The Woman Behind the Microphone  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   July/August 2001

The Woman Behind the Microphone   

Breathing "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     



T HE FRONT OF WHYY'S boxy building in Philadelphia is lined with windows that invite passersby on busy Independence Mall to peer inside and check out the broadcast action. This day workers are busily filling the solarium-like space with banks of tables and telephones for an impending fund drive that will be done in full view of the sidewalk supervisors. But almost no one stops to notice the woman in the radio studio, stationed right where she belongs, right where she was born to be--behind the microphone.
She is petite, almost elfin with her fashionably bobbed hair. At the moment she is also preoccupied, managing simultaneously to record promotions, check tapes and write a bit of last-minute copy. All the while a digital clock overhead marches relentlessly toward the top of the hour.
Then, precisely at the stroke of noon, she gets her cue from an engineer on the other side of a huge plate-glass window. "From WHYY in Philadelphia," she intones, "this is 'Fresh Air.' I'm Terry Gross."
She punches the words "Fresh Air" with a breathy rush that Terry Gross fans everywhere recognize instantly. It means they are about to be treated to another helping of the arts, current events and some of the most interesting people on the world stage.
The name of the program could not be more apt, because "Fresh Air" offers something new every day and is about the crispest, most interesting hour you'll encounter on any broadcast medium. What a concept: No panelists to talk over one another, no one screaming, no one playing "hardball," whatever that is. Instead, genuinely intelligent and witty conversation occurs between two people. Insights and provocative thoughts are served up, often laced with laughter. If you're old enough to remember Jack Paar's show or even Dick Cavett's, you'll know how engaging such programming can be and how rarely it's found today.
I've been listening to "Fresh Air" on and off for years. I guess I became a regular when I was a freelance writer in Indiana and my local station broadcast the program in the evening after dinner, the perfect time for unwinding. Here in Washington it airs midafternoon, and so I tend not to catch it unless I happen to be out in my car heading to or from some appointment. But whenever I do, I instantly feel comfortable and settle back to eavesdrop on Terry Gross and whoever happens to be keeping her company that day, be it Lauren Bacall or Salman Rushdie or Martin Scorsese.
That's why it was such a treat for me to meet Gross in person not long ago and talk about her life and work, a conversation that begins on page 56.
"Fresh Air" is a blend of music, books, films, television, politics, the Internet and whatever else you care to lump into the rubric of "culture." It talks about the things real people tend to talk about--non-Beltway people, that is--albeit with a more discerning sensibility.
Listeners might not think about "Fresh Air" as journalism, but it certainly is--journalism with a difference. Part of the difference is that Gross provides wit and context to the world, elements notably missing from most conventional journalistic endeavors. She is a one-woman style section. She also is a world-class interviewer--not pretentious, not self-absorbed, not impertinent. Just good.
One reason why is because she invariably asks the kinds of questions we would ask if we had the chance, much less the nerve. I remember snatches of all kinds of interviews. One afternoon her guest was Ray Davies, head of the seminal rock band the Kinks. At one point she asked about the band's name, something I'd always wondered about myself. After a convoluted explanation as to its derivation, Davies finally conceded with a laugh that he always considered the name "daft." Indeed, musicians and music constitute the soul of "Fresh Air," because they're so close to the host's heart. Gross, 50, who is married to music critic Francis Davis, is especially fond of jazz.
In fact, the day of my visit, the copy Gross was hurriedly preparing was a brief appreciation of jazz drummer Billy Higgins, who had played with Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and an entire roster of jazz greats. He had died the day before. Unsurprisingly, Gross had devoted an earlier show to Higgins and played a brief passage from it before winding things up.
"We'll close today's show with Billy Higgins," she told her listeners, "as featured on the classic 1963 Lee Morgan recording 'The Sidewinder.' "
The music came up. In the studio, the woman behind the microphone nodded ever so slightly to the beat, already thinking about tomorrow's show.

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