NPR's Fresh Air brings just that to Richmond radio. 

The Art of the Interview

That's the first thing you say when you meet a radio personality in real life?

It usually goes something like this: Gosh, you don't look at all like I'd pictured you! I thought you were taller/shorter or younger/older or a blonde/brunet.

People don't look like they sound. Well, hardly ever, anyway. Which has given rise to the broadcasting joke, You have a nice face for radio.

Look at Terry Gross' picture on this page. That's not what I thought she looked like after listening to her NPR radio program Fresh Air. I had pictured her as an intensely serious woman with long dark hair and a Marian-the-Librarian look. ThatOs not the case at all, as you can see. The real Terry Gross looks like a bigger-than-life, happier and better-dressed version of Weakest Link host Ann Robinson.

Her hourlong interview show is just as surprising with its mix of pop culture and entertainment one day, and newsmakers and scholars the next. You never know whether her subject will be the war in Afghanistan or Tony Bennett's paintings.

But Gross manages to pull it off, whether it's Nicholas Cage and then Jonathan Franzen, or a gay novelist and then a Bush Cabinet member. Her audience stands somewhere between, and exclusive of, the pointy-headed intellectual who really understands world trade and the guy who lives in a trailer behind his daddyOs house and is about to make the last payment on his 89 Dodge Ram pickup.

In other words, most of us.

And for most of us, Fresh Air is just that, a breath of fresh air, a well-executed and orchestrated presentation of some aspect of what's happening today on topics ranging from a new book or movie to a new world trouble spot or a fresh political take.

Gross is the essence of what's good about Fresh Air, and the secret to her success is preparation. There's an art to the interview, and Gross is a master craftsman. Her questions are succinct and penetrating, stripped of artifice and honed like a razor's edge. It's not surprising that she and her show have won a Peabody Award. She deserved it.

One recent week demonstrated the diversity of her subjects and gives us a hint of the amount of homework that must have gone into making those subjects work. On Monday, she paired best-selling author Jonathan Franzen with a relatively unknown gay-fiction author, David Leavitt. On Tuesday, her guests were movie and TV star Angie Dickinson and Gerald Early, a professor of modern letters at Washington University. Jimmy Carter and Sen. James Jeffords were her Wednesday guests, and on Thursday she talked to two journalists just back from Afghanistan. Her focus on Friday was the original Rat Pack version of Ocean's Eleven.

And I thoroughly enjoyed each one, thanks to Gross's interview skills and straightforward curiosity.

So, if I ever do meet Terry Gross, I think I might hold off on telling her that I had thought she sounded like a librarian. Instead, I think I'd just tell her how much I enjoy Fresh Air.

Fresh Air is broadcast on WCVE FM at 3 p.m. weekdays and at 4 p.m. on Sundays.

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