Terry Gross Still Sets the Standard on Interviews


Interviewing for news and feature journalism is an art and a craft. And one I like to think that I have become adept at after what must be many hundreds if not more than a thousand over my years of reporting and writing articles.

It’s been a learning and relearning process for more than four decades, abetted by transcribing my talks. I still, for instance, kick myself when I jump in with a comment or further question and cut off my subject when they had more to say.

Because as critical to the process as asking the right questions in the right way is listening to what a subject has to say. Interviewing is an experience of drawing out and sometimes winning over subjects, which in a way is a seduction process. (I often find when out on dates that I’m using my interview skills as I get to know someone new, much to my amusement.)

But as much as I feel like I’m a damn good interviewer, I often feel like a mere amateur when I listen to the interviews done by Terri Gross on the public radio show Fresh Air. She’s my favorite interviewer and in my estimation the finest practitioner of the process in contemporary media.

And as a result, her interviews are invariably engaging and informative, far more often than not truly fascinating. As her bio on the show’s website quotes from the San Francisco Chronicle, her talks are marked by “a remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence.”

That bio also identifies a notable characteristic of her skills: “Gross sets an atmosphere in which her guests volunteer the answers rather than surrendering them.” Even though she is never unafraid to ask the tough questions.

Those questions she asks can often be almost as informative as the answers she elicits. Gross clearly does her homework prior to an interview. And the way she frames some questions with preludes that show her subject how well she understands their topic helps establish a trust and empathy that draws out wonderful answers from her interviewees. And they help inform the listener to boot.

She also never, as best I can tell, falls prey to the cardinal sins of interviewing of cutting off and stepping on the subject’s answer. And I am fairly sure this isn’t a result of the editing process.

Rather, it is a function of being a damn fine radio interviewer. I learned a lot from being a radio interviewer back in the early 1980s for a syndicated country music radio show. First is the cardinal sin of asking a question that can be answered with a yes or no question. (Singer Bobby Bare once busted me on that one by responding to a question that could be answered in a word with a sly nod of his head.)

Another sin on radio is cross-talking over the subject’s answer. Gross lets her interviewees have their full say before she comes in with a response or asks another question. And as much as this is a function of the craft of an audio interview, it also shows, again, how well she listens, as her follow-up questions underscore.

Hence every time I listen to “Fresh Air,” I learn something. Not just about what her subjects are talking about, but how to interview at its best. It’s why every time I listen to the show I am duly impressed by her skills and the superb results.

Populist Picks

Book: A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourami – The ever increasing importance of events, conflicts and movements within the Arab world make this eloquent, in-depth and richly informative tome (and long at just over 450 pages) a significant resource to understanding the Middle East and Islam.

TV miniseries: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story – The dramatization of one of the most high-profile crimes and trials of recent history and its shocking outcome is a gem, telling the tale with a you-are-there inside look and a bunch of masterful acting performances, notably by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Simpson), Sarah Paulson (prosecutor Marcia Clark), John Travolta (defense attorney Robert Shapiro), David Schwimmer (defense attorney and Simpson pal Robert Kardashian) and Courtney B. Vance (defense attorney Johnny Cochran). Plus some great acting as well within the secondary roles. It’s the first installment of a new Netflix series that whets appetites for what’s to come in the future.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2017


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