WABE: On May 11, 1987, NPR first broadcast a program that has become synonymous with public radio: “Fresh Air.” The interview and commentary show originally ran as a live, three-hour weekday broadcast, hosted by Terry Gross and airing only in Philadelphia. While “Fresh Air” is still produced by Philadelphia member station WHYY, NPR now syndicates it in a daily, one-hour national edition. According to WHYY, 6 million listeners tune in each week on more than 646 NPR stations across the country and in Europe. And in the age of streaming and downloading, “Fresh Air” is NPR’s most downloaded podcast for two years in a row. MORE
NEW YORK TIMES: Gross was born in 1951 in Brooklyn. She grew up in Sheepshead Bay, between Avenues X and Y. It was a new neighborhood, with postwar apartment buildings that went up on the site of an old racetrack. As a little girl, Gross loved realistic fiction (Beverly Cleary, the Betsy-Tacy series) and would retreat to the couch with a book when her family visited relatives. Gross’s father helped run a family business selling materials to hatmakers. Her mother had worked as a secretary but quit after Gross’s older brother was born, and later Gross would seek the life outside the home that wasn’t available to her mother.
As a freshman at SUNY Buffalo, Gross wanted to write. But she was worried she wasn’t good enough to be great, and she struggled to find a subject. At the same time, she was shedding her ‘‘good girl’’ identity. She tried being a hippie — ‘‘I was too inhibited to be very convincing at it. And too Sheepshead Bay, probably’’ — and she tried drugs. One of the first times she dropped LSD, she determinedly brought along paper and pen: ‘‘I’m going to have a subject,’’ she recalls thinking. ‘‘All of my writerly inhibitions are going to open up, and my talent is going to be released!’’ LSD didn’t help her writing, but for Gross it was a beneficially ‘‘immersive experience.’’
In the first months after she graduated in 1972, Gross floundered. She had married, but would soon divorce; she was fired from a job teaching eighth grade after only six weeks (she couldn’t control the class). But then she discovered radio. One afternoon, about a year after she finished school, she was sitting in her house in Buffalo listening to ‘‘Womanpower,’’ a feminist program on WBFO, the university station. One of her roommates was a guest, and she came out as gay on the air. Gross was surprised by the revelation, but more so by the way her roommate had delivered it: sitting before a microphone in a radio studio.
Gross, who had wanted to do ‘‘something in media’’ but hadn’t known how to begin, was intrigued. Through her roommate, she learned there was an opening on ‘‘Womanpower,’’ and Gross started on the show as a volunteer. Just over a year later, she moved to a program called ‘‘This Is Radio.’’ The show’s superpower was a phone line that allowed the staff to call anywhere in New York State toll-free. Gross would scour the Village Voice classifieds for people who might be interesting — jazz musicians offering lessons, a tattoo artist — and call them up and interview them. During college Gross had shed some of her innate reserve, but ‘‘I still was just inhibitively shy,’’ she said. ‘‘With a microphone, I wasn’t shy.’’ In 1975, Gross moved to Philadelphia to take over ‘‘Fresh Air,’’ which was created by a former WBFO colleague (NPR began distributing it as a daily show in 1987). Gross says she was ‘‘always inquisitive,’’ and her curiosity vibrates on the surface of old tape. MORE