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Q&A: Terry Gross explains why she’s terrified of being a reporter

August 11, 2017

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of Fresh Air. An edited transcript is below.


Jesse Thorn: Do you think of yourself as a journalist?

Terry Gross: Yes, but not a reporter. I used to think that a journalist and reporter were the same thing, and therefore I wasn’t a journalist. But I think of myself as a journalist because I follow what I think are the ethics a journalist would follow. I believe things have to be truthful and accurate. That there’s certain journalistic standards that you have to follow, but it doesn’t mean that I’m a reporter. I’m an interviewer. It’s a different type of journalism.

Jesse: It’s kind of odd. You’re unusual in that this has almost always been what you did. There was no period where you were filing reports for The Washington Post.

Terry: Right. Never.

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Jesse: At any point along the way, did you think that you should be doing something else?

Terry: No, because I felt that being an interviewer just suited me. When I started doing interviews, I was in my early 20s. I was really casting about for something to do, and it felt natural to me. I felt comfortable doing it. I didn’t feel like it was beyond my capacity. I didn’t feel like I had to know a whole lot more than I was capable of knowing. I have a very imperfect memory, and the idea of being a reporter was always really terrifying to me because you have to be able to say something with authority  and know that is the truth as you observed it or as you heard it. I would probably always be second guessing and going like, “Well, I think you said this, pretty sure he said that.” I’d always be thinking, “Yeah, but maybe that’s not what he said, or maybe that’s not what I saw.”

Jesse: I’ve heard you describe yourself as shy. Is that fair?

Terry: I always was shy. I’ve outgrown a lot of that shyness by virtue of the work that I do. I have to be able to talk to anybody about anything. That is under kind of laboratory-controlled conditions. It’s not the real world. But I’ve learned to make my way in the real world, too. I’ve learned that there is a distinction between shy and insecure. I’ve outgrown a lot of the shyness, and so I’d probably define myself more as being still like insecure about a lot of things. Probably more in my personal life than in my professional life.

I have a very imperfect memory, and the idea of being a reporter was always really terrifying to me.

Jesse: If you felt shy and insecure, why do you think you ended up in a career that is so public and performative?

Terry: First of all, you’re invisible on the radio. That’s good if you’re self-conscious. You’ve already eliminated a whole lot of stuff that you otherwise would be worrying about.

Jesse: Are you self-conscious about the way that you look?

Terry: Sure, but not in a crippling, incapacitating kind of way. If I have to go on stage or do something on television, you’ve got to go shopping and find something that looks right, and I’m very short. It’s really hard to find clothes that fit me. So that’s just really a pain in the ass.


Jesse: Why did interviewing feel like the right thing for you?

Terry: Getting back to the shy thing, I’m the person asking the questions. I don’t have to be the great anecdotalist. I don’t have to come up with stories to tell.  There was a period of my life when I entertained being a writer, and I realized stories don’t come to me. I don’t have characters that live in my head who I want to write about. When I found interviewing, I also found the stories, and I didn’t even have to tell them myself. Because it’s all about prompting people to share their expertise, or tell their stories, or just like reflect on their lives, or their faith, or their experiences. That seemed very comfortable and very natural to me. I do have curiosity, and I think I do have empathy, which is something that all readers have. When you’re reading fiction, you become the main character. You are totally seeing things through their eyes. You are in their body. You’re in their head. They are you, and I think it’s a very empathy-building experience.

Jesse: That’s interesting. Did you ever do radio hosting that required you to be the focus?

Terry: Oh my god, no [laughs]. You know those kinds of deejays who could just talk? Like, they’re alone in the studio, and they’re just like talking about what’s on their mind, what the weather is, the record. They’re just talking. I always thought, How the hell do you do that? I can never do that. Even like the talk radio people who just sit there and give their opinions for a really, really long time? I always think, How do you even have that many opinions? Let alone articulate them to no one in particular, with nobody there that you’re talking to who’s responding directly to what you’re saying until you open up the phones. That’s always amazing to me. I don’t know how people do it.


Jesse: Your style on microphone is so warm and genial and considerate to your guest. Almost invariably.

Terry: It’s all an act, Jesse. I’m a cruel and thoughtless person.

Jesse: Hey, I’ve had drinks with your producers after public radio conferences. I know what a monster you are.

Terry: [laughs]

It’s all an act, Jesse. I’m a cruel and thoughtless person.

Jesse: They really like you. They think you’re wonderful. The question I was going to ask is: Is it weird for you to have that skill set and that approach as a general rule when you are walking into an interview with somebody like Gene Simmons, who is famous for being a dick? And you have to be concerned about, “What if it’s adversarial?”

Terry: I think every interview is different. I have different approaches to interviewing depending on who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about. If I’m interviewing somebody who is involved with politics, my goal is probably not the empathy kind of interview. It’s more about, “No, this is what you said, and this is what you did. Those two things don’t match up.” I think you have to approach political interviews with a kind of toughness, and I don’t mean being like rude or crude, but with just a sense of these are the people who are responsible for our country. Sometimes they tell the truth, and sometimes they don’t. It becomes your job to make them accountable if they don’t tell the truth, which is among the reasons I don’t do that kind of interview very much. I don’t feel in a position where I can hold those people accountable. I don’t know enough. I think, on the whole, you need to be a specialist who follows these congressmen, presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members, whatever, on a daily basis, and you didn’t just like study up on it. Because if you just studied up on it, which is the position I would be in, it’s hard to really know where is the truth. Where’s the hyperbole? Where’s the lie? Where’s the hypocrisy? I feel like I would be doing our listeners a disservice if I wasn’t able to deliver on all of that.

When you’re in office and you’re going to be running for election again, your biography becomes part of your campaign story. People who are running for office tend to shape their biography to suit their needs to get votes. So there’s a level of candor that’s hard to achieve in a political interview. That’s my experiences as a listener, viewer, and interviewer. So I don’t expect that kind of candor from somebody while they’re still in politics. After they get out of office is a different story. I’m much more comfortable interviewing political people at that point in their lives because I think they could be honest in a way that they perhaps couldn’t before.



Jesse: In 2017, there are a few secondary hosts or people who do interviews on Fresh Air besides you, but you’re still carrying the bulk of the load. What does that mean in your day-to-day work life? How many interviews are you doing a week?

Terry: I do four interviews a week, typically.

Jesse: So is that like one a day?

Terry: Yeah.

Jesse: One day a week is like your meeting day?

Terry: Yeah. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday nights I’m preparing interviews. Thursday nights the producers all give me materials from the people who they think are the finalists to become guests on the show. So that’s what I do Thursday nights, and then Friday we have a marathon meeting and just kind of talk through who should be on and who should be on when. Scheduling is just like this really complicated chess game. So, it’s great for me to not have to prepare an interview for Friday so that I could do the other stuff I need to do to keep the show going.

Jesse: Are you able to prevent people from bothering you while you’re preparing to do an interview in your office? Or is it not a problem for you?

Terry: No, it’s not. I’d say it’s not a problem in the sense that everybody knows that there’s times I can talk, and there’s times I can’t. I work with my door open so anyone could just walk in, but they know sometimes I’m going to say, “Oh my god, I’m on deadline, can we talk later?” And other times I’m going to say, “Yeah sure, let’s talk.” People always come in and say, “Do you have time to talk now?” And then I give an honest answer about whether I do or not. From my perspective, that works out fine. I don’t know how they feel about it, but I think that works out fine. People usually know what the schedule is so they have some idea of when I’m really under pressure.

Jesse: What do you do personally, and what do your producers do, in preparing for an interview?

Terry: I’m going to give you a before and after here. Until about a month ago, and we’re recording this April 21, 2017, when I was interviewing an author, I would take home the new book as well as perhaps earlier books. I’d go through every page of the new book, reading it very quickly, just trying to pick out what I need to know for the interview. I’d circle every thing on each page that I wanted to remember. Dog-ear the page that I had circled, and then when I was done going through the book that way, then I’d go back to every dog-eared page and type notes on everything that I’d circled. Those notes would serve as my memory bank, so that the next morning when I start to write my questions, I have something to jog my memory of everything I’ve read. That’s important for two reasons. One is I have a very imperfect memory. I always have. But also when you’re reading at the pace that I read, it’s kind of getting jammed into the file drawer. It’s not getting neatly sorted in a way that it would if you had the time to read it very carefully and to reread passages and stuff. When it comes to movies and TV, our producers Ann Marie Baldonado and Lauren Krenzel do the movies and TV. If it’s a movie, they’ll go to a screening first and then come back and say, “This is a movie we should cover, or this is a movie we shouldn’t cover,” and they’ll suggest we should have on this actor or this director. Then I’ll go to a screening of the movie, or they’ll get me a link to that film or a DVD of the film, and then I’ll watch it before the interview. Then chances are I’ve seen some of this person’s previous movies. But one way or another, they’ll also show me selected scenes from previous movies, or from previous episodes. There is so much out there.


Jesse: Are you concerned about the life of the artist that you’re talking to, first and foremost, or the work of the artist that you’re talking to?

Terry: I try to bring those two together. The way I think of my work is to see the art and try to kind of extract what makes this really special and turn that into questions that can lead to interesting responses that will be of interest to people who haven’t seen, or read, or listened to the work. Chances are it’s brand new, and most people haven’t gotten to see it, or read it, or hear it yet. To help me get to who the person is, and to use the person’s life to help us understand the larger things that they’ve crystallized in their works, I see that as a kind of feedback loop. The work leads to the artist, the artist leads back to the work, and you could just keep going deeper and deeper into both of them in what I hope is a fulfilling way, in which you get something about both the work and that artist as a human being.


Jesse: What about Fresh Air do people complain about, and how does it affect you?

Terry: Okay, what do they complain about? There’s some people who complain about the grammar, that either I said something that was ungrammatical, or a guest did. Some people will count the number of “likes” that a guest said. Some people will complain that a statement seemed to be like policing women’s behavior or something. Every person who has a special interest, who wants to be offended by something, can find offense in what somebody said, whether it’s about men or women or sexual orientation or race or religion or mental health. There’s so many reasons to be offended that people can be offended by something I said, or by what a guest said. Though I have to say that doesn’t happen that much. But it does happen. Sometimes I think they’re right, and sometimes I think they’re wrong. We get a lot of really nice responses on social media. I think our social media producer, Molly, tends to try to protect me from some stuff. But I always tell her, “Tell me what I need to know, so that I’m aware of where the real criticisms are that are really important.” I don’t want to be inundated with either positive or negative feedback because I don’t want to feel driven by that. I want to know the mistakes that I made. I want to know if I said something that was callous or insensitive, but I don’t want to know every single person’s gripe because it can be paralyzing. If you’re second guessing everything that you’re about to say because somebody is not going to like it, then you can’t say anything. That might have not sounded right, but I’m a self-conscious person. So social media can really feed into that self-consciousness. So I feel like I have to limit my diet of it.

ICYMI: “I don’t tweet. I don’t care.”


Jesse: How much does the structure come from the live recording, and how much does the structure come from the editing of the tape?

Terry: I’d say a lot of it comes from the live recording. But there are times when the structure I figured out hasn’t worked, and the restructure I’ve tried to do to compensate hasn’t quite worked either. Then the producers just move things around. But I try to deliver a tape that’s more or less in a usable, reasonable narrative form. Another thing with my interviews, I try to leave some time at the end of the interview, before our time runs out, and our time literally runs out because we’re renting studio time in a remote location. I try to leave some time at the end for the producer and associate producer, who are in the control room while I’m recording the interview, to suggest questions to me that I neglected to ask. That’s a really useful thing to do because they’re listening in a different way than I’m listening. I’ve spent all night, and part of the day, just thinking about this person I’m interviewing, and maybe the producer has done that, too. Maybe the associate producer has, maybe they haven’t. They can hear the gaps that I sometimes don’t notice. They just have different brains than I have, and they come up with things that I’d never come up with myself. So it’s very useful to do that.


Jesse: When I hear you talk about your work life, the thing I feel is not that you missed out on parenting. I just wonder if you ever imagine what your life would have been like had it not been so subsumed by this one monstrous project.

Terry: I do wonder, and I have no idea what it would have been like.

Jesse: Do you feel good about the fact that it has been?

Terry: Oh yeah. I feel really lucky. One of my life goals has always been to work less. It’s a goal I failed at time and time again, though the volume is less now. I used to do 10 interviews a week, and now I’m doing four. That’s progress. The producers are doing more research for me now, and I think that’s really progress, too. I’m really proud of that. I wanted to fall in love with work, and I did. What can I say? If you want to do a daily show, it’s a pretty consuming thing. I wouldn’t know how to do a daily show without working really hard and being consumed by it.

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Photo credit: Daniel Burke Photography

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.