The Value of Knowing Who we Are


Terry Gross (host and co-executive producer of Fresh Air) moved from Brooklyn where she grew up and was lucky to find radio in Buffalo after college. She quickly became very passionate about radio. Which was fortunate because she had also discovered in college that she was a much better reader than she was a writer—that she could not have passed muster given her standards as a reader.

Both discoveries led to a brilliant career in radio. It was just two short years from her start in Buffalo to making the transition to a big market. At the time, WHYY was a quiet radio station. Since 1975, she's been host and co-producer of Fresh Air, an interview format radio show produced by WHYY-FM in Philadelphia and distributed throughout the United States by NPR. The program became a daily national in 1987.

She has conducted thousands of interviews over the 40 years working at the job. Gross is intimately familiar with the secret of great interviews, of getting the energy right. Part of it is to create the context for someone to want to reveal themselves, in some cases by asking the question people have been waiting their whole lives to answer.

Says Gross:

“I also often ask my guests about what they consider to be their invisible weaknesses and shortcomings. I do this because these are the characteristics that define us no less than our strengths. What we feel sets us apart from other people is often the thing that shapes us as individuals.

This may be especially true of writers and actors, many of whom first started to develop their observational skills as a result of being sidelined from typical childhood or adolescent activities because of an infirmity or a feeling of not fitting in. Or so I’ve come to believe from talking to so many writers and actors over the years.”

Right here is the value of knowing who we are. It's a prerequisite to handling questions and back and forth dialogue about our work and life.

Building rapport with interviewees is part of the process of what makes the conversation flow. Since all interviews are taped (guests are often remote), Gross has a few basic rules for repeating the beginning of a sentence when there is a better way of saying something, which helps with editing, and letting guests opt out of too personal questions. We all have different settings on what we consider personal, why asking is the better way to go.

The other aspect of knowing who we are regards our ability to self-asses. She says:

“Part of my philosophy of life is that you have to live with a certain amount of delusion. And part of the delusion I live with is that maybe, from experience, I’m getting a little bit better. But then the other part of me, the more overpowering part of me, is the pessimistic part that says, ‘It’s going to be downhill from here.’ I try not to judge myself too much because I’m so self-judgmental that I don’t want to over-judge and get into too much of ‘Am I better than I was yesterday, or not?’”

Although she chose the public radio career over that of the writer's, Gross is the author of All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists, a collection of three dozen interviews with figures as diverse as John Updike, Isabella Rossellini, Conan O'Brien, Samuel L. Jackson, Johnny Cash, and Nicolas Cage.

A few excerpts from people she interviewed:

“Oh, I think I do overshare, and I sometime marvel that I do it. But it's sort of – in a way, it's my way of trying to understand myself. I don't know. I get it out of my head. It creates community when you talk about private things and you can find other people that have the same things. Otherwise, I don't know – I felt very lonely with some of the issues that I had or history that I had. And when I shared about it, I found that others had it, too.”

[Carrie Fisher]

“The supernatural stuff doesn’t get to me anymore. But here’s the movie that scared me the most in the last 12 or 13 years: The movie opens with a woman in late middle-age, sitting at a table and writing a story. And the story goes something like, then the branches creaked in the – and she stops, and she says to her husband: What are those things? I can’t think of them. They’re in the backyard, and they’re very tall, and birds land on the branches. And he says, why, Iris, those are trees. And she says, yes, how silly of me. And she writes the word, and the movie starts. That’s Iris Murdoch, and she’s suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.”

[Stephen King]

“The fact is, we were a bunch of petty solemns. We didn't – we were not demonstrative like the Italians. That's one race that I always admired when I came to New York, the Italians, for their gusto and their lust for life and the way they demonstrated their affections.

Well, we didn't. You were not supposed to show any kind of love. I think it was a kind of weakness. You never saw men embracing each other. You never saw husbands kissing wives.”

[Frank McCourt]


[ref: Longform podcast]

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