Terry Gross is the Adele of conversation, the Lady Gaga of talk. Her exchanges get to the emotional heart-of-the-matter, and she’s not afraid to look at the darkness to get to the light.
Terry Gross is the Michael Jordan of elocution, the Dorothy Parker of oral discourse. Terry is blessed with wit and intelligence and she knows words matter.
After 40 years of interviews, her skills are no longer a secret. So those who come to talk to her usually bring their “A” game.
Terry clearly has a wonderful sense of curiosity about all things considered, from rock ’n’ roll to an actor’s role to the row between the countries in the Middle East. She’s not big on small talk — the prittle-prattle, the chitchat that drives the TV network late-night talk shows. She’s not obsequious like Charlie Rose is with the guests on his show, and God knows she’d never be so obnoxiously showy to throw around a buck-fifty word like obsequious. Nor does she have the annoying, cloying “I’m the smartest person in the room, wink-wink, nod-nod” manner of Kai Ryssdal that drove me from his “Marketplace” interviews long ago.
Terry Gross is the quintessential NPR personality, the very definition of the anti-Limbaugh. She doesn’t engage in rhetorical tittle-tattle. She’s much more akin to, let’s say, Bill Moyers, and his famous interviews with Joseph Campbell about the power of myths. The difference being that if Terry had been the interviewer we would have learned a lot more about Campbell himself as well as learning about the power of myths today.
So why do I bring all this up? As Cole Porter once (sorta) recounted, my story is much too sad to be told, but practically everything leaves me totally cold. The exception I know is my only choice. When I’m out driving on a quiet spree, fighting vainly the old ennui, I suddenly turn on my radio and hear Terry’s fabulous voice.
Only one day last month when I tuned to KPCC at 7 p.m., I didn’t hear Terry.
Here in Los Angeles, the second largest market in the country, one of our biggest NPR outlets, Pasadena-based KPCC, decided to remove “Fresh Air” – Terry’s show – from the 7 p.m. timeslot it’s occupied for years and years. And unlike a number of other NPR stations, KPCC only airs “Fresh Air” once a day. Furthermore, the other Southern California NPR giant, KCRW, doesn’t air “Fresh Air” at all.
I was pissed. I don’t consider “Fresh Air” and Terry Gross just any show. She is the best interviewer in America, fronting a program that’s won a prestigious – and well-deserved – Peabody Award for excellence.
KPCC had moved “Fresh Air” an hour later, but, to me and thousands others here in Southern California, that was the equivalent to taking the show off-the-air. That’s because at 7 p.m. there are thousands still on the freeways here, in traffic on their way home. Many are listening to their car radios and to KPCC. By 8 p.m. most are home, and are not listening to radio at all.
I pulled off the freeway and parked and tried calling the station right then and there to find out what happened to “Fresh Air.” No one answered. Later, during daytime business hours, I went to the KPCC website and tried to find out who the program director was. No one had that title, so I called the station and asked for an executive whose name I found on the website. This person was attentive to my complaint and I took extensive notes. At the end of the conversation I told this executive that besides being a listener complaining that I was also a journalist and that I was probably going to write about this, but that I would call the spokesman for the station for official comment.
I did, and he told me that Collin Campbell, the station’s Managing Director for Audio Content and Strategy, was essentially KPCC’s program director, and that Campbell would contact me when he returned from out-of-town the following week. I never heard back from Campbell, despite trying to contact him and the station spokesperson again.
So here are my notes from my conversation with the KPCC executive to whom I originally complained about “Fresh Air” losing its time slot. I will not identify this executive because I had told the executive that any comments I was going to write about I would get from my later conversation with the program director, but that never happened.
I was told that “Fresh Air” was being replaced at 7 p.m. by “The Frame,” a local arts and entertainment show focusing primarily on Hollywood that, as I recall, came into existence in 2014. [Full Disclosure: “The Frame” is hosted by John Horn, an excellent journalist and wonderful person who I first met in the mid-1980s. Our paths have not crossed in many years, though I did give him a heads-up that I was writing this piece. I told him that the point of my piece was not to talk about my feelings about his show, but to express how upset and disappointed I am about “Fresh Air” losing its time slot.]
Given that “The Frame” continues to air originally at 3:30 p.m, I didn’t understand why KPCC was re-running it at 7 p.m., bumping “Fresh Air” from its only airing and moving it to 8 p.m., when thousands of listeners would no longer be in their cars and thus would not listen to the show.
The executive told me that one reason for the schedule change was that the station had heard from “some people” who are still commuting at 7 p.m. that they would like to hear “The Frame” then, since they could not tune in when they were at work at 3:30 p.m., when the show first airs.
The KPCC executive went on to tell me that the station was eager to “get more exposure” for “The Frame” for a few other reasons as well. One reason was that Terry Gross has been doing “Fresh Air” for a long time and was “hosting less and less.” A second reason was that “The Frame” was getting interviews with “some” of the same people Terry was interviewing, and was getting them “earlier” than Terry was getting them, thus the “quality” of what KPCC is offering its audience with “The Frame” “may” be better.
I asked how popular “Fresh Air” was. I was told by the executive that while the show “does well,” it’s no longer one of the station’s “top shows.” The executive then said “Fresh Air” is “a pretty strong performer, but not as strong” as it was two years ago. When I asked why the executive thought “Fresh Air” wasn’t doing as well as it used to, the executive said it was because many people now listen to it as a podcast on the Internet instead.
I reminded the executive that “The Frame” is also available as a podcast.
Finally, I asked when the station will decide if this 7 p.m. change would be permanent. The executive told me the station would probably decide after seeing what the “ratings books” said over the next “few months.”
Several days later I called the “Fresh Air” offices in Philadelphia and left a voicemail, saying I was calling about the show being moved by KPCC and asking if Terry had a comment.
I received a call back from Danny Miller, who is the co-executive producer of “Fresh Air” along with Terry. I don’t know him. I found out that he has been with the show since 1978. Gross has been with it since 1975. The show began as a local program on WUHY-FM in Philadelphia. The station later changed its call letters to WHYY-FM and it is still producing the show. “Fresh Air” has been syndicated nationally on public radio stations since 1987.
I was surprised when Miller told me that he was learning from me for the first time that KPCC, the show’s outlet in the second-largest market in the country, had moved the program to a later time period. Miller added that he had heard that KPCC was planning on some schedule changes, but he hadn’t heard anything specifically about “Fresh Air” moving.
I then asked him what he thought about the move:
Danny Miller: We’d much prefer being on at the time we’d been on, because you establish a relationship with the audience. And that audience is used to tuning into the show at 7 o’clock in the case of KPCC. So we’d prefer not to be moved out of that time slot.
On the other hand – and I really mean this – stations have to create their own schedules, and schedules need to be made up of what local needs and options are as well as national shows. As much as I’d like to see “Fresh Air” on KPCC at the highest listening time, I totally respect that it’s always a complicated set of factors that go into making these programming decisions.
So I can’t say I’m thrilled, because KPCC is a really important station. I’d imagine that it has a significant amount of people in the entertainment industry among its listeners, and, of course we do a lot of coverage of that. But we are not in the business of second-guessing any program director’s scheduling.
Me: How is “Fresh Air” scheduled elsewhere?
Miller: The show goes out at noon. Here in Philadelphia we play the show at 3 o’clock and 7 o’clock. We’ve done that for years and we have strong audiences at both times. Across the country, our show is fairly evenly divided between airing at noon, three and seven o’clock, local times.
Me: What about the claim, that I was told, that one of the reasons they’ve moved “Fresh Air” here in L.A. is that Terry is hosting less and less?
Miller: I wouldn’t say Terry is hosting less and less. I would say that in the last couple of years we made a deliberate strategic decision to maintain Terry’s presence as the host for years to come. A key component of that was adjusting her work load, which is just immense. Several hours of preparation and research go into an interview Terry does. To sustain that for four interviews a week is work to a level that would shorten Terry’s longevity to host the show. That is a really important thing to us.
And I’m quite pleased and happy that we have Dave Davies to fill-in for Terry. I think he’s a great complement to Terry in terms of journalistic background. He has a depth of understanding in history and politics and sports, where Terry’s expertise is rooted in arts, culture, books and what it takes to understand any complicated situation. But four days out of five the show is Terry.
I think there is something to really value with Terry’s longevity with this show, and the increased depth she brings to her interviews, whether the discussion is about a film, a connection with an aging parent, or the way she can explain complicated issues that many have previously found confounding and confusing.
I cannot agree more with Miller here. Dave Davies is a stellar interviewer. In fact, I would argue that Davies adds a dimension to the show that only makes it better. With him and the rest of “Fresh Air’s” current line-up of commentators and reviewers, including the astute David Bianculli’s observations about television, “Fresh Air” has a staff that’s the “60 Minutes” of radio. Back to my conversation with Miller:
Me: I’m assuming it’s true that the ratings for KPCC are not what they were two years ago.
Miller: I don’t know what the KPCC numbers are off the top of my head, but generally speaking for all of public radio – and it’s true for ‘Fresh Air’ and just about every radio program I’ve seen – radio listening is going down while podcast listening is going up, and by a really impressive degree. It’s a concern for all stations. How do you maintain the loyalty of your local audience if your audience can go directly to a podcast and not listen to the station? That’s a big challenge.
My one comment about what the KPCC executive told me is that I just don’t agree that the interviews on “The Frame” are anything like the interviews done on “Fresh Air.”
Meanwhile, until KPCC comes to its senses and returns “Fresh Air” to its 7 p.m. slot, I am listening to the show on podcasts when I can.
A recent show featured an interview Terry just conducted with 88-year-old John Kander. Kander is most famous for writing the music that accompanied lyrics by the late Fred Ebb for a number of hit musicals, including “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Chicago.” Kander and Ebb also wrote the original songs for the movie “New York, New York,” including the now famous title track.
One of the characteristics I most admire about Terry is her devotion to showcasing great American music, particularly show tunes and standards from 1920s to the 1950s. I was not surprised to read once that at one time she wanted to become a lyricist when she grew up.
Here’s a short excerpt from a transcript of the Kander episode that I found on the “Fresh Air” website:
TERRY GROSS: Here’s the first draft of “New York, New York” with my guest composer John Kander at the piano and lyricist Fred Ebb singing. This demo was recorded in 1976.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “NEW YORK, NEW YORK”)
FRED EBB: (Singing) New York, New York, New York, New York. New York, New York, New York, New York. Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo (ph). They always say it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there – New York. They always say it’s a nice place to sightsee, but I wouldn’t want to live there – New York. Of course I do like a ‘do on Park Avenue or to view a gnu at the Central Park Zoo or stare at the glare of the Broadway lights or go to Madison Square to catch the fights.
GROSS: John Kander, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s such a treat to have you back on the show. I love this new [compact disc] collection. I’m so glad that it was produced. It’s so much fun to hear that first draft of “New York, New York” and compare it to the anthem that you finally wrote. Tell the story of why this version was rejected.
JOHN KANDER: Well, to start with, I’m surprised that I ever let anybody hear that first version.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why?
KANDER: It’s – I guess because it’s terrible.
KANDER (again): That’s part of the reason. The story of how the other one got written is Fred and I were writing songs for a film called “New York, New York.” And Martin Scorsese was directing it and [it] starred Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. We wrote five or six songs and went down to Marty’s office to play them. And Liza and Marty were there and then in the background – I don’t know if we got introduced or not – was Robert De Niro sitting on a couch. I’m not sure I even knew that at the time. Anyway, we played the songs for them and everything was all set and – until suddenly we saw this arm waving from the couch. And Marty went over and said excuse me, De Niro wants to speak to me. And then we watched what was a very animated conversation and we couldn’t hear anything. And Scorsese came back and in a very embarrassed way said that De Niro had felt that the title song, which was very much attached to him in the film, was just too lightweight compared to the song that was attached to Liza, which was “The World Goes Round.” And would we consider taking another crack at it?
GROSS: Were you angry that the actor Robert De Niro had rejected your song?
KANDER: I think we were – I think we were very polite.
KANDER (again): And I think we were probably a little stiff, but we said, yes, we would go out and take another crack at it. And of course we left and thought some actor is going to tell us how to write a song? And we could not have been more internally pompous I think. Anyway, we went back to Fred’s apartment. And I think because the juices of rage were coursing through our bodies, we wrote another song, very fast, probably 45 minutes, called “New York, New York” and took it back and that was the song that was used in the movie and became the song which is now pretty well known.
What a gem of a story that most of us hadn’t known before — that we have Robert De Niro to thank for the wonderful anthem “New York, New York” so identified with both Minnelli and Sinatra. It’s typical of the wonderful stories “Fresh Air” delivers. [By the way, you can hear that original version of “New York, New York” by clicking here and listening to a podcast of the “Fresh Air’ episode with Kander – the song is even more insipid than it looks in print, and I’m sure it would have been immediately forgotten if it hadn’t been totally re-thought and rewritten.]
Despite being pissed about its moving “Fresh Air,” I still think KPCC is a superb station. Its reporting of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino last week is an example of a job done well, with Larry Mantle and other staffers giving excellent descriptions of what we listeners could not see as we were driving or doing other things that kept us from watching TV coverage.
It seems to me that one thing KPCC needs to do more of is advertise. For example, if fewer people are tuning into its radio programming, why not take billboards and other media opportunities here in the Los Angeles area to promote its programming. Using as an example “Fresh Air” at 7 p.m., here’s a suggested ad they can use (with apologies to my favorite graphic designer and ad man, the late Saul Bass, whose idea I have borrowed):