Photos by Charles Shan Cerrone.
At this year’s installment of its annual Distinguished Lecture Series, Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences hosted Terry Gross — the voice behind one of radio’s most popular programs, “Fresh Air” — to discuss her unique interview style, her insights, and finding her voice through her illustrious career.
A sold-out audience comprised of Drexel students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the community, packed into the University’s Mandell Theater on April 10 for Gross’ talk, titled “Off Air With Fresh Air.
Maria T. Schultheis, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, started out the evening by welcoming the audience and establishing the overarching goals of the series.
“This series was created to celebrate intellectual curiosity and the diverse voices that cut across both genres and disciplines, and I can’t think of a more fitting example than our speaker tonight,” Schultheis said.
She then welcomed Jennifer Yusin, PhD, an associate professor of English and assistant head of the Department of English and Philosophy, to introduce Gross. Yusin touched on both “Fresh Air” and Gross’ many accolades, including the show being broadcast on more than 624 National Public Radio (NPR) stations across the country and the winner of a Peabody Award, and Gross being a past recipient of an American Women in Radio and Television award, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting award and an Authors Guild award, among many others.
“It is indeed a cultural archive in its own right,” Yusin said of the program, “a remarkable source of knowledge for exploring how individuals process, challenge, represent and shape the dynamic interactions that make up our contemporary moments and lives.”
Yusin went on to explain how Gross’ “now famously intimate style of interview” accomplishes this on “Fresh Air.” And though Gross’ interview techniques were the main topic of her lecture, she put the audience at ease about one question they might have as soon as she took the stage.
“You might be wondering, ‘So, what’s she going to do tonight? Ask herself questions?’” Gross said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “No, but I am going to talk about some of my technique as an interviewer, and I’m going to play some examples of things that could go terribly wrong and lead to unintended consequences.”
But first, Gross set the scene. She described how, in her studio about 30 blocks away from the Mandell Theater (in the WHYY headquarters, located on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall) she interviews most of her guests remotely — asking them probing and personal questions without looking them in the eye. To help put her guests at ease, she relays some of the guidelines she’s set for herself: including that if she asks anything too personal, they can say so, and she will move on to something else.
“You might be thinking, ‘Why are you doing that? Don’t you want them to get really personal?’” she said. “Well I do, but I also don’t want to invade their privacy and I don’t know where that line is because everybody draws it in a different place.”
But sometimes, Gross continued, people do get personal. And there are consequences. She played a clip of her interview with actor George Clooney, who suffered an injury while filming the movie “Syriana,” which left him with painful, debilitating headaches. When discussing how he could live with so much pain before he finally received an accurate diagnosis, he admitted it was sometimes hard to carry on.
“That interview was the basis of an article in the tabloid The New York Post, and the headline on page one was, ‘Clooney Suicide Anguish,’” Gross recounted. “I think that’s an example of what famous people are up against when they reveal something personal about their lives, that it’s going to be misrepresented and blown out of proportion. … So when people are less than forthcoming with me, it’s frustrating to me, but I understand why.
This led Gross to discuss when and why she chooses to push interviewees to be more candid. Specifically, she played a clip from her interview with Hilary Clinton conducted in 2014 — before Clinton announced her run for president — and Gross’ quest to discover why Clinton had suddenly become an ardent supporter of federal marriage equality when she became Secretary of State. Clinton’s evasive answer to Gross’ questions led right-wing groups to pick up the interview as propaganda, and it went viral.
“It’s kind of crazy. This isn’t even in Russia!” Gross said. “This is just business as usual in American politics. … It’s one of the reasons why I’m really glad that I don’t do many political interviews. It’s crazy out there.”
Gross then described the importance of one skill that may be even more integral to her work than her interviewing technique.
“People assume, ‘Oh you’re on the radio. You talk for a living,’” Gross said. “I say, ‘No, I ask questions. Mostly my guests talk. Mostly what I do is listen.’ And listening might sound like the easy part. It’s not. You know, there’s so much going through my mind when I do an interview because I have to be thinking, we edit our interviews, and I’m editing the interview in my mind.”
To illustrate this, Gross played a clip of her interview with political activist Grover Norquist, who founded the Americans for Tax Reform group, which is opposed to all taxes. Because of multiple references to statistics and the dry subject matter, Gross explained how she found herself not listening intently during the interview, and almost missed when Norquist compared estate tax to the Holocaust.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, did he just say that?’ Gross said. “So when I said ‘Did you really make that comparison?’ I meant it. I wasn’t sure. What a shocking thing to say. So that’s why you really have to listen and not let your mind wander.”
But sometimes, listening acutely doesn’t always elicit the true meaning of what her guests are really saying, deep down at the core. Gross described how “Fresh Air” established a relationship with comic Louis C.K., Gross having interviewed him on many occasions before news broke of his many allegations of sexual misconduct. She played a clip from a past interview which, at the time, she interpreted as funny and self-deprecating, but because of how C.K. spoke about sex, took on a whole new meaning to Gross now.
“I felt really bad when I found out what he had done because I felt like I’ve been an enabler,” Gross said. “I felt so bad for the women, and I thought like, ‘Gee, have I misrepresented him over the years?’ Because we had such good times and we loved him so much.”
Once allegations like those against Louis C.K. come out, or even guests involved in other misconduct or lawsuits, “Fresh Air” does not aim to provide them a platform by bringing them on the show, Gross continued.
“We usually just leave that to the reporters,” she said, even though many listeners would consider she herself a journalist.
Gross was upfront and candid about the difficulties of her chosen profession, but also wanted to make it clear that “not all of my interviews end badly or have unintended consequences.
She told of one of the most moving and surprising interviews she ever did with the late Maurice Sendak, the children’s book illustrator behind such staples of the cannon as “Where The Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen.”
Sendak had just released a new book, but his health was declining, and he used the interview as a way to publicly reflect on life and loss. The clip Gross played moved some in the audience to tears.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the things that you’re worried about, the things that are going wrong. I always keep Maurice’s voice in my head to remind me, ‘Live your life,’” said Gross, relaying what Sendak had implored her to do at the end of the interview.
And live her life, Gross has. Before turning the mic over to the audience for a Q&A, Gross discussed her thoughts on being interviewed herself, and played a clip during which comedian Marc Maron got her talking about a once-hidden part of her life — that she had gotten married and divorced in her early 20s, and dropped out of college to hitchhike around the country with her first husband.
Upon returning to college and subsequently graduating with her undergraduate degree in English, Gross took to teaching for a bit — an expected path for a college-educated woman in the early ’70s, she said.
“It didn’t go well,” she remembered. “I was fired in six weeks because I couldn’t even keep the students in the classroom, let alone teach them anything. So there was my first profession down the drain.”
Then Gross said she started wondering how she could get into media, even though there were so few women working in media then, let alone working at all. She went back to school to study communications and started volunteering at an NPR affiliate station on the SUNY Buffalo campus where she went, for a feminist show called “Womanpower.” Playing a clip from the show cut in 1974, she addressed how much different her voice is today, and how her storied career helped her find it and advocate for more women to do the same.
“Women are often criticized for having high voices or having vocal fry, and they are sometimes not taken seriously because of their voices,” she said. “And so, I’m going to share my attitude toward that. I think that’s wrong, I think we have to understand that people’s voices are their voices and that that’s not a sign of intelligence or a lack of intelligence.”
Gross then let the audience utilize their voices and their thoughts, with several members of the audience asking her questions on everything from her process of preparing for an interview to how she would handle an interview with President Trump. As the evening concluded, she thanked the audience for coming, and said what a treat it was to have a conversation with her guests, her listeners, face-to-face.
“It’s just been great to turn the lights up and see your faces and share the evening with you,” she said.