Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Terry Gross

When Someone You’ve Interviewed Dies

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Microphone and Ribbon

Robert LeVoy Finicum died on Highway 395 late yesterday afternoon, somewhere between the towns of Burns and John Day, Oregon.  Mr. Finicum was the spokesperson for the occupiers at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.  Eight others were arrested.  As of yet, law enforcement has not given any details about what transpired on that highway.

This post was inspired by OPBs host of it’s midday news program, “Think Outloud”.  Dave Miller talked with Mr. Finicum twice in the last week about the standoff at the refuge.   This isn’t about the developments at the refuge.  Readers can find that in a number of other places, especially at the OPB website.

This is about when someone you’ve interviewed dies.  And of course, I can’t speak to what Mr. Miller may or may not be feeling in the wake of Mr. Finicum’s death.  But I can talk about my own experience and it has only happened to me once.  In 1980, I was stationed at Ft. Devens, MA, which was about 35 miles west of Boston via Route 2A.  I was a new Army Broadcaster and my first job was to operate the post’s closed circuit radio station, WFDB.  But I wasn’t content with playing the impressive collection of albums and 45s.  And when I found a 1976 Billboard Talent Directory, I knew what I was going to do.

I started calling promoters and agents of stars who were performing in Boston.  I told them I represented a military audience of several thousand (the number of active duty at Ft. Devens) and it worked.  In my year there, I interviewed A-listers of the day; Harry Chapin, Kenny Rogers, Bob James, Gladys Knight and Kool and the Gang.  Kool was a phone interview.  I talked to Mr. Rogers as part of a press pool in Manchester, N.H.  Mr. James and Ms. Knight and the Pips performed at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston.  I talked with Mr. Chapin on May 31, 1981.  He was performing at Chateau DeVille in Framingham.

Mr. Chapin, I remember, was clearly stoned.  But he was funny and warm and genuine.  Coming and going to the interview, I was singing every song of his in my head that I knew; Cats in the Cradle, Taxi, She’s Always Seventeen, W.O.L.D. and others.  I was thrilled to talk with him.  And I rushed back to edit and play our conversation on the cable radio station.  About eight years later, I loaned the tape to a co-worker at one of my broadcasting assignments and absent-mindedly forgot to get it back before I left the service.

Anyway, about six weeks later, on July 17, 1981, I heard that Harry Chapin had been killed when his little car pulled in front of a fast moving semi-tractor trailer on the Long Island Expressway.  I was stunned.  I’d grown up with his music.  Cats in the Cradle, especially, had a big effect on me and my Dad.  I think it’s a song many sons and fathers have in their minds whenever life changes their relationship.

Hearing about his death, it felt weird.  An interview is like a speed date.  It’s not like somebody you pass on the street or see everyday on the bus.  But it’s not like you’re exactly good friends either.  It’s somewhere in the middle.  You get to know people deeply and intimately, but quickly.  And just as quickly, you may never see them again.  It’s kind of a shock to think that you were just laughing at this person’s jokes, admiring (or being intimidated by) their work ethic, or noticing a tell or some personal mannerism that makes them uniquely them … something other people might not have noticed.

And then, they’re gone.

Mr. Chapin’s death changed how I looked at life.  I could die like that.  I could die at any time.  Everything I plan could go unfinished.  I might not die in my sleep or surrounded by loved ones or saving someone else’s life.   It made me ask harder questions like what should I be doing and how much shit will I put up with from others in my own life?

And his death changed how I would do interviews in the future.  I would not ask pedantic questions because every second with someone with a story to tell is a gift and every question needed to answer somebody’s else’s question.  I would tell them how much I admired whatever they excelled at but not gush because they get enough of that and they have to be somewhere else soon enough.  I would research the hell out of them so they knew I did my homework and could feel respected by the effort on my part.  And I would always try to remember to show my appreciation by saying “thank you” for their time.

Someone like Terry Gross or Charlie Rose has probably figured a way to ease themselves through the loss of someone they’ve come to know through a good, long talk.  Like I said, it’s only happened to me once.  I don’t know how many times it’s happened to Mr. Miller.

But every brutal goodbye is a rough one.

He’s Gone, Oh Why, I’d Pay the Devil to Replace Him …

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She's Gone

It’s cheesy, I know.  But song lyrics often tell the story.

I somehow knew, when Stephen Colbert ended the Colbert Report that Jon Stewart would not be long for the Comedy Central world.  And last night, he confirmed my worst fears.

I had only started watching this dynamic duo within the last two years.  Up until then, I had known of them both as part of American culture for years but never saw them, mostly because I didn’t have cable.

But like a good soup, you don’t need to eat the whole pot to know it’s all delicious and every time Colbert and Stewart came on, I was there.  They sprinkled their profanity as a sign of their indignity with the deftness of a French chef deploying saffron.  The provided the pistols with which more than one clueless politician blew their foot off.  They skewered ignorant pundits by engaging them on two levels of conversation; the one those pundits thought they were having and the one God and everyone else was hearing.

I heard an excellent interview Mr. Stewart did with Terry Gross of Fresh Air back in November 2014.  He was very proud of his work on his film, Rosewater, the story of an Canadian journalist that was imprisoned by the Iranians.  Mr. Stewart devoted much time and attention to telling that story.  And his response to questions Ms. Gross asked were probably the first hints he might not be at the Daily Show much longer.

“[T]he minute I say I’m not going to do it anymore, I will miss it like crazy,” as reported on the website TPM Livewire. “And I will consider that to be a terrible mistake that I have just made, and I will want to grab it back.”

“Maybe you’re a little, you know, restless,” Gross said. “On the other hand, you’re so darn good at doing ‘The Daily Show.'”

“I don’t know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well suited for as this show,” Stewart said, “That being said, I think there are moments when you realize that that’s not enough anymore, or that maybe it’s time for some discomfort.”

Stewart said later in the interview …

“You know, there are — you can’t just stay in the same place because it feels like you’ve built a nice house there. And that’s really the thing that I struggle with,” he said. “And it is unclear to me.”

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have made America more honest by giving voice to the frustration the American people sometimes feel with the system within which we live.  With all of the problems “journalists” sometimes have had since, well since forever, they may have been onto something all those years ago when they decided to tell serious stories in a funny way.  Sure, they were comedians, but as comedians know, comedy is often the fastest way to mainline truth.  I spent all of last year interviewing candidates for Oregon political office, and I can say that if there is any part of American culture that both is full of comedy and needs comedy, it’s politics.

Thanks very much to you both.  And to John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central’s newest babies, time to grow up fast kids.

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Written by Interviewer

February 12, 2015 at 03:42

Credibility Traps

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When an interviewer is talking with an interviewee, its important to establish rapport.  The interviewee has to want to talk, to feel comfortable talking.  And there are a few things interviewers can do to help them.  A lot of them are exactly what someone would do in a conversation with a friend.  One is to repeat a question so the interviewee feels like they are being heard.  Another, if both are in the same room, is to establish eye contact and not be looking at something else while the interviewee is talking.

But there are some things an interviewer has to be careful not to do, or if they do them, to do them judiciously.  One is be careful of the supportive “Uh huh …” When someone is explaining a point it is common for the listener to say “uh huh” as a way of greasing the  social gears.  By doing that, the talker and the listener implicitly agree to be in agreement.  But an interviewer who is trying to not sound biased can’t lend their credibility to an interviewee’s point by seeming to agree.

The other danger is the misplaced laugh.  Humor can be elusive when people are shooting for it.  Likewise, it can erupt sincerely, but unexpectedly.  The thing about a laugh is it can give even more credibility than simply seeming to agree because a shared laugh is even more personal.

Fresh Air’s Terry Gross has a great laugh.  The sound explodes from her throat like a cap pistol.  Sometimes, she even snorts.  And when someone she’s interviewing says something funny, you can expect to hear it.  When something is funny, that’s one thing.  Laughing can be irresistible, therapeutic, infectious; all of the good things laughter is.  But Terry Gross has also been dead silent even if her guest has said something funny, or while they were trying to extract a laugh from her.

Interviews are conversations between humans and humans naturally want to connect.  But interviewers need to be careful to not sound like they are agreeing with an interviewee’s opinion or point of view by giving either too much or too often.

Written by Interviewer

February 12, 2014 at 14:41

Annoying Interviewer Traits

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I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile because I listen to a lot of interviews and the thing about becoming familiar with a particular interviewer is that you become familiar with how they structure their conversations with their guests. You learn how they talk, their tics and mannerisms, the way they pose their questions.  And after awhile, you realize it gives credence to that old saw, “Familiarity breeds Contempt”.

And because I do a lot of interviews, I listen to a lot of interviewers.  It’s sort of a requirement of the guild of interviewers to keep up on the styles and techniques of others.  In particular, I listen to a lot of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, Jian Ghomeshi, Bob Garfield, Ira Glass, Michelle Martin, Dick Gordon, Melissa Block, Gwen Iffil, Bob Edwards, Jonathan Goldstein, Tavis Smiley, John Stewart, Brooke Gladstone, David Letterman.  And I listen to a lot of regional and local interviewers too.  But one interviewer in particular has some really annoying traits that I am having trouble dealing with.

This person says “um” or “you know” almost constantly.  He (and it is a he) asks the first part of his questions and then has this annoying way of slipping in an “I mean …” as a way of trying to rephrase the same question without making it sound unbearably long and drawn out.  But when he does ask questions, sometimes they’re long and drawn out anyway.  I sometimes hear him suck in his breath in preparation of his next question and I wonder if he is truly listening to the guest or just biding his time until he can line through the next question on his list.  And finally, he has this tendency to uptalk which is a kind of grating in a universe all its own.

I listen to this guy on a regular basis and I am full of respect and criticism.  I of course admire all he had done to find his guests, research them, schedule them, visit them, interview them, edit them and present them.  His guests seem happy.  His audience seems appreciative.  But I hear these traits of his and I just want to pull my hair out.

I know he is getting better, slowly.  I can hear him trying to pace himself so he doesn’t slur words.  He doesn’t seem to use “um” so much.  He holds his breath for a beat after the guest stops talks so he doesn’t sound like he’s rushing through his questions.

Little by little, he’s improving.  I’m guessing knows he’s got a lot of work to do to be anywhere near as good as any of the people I mentioned above.  But my standards as a listener are high.  The pros have set the bar and this guy, although I like him, doesn’t get a pass for his mistakes.  At best, he gets my patience while I look over his shoulder, watching and waiting for him to improve; to be as good as he wants to be.

I have faith in him, though.  He’ll get there.

An Impossible Question

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I am listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  Terry asked her, did she think she would be as successful as she was if she had had children?

I want to talk about the question for a minute, then about Justice Sotomayor’s response.  The question asks the interviewee to speculate on an alternative reality that doesn’t exist and because it doesn’t exist, no answer is possible.  It’s the kind of question most interviewers, most of the time avoid like the plague.  Rather than asking the interviewee to relate an anecdote based on personal experience or share a fact based on professional training, “What if” questions make the interviewee address a decision about a ship that has long since sailed.  And although their process might be valuable to a listener facing a similar choice, it asks something that is to some extent unfair.

Justice Sotomayor paused a long moment. In fact, the pause was so long that Terry realized she couldn’t answer it because, as they both simultaneously acknowledged, it was “an impossible question.”  It is a question in the current tortuous vein for women, “Can you have it all?”  Justice Sotomayor noted that there have been two women on the court who did have children.  So she said she would like to think that she would have been just as successful with children as she has been without them.  Her logic caused Terry to acknowledge and admit, “Exactly.” [NOTE: When I first wrote this post, I seem to remember hearing in the interview an audio response of “Of course”.  But now the audio is “exactly” so I have changed it to that].

But she also reinterpreted Terry’s question, saying “Can women have it all?” is the wrong question, and substituting it with “What makes you happy as a person?”  Success, she inferred, was dependent on what a person has the will and drive to do regardless of circumstances.  And she was totally gracious with the rest of her response, which led Terry to move on to a different question about her earlier work in a District Attorney’s office.

Sometimes, an interviewer comes up with a list of questions, and they all look good.  Then, they cut the list down to what they think are the best questions.  But sometimes, the don’t realize that there’s still a klunker among them.  A question that, if they were to hear someone else ask it, they might think to themselves, “That’s an impossible question.  How could anybody ever answer that?”  A question that attempts to group groups, not by desire and capability but societal expectations.  Is it a question that puts interviewees in a box or gives them the chance to bust up the box?

And the ultimate test of the question is, would it have been asked of a man?  You can hear Justice Sotomayor’s hesitation after the question is asked here at about 32:04.

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January 14, 2014 at 11:40


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jimmy fallon

I just listened to Jimmy Fallon’s interview with Terry Gross. I heard it the first time back in 2011, and it was a pleasure to listen to it again for what I missed the first time. The main thing I got from it, besides the fact that Fallon’s impressions are really good, is that he comes across as sincere.

There was just something in the way he talked; kind of excited, kind of geeky, that just made me think. “This guy is being who he really is right now.” And Terry Gross was just as enamored with him. I listen to Terry Gross a lot, and I haven’t heard her that happy to talk with someone since she interviewed stars from “The Wire.” But, getting back to about being sincere, Jimmy Fallon said as much. He said something like if you come across insincere, it’ll show, people will know. He’s so right.

People want sincerity. There is lots of it in the world, but it’s out of sight. It’s around the corner from the hucksters and the sociopaths; the loud mouths and the control freaks. Sincerity is there, speaking at the same volume it always has, and people are hungry for it. Interviewing is a constant struggle between being your true self and holding back a little because you tell yourself, you’ve got to maintain that level of “professionalism” when really, you aren’t sure if you want people to know you THAT well.

He said he had never done interviewing before he started doing interviews on his show. To me, that says sincerity is what lifted him up. His creativity and the willingness of people to take a risk on something they see in him was all based on how clearly they could see it. When I talk to people, I sometimes edit out my stumbles, but listening to Fallon, I wonder if I should leave more of them in. I don’t know.

Listening to him be honest with me was what I aspire to be and do.

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August 30, 2013 at 10:17

Author Interviews

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Terry Gross and Stephen King

Several months ago, I decided I didn’t want to interview solely musicians. I wanted to also focus on other creative types like authors and comedians as well as scientists, policy makers and entrepreneurs. And it’s funny … sometimes, when you ask for something (and work toward it), you get it. In the last several months, I’ve talked with all of those, but I’ve especially noticed my shift recently.  In the last few days, I’ve done two interviews – one was with an author, and the other was with a comedian and humorist turned author. And I’ve realized something about interviewing authors. They want to read from their book. I talked w/Jonathan Schuppe, author of “A Chance to Win.” It’s a story of a man who was made wheelchair bound by a drive by shooting ten years earlier, and realized that he needed to be more than he was, so he started a baseball team for inner city New Jersey youth. It was Mr. Schuppe’s first book, and I knew how proud and excited he was to be talking about it. But only after we said goodbye did I realize it would’ve been great to have him read from it.

I didn’t make that same mistake during the next interview. Jonathan Goldstein is the host of a CBC program called, “Wiretap.” Wikipedia describes it as “a program which does not fit easily into the comedy category. The show has been described as “a weekly half-hour of conversation, storytelling and introspection, culled from equal parts real-world experience and the warp of Goldstein’s imagination.” And when talking to comedians and humorists, I always expect them to be “on.” But Mr. Goldstein was quite pleasant, cogent and enthused about his book, and in no way felt any need to play any role while we talked. Fortunately, I remembered to ask him to read from his book, and the selection dovetailed perfectly into a path we were following about aging and family.

Authors are, at the same time, proud and full of eqo, and wanting to feel like people care about what they have to say.  In those respects, they aren’t much different from the rest of us. But how they are different is they have done something incredibly difficult. Sitting alone, and sticking to the job of creating something, with only yourself as company can be both empowering and torturous. You lay all of your opinions of yourself bare while you see if you are actually worthy of them, since writing a book is only you. If you don’t follow through, all of the big talk you have for yourself is shown to be pretty worthless pretty quick.

The other thing about book interviews is the author has to kind of go through a song and dance to get people to pay attention to his or her Herculean effort. It’s how the industry is geared, and it’s kind of unavoidable, but it must get kind of grueling too. Most agents are just as concerned about how you will promote your book and what resources you will bring to the table to promote it as they are about how good the writing is or how compelling is the story you’re telling. The author, having just finished this massive task, now has to put on their seersucker suit and pork pie hat and start shaking hands.

I’ve talked about it before that media and authors are in this promotional dance. And I don’t envy them for it. Hell, at some point, I hope to be one of them. But every now and then, it’s nice to be reminded that no matter who you are, you have to do it.

And that brings me to an interview I recently heard between NPR’s “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross and novelist Stephen King.  Those two are definitely at the top of their respective games – Terry Gross is the reigning Queen of the interview.  And Stephen King is everywhere, has been everywhere, and judging from his newest releases and TV adaptations, will be everywhere for the near future.  So when these two A-listers talk about what I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about, it shows that authors and interviewers are feeling it.  Here is an excerpt beginning from about 34:30 in their conversation.

“You know, the whole thing is a little bit like carny, isn’t it?”  King asked. “The whole book promotion deal, the whole movie promotion deal.  You do this thing, and it’s inside the tent.  So then you have to kind of come out and do a little cooche dance to get people to come inside.”

“I know you must feel that way,” Terry replied.  “From my point of view on the other side of the mic, it’s like, this is my chance to talk to you about things I love to talk with you about.  And I know the reason why you’re here is that you’ve got a book to promote.  But to me it’s like, what a wonderful opportunity to have this conversation.”

“I don’t mind,” King answered.  People generally go in a barber shop or in a diner and get a cup of coffee and start talking about these things.  And it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, see you later.  I’ve got a job to do.’  But this is your job and my job and I get to talk about these things.  It’s kind of cool.”

To hear this whole, great interview, follow this link –

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May 31, 2013 at 05:29