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Los Angeles Times Interview : Ruth Seymour : Local Champion (at KCRW) of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting

<i> Robert Scheer is a contributing editor to The Times. He interviewed Ruth Seymour over bagels in Santa Monica</i>

When the new congressional leadership announced plans to eliminate funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, staff and listeners of member TV and radio stations sprang into action. None faster with the editorial than Ruth Seymour, general manager of KCRW.

Seymour, 59, is nothing if not feisty. A graduate of the rough-and-tumble intellectual world of the City College of New York of the 1950s, she has done her best to introduce the college’s spirit of no-holds-barred debate to the once-stodgy public station run out of a basement at Santa Monica College.

During the 17 years she has been manager of KCRW, the listenership has grown from a few thousand earnest but quiescent souls to what the station claims is more than 450,000 listeners, who often jam the switchboards with agitated calls. During that period, the station’s budget, 85% from private sources, has grown from a slight $100,000, in 1978, to more than $4.7 million last year. It is one of the nation’s five most important public-radio stations.

When Seymour warns about the difficulty of making up monies lost, she knows of what she speaks. She has a national reputation as a prodigious fund raiser, and listeners are perhaps a bit too familiar with her frequent on-air pitches. The long-divorced Seymour even employed a mysterious change from her married name, Hirschman, to a family name, Seymour, as a fund-raising gimmick two years ago.

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But listeners also know her as a provocative interviewer and programmer who seems to take delight in introducing more reactionary spokespersons to a liberal audience. Perhaps as a result, the station’s reach has been extended into deepest Orange County.

A strong supporter of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” she has rallied local stations to aid the national network. Seymour is also credited with pioneering local programming, including original radio dramas performed by leading actors, widely carried by other stations. A locally produced music program, “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” also has a national reputation.

In response to the 1992 L.A. riots, Seymour helped launch the celebrated daily hour-long program “Which Way, L.A.?” anchored by Warren Olney. It has been honored by dozens of organizations, including the American Bar Assn.

This week, Seymour flies to Washington to lobby for an enterprise that represents not only her hard work but also her passion. She is, however, practical about her task, planning to see mostly conservative congressmen whose districts lie within the station’s signal, to remind them that many listeners voted for them. As is her style, she expects to win. “If I have to, I’ll ride into town on the back of Big Bird and Barney,” she says. “Whatever it takes to keep public broadcasting, a great success story, on the air.”

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Question: How serious are the current congressional attacks on funding for public broadcasting?

Answer: Extremely serious. In the more than 20 years that I have been in public broadcasting, I can’t think back on anything that has been more serious. The contention that we are going to survive these cuts and emerge as a meaningful public broadcasting service is completely fallacious. If we eliminate or reduce federal funds, we will lose public broadcasting as we know it.

Q: What about Newt Gingrich’s argument that the private sector should pay?

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A: It already does. What we have built in the states is this extraordinary hybrid--a three-legged stool. The money we get from the government makes up from 14% to 17%, the smaller part of our budget; there is substantial foundation support, and the larger portion of our income comes from membership. For example, our station, KCRW, is one of the great nickel-and-dime success stories: We have 45,000 subscribers, and the average pledge is under $50. We are not talking affluent elites. We only get a government match--for every $5 that we raise, we get $1 from the government.

But when you say, surely you can make it without that, the answer is “no.” We don’t have any reserves. This is something people don’t understand--we live from fund raiser to fund raiser. Most of us have to answer to boards--we have to answer to the board of Santa Monica College. We can’t go into the red; if we do, they will say, “OK, where are we cutting here?” The cuts will be immediate.

Q: If the government contribution is such a small amount, why wouldn’t you be able to make it up?

A: It’s $600,000 for KCRW--we don’t make up $600,000 easily. If you are running a business, you immediately understand it. We will probably survive, but we are a big, successful entrepreneurial station. Small stations will not; they will become marginalized or will go under. That means there will be fewer of us left to support NPR. Our dues to NPR, which already exceed $600,000 a year, will have to go up. We will then put pressure on NPR to close news bureaus, to cut into national coverage, maybe to end the newsmagazines on the weekend. Instead of this extraordinary network, which is flourishing, now we are going to see a precipitous decline.

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Q: What about the charge that public broadcasting has a liberal bias?

A: Although that may be true of the programming, and I accept the fact--I think it is, that is--it isn’t true of the audience. Our audience, according to the most recent survey--35% considers themselves liberal; 30% identifies themselves as conservative; the remaining 35% calls themselves moderate. The reason we have 30% of conservatives is that we’ve tried to make it more provocative. We’ve invited intelligent, conservative voices onto KCRW, and we have gotten a lot of liberal mail that is critical. I don’t believe in consolation radio--radio that agrees with your prejudice. Public broadcasting is an education service and every intelligent society invests in intelligence; we regard it as our mandate.

Q: Last week, Gingrich attacked PBS for having commissioned a poll that showed that 80% of Republicans wanted to increase the funding for PBS. He said the PBS people had wasted taxpayer dollars lobbying. Do you have the right to lobby?

A: We feel this is a public trust. Those of us who are in the business feel we are extraordinarily talented. After all, we get people to pay for something they can listen to for free. It’s a real challenge. We are also idealists. When we make a vow, we don’t make it on behalf of my own job--I can get a job elsewhere. We make it on behalf of a cause, something we believe in. We would be derelict in our responsibility if we didn’t fight to preserve it. The public will support stations which are passionate about their mission, their responsibility to serve the public.

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One of the interesting aspects of that argument, which I have not heard anyone address yet, is that if we end government subsidies for PBS, we should then close down the Voice of America and Radio and Television Marti--which are completely subsidized broadcast services. Why should we be spending tax money informing and entertaining foreign populations and not American citizens at home?

Q: Who is the villain here? What is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

A: Well, the corporation was set up 25 years ago to be an independent agency funded by Congress but to act independently of Congress, in order to ensure that politics wouldn’t influence public broadcasting. So the corporation is run privately, but its directors are appointed by the Administration. Since we have had Republican Presidents, the corporation’s board of directors are largely Republican appointees.

What is fascinating is that one of the current targets is Sheila Tate, formerly press secretary to Nancy Reagan, who is heading the corporation board--and she refuses to interfere in programming. They feel this is not the corporation’s mandate. They should, in fact, leave it to the different networks and to the different stations to meet their obligations.

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So you’ve got an extraordinary attack by the right asking for government interference. But these old-line conservatives on the CPB are opposed to government interference, on principle.

Q: So this is the enemy the new congressional conservatives are attacking?

A: Yes. The irony is that, in effect, conservatives are turning against an organization that they, in fact, have made most of the appointments to the board of the organization. They are really turning against their own creation. With the attack on all the federally funded programs, with even the Democratic opposition conceding that certain programs don’t work and need to be looked at, the fact is that the CPB is a program that has worked. And public broadcasting is a remarkable achievement with a small investment, which should be celebrated. Instead, we’re trying to destroy it. This isn’t a program that’s a failure; it’s a program that’s a raving success.

Q: A raving success in what sense?

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A: In the sense that you’ve got Big Bird, you’ve got Barney, you’ve got “Masterpiece Theater;” that you’ve got “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition;” that you’ve got more than 10 million Americans listening to NPR’s newsmagazines. Public broadcasting really has affected, made an impression, on American lives with a small investment. It’s a little more than a dollar per taxpayer for the whole enchilada. What are we talking about here?

Q: Will the price of your survival be even greater government scrutiny, causing public broadcasting to lose its ability to astound, to be different?

A: I would dispute that. And I would say that I will be proved right because of the passion with which local audiences to public stations will go to the wall to defend those stations. In fact, if we prevail and we manage to stop this movement to ax the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it will be on the basis of constituencies all over the country. Not just here in Southern California. But all over the country, in places like Alaska, where public radio is often the only radio in the town--everybody depends on it to find out everything that is going on--stations in West Virginia, stations in rural communities and big cities. These audiences will, I believe, go to the wall to defend the station--right along with the national audiences for the big news magazines.

Years ago before government grants, public broadcasting existed--there were stations all over America before they created the CPB. No one knew that they existed, and it wasn’t important that they did. But today, that’s a different story.

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Q: But many say that much of the PBS programming is already too bland. Will it now become more so?

A: I think the charge that we are bland is a serious one, and it comes out of the reluctance of managerial types who are not as beholden to the public as public broadcasting is. It is hard, if you are literally putting out the collection plate a couple of times every year, to engage in provocative dialogue that gets angry mail from listeners. There is just a natural fear of doing that.

Whereas if you are in the commercial media, or in the print media, you have a certain distance from it. But the vulnerability of these stations with their local boards, and, of course, listeners write to everybody--they write to the entire board, to your boss. We are so politically vulnerable that there is a natural reluctance, and I think that’s a very serious charge and one that we need to work on to overcome.

Q: So even though you have this sort of Pollyanna-ish view that these attacks will produce some kind of better programming, won’t these attacks further intimidate the station managers?

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A: No, no no. I know the system, and I think that it’s not a bad thing for us. First of all, I really believe that out of crisis--if you don’t kill us--we are going to emerge stronger and more interesting.

Scrutiny is always a good thing. It has focused public attention on public broadcasting. There are some people who never heard of us--so now, at least, they know we exist, because we are making the newspapers, and they are going to be attracted. I believe that out of this fire we will emerge. The problem is, to prevent Congress from burning down the house.*


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