NPR's award-winning interview and art review program, hosted by Terry Gross and broadcast 5 days a week.

History

Fresh Air started sometime back in the 1970s as a local broadcast from Philadelphia's WHYY-FM radio station. Gross first joined the staff in 1975 as host and producer, and the program began to take off. Current co-producer Daniel Miller signed on in 1978, and Fresh Air became nationally broadcast (in half-hour form) in 1985. Two years later, it debuted as NPR's hour-long lead-in to its internationally famous All Things Considered program, a status it has upheld to this day.

By 1989, it was garnering audiences of over 2 million per week, a number that doubled over the next decade. 1994 saw the program's biggest accomplishment yet: winning the Peabody Award for its "probing questions, revelatory interviews and unusual insights". Fresh Air is currently broadcast on over 414 NPR stations nationwide, in addition to European broadcasting on the World Radio Network.

Program

My favorite specialty of the program has long been the variety of its cast. Talk shows and late-night TV tend to feature the latest celebrity or other vapid star, only rarely inviting an author or, heaven forbid, somebody interesting not known to the public eye. On the other hand, many other highbrowed programs tend to focus on this latter cast entirely, which might be nice if you're the type of person who thinks Jonathan Franzen is too mainstream. But, in doing so, it cuts out that entire section of modern culture which contains people that are both famous and interesting to talk to.

Fresh Air is the only program I know of that readily draws from this, and all other tiers of art (and other fields) for its interviewer list. Sure, it has figures like Paul O'Neill, 2003 Pulitzer winner Jeffrey Eugenides, and journalist Peter Maass, but I remember their interviews of Lisa Kudrow, Jack Black, Simon Cowell, et al. just as well. The subjects really do come from all areas. The program, as may be expected of an NPR feature, has a slightly liberal bent, but Gross and the staff are always somewhat arguably as fair and balanced to Bill O'Reilly as they are to Al Franken.

And neither of the types of programs mentioned above consistently achieve a level of quality that Fresh Air so regularly hits. I used to think Gross a subpar interviewer because of her docility--until I realized that this is what makes her so great. Instead of starting off with the hard-hitting questions (which the interviewee will immediately shy away from) or staying bland throughout the program, she makes interesting queries about the subject and their life and/or work, slowly drawing information out of them in an informal atmosphere. (It should be noted here that Gross has a tendency to have extensive preknowledge of her guests' work, allowing for more informed and intimate questions. And when she does make a mistake--that makes it all the more verisimilitudinous.) Then, when the big question does come around, he or she will be much more likely to answer. Fresh Air features an unusually high number of return guests, so I suppose that the victims enjoy the experience too.

The accessibility is great, too: instead of wasting time watching an interview on TV at home, I easily enjoy Fresh Air in my car every afternoon after school. Archived editions are also available online. (Be warned, though: this method causes you to skip over the above-average, upbeat intro music by Joel Forrester. Simply titled "Fresh Air", a piano-solo version of it can be found on his 1997 CD Stop The Music.) And of course, one must not forget the length of the program: being one hour allows it to alternate between one long, absorbing interview one program and two or even three more concise ones the next. In any case, there is always time at the end for a 10-15 minute review of some newly released book, movie or music collection by a knowledgable critic. And these, I assure you, come from as wide a range of backgrounds as do the interviewed.

Summation

Fresh Air does have an obvious downside: since it caters to such an expanse of interests, people with less eclectic tastes may find it boring from time to time. After all, people who like to hear both about Matt Groening and the smuggling of Afghani refugees to the United Kingdom are few and far between. But it is this something-for-everybody format, combined with Terry Gross' unique style, that help keep Fresh Air one of the better (and, dare I say, fresher) programs currently on American radio.

The staff features Terry Gross as host and co-executive producer (with Danny Miller), Roberta Shorrock as director, Barbara Bogaev as substitute host, and Jessica Chiu as researcher. Critics include Geoffrey Nunberg, Ken Tucker, Ed Ward, and Maureen Corrigan. Funding (as of spring 2004) is provided by Barnes and Noble Books (which, as Fresh Air listeners know all too well by now, were the publishers of The Stones of Summer, inspiration for the movie Stone Reader... *groan*) and NPR stations, among others. Fresh Air is still produced by WHYY and is distributed at 3 and 7 PM every Monday through Friday.

Sources:
http://freshair.npr.org/
http://www.pulitzer.org/2003/body_2003.html
Thanks also to the god (dannye?) who corrected the capitalization for this node (and nuked the one-liner above this w/u) and everyone who rather quickly offered their conflicting opinions on the O'Reilly interview. I still don't think she was that bad...

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