Terry Gross

Terry Gross by Greg Williams

Terry Gross (b. 1951) is the host and co-executive producer of ‘Fresh Air,’ an interview format radio show produced by ‘WHYY-FM,’ the flagship National Public Radio (NPR) station in Philadelphia. The show is broadcast nationally by NPR. Gross has won praise over the years for her low-key and friendly yet often probing interview style and for the diversity of her guests. She has a reputation for researching her guests’ work largely the night before an interview, often asking them unexpected questions about their early careers.

Gross grew up in a Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in communications from SUNY, Buffalo. She began a teaching career, but said that she was ‘totally unequipped’ for the job, and was fired after only six weeks. Gross began her radio career in 1973 at ‘WBFO,’ a public radio station in Buffalo, where she had been volunteering. In 1975, she moved to WHYY-FM in Philadelphia to host and produce ‘Fresh Air,’ which was a local interview program at the time. In 1985, the show went national, being distributed weekly by NPR. It became a daily program two years later.

‘The San Francisco Chronicle’ wrote that Gross’ interviews are ‘a remarkable blend of empathy, warmth, genuine curiosity, and sharp intelligence.’ Gross prides herself on preparation; prior to interviewing guests, she reads their books, watches their movies, and/or listens to their CDs. ‘The Boston Phoenix’ opined that ‘Terry Gross … is almost certainly the best cultural interviewer in America, and one of the best all-around interviewers, period. Her smart, thoughtful questioning pushes her guests in unlikely directions. Her interviews are revelatory in a way other people’s seldom are.’

Gross has drawn public attention following some occasions when interviews have taken a confrontational turn. Her 2002 interview with Kiss singer and bassist Gene Simmons began with Gross mispronouncing Simmons’ original Hebrew last name. Simmons dismissively replied to her that she mispronounced it because she had a ‘Gentile mouth’; Gross responded that she is Jewish. She went on to question Simmons’ views on the importance of money. In the interview, Gross begins a question, ‘So having sex with you…,’ to which Simmons interjects, ‘You’re going to have to stand in line.’ Gross questioned Simmons about his many liaisons. Later Simmons said, ‘If you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going to have to welcome me with open legs,’ to which Gross replied, ‘That’s a really obnoxious thing to say.’ Unlike most ‘Fresh Air’ guests, Simmons refused to grant permission for the interview to be made available online on the NPR website. The interview appears in Gross’ book ‘All I Did Was Ask,’ and unauthorized transcripts and audio of the complete original interview exist.

In 2003, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly walked out of an interview with Terry because of what he considered biased questions, creating a media controversy fed by an ongoing presidential campaign. Toward the end of the interview, O’Reilly asked Gross if she had been as tough on Al Franken, who had appeared on the program two weeks earlier. Gross responded, ‘No, I wasn’t … we had a different interview.’ Gross was later criticized by then NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin for ‘an interview that was, in the end, unfair to O’Reilly’ and that ‘it felt as though Terry Gross was indeed ‘carrying Al Franken’s water.” Dvorkin described Gross’ interviewing tactic of reading a quote critical of O’Reilly after he had walked out of the room as ‘unethical and unfair.’ Gross was later supported by an NPR colleague, Mike Pesca, who contended that O’Reilly did have the opportunity to respond to a criticism that Gross read to O’Reilly levelled by ‘People’ magazine, but that he defaulted by prematurely abandoning the interview. A year later, Gross and O’Reilly met again on O’Reilly’s television show in which Gross assured O’Reilly ‘that no matter what you ask me, I’m staying for the entire interview.’

In 2005, Gross interviewed Lynne Cheney, conservative author and the wife of then–US Vice President Dick Cheney. The initial focus of the interview was on Cheney’s latest history book, but Gross moved on to questions about Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary and her opinion of the Bush administration’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Cheney declined to comment on her daughter’s sexuality, but repeatedly stated her opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was being endorsed by President George W. Bush. She declined to discuss the matter further. Later, when Gross brought the interview back to issues of gay rights, Cheney again refused to comment. According to producers, she had been warned that Gross would be asking about politics and current events.

In 2014, Gross interviewed Hillary Clinton, in which the former Secretary of State and potential 2016 Presidential candidate was questioned about her shifting support for same-sex marriage and whether her changing opinion was a political calculation. When Clinton answered that her view on the issue had ‘evolved,’ Gross pressed for a more detailed answer. This led to a tense exchange in which Gross explained that her persistent questions were an attempt to ‘clarify’ Clinton’s reasoning for the shift in her viewpoint, and Clinton responded ‘No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong.’

Gross was married early on in her life, but was in divorce proceedings by the time she started her radio career in 1973. She is currently married to Francis Davis, jazz critic of ‘The Village Voice.’ The couple reside in Philadelphia. They have no children, and in an interview with B. D. Wong, Gross said this is a deliberate choice on their part. Gross wrote in the introduction to ‘All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists’ that she is sometimes asked whether she is a lesbian, due to short hair and the number of gay interviewees on ‘Fresh Air.’ In her interview with Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, she mentioned that she had lived in a commune.

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