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Madeleine Brand talks KCET, leaving KPCC and the future

The host left the FM station in September and went to TV's 'SoCal Connected' amid public radio changes. There's lots of interest in what she'll do next.

November 05, 2012|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times
  • Radio personality Madeleine Brand photographed at home.
Radio personality Madeleine Brand photographed at home. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Eight a.m. used to be crunch time for Madeleine Brand. She'd rise at 4:45, arrive each weekday at Pasadena radio station KPCC by 6, and be fully immersed in a frenzy of rewriting and editing during the critical last hour before 9, when "The Madeleine Brand Show" went live.

But on this drizzly Wednesday morning, clad in sweats, a loose wool cardigan, red clogs and not a scrap of makeup, Brand, her hair pinned into a messy bun, relaxes at a local hipster cafe over an 8 a.m. coffee. A dad from her kids' school stops by to say hello, and she runs into the girlfriend she was out with the night before (they caught the Patti Smith concert).

Until recently, this seemingly nondescript Silver Lake mom reigned over Southern California's morning public radio airwaves. For August, her show had the highest ratings of any show produced by KPCC-FM (89.3), topping the station's airing that month of NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."

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But on Sept. 21, a day after her program's two-year anniversary, Brand, 47, walked away from the show that had been built around her. After 27 years in radio, she's now a regular contributor on KCET-TV's "SoCal Connected," which just last week expanded to a daily format, airing Mondays through Fridays at 7 and 10:30 p.m.

"It was time for me to leave … to have a fresh start," says Brand in her first extensive interview since she left KPCC. "It's exciting to know that there's more than public radio in the world."

"She's a great communicator and interviewer … cutting-edge, irreverent, witty, and she's thoroughly charming on the air," says KCET chief content officer Bret Marcus, a longtime fan of Brand's who envisions a "60 Minutes"-style local program with thoughtful, long-form investigative reporting that feeds off the day's news.

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The road to television, however, did not come easily — or, it seems, peacefully. Her departure from radio came after months of tension with her longtime champion, KPCC President Bill Davis, who brought her to the station after she'd made a mark nationally on the NPR show "Day to Day." The two, who've known each other for almost 30 years, Brand says, haven't spoken since July.

At the heart of the conflict is a $6-million grant (to be spread over three years, in increments of roughly $1.8 million), which the station solicited from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The money, which KPCC was awarded last December, was earmarked to develop multicultural programming, diversify newsroom talent and better connect with Southern California's Latino community. Toward that end, Davis, instead of creating new programming, retooled Brand's show, expanding it from one to two hours and hiring her a co-host, sports broadcaster and L.A. native A Martinez. The change sparked scores of listener complaints.

"Brand & Martinez," which premiered Aug. 20, lasted just four weeks.

Martinez is indisputably "easy on the ear," Brand acknowledges, but she met him only twice before he was brought on. "One little tryout and … a get-to-know-ya coffee," she says.

Brand had input early in the long process of interviewing potential co-hosts — and was excited about certain candidates, including OC Weekly editor in chief Gustavo Arellano and CNN's Nick Valencia — but was "surprised" when she found out in an email that the station had hired Martinez, who is known as the voice of ESPN Radio's "Lakers Line" and "Dodger Talk" on AM 710 but came into the job with little hard-news experience.

"I had no idea what his capabilities were," she says.

Still, Brand says she wasn't wedded to being a solo practitioner — she very much enjoyed the co-hosting format when she was on "Day to Day" — and insists she was fully committed to making "Brand & Martinez" work. "You can't stand in the way of $6 million," she says. "That's a lot of money for a public radio station."

Then, sliding down in her seat and nearly disappearing into the puffy folds of her sweater, she adds: "But it's all about chemistry. Maybe more in radio than TV because it's so intimate."

After Brand left, KPCC's afternoon anchor on "All Things Considered," Alex Cohen (one of Brand's former co-hosts on "Day to Day"), was immediately paired with Martinez on what's now being called "Take Two." Brand says she thinks Cohen and Martinez have better on-air chemistry than she and Martinez.

Changing stations

The Brand-KPCC kerfuffle speaks to turbulent shifts in public radio nationwide. Traditionally white and sometimes stodgy, public radio is, by necessity, reinventing itself, aiming both for a younger and more ethnically diverse audience.

Public broadcasting veteran Tom Thomas, co-chief executive of Station Resource Group, a national alliance of public radio stations that includes KPCC and Santa Monica's KCRW-FM (89.9), calls it a "21st century challenge."

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