Terry Gross' venerable 'Air' of success Radio: Even after interviewing thousands, the NPR host is unquestionably modest about her image and career.

March 26, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- One thing has led to another and Terry Gross, a petite woman with close-cropped red hair and tortoise-shell glasses finds herself sitting on the wrong side of the interview table in the "Fresh Air" studio at radio station WHYY-FM.

"Is that chair comfortable for you?" she asks a reporter who has perched where she normally sits. "I have it adjusted for a really short, small person."

The seat is OK. But Gross has a couple of follow-up questions anyway.

"Are you sure? 'Cause you can tilt it really easily. You can tilt it going backward more. I've got it, like, tilted going forward. I think on the right-hand side there's two levers; one's the height, one's the tilt."

Then she seems to remember she's the one being interviewed and settles back in her chair.

Gross is the host of National Public Radio's award-winning "Fresh Air with Terry Gross," a syndicated weekday newsmagazine produced by WHYY-FM and heard by 2 million listeners a week. Legions of fans regard her as one of the best interviewers in the country, right up there with icons like Ted Koppel and Bill Moyers.

The one-hour show features Gross doing in-depth interviews with prominent cultural and entertainment figures, as well as distinguished experts on current affairs and news.

Being an icon, though, means you've got to act like one occasionally. So today Gross is letting herself be interviewed instead of being the one doing the interviewing.

"I don't feel like an icon," she insists. "I feel like I'm somebody who goes home every night and reads a lot for the next interview."

She isn't kidding, or being modest. Since the weekday version of "Fresh Air" went national a decade ago, Gross has conducted almost 4,000 interviews.

In the process, she has become so well-known as a voice that people will actually pay to see her in the flesh. She will be the main attraction tonight at Center Stage's 7 p.m. benefit for local NPR affiliate WJHU-FM.

Gross says she always thought of herself as an activist. But her participation in the anti-war and feminist movements of the 1970s, when she was an undergraduate in college, led her in unexpected directions.

"I got my B.A. [from the State University of New York at Buffalo] from 1968-1972. It was a time when all the action was outside the classroom. So I got quite an education, but it wasn't in the classroom, and I never figured out what my career was going to be."

Initially, she tried the traditional route: she got married and became a schoolteacher. Her career as an eighth-grade English teacher in a tough, inner-city school in Buffalo was short-lived, however.

"I think after the kids overturned the bookcase when the supervisor from downtown came to observe the class, the principal called me in and said, 'This isn't working out.' "

For a while she worked as a temporary secretary. Then a friend told her about an opening on a women's show at WFBO, the campus radio station in Buffalo.

"They were doing a show on women and divorce and asked me to come up with a list of questions to ask a divorce lawyer."

And by then, she had firsthand experience of her own.

"I happened to be going through [a divorce] at the time, so I knew all the questions. So they asked me to come work with them." (Gross only recently remarried, to her partner of the last 18 years. "We finally decided to make it legit," she says.)

Gross worked at WFBO a few years before coming to Philadelphia in 1975 to be host of "Fresh Air." Her trademark is a seemingly uncanny ability to connect with her guests.

Once, for example, she interviewed world traveling war surgeon Chris Giannou about how he performed triage under fire:

CG: Triage is triage, and you have your rules. The first are those who need surgery. And then you have patients who need surgery but can wait. You have mildly injured patients, and those who would require so much time and effort that you would risk the lives of some of the others. It's one of the most difficult decisions to make in medical practice.

TG: Did anybody ever hold a gun to you and say, "Treat my son, or I'll kill you?"

CG: That's happened.

TG: What did you say?

CG: It's all part of triage. At that point, that's your No. 1 category! It would be stupid to negotiate under those circumstances. I have performed surgery with the barrel of a gun stuck between my ribs.

"Our ideal isn't just to have people on the air talking," Gross says. "It's to have people on the air saying something meaningful because it gives you a new way of thinking about something. We want them to say something worth hearing."

Gross says she was lucky because her career on the air coincided with the formative years of public radio.

"I don't think I would have had a life on radio if it hadn't been for public radio," she says. "First, there were very few women on commercial radio, and those on rock radio tended to be progressive, underground DJs with 'come have sex with me' type voices, and that's certainly not me."

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