I’m Terry Gross and This Is (Bleep) Fresh Air
Back when I edited humor books, I was often interviewed on the radio. Radio shows are hungry to fill air time, I had books to promote and I had a great publicist. She booked me on several a week, which I was able to fit easily into being at home with a toddler.
The interviews took place on the phone. A sitter would come by to watch my son for the twenty minutes or so I was on the air. Sometimes, though, there would be a scheduling snafu. I’d be feeding Tom breakfast, or reading him a book and the phone would ring.
“Ready to go?” someone at a radio station in Seattle or Des Moines would ask. This meant I’d be on the air — live — in a few minutes. I’d rush to grab my son, park him in front of “Clifford’s Fun With Opposites” or “Road Construction Ahead,” then switch gears and chat with a stranger in another state about my latest book.
Being interviewed was fun. The other person does all the work. They have to do the research, ask the questions, come up with good follow-ups and keep everything moving along.
All I had to do was gab about a topic I was an expert on — my own books.
After my son grew up and went off to college, I turned from editing collections of other women’s humor to writing humor myself, and returned to being just another radio listener rather than a provider of content.
The closest I got to being on the radio was when one of my humor pieces would appear on Newsworks.org, the website of WHYY-FM, my local NPR station.
Then that site ran “My Resolutions for You In 2013,” a humor piece listing the things I wanted other people to change in the coming year, and my editor asked if I’d come to the studio to record the piece to air on “Newsworks Tonight.”
“I’d love to,” I responded.
That was a lie. I would love having it air, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to enjoy recording it. I’m one of those people who like to do everything well, and I knew I wasn’t going to do this well at all.
Oral interpretation is an art that folks study for years to master. And I’ve never believed that the best way to learn a new skill was to be tossed into the deep end of the pool.
But I had to do it. Hearing my essay on the air would be a thrill. It would bring my work to a wider audience. And it would be a new experience. I believe life is more interesting if you can occasionally move outside of your comfort zone.
But the clincher was that WHYY-FM is the home of “Fresh Air,” my all-time favorite radio show. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go out over the same air waves as Terry Gross.
They wanted me in the studio the next day, so I didn’t have a lot of time to be nervous. Or to prepare. I read “Resolutions” out loud a number of times to Mark, my sweetie, so I’d be less likely to stumble over hard-to-pronounce words and phrases.
I also read it out loud that night as I walked on the treadmill. If there’s anything sillier than a middle-aged woman trotting along on the treadmill declaiming a humor piece to a snoozing Yorkie-poo, I’m not aware of it.
I wondered about one thing. The essay included the line: “Fuck you, Julie.”
I suspected that I couldn’t say “Fuck you, Julie” on National Public Radio. Would they bleep it out? Ask for a rewrite?
“You’ll just have to see when you get there,” said Mark.
I was told that when I got to the WHYY building, a producer would meet me in the lobby. I reassured myself that she’d take me in hand and guide me through the process. I was a total newbie. Surely I wouldn’t have to do this cold. There would be coaching, and plenty of takes, and many opportunities to correct my inevitable flubs.
The next day, Mark and I arrived early. The lobby was deserted except for two guys manning the reception desk. I read my essay to Mark one more time. Then a slight, pants-clad woman in a leather jacket strode by and vanished around the corner.
“Holy crap! Was that—?” I asked Mark.
“That was Terry Gross,” he confirmed.
Two minutes later, she zipped by again.
I’m such a big fan it was all I could do to stop myself from bounding over to give her a hug. But I played it cool and left her alone.
“I’m sure she listens to every single moment of WHYY programming,” Mark said. “After your piece airs, she’ll probably write YOU fan mail.”
Kimberly the producer appeared and led me to a large high-ceilinged room dominated by a mammoth conference table. I sat down at the table and she adjusted the microphone in front of me, then handed me headphones so I could hear her instructing me from the control room.
Then she left.
No coaching. No input. Maybe Kimberly thought I was an old pro at this and didn’t need her advice.
If so, she was in for a big surprise.
I’d read my humor out loud before, but always to an audience, if only Mark or a few friends. When your first funny line gets a laugh, you’re good to go. They’re enjoying it! You can relax and have fun.
In this large, quiet room, there was no audience. I’d have to imagine listeners. And laughs. I’d have to imagine someone enjoying this. Because I certainly wasn’t.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Kimberly’s voice came through my headphones.
I took a deep breath and started reading.
Two paragraphs in, she interrupted. “Your mouth is dry,” she said. “Let’s get you some water.”
The door behind me opened and a ghostly hand placed a plastic cup of water on the table.
I drank the water and began again, trying to sound as if I were talking, not reading. When my nerves made me stumble over a word or phrase, I just restarted the sentence and kept going. I was floundering. But I meant to get through this.
When I got to “Fuck you Julie,” I didn’t change a thing, even though I was pretty sure I‘d never heard Terry Gross say “Fuck you” on the air.
Maybe, I thought, she says “Fuck you” on the air all the time! Maybe she swears like a sailor and they just edit it out.
“I’m Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air, cocksuckers!”
Maybe I should throw in a few extra swear words myself, just to loosen things up.
Why not? This wasn’t going too well. What did I have to lose?
But I didn’t. I’m not that bold. And as awful as this was, I wanted to be invited back.
When I finally finished, the door behind me opened and a large man with a warm smile entered. He introduced himself as Kevin the audio engineer, then sat down across the table.
“We think this will work better if you’re not in here all by yourself,” he said. “You need somebody to speak to. Try it again. Be as conversational as you can. Talk to me.”
It feels weird to read a humor piece and not get a single laugh, even though I knew that if Kevin had cracked up, it would have ruined the take. But as I finished each paragraph, I glanced up at him, and he’d give me an encouraging smile and a thumbs up.
I’m a writer. I have a good imagination. But not good enough to conjure up an appreciative audience out of nothing. Thank God for Kevin. If he hadn’t come in to help me out, I’d probably still be in that studio, struggling to put my essay across.
“Good job,” Kevin said when I finished. “You’re a natural.”
I knew that wasn’t true. But so thrilled this was over that I didn’t care.
When the piece aired, it wasn’t too bad. My voice was bland, and I rushed through punch lines when I should have lingered. But my friends and family told me they’d enjoyed it. And my Newsworks editor said I sounded great for a first-timer.
(Just in case you’re wondering, they did bleep “Fuck you, Julie.”)
I’m still waiting for that fan letter from Terry Gross.
(This essay first appeared on www.womensvoicesforchange.org)