Amy Salit—one of the smartest, hardest working, and funniest producers in the biz—was kind enough to take time out from her busy schedule to talk about her career at Fresh Air, including legendary BEA parties she’s attended, the musical god Thom Yorke, Gene Simmons’s infamous interview with Terry Gross, annoying publicists, and the real identity of book critic Maureen Corrigan.
—Michael Taeckens, Online & Paperback Marketing Director
How long have you been at Fresh Air?
25 long, grueling years.
How did you get the job? What was it like in the early years?
When I first applied Fresh Air was a live, two-hour show that ran Monday-Friday, 3:00-5:00pm. Three people worked on the show: Terry Gross; her producer Danny Miller, who started working on Fresh Air as a college intern; and Maeve McGoran, who was leaving. All three of them were Southpaws. I broke that barrier. I was the News, Public Affairs, and Production Director at another radio station in town, WXPN, and I knew Terry. The first year I did a lot of tape editing. We sent out a show weekly that other public radio stations could run. I edited hour-long interviews down to a half hour. I also did some live on-air interviews at that time. The next year Terry and Danny were working on applying for grants and making plans to make Fresh Air a daily national show. Then I started booking the guests. I think we started our daily national broadcasts in May 1987.
I know you recently switched from the books beat to the current news beat. Do you miss going to BEA?
I REALLY miss going to BEA. It’s such a rich gathering of articulate people, so intellectually stimulating. And I loved hanging out in person with publicists I had spent years talking to on the phone. And there were some amazing parties I got the chance to attend—one at Dennis Hopper’s Frank Gehry-designed house in Venice, California, for the journal Grand Street; a party at the Playboy mansion (my surreal moment of that year was giving the Playmate of the Year advice on her upcoming appearance on The Howard Stern Show while Salman Rushdie stood nearby staring at her bosom the whole time); a party at Prince’s house up Mulholland Drive where he played with his band on a stage set up outside by the pool. There were many others, but those were beyond stellar.
I remember when you booked Thom Yorke from Radiohead. Who are some of your favorite musicians who’ve been on Fresh Air?
I ended up working in radio because I’m such a music lover. I did music shows at my college station and at a community radio station in Massachusetts right after college. Most of our guests are interviewed over an ISDN line from some other town. It’s rare that a guest is actually here in person, but Radiohead was rehearsing in Philly for a short tour, so Thom Yorke came into the studio. For me, Radiohead’s music has this elevated power to it—I don’t want to come across as ridiculous and sappy, but I did feel I was meeting someone who knew something special on some level. (Listen to Thom Yorke’s interview on Fresh Air here.) Other musicians we’ve had on—Paul McCartney and Ringo, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson a few times, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Joey Ramone, Arcade Fire, Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters, and, of course, Nirvana. One of my faves was The RZA from Wu Tang Clan. It’s really fascinating to hear how he turned his difficult life into wild creativity.
Were you working on that infamous interview Terry Gross did with Gene Simmons? I think everyone kind of hates him after that.
I set up the interview with Gene Simmons, sat in the control room while it was happening, and I later edited it. One of the amazing things was that it really happened just as it sounded. It began unraveling early on, but Terry didn’t realize it until he said, “I believe if you’re going to welcome me with open arms, you should also welcome me with open legs.” And it pretty much barreled downhill from there. It was really interesting how Terry handled it. It took off and she didn’t have time to think about what was going on, and she was coming back at him with lines like, “Well that’s a really obnoxious thing to say.” And “So what is everyone doing, having sex with you?” And asking him how much money he has. He didn’t give us permission to put it on our website or I’d post the link, but I think it’s out there on the web somewhere. Extremely engaging radio verite.
Have there been any times when Terry Gross was resistant to a guest but then you talked her into it and afterward she owed you undying gratitude?
Yes, probably many. One I remember is Joe Boyd, Nick Drake’s manager. Joe had written a memoir and it was a great book; a fascinating life, and I just set it up without her agreeing to it. (Oops!) And it was a great interview.
I remember you once jokingly said, when referring to not replying to all publicists’ pitches, “I didn’t ask them to call me.” I think, given the insane amount of pitches you must receive every day, you do a remarkably good job of responding when there’s potential interest.
I said that in reference to publicists who would call or email and then later leave a message saying, “I left you a voicemail message and sent you an email two days ago, and I would appreciate the courtesy of a return call!” They’re accusing me of being rude and not doing my job properly, which really pushes my buttons! It’s not up to them to decide how I organize and prioritize my work. If they only knew what we’re up against on this end. It’s very much one of those “walk a mile in my shoes” kind of situations. If I replied to every call and email I would be here all night and all weekend, but I choose to have some kind of pleasant life for myself even if it means I’m not fulfilling the emotional needs of the hundreds of total strangers who choose to pitch their book. I’m not callous, and I often feel really bad when I don’t get back to certain people, but I still don’t think I “owe” people any kind of response if I didn’t ask them to send me anything.
Read any good books lately?
Now I’m combing through magazines and newspapers and websites looking for the best reporting and booking those reporters, so there has not been much time for books these days, which is really difficult. I hear about so many amazing books here every day and I have piles of them waiting to be read. I want to read Peep Show by Josh Braff—this pic (left) is from Google (full discosure: Amy Salit was at this party)—and Paul Is Undead, a Beatles Zombies book.
So Ira Glass and you have been dating on and off for twenty years?
Actually I met his mother once and we discovered that we have the same knees. Ira and I were both born in Baltimore, so I think we might be related somehow.
Is it true that Maureen Corrigan actually doesn’t know how to read?
I’m going to reveal a big secret that probably shouldn’t go beyond this blog—Maureen Corrigan is actually a computer-generated voice driven by a book reviewing algorithm. They’re still tweaking the program, but I think it’s pretty good.
Tags: Algonquin Talks, Amy Salit, Arcade Fire, BEA, Dave Grohl, Dennis Hopper, Foo Fighters, Fresh Air, Ira Glass, Joe Boyd, Johnny Cash, Josh Braff, Leslie Rossman, Maureen Corrigan, Michael Taeckens, Nick Drake, Nirvana, Paul McCartney, Peep Show, Playboy, Prince, Radiohead, Ray Charles, Ringo, Salman Rushdie, The RZA, Thom Yorke, WHYY, Willie Nelson, Wu Tang Clan, Zach Braff