Queen of the Air : Ruth Hirschman Has Built a Power Base in National Public Radio From a Quirky Little Station in Santa Monica

Q--How long have you been in radio, Ruth?

A--Since '62.

Q--So you've been doing it for 25 years?

A--Well, no, not the whole time. I went to Europe for awhile. In '65 I was reporting from there. Doing interviews. One day, I threw my tape recorder into the Aegean and went off to live on a Greek island. I gave up an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre when he won the Nobel Prize to go to Greece and be an existentialist.

Q--You gave up a Sartre interview to live on a Greek island?

A--Well, you must remember this was a time in American history, actually world history, where all of us were very serious about finding out what truth, what meaning there was to living our lives.

Q--Did we find out?

A--Well, you know it's not the end that is important. It never is. It's always the journey itself. It's not what you find. It's the search. A lot of people lost their way, but those of us who survived, I think, are better off for it.

Q--What did you discover about the meaning of life?

A--That you don't have to search for it in the isolation of a small Greek island that has no electricity and about 30 highly charged, demented people running around stark naked from all over the world.

A park is going in by the beach, and Ruth Hirschman thinks it's a real hoot. From her front porch in Santa Monica's Ocean Park neighborhood, the mistress of the trendiest radio station in Los Angeles can see all of the expensive landscaping. She knows it will be a haven for the homeless as soon as it's finished.

" ' . . . And I sang in my chains like the sea'," she quotes from memory with a flourish of her bone-thin fingers.

Then the manager of KCRW-FM sits back on a pink pillow in her old-fashioned window seat, sipping cafe au lait. The walls of her living room are covered with abstract nudes. A pastel silk scarf barely covers the thin gold chain around her throat. Her movements are delicate--all unfeigned drama. In the proper state of framed, abstract undress, she might blend in as a portrait.

She stares across the street at a neighbor washing his van on a sunny day. "Dylan Thomas," Hirschman continues between sips, citing the source of her poetry.

Picking up the theme of the beachfront park, she observes that there's a special kind of freedom to be had in having no home. A friend of hers, Peter Marin, has written about that wonderful tragic freedom in Harper's magazine, and she is going to have him on the show to talk about it. "He's a contributing editor. He's a very, very bright man," she says.

She drops Marin's name as easily as she does Jane Fonda's or Henry Miller's or Ed Asner's. Or Dylan Thomas'.

What we have here in Ruth Hirschman's rent-controlled ("less than $400 a month") home of the last 10 years are all the external symptoms of Westside cultural pretension: art posters, scattered copies of contemporary art magazines and the artless display of a well-worn recording of "Horowitz in Moscow."

Yet there is no trace of pretense in Ruth Hirschman's reedy, New York voice. She ponders well what she says, whether it involves the freedom of beach bums or the sheer tragic nature of surviving from cradle to coffin.

Slurping up the last bit of coffee, she announces: "If you go past 35 without a sense of tragedy, you're either a fool or a saint."

At 52, Hirschman is neither. An aging Bohemian, perhaps. Certainly a moving force on the Westside. A practiced Machiavellian in the politicking that infuses the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio.

She watches her neighbor boogaloo to his car stereo while he hoses down his van. He whistles to himself, dipping and parrying like a bona fide California surfer. He seems to have no sense of tragedy. He seems happy just to enjoy the sun.

But then, he doesn't carry the weight of KCRW-FM on his shoulders--the most widely listened-to public station in Los Angeles and self-proclaimed harbinger of East Coast sophistication for the culture-starved masses of Southern California.

Hirschman may hover between fool and saint like most of her radio audience, but she does have a full-blown sense of the tragic. And she is a woman with a mission--a light of cultured wisdom on the hedonistic Westside horizon.

Thinking things through and then doing what must be done, however tragic the consequences, is no sin, according to Hirschman.

It is "sheer, mindless optimism," she warns, "that is a danger."

"There are still so few women in radio," says Deirdre O'Donoghue. "My imagination is that Ruth battled through some tough times. I know the kind of remarks and inanities she's made but . . . Oh, I don't know. What do I know about Ruth? I don't know anybody who really knows about Ruth."

Until Hirschman fired her last November, the 39-year-old new wave disc jockey was a veteran KCRW employee and a true Hirschman disciple. For six years, O'Donoghue developed a droll, literate approach to esoteric rock 'n' roll over the airwaves of Ruth Hirschman's radio station. Her weeknight discourses on the imagery of the Meat Puppets or the Dead Milkmen made her program, S.N.A.P., de riguer among the UCLA/USC undergrad intelligentsia.

Her work won her a nomination as "Best Deejay" in last year's New Music Awards competition. Although she lost out to New York shock-rock announcer Howard Stern, S.N.A.P. was one of the reasons KCRW one the New Music Award trophy for "Best Station."

That prize now sits on Hirschman's desk in the center of the KCRW studios, located in the basement of the Student Affairs Building of Santa Monica City College. O'Donoghue isn't jeal ous. In her own way, she is surprisingly forgiving. Almost like a daughter.

The maternal Hirschman barely tolerated O'Donoghue's rock and roll, but cultivated her intellect. When Hirschman bought a 24-hour-long dramatization of James Joyce's "Ulysses" from the Irish Broadcasting Co. a year ago, it was O'Donoghue she asked to edit it for KCRW.

Hirschman's irregular shopping trips to Europe to scrounge for radio drama had been met with yawns or criticism from some of her staff, but not O'Donoghue. The fact that KCRW broadcasts more drama than any other station in the country is testimony to her programming genius, O'Donoghue believes.

At a time when most stations are stuck in a single musical format, KCRW reels from reggae to the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey to country-western to NPR news. There is comedy by Harry Shearer and health advice by Dr. Gershon Lessor. There are gardening tips and jazz and restaurant reviews and Gregorian chants. It is eclectic programming, according to Hirschman. It is strange but brilliant, according to O'Donoghue.

"The best description I ever heard of Ruth was a fellow from the BBC. He called her a grand eccentric," O'Donoghue says.

A cold grand eccentric, when she wants to be. When it came time to dump O'Donoghue, Hirschman did it quickly and without remorse. O'Donoghue supposedly was getting too bold, too critical and too political on S.N.A.P. She criticized movies, U.S. foreign policy toward Nicaragua and even her KCRW colleagues.

The irony, O'Donoghue implies, is that a younger Ruth Hirschman might have conducted such a program exactly the same way. "Mothers have been known to disinherit their daughters," she says drily.

"One of my favorite stories is about the larks or sparrows--I can't remember which--in London during the Industrial Revolution. Before all the factories started going in, sparrows were very light colored. Then all this smoke and soot turned everything dark and dirty. The sparrows that survived were the ones that adapted and became dark colored to blend in with the surroundings."

Maybe, O'Donoghue speculates, that's what happened to Ruth Hirschman. "Her milieu has always been living on the edge, but there's this character she's created. Once you've created a character and lived it for a long period of time, then that's them. That's who you are."

Q--Why did you come back from Europe?

A--We lived in England. It was in the late '60s--a time when there was an enormous affinity between the fashion world and the music world and the art world. A time when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were extremely popular. Avant-garde new wave. I remember Yoko Ono was doing a film which involved many friends of mine. The film was called "Asses." She was taking pictures of the asses of artists. And I had a dreadful fight with my then-husband, who was a poet, about whether Camus would take down his pants for the cameras. I maintained that Camus wouldn't and that we were dealing with the perversion of art. Carnaby Street. Commercialization.

Q--That does sound important, Ruth.

A--Yes, it did at the time. But that's what was going on in England at the time. Now, at the same time, there was a war going on. And I was at a party, a trendy party, in London and the television happened to be on, and suddenly it flashed on a demonstration somewhere in the streets of America.

Q--Yeah?

A--Oh yeah, and people at the party said, "Turn it off! You're not interested in that." And something snapped. I said, "I'm going home. These people are not serious. They're only concerned about who knows who. What to sing. What to wear. Appearances."

"She basically has created a character named Ruth Hirschman who is larger than life. She's Rosa Luxemburg, a little bit of Marjorie Morningstar, Stella Dallas and Natasha what's her name in 'War and Peace.' But she's more than that. Ruth is more like a sexy Auntie Mame. She lives life out on the edge, with romances and conspiracies and drama."

Larry Josephson, longtime producer for the comedy team Bob & Ray, met Hirschman in 1971 when she took over as program director for KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. He loves her. But he wouldn't cross her.

"It's not a good idea to oppose her unless it's really important," Josephson says. "I think once she admitted she was wrong to me years after we had an argument. She has a tremendous will and once she wills something, nothing gets in her way, including the facts. She's kind of like an avenging angel from the Bronx who landed in Southern California."

Fifteen years ago, before National Public Radio began redefining listener-sponsored radio, public broadcasting consisted of a handful of struggling college stations and the non-profit Pacifica Foundation stations. The left-leaning Pacifica network was the logical place for Hirschman to land after England.

In Los Angeles, Pacifica owned KPFK. In New York, it was WBAI. Hirschman programmed KPFK and Josephson ran WBAI. "I think that's where she learned some of the very baroque political things that go on in public radio," Jacobsen says.

Hirschman didn't actually run KPFK. Her longtime partner in radio, Will Lewis, did that. He was general manager for six golden era years when Hirschman was program director--a surprisingly long run in the volatile, backbiting world of Pacifica.

Hirschman recalls the KPFK days fondly: the Christmas bombing of Cambodia and the subsequent skewering of Richard M. Nixon during Watergate; the excruciating wind down of the Vietnam War; Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

KPFK was so widely regarded by the counterculture that SLA members left a cassette tape at the station on their way through town in the mid-1970s. Lewis went to jail rather than turn it over to the FBI, and both he and Hirschman were underground heroes for awhile. Their remarkable tenure was cut short in 1977 by one of the periodic Pacifica palace coups.

Hirschman applied for the general manager's job of KCRW, a tiny college radio station with studios in an elementary school adjacent to Santa Monica City College. When she got it, she hired Lewis as a marketing consultant. Together, they set out to impose culture on the Westside.

"What she has done is very clever," Josephson says. "She has taken the cultural and literary and public affairs content of KPFK and moulded it to a more conservative audience. I think a large part of her audience are former New Yorkers. They moved out West to run the movie business. There's probably 20% ex-New Yorkers living on the Westside. That's my guess, based on my scientific observations sitting in one of those boulangeries along Santa Monica Boulevard where Ruth holds court."

In the process, Hirschman has also become a major power in public broadcasting. Two years ago, she rallied other stations to save the weekend version of NPR's "All Things Considered" from the budgetary ax. When the Iran- contra scandal erupted in November, she badgered NPR news director Robert Siegel into spending the money to carry the congressional hearings live.

To ensure that funding will be no obstacle to covering the scandal this year, Hirschman asked her listeners to contribute $100,000 during December to a special fund earmarked for special NPR news projects. She got it, of course.

"When people ask me what the best public radio stations are, there's a long pause, and then I say KCRW," says Josephson. "I hate to say it, but public radio is really small potatoes. Out of all these Madras two-dollar-suit people in public radio, there's really only one or two real classy people. Ruth is one of them.

"In some ways, she is not a very good political fighter. When you're getting together a coalition, you should always include people who have clout whether you agree with them or not, but she won't do that. She only gathers people around her who are on her side. She's almost a charismatic leader, like Castro.

"On some level, when she wants something, friendship doesn't mean anything."

Q-Why do you suppose you've been so successful on the Westside?

A--The demographics of the city have changed Santa Monica. It was a sleepy little town and, all of a sudden, professors, movie people, professionals have all moved in. It was just lucky I landed here and stayed.

Q--Why Santa Monica, though? Is it some kind of focal point for the '80s?

A--Some of it has to do with food and restaurants. A lot of chefs who live here have become internationally known. I think chefs are our new stars. And Jane Fonda. I think there's no real understanding of what Jane Fonda has done for Santa Monica. She's identified with the city and put it on the map. We've become Santa Monica, the star-studded, feisty, glamourous home of the Campaign for Economic Democracy.

Q--So it has become the Berkeley of the south?

A--No. No. Broadcasting from Berkeley was different. That was more like street theater. Santa Monica's radicals put on suits and ties and ran for office. You see people here, outside the mainstream of the political process, deciding that the only way to change the status quo is to join the political process.

Q--You broadcast the Santa Monica City Council meetings every week.

A--Yeah, it's sort of like small-town America. Town hall meetings, like Iowa or Vermont. And I think it has a real effect on the council too. They're encouraged to be more articulate because they know they're going to be on the radio. So we get some real performances.

The stars came together at just the right time for Hirschman, recalls Wally Smith, manager of KCRW's crosstown public radio rival, KUSC-FM. "She showed up when Santa Monica was becoming the People's Republic of Santa Monica . . . when all the liberals of Los Angeles moved to the Westside. It was the time of school busing, rent control and Tom Hayden."

Smith, a conservative voice at a conservative university, was certain the radical Hirschman was doomed to fail. When the president of Santa Monica City College asked his opinion, he recommended against hiring her. "I didn't think she'd work out in that kind of a conservative, affluent community," he says. "Obviously, I was wrong."

Just three short years ago, KUSC was the undisputed leader among public radio stations in Southern California. Today, KCRW and KUSC are about even.

"I look at where I think the center of energy is going to be," Hirschman says. Her intuition told her that the Westside, Southern California and, in fact, the whole country was about to abandon materialism and undergo some grand romantic change. As usual, she likes to believe she and her station are way out front.

"I look at what I think is going to inspire people because I think that whatever that is, it's gonna inform art, it's gonna inform politics, it's gonna energize people," she rattles off. "And I don't see it in a materialist culture. We're suffused with materialism. And, frankly, I think we've had enough of it."

Her eyes are hazel blue, like the Pacific off Santa Monica.

"Our audience always understood what we were trying to do," Hirschman says. "From the very beginning we were regarded as slightly demented. Not exactly irresponsible but adventurous, interesting. And idealistic."

Smith screws his face up and harumphs at this notion. "Ruth has no political agenda outside of a broad feeling about human values," he says. "She has more loyalty to opinions and ideas than she does to people. She would just as soon do something radically right as radically left just because it's radical."

Even so, he is a grudging admirer. "A lot of people (in public broadcasting) see her as this nut from California," he says, "but most public broadcasting people are still basically academics and they don't know how to deal with an articulate, confrontational woman. They just kind of melt into nervous giggles when she demands something.

"She wears hats and she makes entrances like the spy who came in from the cold. She'll sit down, make her point and disappear into the night. And she does it all deliberately. Kind of like Marlene Dietrich. I'm convinced that she lives in a theatrical world."

Like Katharine Hepburn?

"Hepburn is more than I'm willing to grant her. Marlene Dietrich."

Before her marriage to poet/scholar Jack Hirschman broke up in 1970s, Ruth Hirschman was a wife and mother first and an activist intellectual second. "She still worships him, I think," says Josephson. "He's the free spirit. Jack was the beatnik poet who smoked dope and drank wine. That's a whole part of her life that is still very influential.

"They were like the classic couple out of Jewish mythology: In the shtetl , the man would go to temple and philosophize and do Talmudic scholarship all day long and the woman would do the work."

Jack now works with the homeless of North Beach in San Francisco. He is brilliant by all accounts. He was a Joyce scholar at UCLA in the mid-'60s, before he and Ruth and their children, Celia and David, abandoned the capitalistic wasteland of America and became European vagabonds. It took them several years to decide that Marxism was bunk.

"When I was a child about 5 and David was 7 and Ruth and Jack were in their 20s, we went through Europe," says Celia Hirschman. "And everywhere we went, we were a family. We went to my parents friends' dinner parties, we went to foreign films. We were all involved in the arts. All of us.

"I remember in 1964, there was an anti-war march. One of the early ones with Bertrand Russell. I was 6 then. I remember I was wearing this English bobby's cape because it was freezing out and everyone was carying signs saying, 'Ban the bomb.' Ruth had written on the sandwich board sign I was wearing: 'Little lamb who made thee. William Blake.'

Celia now works for a music video company and lives on her own. She says she owes a great debt to the woman she calls Ruth, not Mother.

"Ruth definitely has her own energy that she works off of. She's a very strong woman and being her daughter, I've learned a lot about self-motivation, management, professionalism and imaging. I mean, she's a great mentor to work from."

Even back then, during the demonstrations and the mind-cleansing days in Greece, her family was never concerned much by money. Celia understood the traditional role reversal early. Ruth was the strong one. Jack was a poet.

"There were certainly times in our lives when we didn't have lots of money and I think that our mother wanted to help us, of course. It's probably common where roles have switched.

"But it was good, too. Once my brother and I grew up, we weren't dependent upon on her in the traditional way. Before we left home, she was becoming very active at KPFK and the like. But she was still very much a mother."

Celia laughs in spite of herself at her mother's contention that those who make it to middle age with no sense of tragedy are either foolish or saintly.

Celia stops laughing nearly as abruptly as she begins. There is a long pause. Then she speaks quickly.

"Today, with AIDS, it's probably more common, but they say there is nothing harder than for a parent to lose a child. It was hard for me as a sister. I'm not going to minimalize that. David had leukemia. He died in Ruth's arms. Literally.

"For someone to die in the middle of their youth is extraordinarily painful. That's not to be worn as a badge. But it does become part of your soul. It's not to be discounted. It's not to be highlighted. But it does become part of your life. Everything you do is touched by it."

Celia stops to take a breath.

"When mother says that no one gets through life without tragedy, she's not just talking about David. It's not just that. But that's part of it. That's a big part of it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°