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After Ira Glass's address at this year's Third Coast International Audio Festival (which you can read all about here), I saw a window of opportunity to ask him a question. As he exited stage right and began to pack his gear into worn ziplock bags and cloth pouches, I racked my brain for a good question that wouldn't be met with a canned answer. In a couple of minutes the lights would come on and a line of admirers would surely form, bursting with questions he probably gets all the time. I closed the distance, introduced myself, and shot him my query.
"What's Terry Gross like?"
"That's your question for me?" he asked incredulously, an is-this-a-joke expression passing over his face. I said yes. He thought for a second.
"She's kind of, like, exactly the way you would imagine her if you heard her on the radio," he began, smiling. "Like she's like thoughtful, very careful, pretty funny . . . it's funny, I'd been a fan of hers for years and was very intimidated by the thought of meeting her, and then when I met her I had this thought like I had never stopped to picture what she might look like. Like I'd never formed a picture in my head of what she would be. And what she is is like a very short, very slim, glasses-wearing lady. Which when you think about it makes total sense."
He said he realized that unlike some people he never stops to think what the people behind radio voices might look like. "I feel like it's more powerful if you don't."
Nevertheless Gross turned out to match her voice, "totally matched," Glass said. "I was like 'Oh, this is exactly who she would be.'"
I asked if he was nervous the first time he met her.
"I was nervous, yeah," he said. "Yeah, I mean she was super nice, and uh . . . " He suddenly seemed to be far away in his head somewhere, his eyes glazed behind rectangular glasses as he stared out into the audience that began to mill around as the lights came on. "She's a very, like, clearheaded, thoughtful person, who means what they say. As like . . . as advertised."
He added that one of the first times they met he had to interview her on stage for a Fresh Air anniversary. "That was very frightening," he recalled. "Because it's like, how do you interview her? Just like, tactically, what do you do? 'Cuz you're interviewing somebody who has such clear thoughts about how to interview. And I remember strategically I was just like, I am 100 percent going to do an exact Terry Gross interview. Like I'm gonna steal every move, and just divide the thing up into chapters and ask the kinds of questions she asks, which she totally understood was happening." At this point, Glass began cracking up. "And when we talked about it later she appreciated the tribute," he said.
I ventured that Gross seems like she'd be a good friend, which seemed to embarrass Glass somewhat.
"Yeah, I mean, like, you know, we get, you know, like, we e-mail each other now and then, but you know we're not, like, in contact—"
"So you guys aren't tight?" I asked.
"We're not tight. I feel like I could call on her at any time for anything. . . . We don't, you know . . . like my wife and I have been splitting up for like three years and she and I, like Terry—"
"Terry Gross is not the person you call?"
"No, she's not my confidant on that. You know, like, yeah . . . "
I was relieved when Glass changed the subject himself.
"It's funny, one of the things I remember I thought about her before I met her was I was very confident that she'd had somebody in her life who was an alcoholic."
Why would he think that?
"Because when it would come up in interviews she would ask such insightful questions, she would totally go for it. And with a lot of feeling."
It turned out, to his surprise, that that wasn't the case. "She was just doing her job," he said, breaking into another chuckle. "I was like, wow. . . . When you don't have any information about somebody at all you just like, just try to fill in."
Glass leaned away to pick up some more gear, then turned back to me.
"That's gonna be your angle?" he asked. "I respect that."