The Second Coming of NPR West

The nation’s largest public radio network invests—again—in L.A.

Photograph by Larry Hirshowitz

Three minutes before airtime on a recent Saturday in Culver City, a technician at the weekend edition of All Things Considered gives supervising senior producer Steve Lickteig bad news. A TurboPlayer, an app that prepares the show for transmission from NPR West to Washington, D.C., has crashed. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be alarming, but the previous week a backup had also failed. Realizing the potential for disaster, Lickteig asks a young associate to burn a CD of the program’s prerecorded table of contents and opening segment, then race it across the building to Studio C, where host Arun Rath is waiting. Seconds later the familiar All Things Considered theme song wafts from a radio on Lickteig’s desk. Crisis averted, although not exactly as staffers planned: The reserve TurboPlayer kicked in after all. “It’s a new studio,” Lickteig says as a story exploring the long-term impact of leaks at the National Security Agency plays on the 677 stations across the country that carry WATC, as the weekend edition of All Things Considered  is known internally. “A new system.”

Since September, when WATC began originating from NPR West, such growing pains have been inevitable as the 25,000-square-foot Culver City facility has been transformed from a moribund satellite operation into a state-of-the-art production house. Where there once was a skeleton crew, there is today a staff of 60, including several transfers from D.C. and new hires—among them Rath, a former director of the defunct Talk of the Nation, a senior producer of On the Media, and more recently a reporter for PBS’s Frontline and WGBH’s radio program The World.

The expansion marks the latest investment in Los Angeles by the nation’s biggest and most influential public radio network, and the stakes are high. While NPR does not break down its budget by show, its news department spends some $78 million annually, a decent chunk of which will now flow into L.A. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the network will follow through on a stated desire to not just generate programming from California but infuse that programming with insights and reporting that bring the state and the surrounding region to life. After all, this isn’t the first time NPR has made a lot of noise about Los Angeles, and last time it didn’t go so well.

Alex Chadwick, who cohosted NPR’s popular morning magazine show Day to Day from L.A. for six years before he was among many laid off in 2009, is skeptical about the network’s commitment. “They lost a lot of ground here when they decimated NPR West,” he says, adding that the question now is simple: Will NPR treat the revived Culver City operation as a “center of intellectual energy” or, again, as a “token”? 

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NPR’s first Los Angeles bureau opened in 1983 in a downtown building catty-corner from the Los Angeles Times. Pretzeled into cast-off furniture, the five staffers mixed stories on a board that had been discarded by a forgotten rock band. Though their equipment was bare bones, their ambitions were anything but. Frank Browning, then an NPR reporter here and now a writer in Paris, says he and his colleagues wanted nothing less than to explain “the cultural complexities of [America’s] most intellectually challenging city.” From time to time science correspondent Laurie Garrett, another member of the team and the author of the best-selling book The Coming Plague, broke news about the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Yet for nine years, even after the bureau relocated to better digs on the Westside, it was seen within NPR as more of a remote outpost than a central part of the organization. That changed in 2002, when the network paid $13 million for a low-slung redbrick compound in Culver City and announced the formation of NPR West.

Back then NPR had many reasons to shift some production to L.A. First there was what some called “the doomsday scenario.” As Jay Kernis, the network’s former senior vice president for programming, put it at the time, “September 11 made it apparent…that we needed another facility that could keep NPR going if something devastating happened in Washington.” There was also a desire to inject some of California’s sensibility into the network’s D.C.-centric culture. “The unique sounds and energies of this storied region and its people will be heard in lively new ways from NPR West,” vowed then-NPR president Kevin Klose. But there was, many believe, an even more important motivation. “I think it was about money,” says Chadwick. “There’s big money in the entertainment community, and that community loves NPR. The network wanted to show that Hollywood money that it cared about the west. I attended a lot of fund-raisers.”

Initially NPR West seemed to deliver on its promise. The Tavis Smiley Show, a daily one-hour magazine program produced in Culver City that focused on issues affecting the black community, debuted in 2002. Although the show’s eponymous host departed for television in 2004, the program, renamed News & Notes and fronted by Ed Gordon, then Farai Chideya, and finally Tony Cox, remained a strong part of the network’s West Coast presence. Starting in 2004, Renee Montagne, cohost of Morning Edition, NPR’s popular a.m. drive-time show, began doing her portion of the program from Culver City.

But it was Day to Day, which Chadwick cohosted with Madeleine Brand, that put NPR West on the map. The show, produced in partnership with the online magazine Slate, provided everything from aggressive coverage of the Iraq War to commentaries by former Daily Show stalwart Brian Unger and Michael Kinsley, Slate’s founding editor. Compared with the straight-ahead governmental news coming out of D.C., the program was soulful and sprightly. “Day to Day was a fresher, looser NPR program,” says Chadwick. “You could tell Madeleine and I liked each other.” Steve Proffitt, a senior producer on the show who now works at KPCC, says, “The program introduced a lot of storytelling techniques.” On any given broadcast, for instance, audiences might hear Chadwick standing in a downpour in the Mojave Desert, rhapsodizing about blooming wildflowers, or frequent contributor David Was of the pop band Was (Not Was) waxing surreal about what it’s like to play golf while using a Segway as a cart. Mike Shuster, a foreign correspondent who moved to NPR West, was impressed by the program’s willingness to take risks. “I could say things there I couldn’t say on the other shows,” he says. Shuster remembers offering candid analyses of subjects like the hunt for Osama bin Laden that would have been frowned on at the Washington-based programs, where fear of appearing biased discouraged such reporting. Suddenly NPR West was hot. “One day,” Chadwick says, “Dustin Hoffman came into our meeting room and blew us kisses.”

Despite the successes, NPR West’s days in the sun would soon be eclipsed by the recession. In the fall of 2008, the network announced a projected $23 million funding shortfall. In December NPR’s top brass revealed that cuts were coming and that Culver City would be by far the hardest hit. As of March 20, 2009, Day to Day and News & Notes were off the air. In all, more than 40 people at NPR West—among them Chadwick, Brand, and Proffitt—lost their jobs, leaving a lasting bitterness. “When I decided to move out here,” says Chadwick, who had relocated from Washington at NPR’s request, “they told me the metrics they wanted me to hit: 120 stations in three years. We reached that in one year. By five years we had 200.” Henceforth there would be a sense that despite NPR executives’ talk about the significance of Los Angeles, they still felt that if news didn’t originate back east, it wasn’t news. “It’s pretty ironic,” says Proffitt. “NPR says it’s committed to covering the globe, but with this decision they destroyed their operation in the second-largest city in the United States.”

In the wake of the cancellations, NPR West became a public radio ghost ship left with a small staff supporting Montagne and just a few reporters and a producer covering the west. To help defray costs, NPR rented space in the cavernous redbrick compound to Slate, Oakland-based Youth Radio, and Santa Monica-based KCRW. “It was dreary,” says Shuster. “It was sad.”

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Ask NPR executives to explain their resurrected enthusiasm for Los Angeles today, and their answers sound the same as they did in 2002. Again the doomsday scenario looms large. “When we started contemplating this,” says Ellen McDonnell, NPR’s executive editor in charge of news programming, “the East Coast was being pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, and we felt it wasn’t smart to have our production located solely in Washington.” Also vital, McDonnell adds, is a desire to bring a California sensibility to a network traditionally too reliant on news from the nation’s capital. “We want to broaden our palette.”

Yet as much as this feels like déjà vu, there’s a key difference: Unlike Day to Day or News & Notes, which were start-ups, the weekend edition of All Things Considered is a venerable show with an adventurous reputation and a loyal following (its audience averages 2.1 million). NPR’s second-oldest program, it began airing in 1977, seven years after the network was founded, and early on was hosted by NPR royalty Noah Adams and Liane Hansen.

Still, there have already been a couple of notable setbacks. Shortly before WATC began broadcasting from Culver City, KCRW—for years Southern California’s flagship public radio station—stopped airing it, switching instead to Raul Campos’s Latin-music show. As a result, if you want to hear WATC in Los Angeles, you have to listen to KPCC in Pasadena, which—while a rising power—does not yet have the clout on the prosperous Westside enjoyed by its Santa Monica competitor. In late January Madeleine Brand, the former Day to Day cohost, introduced a new program on KCRW, Press Play. The hour-long midday show does not compete head-to-head with WATC, but in many ways it has the same editorial goal: to become a Los Angeles-inflected national news program that can attract the likes of public radio superstar Ira Glass (as it did for its first broadcast), not to mention grateful donors.

The official word at NPR is that KCRW’s rejection of WATC and the launch of Press Play—while not ideal—are mere embarrassments whose impact will quickly fade in the memories of Southern Californians. WATC is a national show, executives say, and the network’s revitalized Culver City headquarters signals a genuine commitment to the west. “I think WATC is safe,” says supervising producer Lickteig. “It’s part of NPR’s newsmagazine package. We hold down the fort on weekends.” Nevertheless, this can’t have been the reception the network envisioned.

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The future of NPR’s latest venture in Los Angeles falls largely on Arun Rath’s shoulders. Tall and dark haired, with an expressive face, he is a rare combination of aesthete and political junkie. On the one hand, he loves culture, both high and low. On the other, he is a seasoned hard-news reporter who covered military justice for Frontline and The World. NPR was drawn to Rath’s contradictions—and his lack of ego. “He’s an atypical host,” says Lickteig. “He’s a quiet guy with an intangible warmth and thoughtfulness. Most hosts run to the spotlight. With Arun, you have to push him.”

Once Rath gets going, he exhibits many of the traits shared by NPR’s best hosts. He is a superb listener, a skill that makes interviews sound like intimate conversations. At the same time, Rath is comfortable interjecting his own opinions. In a February piece on the 50th anniversary of the recording of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” he played a snippet of the civil rights anthem and then said, “If that doesn’t give you chills, there might be something wrong with you.”

Rath, who lived in Boston until last summer, has made sacrifices to get here. His wife, the deputy executive producer at Frontline, and their two small children have remained behind in Massachusetts. Although he flies back frequently, Rath spends most of his hours at NPR West. He rarely relaxes until Sunday evenings, when he collapses in front of the TV at his Westside rental to watch The Walking Dead. Nonetheless Rath is enthralled with his new home. “I love the churning creativity of L.A.,” he says. “There’s such great theater, and the classical music scene, especially at the L.A. Opera and the L.A. Philharmonic, is a lot more adventurous here” than it is in the east. 

Lickteig has surrounded Rath with talent, importing a handful of top NPR editors and producers from Washington. He has also distanced the show from its D.C. roots by letting go its long-standing pundit, the distinguished journalist James Fallows, and replacing him with Carlos Watson, the plugged-in editor of Ozy, an online magazine, whose regular segment, titled “The New and the Next,” alerts listeners to emerging technologies, up-and-coming European soccer stars, even fresh-faced televangelists. Where Fallows ruminated on world events, Watson is a one-man tout sheet for millennials. 

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Eight months into the second coming of NPR West and five years after the cancellation of Day to Day, WATC gives many indications of delivering on the network’s high hopes. True, a piece on the debut show featuring an interview that described Los Angeles as a city of “hipsters, gang members, movie stars, and what we call real people” was lame. And two weeks later, in a 12-minute story on the 20th anniversary of America’s failed Black Hawk Down mission to Somalia, Rath neglected to mention that United States forces had that morning conducted another unsuccessful raid in the African country, this one aimed at the terrorist group Al-Shabab. “I like Arun,” says Neal Conan, the longtime host of Talk of the Nation, “but they do a retrospective on Black Hawk Down and don’t report that on the same weekend there’s an incident in Somalia where we pulled out for fear of casualties. That annoyed me.” Such missteps aside, WATC is consistently broadcasting stories that fulfill its mandate to cover the world while also illuminating its new California home. Early on, Rath reported a quirky piece about comedian Patton Oswalt reading Moby-Dick aloud at various L.A. libraries. Even in a brief report about so-called Oscar baiting—the practice of making movies about depressing topics in the hope of capturing awards—WATC has sent a clear signal that it gets this complex city and is trying to convey its essence to a wider public. “I don’t know what the future holds,” NPR news boss Ellen McDonnell told the program’s staff shortly after the premiere, “but this show sounds like America.” If what she means is that WATC now sounds a little less like Washington and a bit more like Los Angeles, the network just might be onto something close to what it had with Day to Day and now claims to want again.