Terry Gross was born in 1951 and grew up in Brooklyn. She earned her undergraduate degree in English and a masters degree in Communications from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. Ironically, her career in radio was launched almost by accident. After graduate school, she began work as an 8th grade teacher, a position for which Gross felt “totally unequipped.” She was fired after six weeks, but quickly moved into a full-time position at Buffalo’s public radio station WBFO in 1973, where she had been volunteering. At WBFO she began hosting and producing several arts, women’s and public affairs programs, including This Is Radio, a live three-hour magazine program that aired daily. Two years later, she joined the staff of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia as a producer and host of Fresh Air, then a local, daily interview and music program. In 1985, WHYY launched a weekly half-hour edition of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which was distributed nationally by NPR. Since 1987, a daily, one-hour national edition of Fresh Air has been produced by WHYY. The show is now distributed to 280 stations nationwide.
Widely regarded by her fellow colleagues, listeners, and guests as one of today’s leading interviewers, Gross’s effectiveness lies in her distinctive style, “a remarkable blend of empathy, warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence,” observed The San Francisco Chronicle. Her interviews are comprised of difficult questions, but what puts guests at ease is Gross’s understanding of their work. “I don’t think of myself as having any tricks,’’ Gross remarked. “The main thing I try to do is know the most I can about a person and their work. I think the more you know about someone, the more you genuinely care about who they are, the more likely they are to trust you with the story of their life.” Gross is renowned for her painstaking preparation in finding and interviewing guests; she reads at least one book a day, as well as countless journals and magazines, and regularly listens to new music releases. Since Fresh Air began, Gross has interviewed thousands of artists, politicians, and religious leaders, including Audrey Hepburn, Aretha Franklin, David Mamet, and former President Jimmy Carter. The Boston Phoenix wrote, “Terry Gross . . . is almost certainly the best cultural interviewer in America, and one of the best all-around interviewers, period. Her smart, thoughtful questioning pushes her guests in unlikely directions. Her interviews are revelatory in a way other people’s seldom are.”
Over the years, Fresh Air has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Peabody Award and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award for “Best Live Radio Program.” In 1999, American Women in Radio and Television named Gross a winner of the Gracie Award in the category National Network Radio Personality. The award recognizes an individual who “fosters the development of accurate and realistic portrayal of women in radio programming.” In addition to her work on Fresh Air, Gross has served as guest host for NPR’s All Things Considered and has appeared as a guest host for CBS Nightwatch. Two collections of interviews from Fresh Air have been published in tape form including Fresh Air on Stage and Screen (1998) and Fresh Air Laughs (1999). Terry Gross lives in Philadelphia.
Excerpt from “Fresh Air,” Terry Gross interviews David Hyde Pierce of Frasier on November 5, 1998
TG: My guest is David Hyde Pierce, and he plays Niles on the series Frasier. Now, the story goes that no one knew that Frasier had a brother when Frasier was a character on Cheers, I don’t think Frasier knew he had a brother. And then when he was given the new series he still wasn’t supposed to have a brother, but the story goes that the creators of the show were given a picture of you, saw this incredible facial similarity, then watched tapes of you, loved your performance and thought, “Well, let’s write him in as the brother.” Did you see the similarity when you looked at Kelsey Grammer?
DHP: My mom, when I first came out to LA, which is about six or seven years ago, said to me, “Now, you look like Kelsey Grammer, maybe you could be on his show.” That was back on Cheers.
TG: Oh, really?
DHP: Yeah, and no one else thought that at the time. But then, totally without me having anything to do with it, this casting director, Sheila Guthrie, who was working with Jeff Greenberg, the casting director for Frasier, she brought them my photo. They didn’t know who I was, like most people, and like you said, she also brought them some tapes from the only other TV show I’d ever done, the only other sitcom, which was called The Powers That Be. It was a Norman Lear political satire, and John Forsythe played a senator, I played a suicidal congressman. And they looked at those tapes, and based on those tapes they actually met with me. And this is the humiliating part, because they met with me for about half an hour and then they went away and wrote Niles. So I don’t know what that says about me, but that’s the way it fell out.
TG: Right. So, it’s funny because although I see certain similarities between you and Kelsey Grammer, you’re a much more kind of refined version of it? You know, smaller and more elegant?
DHP: Refined is nice, I like refined. You know what? If you see pictures of him—I saw a shot of him just out of college, it was taken in New York, or also he was on a soap opera back then when he was still going to Juilliard, and he looks—it’s me. It isn’t even that he looks like me—it’s me. And so I think we, depending on the year of the show, we look more or less like each other. But there’s definitely a familial resemblance kind of thing.
TG: I’d like to run through some of the movies that you’ve been in, and maybe you could just say a few words about your part in each one, and what it was like for you. Let’s start with your movie debut, Bright Lights and Big City.
DHP: Yes, that was my first ever. It cost me more to join the union than they paid me to do the film. My agent had to advance me the money so I could do this movie. And I had one line. Michael J. Fox was in this movie, and if you ever see it, there’s a scene where he goes to disrupt a fashion show that Phoebe Cates is doing, and I’m standing behind the bar, and I say, “I’m sorry, the bar is closed.” That was my first movie line.
TG: Did you practice saying that a thousand different ways before doing it for real?
DHP: Well, for one thing I was a nervous wreck. I mean, I had been a stage actor for many years, I’d been on Broadway and off Broadway and gone all over the place, but I’d never done a movie. And they don’t know that and they treat you as if you’re an old pro, and it’s, “Okay, now this is what’s gonna happen, he’s gonna come up, the camera’s gonna be here, and you’re gonna hit your mark, you’re gonna. . . .” And of course you say, “Yeah, right, I’ll be there.” And you’re thinking, “What do I hit? Who do I hit? Who’s Mark?” It was very disturbing, but I got through that, and no one was injured, so I think I did okay.
Selected WorkFresh Air Laughs (Audio) 1999Fresh Air on Stage and Screen (Audio) 1998