There is no dearth of packaged persona on the radio. Radio personalities can be tuned in or out 24/7 via AM, FM or Sirius. Whether comic or tragic, it’s hardly a challenge to match a voice and name with the appropriate theatrical type. The stale magic of talk, or reality radio, is to conjure an illusion of visual appearance. Yet over the course of almost two decades, interviewer Terry Gross has built a large audience of devoted listeners by taking the opposite approach. She has spent years cultivating for herself a voice which is uncannily faceless, and an equal number of years cultivating a radio ear. The result is a rare radio personality with genuine mystique.
Terry Gross spoke on April 16th at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake City. Her appearance, which included a modest promotion of her book, All I Did Was Ask, was principally to support local NPR affiliate KUER. Gross talked for approximately an hour on her unique approach to the interviewer’s craft. In addition to best and worst celebrity encounters, she also discussed how she arrived at her signature style of sublime self-effacement. Gross’s presentation was remarkable for its candor. Rather than attempting to preserve the authority –quiet, but nevertheless, considerable – she has accrued over the years, Gross seemed wonderfully willing to reveal the striking discrepancy between her deep and vaguely sultry radio voice, and her diminutive physical presence.
Petite of build and standing scarcely five feet high, Gross is anything but a formidable figure. It seems impossible that the voice four million listeners have come to covet (the very opposite of what squawks on your own answering machine – Hello, this is _____.) could issue from this child-sized body. Gross stood not at ease but rather at attention, arms jutting straight down, little fists bunched at either side. Yet the magic was still there, the voice oddly just as eerily seductive. No longer required to restrict her vocabulary, Gross was free to use all the taboo terms we don’t hear on the radio and don’t expect to hear from her. Having earnestly exclaimed, Gosh!, Gross promptly forayed into the subject of cocks and balls (interview with a sex-addicted academic), or pink (interview with Larry Flynt). Gross did not mean to shock, that being the province of other jocks. But questions, correctly put, had freed various guests to speak of anatomy. And Gross, as game for goose as gander, quoted accurately, using not clinical terms and phrases so much as the current ones, and handled everything as would your doctor.
In her interviews as well as her presentation at the Capitol Theater, Gross never seemed impressed by either her guest or herself. All she seemed to ask was that everyone be open and adult. But this simple expectation has proved too much for certain of her guests, and it has lead to her most notorious interviews. Gross played excerpts from these. Most notable was her radio encounter with Gene Simmons. Gross had asked if age had given this senior member of the house of rock any occasion to reflect back on his youth as an orthodox Jew and his later outrageous stage persona. Citizen Kiss gave abundant evidence to the contrary. Clearly, he was nothing without his heels. Gross never set up Simmons to spout absurdly sexist insults which approached but never arrived at self-parody. All she did, in fact, was offer the raging bull a chance to regain if not his title then at least his dignity. But Simmons was no Socrates. This was not a genius who refused to sell out or capitulate to his critics. It was an erstwhile wizard continuing to play great-and-powerful long after the hour of his exposure, an actor whose primary stage was now his own home.
Similar refusals to get real, as Gross herself had with us, elicited howls of healthy laughter from the audience. These specimens of wounded masculinity included talk show host Bill O’Reilley and conservative pundit Robert Sowell. Both clunked down the phone within minutes of finding themselves ruthlessly probed and attacked by the little woman who stood stock-still on the stage of the Capitol Theater. But as Gross made quite clear in her presentation, she consistently asks only open-ended questions. Her prerogative to probe into the private lives of public figures she exercises exclusively with persons in positions of political power and influence. More evasive than fugitive when interviewed was vice-First Lady Lynn Cheney, who repeatedly refused to speak on how Republican moral legislation might adversely affect her own openly lesbian daughter. Despite reactions, Gross’s questions to these individuals struck me as neither aggressive nor intrusive. If anything, Gross had asked what seemed most obvious.
An issue of great concern for Gross was each person’s need to maintain contact with some source of vitality, the original impetus behind his or her life’s work. Gross referred to former guests of hers who had found their callings increasingly dragging them away from whatever first issued the call of duty. She spoke of how the extensive reading which allows her to speak intimately with strangers often estranges her from her family and closest friends. To be Terry Gross, we were told, is an all-consuming endeavor. She prepares for interviews late into each night. Even on the air, Gross finds herself obsessively editing interviews when she should be listening. One can only imagine the quality of her sleep.
Gross attributes her skills as an interviewer to her education. She received a degree in English literature from SUNY Buffalo. Books, she said, taught her empathy for all kinds of characters. Further, years of experience with unreliable narrators taught her to question any version of reality presented as simple fact. Gross spoke of her failure, early after graduation, as a high school teacher. Small and self-conscious as she was, students simply couldn’t take her seriously. She told hilarious anecdotes of her ineptitude at maintaining classroom discipline. Gross spoke of her failure in the public school system as a failure to teach altogether. However, I would beg to differ. For as soon as the question-and-answer portion of the evening began, I couldn’t help but find myself impressed by the quality of inquiries coming from the audience. It was one of those rare sessions in which the Q & A was every bit as good as the mainstay. Clearly, Terry Gross had succeeded as a teacher, though not in the classroom so much as on the radio. Over the years, Gross has taught millions of casual listeners how to be more attentive and perceptive, to listen as if it were their business. And she has taught them how to ask.
Terry Gross received the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She is the host of Fresh Air, a radio talk show produced by WHYY in Philadelphia and broadcast nationally on National Public Radio. Her book All I Did Was Ask was published by Hyperion in 2004.