Name a celebrity and chances are Terry Gross has interviewed them during her 41 years hosting WHYY’s Fresh Air.
Over the course of her career, she's had her fair share of guests, including KISS frontman Gene Simmons, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and late musician Lou Reed, angrily walk out of interviews when questions veered into areas that made them feel threatened or uncomfortable.
But “walk out” might not be completely accurate.
During a recent interview on the Longform podcast with host Max Linsky, Gross revealed something many of her loyal fans might not know: She rarely does her engaging interviews face-to-face at her Philadelphia studio.
Fresh Air guests are usually sent to the closest studio, often an NPR affiliate in New York or Chicago, to record the interview remotely. And according to Gross, there’s a surprisingly simple reason why WHYY prefers this.
“We don’t have to pay their expenses to come here,” Gross said. “They don’t have to take the time to come here, because if we had to do all that, we wouldn’t have any guests.”
It might seem counterintuitive, but Gross says speaking to her subjects remotely has many benefits that actually make her interviews more intimate.
“I have usually fairly elaborate notes I want to look at, and when I’m interviewing someone, I feel like I can not break eye-contact or they’ll think I’m not paying attention,” Gross said. “That means I can’t look at my notes as much as I’d like to, or go back to the book to find a page that I’d like to.”
Gross said over her career, she’s discovered creating a rapport with her guests isn’t a function of proximity, noting that she’s had extremely intimate interviews with people that were far away and flat interviews with subjects that were sitting across from her in studio on Sixth Street.
“Not that I’m Catholic, but I’m told that in a confession booth ... you don’t see the person you're confessing to, and they don’t see you,” Gross said. “I think that allows a certain comfort that you’re saying something that you’re maybe not comfortable saying, and you’re not looking the person in the eye.”
Gross revealed another added benefit of conducting most of her interviews remotely: She doesn’t have to dress up.
“When someone is coming here I feel this responsibility to wear nicer clothes, comb my hair, put on some lipstick,” Gross said. “It’s just nice to be relieved of all that. I’m an inherently shy, self-conscious person, so when someone’s long distance I don’t need to think about all that.”
You can listen to the full podcast, where Gross revisits her awkward 2014 interview with Hillary Clinton and reveals that part of her philosophy of life is living with “a certain amount of delusion,” here.