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'Fresh Air' Host Terry Gross Awarded National Humanities Medal

NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Fresh Air host and executive producer, Terry Gross. President Obama awarded her with the National Humanities Medal on Thursday. Gross has hosted Fresh Air since 1975 and was selected "for her artful probing of the human experience."

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of this year's recipients of a National Humanities Medal is a member of the extended NPR family. So it is with very unobjective pride that we welcome the host and producer of FRESH AIR, Terry Gross. Terry, welcome to the program.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And congratulations.

GROSS: And thank you for that.

SIEGEL: I should say in the interest of full disclosure here that in a past life, I was part of NPR management and a very strong supporter of the network distributing FRESH AIR, which in those days was a local program on WHYY in Philadelphia. So I'm not completely disconnected to your being on the network.

GROSS: We would not have become a national show without you. We wouldn't have.

SIEGEL: I'm not sure it's true, but I'll take it. I'll take it. My younger colleagues, which is a redundancy - it's the same thing as saying my colleagues - are intrigued by the fact that you once worked on a program - a feminist program produced by a collective. I haven't told them about the 1970s. But is that where you started radio?

Support comes from

GROSS: (Laughter) That is where I started (laughter).

SIEGEL: What was the program like?

GROSS: It - OK, it was called Woman Power. And the program was a combination of, like, little mini documentaries or recorded speeches all having to do with women and - like, every week, the name of the show was, like, women and. So it was like woman and power, women and sports, woman power, women and marriage, women power, women and divorce, women power, women and childbirth. And it just went on like that.

The first show I did was on women blues singers. And the second show that I hosted was on the history of women's undergarments because I wanted to know who invented the bra and the girdle and all that.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: And now is this in Buffalo?

GROSS: Yes. This was at WBFO, which was the station on the State University of New York at Buffalo campus, which is where I went to college.

SIEGEL: How did you research the history of women's undergarments by the way? What did you...

GROSS: Oh, I did it all wrong. This was before - I had no training in journalism or radio, so I did what I was used to doing. I went to the library and basically wrote a term paper and read it on the air.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: And not...

GROSS: It was bad news for listeners, very, very bad.

SIEGEL: Not heavy on the sound in this case.

GROSS: No. I should have found somebody to interview, but that hadn't occurred to me because I knew nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is the problem of having, you know, a mostly volunteer station. It's, like, the producers learn by doing, which was great for me but not so great for the listeners.

SIEGEL: You know, to share for a moment, when I was news director at NPR and I listened to a couple of your shows from Philadelphia to see if I agreed that we wanted to put the program on the network nationally, the interview that got me was one you did - this was over 30 years ago - with the novelist Richard Price. I don't know if you remember any of the questions you asked him.

GROSS: I remember a little bit because I love him, and I love his writing. And he's one of the best interviewees ever.

SIEGEL: Well, your interview with him was great. I remember you asked him about his withered arm. And then you asked him if he'd always had a New York accent. He said no. He said in the Bronx he hadn't needed one. When he went to Cornell, he found that he needed a New York accent...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: ...Which I thought was a marvelous exchange and leads me to ask you, since you're from Sheepshead Bay, did you ever have a Brooklyn accent?

GROSS: I don't know. People - when I was growing up, people used to ask me where I was from. And this was in Brooklyn. Like, one Brooklynite to another, they'd asked me, where are you from - as if I was from, like, Texas or something.

I was the child of the children of immigrants. So my grandparents on both sides were immigrants. And my parents maybe had, like, slight New York accents but just slight. And my brother and I - I don't think we did.

SIEGEL: Between those days and today, when did you start interviewing people? When did this become your trade?

GROSS: Well, I started right away after my two term papers on the air when I finally figured out, no, you interview people who know something. You don't have to pretend like you know something about this.

And then I just started interviewing people right away, and I knew right away that I loved it, you know, because I loved reading, and now I could talk to the authors of books. I loved finding out about people and learning things. And it was - you know, and I'm kind of shy, so it was great to have this license to ask people anything, to ask them the kind of things I wouldn't feel comfortable doing in real life.

SIEGEL: Do you get to read for pleasure at all, things that have absolutely nothing to do with the program?

GROSS: In all honesty, I don't because I'm always reading for the show - always, always, always. And when I'm on vacation - and I tend to take several week-long vacations instead of one massive or two massive long ones - it's only a week away that I have to, like, start reading so much again.

There was a period when I'd only read books by dead authors when I was on vacation. So that wheel in the back of my mind wouldn't be turning, thinking, what are you going to ask them? What are you going to ask them? And I can just, like, read without thinking about that.

You know, one of the liabilities of my job is that in order to do a good job, you're - I'm in my chair, like, reading or listening or watching so much of the time that there's really not enough time to take walks or, you know, get out.

SIEGEL: You've said something about interviewing people, about being just as happy or happier that they're at a remote location rather than face-to-face. I feel the same way.

GROSS: Do you?

SIEGEL: It seems to surprise a lot of people that don't do interviews, but it makes me feel - I think it's pretty common, actually, that you're hearing the thing the way the people are hearing the thing.

GROSS: Exactly. It becomes pure radio. And being a shy person and having a difficult time finding clothes that fit me...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...It's nice to not have to worry about, like - what are you going to wear today, or, you know? It's just hard to find cool clothes that actually fit unless I go to the children's department - yeah.

And also I feel freer to look at my notes because when someone's sitting across the table from me, I feel obligated to make eye contact even though I want to quote something that they've said. I want to turn the pages of a book to find that quote, and I'm going to look distracted if I do that, whereas if they're in another studio, I can look at my notes. I can look at the book and be perfectly attentive to what they're saying without them thinking that I'm not listening.

SIEGEL: How much longer? How much longer do you do this?

GROSS: I don't know. I don't want to stop. I'm not looking to retire. So you know, who knows? At some point everybody stops working. I'm not seeing an end (laughter). I find a lot of meaning in my work. I think meaning is something that one has to find in life. Life doesn't come with inherent meaning. I mean all life is meaningful, but you - as somebody living your life, you have to find the meaning.

And there's that old expression. Nobody is on their death bed, you know, wishing they spent more time at the office. But I think a lot of people are on their deathbed probably wishing that they'd, you know, that they'd taken that chance and tried to become an actor or taken that chance and tried to become a singer or a comic or an entrepreneur or whatever it was. And I feel like I found the work I really wanted to do and that I'm really lucky about that. And I want to keep doing it.

SIEGEL: Terry, if I have the slightest tiny share of responsibility for FRESH AIR being a national program all these years, I'm awfully proud. And congratulations on your winning the National Humanities Medal.

GROSS: Thank you, Robert. And you have way more than the slightest responsibility for that. And I am so grateful. And thank you so much for having me on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SIEGEL: You bet.

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