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From a new Culver City studio, NPR is boosting its West Coast presence

November 01, 2002|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

National Public Radio's Washington headquarters, though only a decade old, are already a seven-story maze of offices and studios, with narrow pathways blocked by stacks of books and files, reels of old programs and archaic tape-editing machines. So the new state-of-the-art West Coast production studios -- scheduled to open Saturday -- exemplify the network's desire to break free of its D.C. base and stretch out, both physically and philosophically.

The new facility in Culver City, with its expansive ceilings, funky suede furniture, exposed ducts and honey-colored beams, looks every inch the cushy dot-com office it once was, and from there the network plans to explore stories and trends outside the Northeast corridor.

"The purpose is to give us true national reach," Kevin Klose, NPR's president and chief executive, said while visiting the new offices. "What is happening in this state today is what will be happening in America tomorrow" -- particularly in areas such as health care, education, demographic changes and other social issues.

In addition to expanding their news-gathering abilities, network executives want to tap into different cultural outlets than their usual Washington and New York sources, to hear youths, Latinos, Asians and others underrepresented on the network.

"By having a much larger presence here, it means the content is going to be fresher. It gives us the ability to connect and present ideas to the nation" via NPR's 700 stations, Klose said. The West encompasses "very specific parts of America which we think are fascinating, which have storied pasts. If we can be more in contact with those, it will give us a diversity of voices that's only good for us."

The network's eight-person Los Angeles bureau is moving from its office off Wilshire Boulevard to the new quarters, and expanding to 25 to 30 reporters, producers and other staff within a year, Klose said. The year-old "Tavis Smiley Show" will be produced from the new facility, NPR's largest outside Washington, and a midday arts and culture program is being planned.

"L.A is probably the most diverse city on the planet," said Smiley, whose namesake interview and news program was the network's first to originate from Southern California. "Now, with NPR West, people are going to hear more of that Western essence on NPR. I'm really looking forward to hearing, 'from NPR in Los Angeles' on other shows."

The network's upstart rival, Minnesota Public Radio, already has a Southland presence, devoted to "the production and broadcast of local, West Coast and Pacific Rim news and information programming." MPR's parent took over management of Pasadena City College's KPCC-FM (89.3) in 2000 and established the nonprofit distributor, Southern California Public Radio. Along with the deal came a new $3.5-million production facility in downtown L.A., home to KPCC's newsroom and the business newsmagazine "Marketplace."

But in spite of reports to the contrary, NPR West isn't simply the latest troop advance in a turf war, according to Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio. Instead, it will boost all of the area's public radio stations -- including his own KPCC, KCRW-FM (89.9), KKJZ-FM (88.1) and KUSC-FM (91.5) -- by increasing the number of programs originating from L.A. and creating a "critical mass" of public-radio reporters and producers here.

"What this is going to do for NPR as a national journalistic entity is going to be significant. And it's going to make Los Angeles a much more significant public-radio town than it's been heretofore," he said. "If they [NPR] look at it as kind of a colony, they'll miss an opportunity.

"I'm really happy that this is happening," he added, noting that KPCC airs more NPR programs than any other public station in the Southland. "Any kind of competition we might have is pretty small potatoes compared to the common interest we all have."

The expansion was deemed so vital by NPR executives that they pushed ahead with it in spite of economic troubles that forced them to lay off dozens of workers over the past year, including the familiar voice of reporter Daniel Zwerdling. The move, however, upset some staffers, who have questioned management priorities.

"In a down economy," Klose said, "you can't keep the staff as fully as you would before. It's very painful. I'm not minimizing it. The people who are engaged with content and substance at NPR, I think they're very excited we're going to make this move. This ultimately is going to strengthen NPR."

At one time a woodworking factory, the outwardly modest, 25,100-square-foot building on Jefferson Boulevard belonged to the family of TV bandleader Lawrence Welk. The polka king used it to store sets and costumes. Most recently, an online video production company rented the space before going under.

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