Sound Off - CityThink - Los Angeles magazine
 
 

Sound Off

After more than three decades in charge of KCRW, Ruth Seymour takes a bow, confronts criticism, and gives some parting advice to her successor. PLUS: Hear editor Richard E. Meyer interview Seymour on her career and retirement 

Photograph by Marc Goldstein

Ruth Seymour retires this month after 32 years as general manager of KCRW (89.9 FM). Seymour, who is turning 75, leaves a legacy unique in broadcasting. KCRW is one of the most successful public radio stations in America. It is renowned for its music on Morning Becomes Eclectic, its news coverage on Which Way, L.A.?, its political talk on Left, Right, and Center, and its considerations of culture and the arts on The Politics of Culture, which is hosted occasionally by Seymour herself. She calls her station “singular, idiosyncratic, daring, independent, smart, and compelling.” Many say KCRW utterly reflects Ruth Seymour. She grew up in the South Bronx, attended City College of New York, married poet and Joyce scholar Jack Hirschman, and had two children. Divorced, she changed her name in 1993 from Hirschman to Seymour in honor of her paternal great-grandfather, who was a revered rabbi. Her first L.A. radio station was KPFK (90.7 FM), which hired her in 1961 as its drama and literature director. Later she became program director. She joined KCRW in 1977 and was named general manager that November. At the time, it broadcast from a converted classroom at a junior high school and had the oldest transmitter west of the Mississippi. She moved the station into a basement at Santa Monica College, where it huddles today—cramped, crowded, and thriving.

What was your best decision at KCRW? 
To stay. It was enormously difficult at the beginning, and I really lost heart. We had one typewriter that continually broke down. We had only five employees, including myself. The chairs were missing legs where they would topple over. The station was licensed to Santa Monica College, and the college was under a lot of pressure to shut the damn thing down. The administration was very, very supportive, but there was great doubt in every other part of the college.

What has been the best show on KCRW, your favorite, the most memorable?
I never program according to my obsessions. There are things on the air that have nothing to do with what I am particularly interested in. But I think I have a good sensibility about whether a program will succeed. I’m not somebody who believes that “the program will get better.” I really think you can tell very quickly if it’s going to work or not. It’s a je ne sais quoi. I remember broadcasting Morning Edition the day it debuted. There was no question—OK, this is going to be a hit. This American Life—I knew after the first tape. Just to be safe, I listened to a couple more. I said, “Call Ira and tell him we’re ready to go.” Ira Glass, who created the show, said, “No, it’s not ready yet.” I said, “You’re telling me this isn’t broadcast quality. I think it’s good enough.” Then he said, “It doesn’t have a name.” I said, “I’ll call it Hamlet if you don’t come up with a name.” We went back and forth. He came up with This American Life.

You’re “strange but brilliant,” people say. “A grand eccentric.”
I’m not eccentric. In fact, among eccentrics, I think I would be considered extremely conventional. Public radio used to be full of people like me. None of them were eccentric. They were just individualistic. But as time went on, very talented people could earn more in commercial entertainment, and the kind of people who were attracted to public broadcasting were administrators. They were not programmers, whereas in my world that’s the whole thing. It’s about programming. It’s about content. So some of us who stayed were probably considered eccentric.

What makes somebody eccentric? 
Usually there’s a little mania involved. There’s a complete disregard for what society thinks. I certainly don’t have that. You don’t work in broadcasting if you’re an eccentric. When I conceived and constructed an eclectic program schedule that went totally against the way people programmed radio, that’s when people said, “She’s eccentric.” Then later, when it succeeded, they said, “Oh, she’s a visionary.” But they were really measuring it on the basis of success. I wasn’t propelled by the notion of success. I was propelled by doing something important—that mattered.

Did the success surprise you? 
It did surprise me. At the beginning, it so surprised the system that no one followed. Later they did, but at the very beginning, everybody in public radio simply said, “It’s the water in L.A.”

You’ve said that it might be true that public broadcasting has a liberal bias. Is that true of your programming at KCRW? 
Yes. Let me put it this way: The media has a liberal bias. KCRW, NPR—they’re not alone. I would say journalists as a rule tend to be liberal.

But you are “not an off-the-rack Westside liberal,” I’ve read. “You take delight in introducing more reactionary people to a liberal audience.”
I wouldn’t say I take delight in introducing reactionary people. But I’m totally uninterested in preaching to the converted. I don’t believe in consolation radio. I am interested in people who have really intelligent, well-thought-out views that differ from the norm. For example, David Frum, who is a former Bush speechwriter and is an intellectual—I have always found David’s way of thinking extremely compelling, and it makes me pause in my convictions and question them, and that’s the kind of thing I like. I was always saying to NPR, “You always choose conservatives whom liberals love, and this disturbs me.” Now, we have had people who have written us and said, “If you don’t take so-and-so off the air, I’m never going to subscribe again.”

What do you do? 
Nothing. You don’t like what you hear and you’re so upset by it? Turn the dial. Push another button.

Somebody once called you “a practiced Machiavellian in the politicking that infuses the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio.” Are you? 
Today I would say that one of the major issues is the importance of maintaining and strengthening and recognizing local stations. In many ways, it’s emblematic of the country itself: Public radio is an extremely diverse, even anarchic system. It’s not centrally controlled. Every station is independent. For people who love order, this is a nightmare. For somebody like me, who celebrates diversity, it is a triumph. There are always those inside public broadcasting who would like to see a “well-managed system.” KCRW wouldn’t exist under their aegis. And the Internet has complicated everything. In public radio it is unseemly to talk about being competitive. You know: “We’re all one big system; we have trouble surviving as it is, so we’re not competing.” That’s nonsense. We are all competing with each other. KCRW has subscribers in every state and some abroad. The Internet makes us available in San Francisco, in New York. We are getting into each other’s markets. There have been attempts to gather us into one big group under NPR. We are not interested. We want to sing our own song. It costs money. The more successful you are on the Internet, the more you have to pay for increased bandwidth and increased staffing. We have a very large audience on the Web. I think it may be the largest of any single station that’s Webcasting. And it’s expensive.

What advice would you give to your successor about that?
It’s all radio. I guess that’s the first advice, because there is an enormous shifting away, a lack of investment in programming and increased investment in the new bells and whistles of digital technology. But the reason people listen is that they’re intrigued or fascinated or interested in the content. That’s the most important thing to remember, and it is the thing that increasingly concerns me—that independent producers, the people who are the creative types, are marginalized today in favor of the technology people. It’s a real failure not to understand that the business you’re in is programming.

At NPR, too?
NPR must invest in programming. It cannot simply invest in Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It must be seen—and it isn’t now—as a place that welcomes independent productions. NPR doesn’t have a program director right now who listens to new stuff. When This American Life began in 1995, Ira, who had worked at NPR, could not get NPR to take the program. That is not better today. It’s even worse. Instead the focus at NPR is online. The Internet gives NPR a voice to go over the heads of the local stations, OK? That’s the big danger.

An audience can use the Internet to get NPR and not go through a local station?
They can, but so far the numbers are very small.

Why?
It’s habit. But it might change.

What if listeners bypass you?
I don’t see that happening—because we’re intrepid, because we’re interesting, because we’re quirky compared to everything else.

People in public radio consider you a hell-raiser. John McNally, who was a KCRW programmer and attended affiliate meetings with you, has been quoted as saying, “Ruth will stand up and yell, ‘That stinks.’?”
That’s not my language, but it’s true about what I did.

Public radio people aren’t accustomed to that?
They used to be. People in public radio used to be larger than life, because the people who went into it felt passionately. The ’60s had a lot to do with that. Over the years this quality has dissipated. Stations have become more like each other, they have become more boring. Listen, there was a time when the system was young and full of piss and vinegar. The system is middle-aged now, so it’s very, you know, what James Joyce called “the muddle crass.”

And your approach bothers them?
Do you want me to be honest with you? 

Yes.
Unless there’s somebody else who’s going to stand up and say the kinds of things I said, they will miss it terribly. It’s very important to have people who will stand up and say what they think and be fairly fearless about it.

What has been your biggest mistake?
You’re not going to get me to talk about that. I don’t think anything is a mistake. I’ll tell you why. You don’t learn from your successes; you learn from the things you did wrong.

So you must know of some things you did wrong.
Yes, but it isn’t a mistake, because of what you learned from it. If I look at it now, the first time we decided to have a second fund-raiser in one year, we decided that it would be totally unlike the other fund-raiser. It would be very straightforward, short announcements on the air. And it was a disaster. This is critical, because you’re paying your staff with that money. We raise all of our own funds. So I said, “No, no, this cannot be. I will get up in the morning”—I am famously not a morning person—“I will get up in the morning, and I will pitch Morning Edition.” For three days I pitched Morning Edition and got absolutely no place. I would say, “Are you people not there anymore?” Obviously one could not have made a greater mistake than to screw around with success. But luckily for us, that Sunday the Soviet coup took place. I got a phone call saying, “Come into the station, Ruth. Gorbachev is history.” We had a link with CNN, and we started to broadcast. In addition, we had an amazing connection with Yelena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, through her son, whom I had interviewed. He was living in Boston, and we called him and he said, “My sister is in Moscow with my mother.” He gave us their phone number, and producer Sarah Spitz spent about an hour on the phone and got through. So you asked me what was the most memorable moment—it was probably speaking live to Yelena Bonner, with her daughter translating into English. They were describing what was going on, what was on the television in Moscow, how she looked out of her window and saw the tanks surrounding her apartment. It saved the subscription drive. Either/Or Bookstore in Hermosa Beach told us they put their radio outside on the sidewalk, and they put a chair with a hat on it in front of the radio, and people gathered around the radio and put money in, and they sent us the money.

Let’s see if you agree with some of the things I’ve read about you. “Lots of admirers but not always lots of friends.” 
I don’t know, because I’m not conscious of lots of admirers, OK?

“Charismatic and complicated.” 
Yes, probably.

“Bombastic.”
No, I don’t think I’m bombastic. I’ve known bombastic people. Not compared to them.

“Widely admired and resented.” 
Yes, probably.

“Rules with an iron hand.” 
No. I’m not a micromanager.

But you are tough. 
I am tough. I was not aware of this until I announced that I was retiring: They told me one of the greatest contributions I made to KCRW was standing as a sentry and not letting outside influences screw around with the station.

But inside the station, “powerful and feared.” 
It depends on whom you talk to, and maybe the people who fear have a good reason to. I’m a very collaborative person, but there are times when I’ll make a decision, and people around me will disagree. I have to be really sure, and there are times when I am. And then it’s my way. That’s all. You cannot get me to do something I really don’t want to do.

"She scares the shit out of people.” Do you lose it? Do you yell and scream?
I used to. I don’t do it much anymore.

But you used to?
Oh, yeah. I have a temper. Absolutely I do. I have a very familiar relationship with many of the people at the station.

What are you like when you yell and scream?
I don’t imagine I’m very wonderful, to be honest with you. I don’t think I’m a charmer at that moment. As I have gotten older, the temper has mitigated, but then so has the fire. You know, the two go together. I’ll tell you one thing, though. I will try to pass on to whoever succeeds me that it’s not the worst thing in the world if people are wary of you. You’re not there to be loved. You’re not there to be the hostess with the mostest. You’re there to protect the integrity of the station.

Some of these quotes are from people you fired. There are a lot of them.
There are not a lot of them. These were so-called talent, and talent isn’t forever. Oh, no. Every dog has its day. There are some people who go on and produce wonderful things, but other people either repeat themselves or can’t come up with the goods after a certain period of time and refuse to face that.

Do you worry about that for yourself?
I do—until I come up with the next big idea. There’s another thing we have to talk about. In an interview with, I guess it was the L.A. Times, John Hockenberry, whom I also fired, said something that never occurred to me but I think is very true: I know the world of the artist. I lived with a poet for 20 years, and I lived in a world inhabited by poets and painters, so I was close to the creative process, and I’m a creative person myself. A lot of creative people get that. We’re on the same wavelength. They want a kind of love and admiration and respect, and sometimes they’re very upset when they feel it’s not there. Conversely, when it is, the relationship is quite close.

Can that change over time?
Yes, because I can see when people are repeating themselves. I can see when they’re wearing out. I can see that, and I think that for them it’s a terrible betrayal of the relationship that they have valued so.

And then, when you fire them—.
Well, you know, if you manage, you have to fire people. The hardest thing to do is to fire somebody. KCRW is like a second home, a second family, for a lot of our people. And when I fire them, it’s in effect expelling them from the family. And I’m the person who has to do it. It causes an enormous sense of loss. Down in our funky, overcrowded basement offices, it’s very intimate. And she has kicked me out.

You fired Sandra Tsing Loh because she said “fuck” on the air. 
Yes, well, you’re not allowed to do that, especially if you use it as a verb, which she did, and especially if you use it as a verb on Sunday morning in the middle of Weekend Edition.

You were protecting the license? 
Yes, absolutely.

But you have nothing against the word itself.
I use it quite often, as my staff will tell you.

Some of the people you have fired say they would work for you again.
Bringing them back is a big mistake I sometimes make because I see the potential. And in the exuberance of seeing the potential, I forget.

Let’s talk about your pledge drives, your legendary pitches. Have you been in danger of becoming a caricature of yourself? 
No. Listen, I bring in the money. I have no great adoration for being on the air and pitching, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t bring in the money.

“Your pitches are shrill.” 
They always say that about women. I actually have a rather deep voice.

“Seymour’s abrasive Bronx rasp.” 
Oh, listen, there are a lot of anti-Semitic people out there.

“The queen of drama and guilt. Calls come in, some to pledge and others to complain about being browbeaten. One caller demanded, ‘Get that bitch off the air.’?” 
I can’t be responsible for the way people respond to strong women.

How important are listener numbers? 
You can’t ignore them, but what you need to look at is the number of subscribers. Those are the people who are paying your bills.

Your Arbitron ratings were down to 289,000 in August. Now you’re back up to 492,000.
Those 200,000 people disappear, then they reappear, and we haven’t changed the programming. We asked Arbitron, “How could this be? How can a station that raises $2 million in each drive lose 200,000 listeners?” We have 52,000 subscribers. No other Southern California public radio station has that many subscribers. They said, “Because your people feel more passionate.” Do I buy that? No. I think it’s nonsense.

So what’s the explanation?
Arbitron has a new electronic system. I think this new system is screwed up. Keep your eye on the subscription numbers. They’re going to tell you more.

Are you glad you’re leaving before you have to start tweeting?
Oh, I don’t think I would have tweeted even if I had stayed. There are a lot of people at the station who are doing that—and they’re blogging.

Do you?
No. Neither does Warren Olney [host of To the Point and Which Way, L.A.?]. We are both resisting. Warren feels that as the impartial moderator of a news-based program, he is not really a person who should be blogging.

Why retirement? Why now?
I just felt the station needs a younger profile. I also think that, for most of us, work is necessary, but it’s a distraction. It’s a distraction from being. I’m actually a hermetic person. I always need time to think. I need some time to reflect, to smell the roses, to take long walks, to finally stop reading two newspapers every day, and to finish War and Peace.

So you’re not going to be around the station? 
I will always be available, but there has to be an invitation. I would not want to deprive any new manager of the freedom that I’ve enjoyed.

A book? Your memoirs? 
I don’t want to relive the past. It is enough for me to have lived it.      

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