Cover Story

Spoken Words

Celebrated NPR host Terry Gross talks about discovering radio at UB and why she can’t imagine a better job than hosting “Fresh Air”

Terry Gross in the WHYY-FM studios in Philadelphia.

Story by Lauren Newkirk Maynard | Photographs by Martin Scott Powell

In 1972, National Public Radio’s founding matriarch, Susan Stamberg, became the first woman to host a national nightly news program, called “All Things Considered.” That same year, a senior English major at UB named Terry Gross (EdM ’75, BA ’72)—who would go on to helm NPR’s popular “Fresh Air” talk show for 40+ years—was figuring out what to do with her life.

Gross, a Brooklyn native, discovered radio during her sophomore year, when her roommate suggested she check out UB’s WBFO campus radio station—one of NPR’s charter member affiliates. Hooked by the medium, she went on to volunteer at the station throughout her undergraduate years. After graduating, she endured a painful, six-week stint as a public school teacher and took on several stifling temp jobs before she realized what was wrong: She missed the radio station.

A master’s degree in communication, she reasoned, would get her back on campus and into the station. And it did. While enrolled at UB, she worked at WBFO, helping to produce and host several arts, women’s and public affairs programs, including “This Is Radio,” a live, three-hour daily magazine program, and a feminist-leaning show called “Woman Power.”

In 1975, just a few months after earning her master’s, she was recruited by former WBFO program director David Karpoff (BA ’72) to join the staff of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. She immediately began producing and hosting a daily, local interview and music program called “Fresh Air.” Within a decade, her talent for engaging, thoughtful interviewing had turned the show into a nationally distributed weekly program called “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.”

Now 66, Gross has interviewed around 13,000 of the world’s most interesting household names and up-and-comers, including politicians, authors, inventors, musicians and artists, and the show, which she continues to host and produce four times a week, is broadcast on more than 600 stations nationwide. In 1994, “Fresh Air” won a prestigious Peabody Award. For her part, Gross has received a UB Distinguished Alumni Award, a SUNY honorary doctorate and numerous national broadcasting honors, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Edward R. Murrow Award.

In September 2016, one year after celebrating four decades on air, Gross received a National Humanities Medal for what President Barack Obama called “her artful probing of the human experience.” He continued: “Her patient, persistent questioning … has pushed public figures to reveal personal motivations behind extraordinary lives—revealing simple truths that affirm our common humanity.”

Terry Gross took a passion discovered in college and turned it into a wildly successful career—arguably the very definition of a life well-lived. And despite reports to the contrary, she asserts she is far from retirement. “I want to do this for as long as I can,” she says in her signature velvet-lined voice. Her loyal listeners certainly hope so.

Terry Gross (at desktop computer) in the WHYY-FM studios.

Were you especially curious as a child—drawn to books, TV, radio, movies?
I don’t know that I was any more curious than anyone else. You couldn’t have seen my career coming … you wouldn’t have said, “There is somebody who loves to ask questions, she will grow up to be an interviewer.” I actually wanted to be a writer when I was young.

Do you write much now?
Yes, but it’s basic writing. I write the intros and promos for the show, and I write and edit bulletins.

Do you do any personal or creative writing, like journaling? I try not to (laughs). To me, writing is really hard. I kind of dread it.

When you were at UB, a lot of women majored in education. Did you feel an expectation to teach?
That’s a great question. I was an English major and no longer thought that I could be a writer; I decided I couldn’t write in a way that would meet my standards as a reader. I didn’t have stories to tell. So I abandoned that, and then all I could think to do was teach. It was one of the big women’s professions, and this was just before women were really making inroads into all these other fields. So that’s what I did.

What was your teaching experience like? It seems you didn’t last very long in the classroom.
Right after Election Day in 1972, I was placed in Buffalo’s toughest inner city junior high, and before Christmas I was fired. It was a blessing; I hated it, I was totally wrong for that job, wrong for those students. I’d look out my window and see people walking down the street and think, “I wish I was that person today.”

Did you know?

Gross had a guest voice-acting role in a 2008 episode of the hit animated television series “The Simpsons.”

Talk a little bit about your time at UB.
I was an undergraduate from’68 to ’72, and UB was an amazing place to be at that time. There was the women’s movement, the anti-war movement … The campus was almost like an arts festival, with poetry readings, rock and jazz concerts, avant-garde classical music concerts, repertory cinema and experimental video screenings. And then lounges where people would sit around and talk and argue and have political meetings. The Student Union was this really lively, wonderful place. I got an extraordinary education in the arts and in culture and in politics, but it was largely outside the classroom.

What professors or classes made an impact?
As a graduate student, I took a documentary cinema course—it was watching movies—with James Blue. That was great. The media studies department was really excellent.

But in terms of classes and activities, the most important thing that happened to me was WBFO. It was in the Student Union when I was there, on the same floor as The Spectrum. That changed my life more than anything.

How so?
When I started in public radio, it was very new, and there wasn’t much in the way of national programming. We were in the process of inventing this new thing. It was very exciting because NPR was born at a time when there was so much happening, politically and culturally.

Do you see any similarities between the early days of public radio and what’s happening now in terms of the explosion of digital media?
Most radio stations at that time, I believe, were on college campuses, so you had students, grad students and former students shaping the sound. These were the people who went on to work at NPR later on. We were redefining how stories are told—what kind of music belongs on the radio, who belongs on it. It was young people talking in their real voices, women as well as men. At the time, radio had defined voices and styles and they were all male. In my opinion, public radio was where people actually got to sound like themselves.

I feel that way now about podcasts. That because of podcasting, the door has been opened to people who ordinarily would have no opportunity to do this. The whole idea of audio has been rejuvenated in a really exciting way. And it’s become very niche, but there’s so much great stuff, I can’t even keep up.

I imagine this is in part how radio has managed to remain relevant in today’s media landscape.
With podcasting, you can make every minute count. You’re in the bathroom brushing your teeth, and if you have an iPod with apps on it or a phone with a Bluetooth speaker, you can be listening, even over the noise of your electric toothbrush. I take it where I am, and there’s never a dull moment.

When did you realize you wanted to do radio as a career?
I had graduated from UB and was working as a typist at Buff State, after I tried my hand at teaching and before I went back to graduate school. I was alone in an office with my Selectric typewriter and my radio. I was listening to WBFO, and it kept me going. I heard great music, I heard great interviews. It was exciting, it was stimulating—it felt like it was my people.

The WBFO “Woman Power” staff (left to right): Judy Treible, Judy Chunco (BA ’72), Terry Gross and Mona Schroeder (MS ’73, BA ’72). Photo: Joe Hryvniak

What were your roles at the station while you were a student?
I helped host two programs, “Woman Power” and “This is Radio.” “Woman Power” was run by a small group of women, and we’d alternate between who engineered, who was on mic and who was editing and producing. So we got to learn everything, from each other. And from other people who would come in and say, “That mix you did was terrible.”

Was it competitive?
There was a lot of peer pressure to be better, which was a good thing. It hurt at the time, because people were very critical. If you were perceived as not holding your own, people would tell you, and you’d better improve.

But we all really prided ourselves on having a great, eclectic station. Classical to the blues to the history of rock ’n’ roll to jazz to avant-garde music. There was a poetry show, the women’s show, the lesbian show, the gay men’s show, the news show. It was an extraordinarily rich cultural environment, and everybody wanted to make sure that the standards were high.

Could you share any stories about your first experiences on air?
(Laughs) Sure. For “Woman Power,” I wanted to do a show on the origins of women’s undergarments, to find out who created the bra, the girdle and all that, but it hadn’t occurred to me to find somebody who was an expert in the field. I figured, well, I’ll write a paper and read it; that’s what I knew how to do. So I took out a whole lot of books, and basically wrote a paper and read it on the air. Now, this was terrible radio. It did not augur well for my future. My second show was on the history of early women blues singers. And that was fun, because I could play a lot of records and say a few words about them. I was learning as I was researching.

Did you know?

In 2015, “Fresh Air” was the number one downloaded podcast on iTunes.

How have you developed your interviewing style? Have you nailed down the process, or is it still evolving?
There’s no such thing as nailing it down, because every person is different, every conversation is different. I still have to listen as intently as I did when I started doing interviews. I have to make all the same decisions. It’s like when you’re cooking dinner, you still have to buy the vegetables and chop them. Maybe you know the recipe because you’ve done it before, but you still have to make it.

That said, early on, I operated out of curiosity. Now I have more accumulated knowledge, I’m older. What doesn’t change is that when you’re not covering a beat, when you’re switching subjects every day, you’re inputting all this stuff into short-term memory, and it’s hard to retain it. But at this point in my life I’ve seen a lot more movies, read a lot more books and witnessed a lot more politics and so on, and I can draw on that in my questions as well as my research.

How do you choose whom to interview?
We don’t have a wish list. We did when we first went national, but now I think we’ve had everybody on that list. Some of them didn’t work out very well.

Why not?
Not everybody who does great art is a great speaker. We do try to choose people who speak well, who have a certain type of voice, of tone, that works well for radio.

Do you have a personal wish list?
I don’t know. I mean, the beauty of this work is that you’re always finding out about new people. You don’t realize you want to talk to them until you see this new role they’re in and realize, “Wow, they’ve really come into their own, and they’re great now.”

I guess if I had to choose, I’d love to talk to President Obama. At the National Humanities Medal ceremony, I asked him and he said yes, he’d like to come on the show after he left office. So if you’re reading this, President Obama, I’ll go down to Washington, I’ll come to you. I’d like to make that happen.

.........................
Lauren Newkirk Maynard is a section editor for At Buffalo.