NEA Arts Magazine

A Breath of Fresh Air

Talking Art on the Radio

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Photo of Terry Gross in the studio

Terry Gross has hosted Fresh Air on WHYY-FM, a Philadelphia public radio station, since 1975. Photo courtesy of WHYY

The opening of Fresh Air is unlike any other introduction on public radio. Four saxophones of the Microscopic Septet blast out a syncopated three-chord theme. The piano and drums join in, and then listeners hear the assuring voice of Terry Gross saying, “This is Fresh Air.” The music introduces a program that also is unlike any other on public radio. Since 1975, when Gross began hosting a local arts-focused talk show on WHYY-FM, Philadelphia’s public radio station, she has been bringing audiences in-depth interviews with artists, authors, and entertainers who are at the forefront of American cultural movements.

Through the years, Fresh Air has added staff and become syndicated. Today, more than 450 American public radio affiliates broadcast the program to roughly 4.5 million listeners. Overseas, Fresh Air can be heard on the World Radio Network. The NEA began funding Fresh Air in 1988, and in 2008, awarded WHYY-FM a $65,000 Arts on Radio and Television grant. “We are so grateful for that funding,” Gross said.

Fresh Air receives NEA support not only because it is a quality radio program, but because the show consistently devotes much of its one-hour time slot to arts coverage. Before booking guests for the show, Gross and her staff read more books, listen to more CDs, and watch more movies than they can possibly count. “Our ambition is to [present] the people who are good, as opposed to people who are doing mediocre or boring work,” Gross said. “We really want to pick out the best things and call our listeners’ attention to [them], but it requires a whole lot of screening in advance.”

Her mission has become more urgent in recent years, Gross said. Across the country, local book and music stores are closing in record numbers. She sees Fresh Air as a counterbalance. For example, Philadelphia residents can no longer listen to the latest jazz releases at Tower Records, but they can hear critic Kevin Whitehead review jazz albums on Fresh Air.

“Just because the marketplace is passing this music by doesn’t mean that we should,” Gross said. “These are people who are doing really important art, but they don’t have a market base. Our job is to connect these people with their audiences, people who might really like their work if they knew it existed.”

When opportunity allows, Gross interviews artists whose work will elucidate current events. On Inauguration Day, for example, Fresh Air broadcast interviews with street artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic Barack Obama poster, and the poet Natasha Trethewey -- a 1999 NEA Literature Fellow -- whose work often elucidates her biracial heritage.

“We talk to people from the arts world -- books, movies, music -- to better understand their culture, and to see what’s happening through their eyes,” Gross said.