When the new congressional leadership announced plans to eliminate funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, staff and listeners of member TV and radio stations sprang into action. None faster with the editorial than Ruth Seymour, general manager of KCRW.
Seymour, 59, is nothing if not feisty. A graduate of the rough-and-tumble intellectual world of the City College of New York of the 1950s, she has done her best to introduce the college's spirit of no-holds-barred debate to the once-stodgy public station run out of a basement at Santa Monica College.
During the 17 years she has been manager of KCRW, the listenership has grown from a few thousand earnest but quiescent souls to what the station claims is more than 450,000 listeners, who often jam the switchboards with agitated calls. During that period, the station's budget, 85% from private sources, has grown from a slight $100,000, in 1978, to more than $4.7 million last year. It is one of the nation's five most important public-radio stations.
When Seymour warns about the difficulty of making up monies lost, she knows of what she speaks. She has a national reputation as a prodigious fund raiser, and listeners are perhaps a bit too familiar with her frequent on-air pitches. The long-divorced Seymour even employed a mysterious change from her married name, Hirschman, to a family name, Seymour, as a fund-raising gimmick two years ago.
But listeners also know her as a provocative interviewer and programmer who seems to take delight in introducing more reactionary spokespersons to a liberal audience. Perhaps as a result, the station's reach has been extended into deepest Orange County.
A strong supporter of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," she has rallied local stations to aid the national network. Seymour is also credited with pioneering local programming, including original radio dramas performed by leading actors, widely carried by other stations. A locally produced music program, "Morning Becomes Eclectic," also has a national reputation.
In response to the 1992 L.A. riots, Seymour helped launch the celebrated daily hour-long program "Which Way, L.A.?" anchored by Warren Olney. It has been honored by dozens of organizations, including the American Bar Assn.
This week, Seymour flies to Washington to lobby for an enterprise that represents not only her hard work but also her passion. She is, however, practical about her task, planning to see mostly conservative congressmen whose districts lie within the station's signal, to remind them that many listeners voted for them. As is her style, she expects to win. "If I have to, I'll ride into town on the back of Big Bird and Barney," she says. "Whatever it takes to keep public broadcasting, a great success story, on the air."
Question: \o7 How serious are the current congressional attacks on funding for public broadcasting?
\f7 Answer: Extremely serious. In the more than 20 years that I have been in public broadcasting, I can't think back on anything that has been more serious. The contention that we are going to survive these cuts and emerge as a meaningful public broadcasting service is completely fallacious. If we eliminate or reduce federal funds, we will lose public broadcasting as we know it.
Q: \o7 What about Newt Gingrich's argument that the private sector should pay?\f7
A: It already does. What we have built in the states is this extraordinary hybrid--a three-legged stool. The money we get from the government makes up from 14% to 17%, the smaller part of our budget; there is substantial foundation support, and the larger portion of our income comes from membership. For example, our station, KCRW, is one of the great nickel-and-dime success stories: We have 45,000 subscribers, and the average pledge is under $50. We are not talking affluent elites. We only get a government match--for every $5 that we raise, we get $1 from the government.
But when you say, surely you can make it without that, the answer is "no." We don't have any reserves. This is something people don't understand--we live from fund raiser to fund raiser. Most of us have to answer to boards--we have to answer to the board of Santa Monica College. We can't go into the red; if we do, they will say, "OK, where are we cutting here?" The cuts will be immediate.
Q: \o7 If the government contribution is such a small amount, why wouldn't you be able to make it up?\f7