Everything I Know, I Learned on “Contemporary Air” With Terry Gross

For years, I’ve been meaning to write a piece about Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview show on America’s National Public Radio. For about as long as I’ve been telling friends, “Terry Gross should get some kind of Pulitzer Prize!”

What finally got me typing away today was this: A couple of months back, my wife and I finished watching the 15 available seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. We knew we had to get over “empty nest syndrome” and adopt a new TV-drama family.

Before long, we discovered The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Alas, only three seasons of it are out. We came to another abrupt end this week!

We’re very particular, as I suppose everyone is in his or her own way. The series has to grab both of us. We just hadn’t been receiving any tips that we felt might work.

Fresh Air on NPR logoThis morning, while doing volunteer delivery work, bringing food to a pantry 20 miles (32 kilometres) away, I clicked a Fresh Air podcast on my phone.

An Indian-American actress named Mindy Kaling was talking to Terry about her current Netflix series, Never Have I Ever. Loosely based on Kaling’s teenage years, the series is about the challenges and adventures of an Indian-American high school girl in Los Angeles. 

Barbara and I loved the short-lived high school series Freaks and Geeks. In fact, in all these years, it’s the only one we’ve watched twice. Listening to the vibrant Fresh Air interview with Kaling, I felt we had a new winner.

But I’m just as likely to get new input about some arcane aspect of the Trump administration’s shenanigans, or hear Leonard Cohen’s son Adam eulogize his recently-deceased Dad, or—memorable, I suppose, because it was so unusual—listen to an author describe his spelunking (caving) in the subterranean world of actively-used and long-abandoned tunnels under the New York City streets.

Matchless technique and a vibrant voice


I remember the day I first heard the name of the show, in the mid-‘90s. I was driving from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I lived then, up to Wilmington, North Carolina—an hour-plus trip—to visit a friend. I don’t recall the actual content of that day’s interview, only that the show’s name seemed perfect, and positively exuded vitality when Terry uttered it.

Mention a celebrated author, musician or outstanding practitioner in any creative field, from cooking to filmmaking to running a restaurant, and there’s a good chance he or she has an interview in the Fresh Air archives, which are all online, by the way. When a noted subject passes away, Terry usually does a replay. I don’t know who would compare in past generations, but for our times, I  think of her as the interviewer of record.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Cohen, Wanda Sykes

Novelist Ta-Nehisi Coates, singer/musician Adam Cohen and comic Wanda Sykes, three of Fresh Air’s hundreds of interview guests. Terry has been doing these interviews for 40 years.

Terry has a rotating crew of collaborators, each with expertise in a particular area. After the main interview, one or two of them usually adds a brief specialty feature. David Bianculli reports on TV-related topics; Marie Corrigan, on books; John Powers, pop culture; and Justin Chang, film, to name a few. Geoff Nunberg, a linguist and author of the book The Way We Talk Now, was an interesting contributor who is still listed but whose pieces I haven’t heard for quite a while.  

Terry must be nearing 70 now. She won’t be around forever. In fact, I think she delegates more major interviews to her stand-in, Dave Davies, these days.

I’m glad I’ve been able to churn out a few words in praise of her matchless technique and, for that matter, her perpetually young, vibrant voice. She has enriched the lives of millions of us, so much that the subject-heading of this piece is scarcely an exaggeration.

(Full disclosure: Barbara and I watched an episode of Never Have I Ever the night after I drafted this article. Though I remain taken with that interview, neither of us really felt like the show itself was for us, after all.)

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image 1: Wikimedia Commons; image 2: National Public Radio; image 3: Gerald L. Ford School / Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons



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