What Makes Terry Gross So Darned Good?

Terry Gross. Photo from WHYY, Philadelphia.

Terry Gross. Photo from WHYY, Philadelphia.

No doubt you’re familiar with the NPR podcast series, Fresh Air.  Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, has been on the radio with the show since 1975. From rock stars to politicians, artists to economists, the roster of the Fresh-Air-interviewed is long and impressive.

I’ve been a loyal fan for years. While I listen to other podcasts too, Fresh Air is always tops on my list. That’s mostly because the show is just so darned good. In fact, I would say that Terry Gross’s skills as an interviewer have informed my expectations of all the other podcasts and interview-style shows I listen to. When I check out a new podcast, I ask myself, does it measure up to Terry Gross and Fresh Air?

So what makes TG so good at her job?  After giving this consideration, I’ve come up with six features of her work that continue to impress me. Six aspirations for producers of interview-style podcasts or, for that matter, anyone who interviews people for a living, to consider.


Terry Gross…

  1. …does her homework.  She is always well prepared. She’s read the book, seen the movie, researched the interviewee’s background. That homework pays off in her well-informed, carefully-worded questions that take the interview efficiently to the heart of the matter.
  2. …doesn’t just ask questions, she comments and builds on answers. Listen to this segment from her interview with Lin Manuel Miranda where her insight into an earlier answer of his (about compartmentalizing his behavior between home and school as a child) leads him in a new direction to talk about the way he knit together his culture through the theater.  [Audio]
  3. …is respectful. Even when it’s clear she doesn’t personally agree with the interviewee, she maintains her professionalism. For example, in this clip from her December 7th interview with Megyn Kelly, of Fox News, Kelly explains the “reset” she was able to achieve with Donald Trump after months of abusive and terrifying death threats, tweets, and phone calls from Trump supporters. TG remains respectful and even-handed throughout this interview, even though she and Megyn Kelly hold strongly different opinions on journalism and politics. Note too the way that TG pushes for a more fulsome explanation of this “reset”, quietly insisting on the fact that it doesn’t take away the horrible things that were said. [Audio]
  4. …never makes it about her.  All too often we hear interviewers who drift into telling their own story. They might, generously, be attempting to make the show more conversational, but an interview is not a conversation. It’s an interview. Stick to your candidate’s story.
  5. …pushes past superficial.  If her interviewee provides a simplistic answer, Terry Gross doesn’t let it stand there. She (politely) asks a further question or asks for an example. Often, that next question is precisely the one I’d like to ask. It’s her way of extending the interviewee’s reach, leading them to a richer explanation. Listen to this segment of her interview with Kenneth Lonergan, the director of the Oscar-winning film Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan talks about the fact that, as a playwright, you have to get used to the fact that your audience might not always find your words as funny as you think they are. What does he mean by that?  [Audio]
  6. ..builds anticipation. Often in her interviews TG will lay the ground work for something you’d like to know or hear – and then she serves it up to you. One of my favorite examples of this came in her recent interview with Michael Pollan, about his new book, How to Change Your Mind, an investigation into the use of LSD and psilocybin to treat mental health conditions. In the interview, Pollan recounts his own, first-person experience with hallucinogenic compounds (a ‘reluctant psychonaut’, as he puts it), making particular note of a Bach unaccompanied cello suite (No.2 in D minor) playing during his trip and what an impact it had. As you listen to the interview unfold, you – of course – want to hear that cello suite. Needless to say, she delivers. And just so you can hear it too, here is Yo Yo Ma, playing the Bach Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor.


Filed under Podcasting

6 responses to “What Makes Terry Gross So Darned Good?

  1. Way cool post Robin!


  2. Excellent analysis. And I love the links! Terry is the master.

  3. While she does not make it about her and limits her personal opinions, she does not shy away from expressing her critique or criticism (without it being a review show, although her sidekicks do review).

  4. rheyden

    She is, indeed!

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