'Fresh Air,' fresh forever: 30 years as national show, new digital archive

Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of NPR and WHYY’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” at her WHYY Studio location in Philadelphia.

It’s a year of milestones for Fresh Air, the longtime WHYY talk show with Terry Gross. She first took the interviewer’s chair in September 1975, when the show was local. It went national weekly in 1985. And just over 30 years ago, on May 11, 1987, the show became a one-hour national daily program on NPR.

Party! Live on stage Friday at the Kimmel Center, Gross will interview Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Seth Meyers fame. It will be a time for looking back and enjoying the view.

There is more big news. Fresh Air has been digitized, archived, and put online. As many of the old, old tapes as possible, going back to the 1970s, have been baked (that’s what you do) and played and their data turned into WAV and MP3 files and parked at a big catalog site named WorldCat.org.

“I remember the days,” Gross says by email, “when I’d record, on cassette, the interviews that I wanted to keep for myself and store them in shoe boxes. It’s thrilling to now have a digital, searchable archive.”

More than 8,000 segments across more than 7,000 shows are now online. WorldCat.org is great for scholars and professionals, but it’s not that intuitive for just-folks. A next step awaits: a website everyone can get at and search easily.

Consider the task. Anu Paul, project manager for the Fresh Air archives, says, “I joined in June 2015, and, at that point, I was just wondering, ‘Wow, how are we going to do this?’ ” The bulk of the digitization was done between 2010 and 2012, but a huge task remained.

In the early days, 1975-85, no one knew what the show would become. Many shows weren’t taped. Or tapes were recorded over. For tapes that survived, there were almost no rundowns of shows, that is, timelines noting interviewees or topics. And there were no transcripts – word-for-word texts of shows – until 1997.

“So we had few supporting materials,” Paul says. “We had to bring together all the files and the metadata” – information about what was in the programs, as in dates and guests and topics. “We had to listen to every show, understand the show and context, and add the metadata for the shows. The earlier shows took the longest time, and I’m glad we did it, because those shows are not available anywhere.”

A grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources allowed WHYY to work with library scientists at Drexel University to create the database and the descriptions. Danuta Nitecki, dean of libraries at Drexel, says, “It’s always exciting when you have what, in many ways, is a dead collection, just there, sitting on a shelf, and, with a little professional treatment, make it come alive, in ways no one thought of at the time it was created.”

Let us bow our heads and remember the tapes that died for the great cause; not all of them made it. Old reel-to-reel tapes suffer “sticky-shed syndrome,” in which the tape’s sticky stuff, which keeps in place all the metal bits that are the recording, starts separating from the tape backing. Danny Miller, coexecutive producer of Fresh Air (he has worked with Gross since 1978), says: “You ‘bake’ [dehumidify] them at a low temperature, and it gets a little gooey, and then you have a day or two when all the iron bits are stable, and you can transfer the recording to digital.”

But that next step? Gabriel Coan, vice president of digital strategy, says there are two aims: “One is for WHYY, and NPR as well, to create new ways to package and present this great archive we have. And the other is for anybody, to make it more accessible for anyone to use.” Suppose you wanted to hear everything Fresh Air has ever done touching on Watergate, all the times Gross has interviewed John Dean, say, or folks who have written books on it or compared it to other presidential crises. That next step can help you do that – create, in effect, an instant, usable database, cutting the cake your way.

In recent years, a new generation of listeners has discovered Gross and her show through another medium. Bill Marrazzo, president and CEO of WHYY, says, “About 6 million people listen to Fresh Air a week via radio, and about 2.8 million via podcast. And, apparently, these are fairly separate audiences.” That should only increase interest in the Fresh Air archive. He likens the coming next step – for which there is no set date, but “in the next few years” – to “a Dewey decimal system on steroids,” allowing you “to put your arm through the archive, like turning a sock inside out, on any topic you desire.”

“When I listen back to my early interviews,” Gross says, “I’m always startled at how different my voice sounded then — higher, maybe more tentative.” Only 24 when she started hosting the show, she often felt, she says, “like I had to find a way of assuring my guests they were in the hands of a professional, not a child.  That may have led me to sound more formal than I wanted.” In 1975, she says, “I not only had to describe to guests what Fresh Air was, I had to describe what public radio was.” The world has changed a lot.

Jordan McClain, assistant teaching professor of communication at Drexel, says Fresh Air “is both a four-decade record of American life and pop culture, and also an influence on pop culture.” On Friday night, all that will be celebrated. Then, in Fresh Air fashion, it’ll all air next week, in digital form (no more tapes ever again).

Fresh Air 30th Anniversary Special with Seth Myers. 8:30 p.m., June 9, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. Tickets must be reserved here. Information: kimmelcenter.org, 215-893-1999.

Continue Reading