her a reputation as one of the country's sharpest interviewers, as well as a Peabody Award in 1994. But it's her humanness that makes her so refreshing. With an unpolished voice that ranges from honeyed to nasal, Gross often breaks into giggles. When an interview does occasionally slip from her control, audiences sense her trying to rein it back in. Sometimes it doesn't work -- to oddly hilarious results. (In a now-infamous interview with Kiss leader Gene Simmons, Gross moved from determined and plucky to, finally, stupefied by the singer's sexual braggadocio.)
By her own description, Gross is an unremarkable physical presence. She has cropped hair and wears wiry spectacles, lending her a kind of librarian chic. For many years after the launch of Fresh Air, she refused to be photographed in order to protect her invisibility in the role as host -- although these days, she makes public appearances, such as Monday's visit to the University of Denver's Newman Center. The connection that listeners feel to her, she says, comes from the minimalism of her medium. Guests are usually seated in studios thousands of miles away, which means they experience Gross as her listeners do: as a kind of benevolent, disembodied presence.
"There are no visual cues, so we have to be sure that everything is communicated through the voice," she says. "That's part of why radio offers a very satisfying way to consume an interview," she says. "A person's voice adds a very full dimension to their personality.
"One of the things that attracted me to radio was that I always liked to think about other people's lives," she adds. "I always wondered, 'What is the real meaning of what they're saying?' So I really want the guests to be able to share their experiences, to clarify their thoughts. It isn't about me; it's about keeping the spotlight on them."
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