At 11 p.m., the Culver City outpost for Washington, D.C.-based National Public Radio is almost empty, except for a security guard and the skeleton crew accompanying "Morning Edition" co-host Renee Montagne, who has just arrived, perfectly coiffed, properly caffeinated and ready to report the news millions of listeners will wake up to the following morning.
By 1:30 a.m., Montagne's in the studio, prerecording whatever bits of the show are possible. At 2 a.m., she's live. She won't leave for another nine hours.
It's a brutal schedule, but it's necessary for public radio's most popular morning news program to provide its West Coast listeners with the latest news and to remain competitive with agile, round-the-clock cable and Internet services.
Last month, Montagne's position as "Morning Edition" co-host became official -- just the latest indication that the West Coast's years as a mere spoke on public radio's East Coast hub have ended. Now more than ever, the smooth-voiced cognoscenti are recognizing California's economic power, cultural clout and geographic advantages, and they're giving Los Angeles a starring role that is likely to grow even brighter over the next few years.
A strong West Coast presence means local stories are showing up on the national radar earlier than they would if the decision makers were predominantly in the East. It also means that national news stories play differently in different areas of the country and can be reported from multiple angles accordingly. And it means that expert commentary is coming from UCLA, Stanford and other top-notch West Coast universities, not just the Ivys.
"People, irrespective of whether they're in New York or Des Moines, Iowa, or Lawrence, Kan., recognize that what's going to happen in their communities probably already is in Southern California in some way, for better or for worse," said Bill Davis, former senior vice president of programming for NPR and current chief executive of Southern California Public Radio, which operates the Pasadena Community College radio station, KPCC. "Whether it's Latino American immigration, whether it's new musical styles, fill in the blank. There's a lot of cutting-edge demographic, economic, social, cultural activity that's happening in Southern California that takes a while to work its way through the rest of the country. And there's interest in that."
Jim Russell, senior vice president and general manager of American Public Media-Los Angeles, said the change is welcome: "The perception is that L.A. is the home of entertainment, not the home of serious thinking. [But] we've got the Rand Corp., we've got great universities. We think that it's time for L.A. to take a position in the national idea leadership."
Russell was one of the first to believe in L.A.'s potential for public radio programming. When he created "Marketplace" 15 years ago, he recalled someone asking, "What are you going to do? Business from the hot tub?"
Now the contrarian, L.A.-based business show is the third-most-popular show on public radio, with 8 million weekday listeners nationally precisely because it is here, not on Wall Street.
"Southern California is a place where testing happens, where new ideas are thrown out, and there's such a population diversity that they have a chance. There's no one group that can say no," said Russell, who's been greeted with a lot of yeses for his most recent program, the weekly two-hour culture magazine, "Weekend America."
Co-hosted by "Fresh Air" backup interviewer Barbara Bogaev and transplanted Seattle radio personality Bill Radke, the show debuted in October -- the first new offering from Minnesota Public Radio's recently launched production and distribution arm, American Public Media. MPR says it has only begun to mine Los Angeles' resources.
Next year it will use "Marketplace" and its recently retooled "Sound Money" program as national testing grounds for a new "public insight journalism" initiative. Backers says the interactive news-gathering model will help them identify new sources for experts, stories and trend pieces.
Because of the added shows and staff, American Public Media recently expanded into an adjacent office space and built an extra on-air talk studio at the Frank Stanton Studios in downtown Los Angeles, where American Public Media and its locally produced shows are based.
A similar expansion has been taking place at NPR West, where a storage area was recently cleared to house a staff that's almost tripled since opening -- and it's still growing. The office manager is eagerly waiting for the lease to expire in a nearby building so that NPR West can continue its Manifest Destiny.