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Pasadena radio station KPCC embarks on new era

After tripling its listening audience in the last decade, the public radio station is unveiling a $24.5-million broadcast facility that will expand its programming and future possibilities.

March 20, 2010|By Steve Carney
  • Larry Mantle, right, host of KPCC's popular "AirTalk" program, in one of the station's new studios.
Larry Mantle, right, host of KPCC's popular "AirTalk"… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

KPCC boasts "A Prairie Home Companion," Larry Mantle's popular "AirTalk" call-in show and an audience that has tripled in size in the last 10 years, turning the station into one of the country's most-listened-to public radio outlets.

Coming next? A major expansion that its board of trustees hopes will make KPCC the hub of a regional constellation of public radio stations and a major source of news and information in Southern California.

On Saturday, KPCC will take the wraps off of a $24.5-million broadcast facility in Pasadena that houses 13 studios and control rooms, compared with one primary studio in the cramped quarters of the library at Pasadena City College that has been the station's home since 1993.

Among the additional programming the new headquarters will afford is a local newsmagazine due to air this spring with Madeleine Brand. A year ago, Brand lost her job as co-host of the National Public Radio newsmagazine "Day to Day," based in Los Angeles, when the network canceled the show and laid off about three dozen people, fallout from the economic downturn and a steep drop in corporate underwriting.

At a time when many public broadcasters are financially strapped -- reliant on shrinking government funds, meager college support, and subscription drives dreaded by listeners -- KPCC has thrived by tapping a board willing to write big checks and hit up their rich friends for contributions. Taking the lead are Gordon Crawford, managing director of the Capital Group, the Los Angeles investment fund manager, and Jarl Mohn, who built E! Entertainment Television.

Crawford, chairman of KPCC's board, and Mohn, vice chairman, contributed about $4 million each to the five-year capital campaign for the new headquarters. They are also champions of a consolidation plan that has already put two additional stations under the umbrella of Southern California Public Radio, or SCPR, the nonprofit company that operates KPCC (89.3 FM), as well as KUOR-FM (89.1) in Redlands and KPCV-FM (90.3) in the Coachella Valley.

"Using these public airwaves for a public service that's devoted to discussing the issues of the day is kind of critical to our democracy," Crawford said. "Hopefully, the more we learn about each other, the better we'll get along."

Key for many donors was their desire to support KPCC's news and talk programming and counter the polemics on talk radio, and the shrinking news operations elsewhere.

In the last 10 years, KPCC has won more than 230 regional and national journalism awards, and grown from a weekly audience of about 200,000 to nearly 600,000, second in size only to WNYC-FM in New York among news and information public radio stations and consistently ahead of KCRW-FM locally. (Classical music programmer KUSC-FM is the top rated public radio station in Southern California.)

SCPR has about 30 reporters, with bureaus in L.A., Orange County, the Inland Empire and Washington. (Times columnists Patt Morrison and David Lazarus and other staff members are frequent contributors to KPCC programming. Times reporters and editors appeared on KPCC programs about 150 times in 2009.)

"We are huge believers in the mission," said Mohn, who early in his career worked in radio for 19 years with the on-air name Lee Masters. "There are increasingly fewer and fewer outlets for this kind of programming and content."

About four-fifths of the money for the new building came directly from board members or their contacts, according to Bill Davis, president of SCPR. He cited generous early support from station trustees Charles Miller, the retired chief executive of Pasadena-based office products company Avery Dennison Corp., and philanthropist Adelaide Hixon, as well as donations from the James Irvine, W.M. Keck, Rose Hills and Ahmanson foundations.

In addition to the new offices and studios, known collectively as the Mohn Broadcast Center, the SCPR building houses the Crawford Family Forum, designed to host guest speakers, candidate debates and town hall meetings. In addition to the grand opening of the building Saturday, an open house will be held Sunday.

The ascent of KPCC started with a letter plucked from a trash can.

In 2000, KPCC was a low-budget, student-staffed station that mixed NPR's news programming with a hodgepodge of music shows, including alternative, blues, big band and R&B. The annual budget was $300,000, with fundraising bringing in $200,000 and Pasadena City College on the hook for the rest, said James Kossler, college president from 1995 until his retirement in 2007.

Crawford said the station's audience was so anemic that it was about to lose its Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding.

Minnesota Public Radio, the nonprofit group that ran its own network of public stations in the Midwest and produced programs, including "A Prairie Home Companion" and, later, "Marketplace," wrote a letter to the college about taking over operation of the station.

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