The Would-Be Lyricist: In conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross
“I love Terry Gross!” attendees at #ComNet14 gushed, over and over, when I told them I had the distinct honor of interviewing her. The Communications Network was smitten.
Why? Perhaps it’s because you listen to her interview someone and you feel both smarter and more aware of how little you know. Maybe it’s that hearing her ask questions gives us permission to pause and dwell on our own curiosities, to ask our own questions.
Or maybe it’s just that no one gets the stuff from people that Terry does.
I had the chance to ask her about all of that and more when we sat down after her keynote address.
KRISTA JAHNKE: As a young journalist, I felt that journalism school taught me about writing, about how to put an article together and how to find sources. But interviewing people and getting them to open up wasn’t something that was stressed. One place I turned to learn this was you—your book and your show. When you got started, where did you turn to learn the craft of interviewing? Did it come naturally, or where did you look for inspiration?
TERRY GROSS: I went to the library to find books, and the only book about interviewing I could find was a Barbara Walters book that was called How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. But it was a book geared toward someone who would be picking up a celebrity at the airport to take them to a speech or something. It wasn’t what I was looking for. So I made up my own rules, to the extent that I have any rules. I made up my own style. I didn’t go to journalism school, so I had nobody who taught me, you know, the ethics of journalism.
Yeah. Scary. But peer pressure is a very potent teacher. The station where I started to learn, WBFO in Buffalo, the college NPR station, the people there were so serious—I mean, they were hysterical—but they took their job seriously. Even though we were all volunteers, they demanded this extraordinarily high level of professionalism. If something wasn’t good, they’d tell me. They would not mince words.
Do you remember an early misstep?
The show I started working on was a feminist show, “Woman Power.” It was a small group of women and we did things non-hierarchically. One day one person would produce, and another person would host. The first show I did myself, I wanted to know the history of the bra and the girdle—restrictive women’s undergarments, where did they come from? And rather than what I would do now—find an expert on the history of costuming or clothing—I went to the library, got a bunch of books and did what I was trained to do in college—write a term paper. I basically wrote a term paper and read it on the air. This was the worst radio imaginable. And people let me know that.
Sounds like one to pull out at the retirement party.
No, it is safely nonexistent. There are only like 30 seconds of “Woman Power” that I kept.
In your keynote, you mentioned how there are not many places where the long-form interview is done today. It’s funny, because our culture is an over-sharing culture, but you still somehow don’t get much depth. Do you sense, as you’ve done the show over the past several decades, that people are less ready to be reflective and introspective?
It’s hard for me to say because we choose the people who are really reflective to be on our show. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get on our show. You make an interesting distinction between being reflective and over-sharing—they’re not the same thing. We don’t want people to come on and just tell us everything that they’ve ever done in their lives. Even if it’s personal, it doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. What makes it interesting is what you’ve taken away from that. How it has shaped you as a person? What insights you’ve been left with as a result of that experience. Just narrating your life, no matter how over-sharing it is, isn’t inherently interesting to people who don’t know you, and it might not be interesting to people who do.
You’ve said you dislike of talking points. In the communications world, many of us are preparing CEOs to go out, and we commonly give them talking points. Is this always clear to you when you’re interviewing someone, that they have their talking points, and they’re going to stick to them?
Yeah, it’s like the last thing we want. There are some [shows] you need to go in with talking points because the person interviewing you is not going to know what to ask you. They’re not necessarily going to get to what’s interesting. And you need to come in armed with the points you want to get across. But you don’t want to sound like they’re talking points; you want them to sound spontaneous. On some shows, cable news shows, if they sound like talking points, maybe that’s not a bad thing. But we’re not that show. So you have to know where you’re sending the person and arm them accordingly.
But I’d think some degree of authenticity is always good.
I think so.
Another thing we talk about in this field a lot is data. I have to think if you have a guest come on your show and they’re just giving you statistics, you’re like… kill me now.
Oh, that’s the worst thing on the radio. Radio, you’re listening to something in real time. And numbers just vanish. If you’re reading it, you can look at a graph accompanying the numbers, you can look at the numbers again. On radio, it’s death.
So I’d assume the antidote is stories—that you’d much rather hear someone tell a story that gets to a statistic.
Exactly. Or if you have to give a statistic, choose it wisely, and then illustrate it with something that will give the statistic meaning.
What about wonkiness? That’s another issue we have in this field. The issues we’re working on are complex. People can be very passionate about what they do, but when they start talking about it, they’re saying things like ‘systems building’ and ‘capacity building.’
No, no, no, no, no. You cannot use those words. If people are talking about building systems, they are not going to be on our show. There are times when I think the CEO shouldn’t be the person who should be sent out—it’s the person in the field. If you want to talk about effective teaching strategies, maybe you want to send an effective teacher, who can tell first person stories about what works and what doesn’t in the classroom.
I’d like to hear more about you. Growing up, you wanted to be a lyricist. Of all the kinds of writing, I’d have to think that is one of the hardest. Did you try your hand at it or was it just a dream you had?
I grew up in Brooklyn. When I was in high school, the New York City schools had something called “Sing.” Each grade level put on a show at the end of the year—a very long sketch basically, that was a musical. I was one of the lyricists for Sing for two or three years in high school. And I loved it! But how do you become a lyricist when you’re growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn? And the answer is: Carol King grew up just a few blocks away from where I did. I certainly didn’t know that at the time, but it seemed unthinkable at the time. So I just gave up on that.
You also shared a story during the keynote about wanting to be a writer, but realizing that you just didn’t have the stories. Did you have to grieve that, or had you already found radio by then?
I hadn’t found radio yet. I was relieved of the notion that I should be a writer when I was a freshman in college. I had two writer professors. One of them really liked my writing. But the other… We had an assignment, “Write something and bring it in.” I went up to him after that and said, “I’m used to getting an assignment like ‘write about this subject’ or ‘use this as a hook,’ so I feel kind of lost.” He said, very condescendingly I thought, “Write a love story.” I thought, you’re saying that to me because I’m a woman. He happened to be very sexist. I thought that was very dismissive and condescending. I felt very discouraged. I also started to realize my writing couldn’t possibly measure up. As what I was reading became more and more sophisticated, what I was writing couldn’t possibly keep up.
Was that hard?
It would have been, except for the fact that all hell was breaking loose in Buffalo. We’re talking about ’68 to ’72 when I was an undergraduate. I was distracted by the women’s movement and the anti-war movement, and all of the exciting jazz and rock concerts and avant-garde concerts and experimental cinema and repertory film that I was getting exposed to.
What is it like having a famous voice? Is it annoying because people recognize it any time you speak, even if you’re just calling in a prescription?
It’s not that famous. But sometimes I will call for like an airline reservation, and before they see my name, they’ll recognize my voice. It’s very odd, but it’s pleasurable. The awkward thing is sometimes I’ll be having a private conversation in a restaurant, and someone will walk up and say, “I really like your show.” And I’ll think, “Uh oh, what did they hear that I didn’t want to be public?” It’s a bigger issue now that everyone is tweeting everything that they hear. I find myself having to be more and more discreet, because people are more and more into making public everything around them. And everyone is carrying a device that does that.
Speaking of it, you’re not on Twitter. Does the station ever try to persuade you to do that?
Fortunately, they have not. I’m a very self-conscious person. So instead of spontaneously tweeting, I would be fussing with every word—which is not in the spirit of Twitter. But also, anything I want to say, I have a pretty big platform to say it. I don’t require more. I try to follow the tweets of people I’m interviewing, and for a lot of people their tweets are basically self-promotion—with a few spicy things to keep you reading. I don’t think the world is any less rich because I’m not tweeting. Coming up with concise, funny tweets feels like more work. I’m working all the time. I take time off for dinner, other than that, I’m working.
Krista Jahnke is communications officer at the Detroit-based Kresge Foundation. Previously, she worked at the Skillman Foundation and Detroit Free Press.