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Turning the Tables on Terry Gross

November 23, 2015

Drexel's Jordan McClain interviewed legendary "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross.
Drexel's Jordan McClain interviewed legendary "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross.

Terry Gross is currently celebrating 40 years as the award-winning host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” which boasts nearly 5 million listeners each week across more than 450 NPR stations. The show also has a massively popular podcast.

Gross is widely considered one of the country’s leading and most important interviewers, with The New York Times recently saying of her, “She’s deft on news and subtle on history, sixth-sensey in probing personal biography and expert at examining the intricacies of artistic process.”

But earlier this month, the legendary interviewer became the interviewee.

Jordan McClain, PhD, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Communication in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, had the honor of leading a question-and-answer session with Gross at the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association’s (MAPACA) 26th Annual Conference, which was held in Philadelphia from Nov. 5-7. McClain is vice president for communications for MAPACA, an academic organization dedicated to critical analysis of various aspects of popular and American culture.

DrexelNow spoke with McClain about the experience and Gross’ responses.

DN: So many people dream of being interviewed by Terry Gross, but probably not many imagine interviewing her. How did you prepare for this?

JM: I did a lot of research—reading, re-listening to old episodes. I came up with a long list of questions I thought the audience would want to hear answers to, but also a lot of questions I was just sincerely curious about. Then during the Q&A, I tried to focus on having a real conversation with the person next to me. 

DN: Gross regularly interviews politicians, writers, directors, journalists, musicians and more. Did you ask what the show is trying to accomplish with such a wide range of interviewees?

JM: Yes, Terry said that the show operates on several levels. On one level, she wants it to keep people company while they’re trapped in the car or brushing their teeth. But on another level, she tries to introduce listeners to new books, movies, TV shows, ideas and people. She said that, by sharing people’s stories, she likes to show what other people’s lives are like and what some of the “larger issues are that we all face and might not realize we have in common.”

McClain presented Gross with the 2015 Divine Impact Award.

DN: Gross has conducted more than 13,000 interviews over 40 years. How does she find so many interesting people to talk to and who does she have in mind for the future?

JM: We discussed the process of how guests are selected, what makes a good interview and how she’s had to scrap interviews because they just “didn’t work.” She told us that, while her original “wish list” included names like John Updike, Lou Reed, Stephen Sondheim, Dennis Hopper and Robert DeNiro – all of whom she has now interviewed – the nature of the list has changed. Terry said she’s learned that the big names aren’t necessarily the most interesting interviewees, and that now it’s more about people who are “coming into their own.” She mentioned Carrie Brownstein and Stephen Colbert as recent examples of guests she’s had on at the “right moment.”

DN: The show is produced right here in Philadelphia – Gross even has an honorary degree from Drexel – did you talk about Philly?

JM: Yes, it was fun talking about Philly, which she had great praise for. As a fan of this city, I was curious if she was ever tempted or pressured to move the successful show to New York of LA, for instance. She said she’s enjoyed intentionally settling and staying here. She definitely got some applause when she concluded that she’d rather live in Philly than in New York or Washington.

DN: Listeners can learn so much by listening to the wide range of topics covered on “Fresh Air.” How is Gross so knowledgeable on so many different subjects?

JM: The show covers everything from how the teen brain works and what a good diet is to government policy or actors’ careers. I asked her how she is able to jump from one subject to another and sound like an expert on all of them. She said that her brain feels very messy because of all the preparation she has to do in such a short amount of time. She also told us that, while she doesn’t like cramming, she does feel lucky that she really enjoys learning new things and talking to people about them.

DN: The conference was dedicated to popular and American culture. What did you discuss on this topic?

JM:  We talked about how the world captured by “Fresh Air” today compares to the “Fresh Air” of the past.  If you think about it, the show’s 40 years are a terrific chronicle of the evolution of American culture – everything from the way we think about sex and gender to the way journalists do their jobs.

We also talked about how she and “Fresh Air” have become popular culture.  She has been name-dropped on “Saturday Night Live,” “Girls” and “How I Met Your Mother,” and her voice has been featured on “The Simpson’s.”  The audience loved her story about brushing her teeth on a Saturday night and her husband saying, “they just mentioned you on SNL!”

Terry said that when they started the show, there wasn’t the proliferation of media that there is today, which has made the job of filtering information even more of a challenge.

Gross was a guest of honor at the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association’s (MAPACA) 26th Annual Conference.

DN: Did you talk about what’s ahead for “Fresh Air”?

JM: Terry said that “Fresh Air” is a very reactive show, so its future really depends on what’s happening in our culture and in our world.

DN: Why was Gross given the conference’s annual Divine Impact Award?

JM: The award recipient is usually someone with a connection to the city where the conference happens. Terry Gross seemed like the perfect choice, since the conference was in Philly this year.  Last year, we gave the award to director John Waters in Baltimore.

She is one-of-a-kind interviewer, plus “Fresh Air” has found success as a radio show and a podcast. I think the show does a very good job of putting significant people and topics under the microscope for an extended period of time, unlike many other interview platforms, like TV talk shows where a celebrity is interviewed for five minutes and all the talking points are already scripted. Terry Gross and “Fresh Air” naturally and deeply explore important, wide-ranging topics in an entertaining way.