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Originally published June 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 4, 2009 at 9:30 AM

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"Fresh Air's" Terry Gross: three decades of listening deeply

Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of the National Public Radio interview show "Fresh Air," appears in Seattle on June 5. Here, she talks with entertainment writer Tom Keogh about preparing and conducting interviews, and the fine art of listening.

Special to The Seattle Times

To the extent that National Public Radio has its superstars, Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of the interview program "Fresh Air," is certainly one of them. Heard Monday through Friday on KPLU-FM — which is hosting Gross' appearance Friday at the Paramount Theatre — "Fresh Air" is noteworthy for Gross' thoughtful and penetrating questions of artists, politicians, journalists and activists.

Q: One of the appealing things about "Fresh Air" is that you don't just listen to your guests. You listen deeply.

A: People think listening is easy. Listening is hard. It's easy to be distracted by a headache, or worries over a family member who's ill. You have to not allow yourself to be distracted. That's why the studio is a perfect setting. It's a place unto itself, cut off from the rest of the world. Nothing happens in there except listening, reading between the lines of an answer to get at what a speaker is really thinking. Not every answer is worthy of a follow-up, but you'd better listen or you might miss the most important thing being said.

Q: What's involved in preparing for a "Fresh Air" interview?

A: It depends on the kind of interview. If a speaker is an expert on something or an author, a producer will do a pre-interview. That way we decide if the speaker is easy to listen to, and the producer takes notes. If we're confident of the speaker, the producer or a researcher will give me what I need to prepare. That doesn't pre-empt me from doing my own reading beyond that. I watch whatever needs to be watched, read everything relevant, I digest it all. I prepare until bedtime.

Q: We're around the same age, and your perceptive interviews with pop culture figures from our generation always make me feel we had the same, exact experiences of those things. I'm sure thousands of your baby-boomer listeners feel the same way. But with the passing of time, is it hard to stay interested in an ever-changing zeitgeist?

A: Well, when you and I were young, we only had three to five TV stations, a certain number of movies in theaters, a certain number of record companies, and so on. We had a shared popular culture, and that's not true anymore. Now there's cable TV, and Web sites, blogs, indie films and Twitter and all the rest. It's truly impossible to keep up. Pop culture is fragmented, it's not the glue it once was between everyone in the same generation. The problem with doing interviews that have particular appeal to someone our age is that you don't want to exclude people outside your generation. When I started doing the show in 1975, station management had me submit potential interviews to what they called the parent test: would parents understand what was being talked about? Now it's the opposite: What do I need to do to explain a subject to young adults?

Q: Does it ever happen that your experience of an interview — the way it sounded to you while you were conducting it — is very different from the way it sounds when it's broadcast?

A: Most of the interviews I do are long distance, with the speaker in another studio in a different city. Because of that I can be in the conversation, but I can also be hearing it objectively, thinking about how the show will sound later. It's much easier interviewing someone famous, someone with a lot of charisma, who's in the room with me. That's fun, and my experience of the interview feels great. But then sometimes it will come across very differently in audio, when the charisma is gone.

Q: Can you think of shows of which you're particularly proud?

A: Let's see ... I'm proud of an interview we did in 2006 or 2007 about credit default swaps, before they were in the news. It was an early education in how those were going wrong, and they proved to be key to understanding what's happened to our economy since then. I'm also proud of excerpts we put together of several interviews with John Updike, after he died. The show's archives are full of important cultural figures. Many are represented in it, and we can remember them through their words.

Q: You have a couple of substitute hosts who fill in for you each week. Are you beginning to transition out of "Fresh Air?"

A: I'm not transitioning. I'm trying to make my life more manageable. There are always things to take care of for the show, and after 34 years I could not keep up the pace anymore. It leaves no time. I'm always shooing away my husband. I'm trying to have something in life besides the show.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Information in this article, originally published June 3, 2009, was corrected June 4, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Terry Gross was appearing Wednesday, June 3 at the Paramount Theatre. Her performance is on Friday, June 5.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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