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Queen of the Air : Ruth Hirschman Has Built a Power Base in National Public Radio From a Quirky Little Station in Santa Monica

March 08, 1987|DENNIS McDOUGAL

Q--How long have you been in radio, Ruth?

A--Since '62.

Q--So you've been doing it for 25 years?

A--Well, no, not the whole time. I went to Europe for awhile. In '65 I was reporting from there. Doing interviews. One day, I threw my tape recorder into the Aegean and went off to live on a Greek island. I gave up an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre when he won the Nobel Prize to go to Greece and be an existentialist.

Q--You gave up a Sartre interview to live on a Greek island?

A--Well, you must remember this was a time in American history, actually world history, where all of us were very serious about finding out what truth, what meaning there was to living our lives.

Q--Did we find out?

A--Well, you know it's not the end that is important. It never is. It's always the journey itself. It's not what you find. It's the search. A lot of people lost their way, but those of us who survived, I think, are better off for it.

Q--What did you discover about the meaning of life?

A--That you don't have to search for it in the isolation of a small Greek island that has no electricity and about 30 highly charged, demented people running around stark naked from all over the world.

A park is going in by the beach, and Ruth Hirschman thinks it's a real hoot. From her front porch in Santa Monica's Ocean Park neighborhood, the mistress of the trendiest radio station in Los Angeles can see all of the expensive landscaping. She knows it will be a haven for the homeless as soon as it's finished.

" ' . . . And I sang in my chains like the sea'," she quotes from memory with a flourish of her bone-thin fingers.

Then the manager of KCRW-FM sits back on a pink pillow in her old-fashioned window seat, sipping cafe au lait. The walls of her living room are covered with abstract nudes. A pastel silk scarf barely covers the thin gold chain around her throat. Her movements are delicate--all unfeigned drama. In the proper state of framed, abstract undress, she might blend in as a portrait.

She stares across the street at a neighbor washing his van on a sunny day. "Dylan Thomas," Hirschman continues between sips, citing the source of her poetry.

Picking up the theme of the beachfront park, she observes that there's a special kind of freedom to be had in having no home. A friend of hers, Peter Marin, has written about that wonderful tragic freedom in Harper's magazine, and she is going to have him on the show to talk about it. "He's a contributing editor. He's a very, very bright man," she says.

She drops Marin's name as easily as she does Jane Fonda's or Henry Miller's or Ed Asner's. Or Dylan Thomas'.

What we have here in Ruth Hirschman's rent-controlled ("less than $400 a month") home of the last 10 years are all the external symptoms of Westside cultural pretension: art posters, scattered copies of contemporary art magazines and the artless display of a well-worn recording of "Horowitz in Moscow."

Yet there is no trace of pretense in Ruth Hirschman's reedy, New York voice. She ponders well what she says, whether it involves the freedom of beach bums or the sheer tragic nature of surviving from cradle to coffin.

Slurping up the last bit of coffee, she announces: "If you go past 35 without a sense of tragedy, you're either a fool or a saint."

At 52, Hirschman is neither. An aging Bohemian, perhaps. Certainly a moving force on the Westside. A practiced Machiavellian in the politicking that infuses the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio.

She watches her neighbor boogaloo to his car stereo while he hoses down his van. He whistles to himself, dipping and parrying like a bona fide California surfer. He seems to have no sense of tragedy. He seems happy just to enjoy the sun.

But then, he doesn't carry the weight of KCRW-FM on his shoulders--the most widely listened-to public station in Los Angeles and self-proclaimed harbinger of East Coast sophistication for the culture-starved masses of Southern California.

Hirschman may hover between fool and saint like most of her radio audience, but she does have a full-blown sense of the tragic. And she is a woman with a mission--a light of cultured wisdom on the hedonistic Westside horizon.

Thinking things through and then doing what must be done, however tragic the consequences, is no sin, according to Hirschman.

It is "sheer, mindless optimism," she warns, "that is a danger."

"There are still so few women in radio," says Deirdre O'Donoghue. "My imagination is that Ruth battled through some tough times. I know the kind of remarks and inanities she's made but . . . Oh, I don't know. What do I know about Ruth? I don't know anybody who really knows about Ruth."

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