Terry Gross and Joshua Johnson in Conversation at WHYY

Jun 24, 2018

WHYY welcomed PRNDI to its studios in Philadelphia’s Old City to see Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air from WHYY, in conversation with Joshua Johnson, host of 1A from WAMU. Over the course of the evening they covered everything from Terry’s interview style to how Joshua handles Twitter hate and on-air mistakes.

Gross started at WHYY in 1975 after being a volunteer at a station in Buffalo.

“I thought radio was magic – you turned a knob and your voice was on the air,” she said. Gross described radio as a way for her to overcome shyness because it gave her a license to talk to people about personal and intimate things.

When asked about how she developed her interview style, Gross said, “Very slowly.”

“I was 23 when I started, and when you’re as short as I am you look young. People would come in and go like, ‘Really? You’re going to interview me?’ I had to inspire confidence by acting older than I was. Once I became more comfortable, I loosened up and didn’t have to impress people by how old I was,” she said.

Gross also emphasized how important it was to show the interviewee you have done your research and genuinely care. She learned from being interviewed herself not to put your trust in just anyone.

Johnson also asked how Gross handles research for book interviews.

“Reading a book for me means going through every page of the book quickly, circling everything I want to remember, dog-earing every page that has a circle, then taking notes on all those things, then reading articles by or about the author, and then going to bed!” said Gross. “I write questions the next morning, and the interview is usually at 10am.”

Because it is a daily show, Gross said she only has the afternoon and night before to prepare for interviews.

Johnson had strong feelings about Gross’s “book reading” style. “I always try to read the book, but when I don’t, I feel like I didn’t do my homework! And the audiences thinks I know everything!” said Johnson.

Gross shared that Fresh Air does one news-related interview each week and has increasingly focused on political books—although the show’s top priority remains the arts, music, movies and books. Gross described those topics as “the things that nurture us.”

“We can’t hold culture hostage to the Trump Administration. There has to be a place for it in this world. I don’t want to see artists shut out by the news. That’s our basic philosophy,” said Gross.

“Pop culture used to be the thing that held us together. We grew up with the same television, radio, movies. There was a glue, but not anymore. Everything is very niche. Everyone has their own podcast, music genre, cable channel. So what holds us together?” asked Gross.

“Politics! It may be politicians we like or hate, but we know the cast of characters, and that’s the glue. We need to make sure there is still a place for the things that nurture our souls,” said Gross.

The mood lightened a bit when Gross turned the tables on Johnson and asked him about any hate he gets on Twitter, and he shared a long thread with the audience from a user who was upset by Johnson’s coverage of the situation at the border and accused him of victim blaming.

“The way I see it is they’re mad at something that’s not me, and something I said struck a nerve,” said Johnson.

“But if we leave out a point of view because it makes you uncomfortable, that’s unethical!"

“They’re hurting because of what is happening at the border. I want to take the time to see their heart and see their hurt, and respond to what is really there,” he said.

Johnson and Gross also chatted about how Gross unwinds outside the office. She shared that she brings her own cheap wine in her purse to diners with an extra coffee mug for discretion. She also listens to movies and jazz vocal music from the 1920’s and 30’s, and walks to clear her head.

A member of the audience asked Gross how she grapples with the fact that many of the men she’s interviewed have been disgraced in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and whether she’d have them on Fresh Air again.

“There’s this entire section of our archive we can’t rerun right now! I don’t think I would bring them back because it would just be so one-sided,” said Gross.

“But, I did have Tig Notaro on the show. She’s a comedian, and Louis CK made her famous.” During the interview, Gross said how sad she was that someone with so much talent as Louis CK could also have a monstrous side.

“I got so many tweets from people saying, ‘How dare you try to comprehend him? Forget him.’ But I want to live in a world where you can keep those two thoughts in your head at the same time. He’s still a human being with redeemable qualities. I don’t want to say that he’s a monster and that’s all he is,” said Gross.

Later in the evening, Johnson shared how he handles on-air mistakes. When listeners hear it and contact 1A, Johnson acknowledges them live. “When they take the time to reach out to us, that says, ‘I love you, and I heard this mistake, and I’d like you to fix it.’ People are so amazed that public media picks up the phone!”

“The ‘P’ in NPR still matters. People forget that we built this for them. We spent all this time and these resources for the moment YOU showed up, that’s the moment. That’s the test drive,” said Johnson.

He also asked Gross about her exit plan, if she has one.

“I don’t plan to leave anytime soon. I am not planning on retiring in the near future. But we are thinking about it and planning for it. Eventually it will happen and we will have a plan,” said Gross.

“I’ve had a very fulfilling career, and I love what I do. I want to keep doing it.”