Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsNews

ON THE MEDIA

KCRW manager succeeded by being true to herself

Ruth Seymour, who is retiring after 32 years, was passionate, unflagging and determined to do things a different way. Her way. She built the radio station with a broad, worldly sensibility.

November 20, 2009|James Rainey
  • Ruth Seymour's station introduced much of L.A. to world music and independent American artists with "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and got the city talking again after the 1992 riots with Warren Olney's "Which Way, L.A.?"
Ruth Seymour's station introduced much of L.A. to world music and… (Marc Goldstein )

My acquaintance with Ruth Seymour over the years had been fleeting. But inevitably when I saw the KCRW radio general manager, it would provoke reminiscences about the days long ago when I worked with her daughter, Celia, on the newspaper at Santa Monica High School.

Maybe that obscure connection gave Seymour license to heap extra incredulity on me a couple of months ago. It was the last time I interviewed her, and I had deigned to ask whether, based on the latest Arbitron ratings, KCRW-FM (89.9) had lost its mojo.

"Jim, I thought you were rock 'n' roll!" she said. "What happened to my rock 'n' roll guy?"

I began to wonder: Had I turned into a soulless bean counter? Did I really want to write about ratings numbers based on new "People Meter" technology that had stirred plenty of controversy nationwide? Why not talk about the quality of what went out on the air?

When she announced this week that she would retire from KCRW after 32 years, that recent episode seemed to me to synthesize Ruth Seymour -- passionate, unflagging and determined to do things a different way. Her way.

Although much of the public radio world had programmed for years from a thin playbook -- earnest public affairs programs teamed with jazz and/or classical music -- Seymour turned herself into a striking figure both in L.A. and nationally by taking another path.

She built KCRW with a broad and worldly sensibility -- with regular shows featuring books, entertainment, political satire, drama, cooking and current events.

Her station introduced much of L.A. to world music and independent American artists with "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and got the city talking again after the 1992 riots with Warren Olney's "Which Way, L.A.?"

Seymour's retirement raises the question: In an era of narrow-casting and niches in which news outlets cater to ever-more-discrete audiences, can ambitious, general interest TV, newspapers, magazines, websites and, yes, radio continue to thrive?

KCRW operator Santa Monica College has pledged to mount a wide-ranging search for a new general manager. When I reached college President Chui L. Tsang by phone in Hong Kong this week, he gave no indication that he wants to depart from the Seymour model, at least in the short run.

"I think the strength of KCRW is that it is eclectic. That is its identity," Tsang said. "I don't expect to have any wholesale change in a short time and, of course, we are looking for someone who can guide the station in the best direction in the future." At least one of the candidates to succeed Seymour, assistant general manager Jennifer Ferro, sounded much the same theme.

"The great joy of KCRW is that it's a place that can appeal to many different people and many different interests," Ferro said. "Everybody who works here is very passionate about that. The mix is what makes the station."

With characteristic bite, Seymour suggested that subscribers would rebel against any trifling with the likes of Olney, satirist Harry Shearer or political talkers such as Arianna Huffington and Robert Scheer.

"The future of the station is in the hands of the subscribers," Seymour said. "You screw around with KCRW at your own peril."

In its original, primitive outpost at John Adams Middle School, across the street from the college, Seymour identified and gave freedom to a run of iconoclasts.

"There was this old World War II transmitter, with these giant glowing purple tubes," recalled Tom Schnabel, who later became music director and host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic." "At 3 in the morning, during a thunder and lightning storm, under this metal tower, it made you think of Frankenstein's laboratory. I felt like I might die at any moment, so I might as well play the best music I possibly can. That is what KCRW was."

Seymour joined the National Public Radio network, serving its news magazines as the main course in morning and evening drive hours, then building the feast during the rest of the day, nights and weekends.

Shearer's "Le Show" hilariously skewered cultural and political icons of all stripes. Joe Frank's dark, apocalyptic storytelling informed a series of avant-garde programs beginning in the mid-1980s. Music hosts, starting with Schnabel, scoured the world for new sounds. They played anything you wouldn't find on the rest of the radio dial.

Other public radio stations eventually went to more uniform formats. Pasadena-based KPCC-FM (89.3) came to rely on talk and public affairs. KUSC-FM (91.5) adopted a classical music format that has pushed it to the top of the non-commercial ratings.

Seymour, 74, and her acolytes argued strenuously for maintaining their more exotic stew.

The general manager would tell the story, many times over, of young people who came to KCRW for its world and dance music, then hung around to learn about politics and government from "Which Way, L.A.?" or Olney's newer national program, "To the Point."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|