COLUMN ONE : KCRW’s Fiery Radio Warrior : Charismatic and controversial, Ruth Seymour made once-sleepy station a public broadcasting powerhouse.
Ruth Seymour is in a funk. She’s half an hour late for dinner, famished, but in no mood to eat, let alone be interviewed.
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” she says, barely audible above the din of Hal’s Bar & Grill, a favorite Venice hangout. She relents and orders a salad anyway.
It’s been a rough day and the woman who shaped public radio station KCRW in her own image needs time to decompress.
In a rip-snorting, two-week editorial campaign, she has railed on air against House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan to slash the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, calling it a thinly disguised attempt to destroy public radio and television.
She has also doled out the phone numbers of recalcitrant members of Congress, imploring listeners to give them an earful to halt “the attack dogs of the radical right.”
Seymour is late to dinner because on this, the campaign’s final day, one of her prime targets, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), has called to complain. The phones in the Orange County Republican’s Capitol Hill office have been ringing for a week, his staff distracted by yuppies calling from Southern California freeways during rush hour.
But there’s more.
An overzealous KCRW volunteer, apparently caught up in the rapture of Seymour’s bombast, has sent Rohrabacher a threatening message on the station’s fax machine. Seymour has had to apologize to him and dismiss the volunteer.
For once, the charismatic and complicated woman who is widely admired and resented appears to have underestimated the power of her own persona.
In the debate over the future of non-commercial broadcasting, National Public Ruth, as she is sometimes known, has emerged as one of the fiercest opponents of government cutbacks.
Yet, paradoxically, she embodies the very qualities that critics of the taxpayer-subsidized system admire: innovation, a keen eye for talent and, as illustrated by KCRW’s record $1-million February pledge drive, an uncanny ability to persuade listeners to ante up.
“She’s one of a kind,” said Frank Mankiewicz, vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton Worldwide Publishers and a former president of NPR. “If there were about 200 more [general managers] like her, the system wouldn’t be in the trouble it’s in.”
Even Douglas J. Bennet Jr., Mankiewicz’s successor and a person with whom Seymour often tangled during his stint as head of the network from 1983 to 1993, praises her as “someone who knows more about how to use radio than almost anyone I can think of.”
The 59-year-old Seymour is an unlikely success story in the staid, academic world of public broadcasting.
Creating the lively mix of news, talk, music and drama that has become KCRW’s hallmark in her 18 years there, Seymour has transformed the once-sleepy station into one of the nation’s most important public radio stations.
Quick to see the potential for NPR, she outsmarted some affiliates and elbowed out others to ensure that the station, located in a basement at Santa Monica College, became the network’s flagship in Southern California--and one of its biggest contributors nationwide. KCRW last year paid the network $500,000 in membership dues, surpassed only by stations in Boston and Chicago.
Seymour has used KCRW’s affluent and influential Westside listener base to come to NPR’s rescue during several financial crises. And by fashioning KCRW as a frame of reference for the socially and politically hip, the highly opinionated station manager, with her instantly recognizable Bronx accent, has become a cultural force in town.
Ruling KCRW with an iron hand, she is renowned for attracting and nurturing brilliant on-air talent, and for swiftly cutting them loose if they step out of line or their Arbitron ratings slump.
“She’s like the god Shiva; she must destroy to create,” said New York radio talk show host Larry Josephson, who was fired twice by Seymour, but still claims affection for her. “Without her, though, KCRW would be just another public radio station.”
Her flair for the dramatic knows few bounds. When the long-divorced Seymour changed her name from Hirschman in 1993, she teased listeners by announcing the change on the air, but reserved the explanation as a way to promote the station’s program guide. (Loyal subscribers learned that Seymour is the Anglicized version of her Polish-born great-grandfather’s first name.)
In private, as on the radio, Seymour seems always to be pitching, cajoling, lecturing, consumed by the passion of her own rhetoric. But she also can be charming and self-effacing, projecting a delicate, almost fawn-like vulnerability.
“Deep down, at the very core, Ruth is still a little Jewish girl from the Bronx who, like a lot of people in Hollywood, has invented herself as someone larger than life,” said Josephson, who has known her since the 1960s.
Intensely private, she quickly recoils when she senses an intrusion into her personal domain. “I’m not terribly comfortable in a public setting,” said Seymour, who has lived in the same rent-controlled house in Santa Monica since 1977. “I love radio for that reason. They don’t know what I look like.”
Even for this article, after more than five hours of interviews, she suddenly changed her mind, announcing through an emissary that she no longer wanted to cooperate. KCRW employees were instructed not to give interviews. Friends and associates elsewhere begged off, did not return phone calls or fished around on Seymour’s behalf about what might be written.
She grew up Ruth Epstein in the South Bronx, the daughter of Russian-Polish immigrants.
Her father, a furrier, was a member of the Workman’s Circle, a social-democratic and anti-communist fraternal organization; her mother was a unionized garment worker. There wasn’t a phone in the house until she was 15, and she grew up without ever having her own room.
Still, Seymour recalls her home as a “privileged environment,” crediting her working-class intellectual parents with exposing her and her younger sister to “an extraordinary world of ideas, literature and politics.” After high school, they saw to it that she attended City College of New York, an academic melting pot that in the 1950s still enjoyed a reputation as the Harvard of the Proletariat.
It was there that she met poet Jack Hirschman, married him and with two young children, settled into life as a faculty wife, first at Dartmouth, then at UCLA.
She turned up in Los Angeles in 1961, stumbling into radio station KPFK with audiotapes of weekly poetry readings she had organized in the living rooms of Dartmouth faculty. KPFK is part of Pacifica Radio, a small leftist network of listener-sponsored stations founded in 1949 by disillusioned journalist Lewis Hill.
Seymour cut her teeth as KPFK’s drama and literary critic, produced award-winning series on Bertolt Brecht and Oscar Wilde, free-lanced for Pacifica during two sojourns to Europe, and, in 1971, returned as the station’s program director.
She worked closely with Will Lewis, who, as the station’s manager and her boss, gained notoriety in 1974 by going to jail rather than hand over to the FBI tapes left at the station by the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground. The duo were counterculture celebrities until they were ousted together in 1976 during one of KPFK’s occasional palace coups. Today, Lewis is Seymour’s most trusted adviser at KCRW.
While KPFK and the rest of left-wing radio have become marginalized, Seymour has flourished at KCRW by reshaping for a more mainstream audience the very elements that once propelled Pacifica--serious talk, drama, music and public affairs.
“One of Ruth’s strengths is that she possesses the hard-driving intellectual rigor that was characteristic of Old World leftist theory, even though she’s left leftist politics far behind,” said former NPR Vice President Peter Pennekamp.
Her intellect, however, accounts for only part of the Seymour mystique.
“Ruth is an artist and a bohemian at heart,” said former NPR correspondent John Hockenberry, “which makes her rare and enormously important to the creative people who work for her. . . . They don’t just need air-time. They desperately need Ruth’s approval, because she has this way of making them feel she’s the only one who truly understands them.”
The nurturing may help account for the love-hate relationship between Seymour and many of the people who have worked for her, including those she has cast aside.
“If she adopts you emotionally, it’s wonderful,” said producer Steve Rathe. “But if she feels she’s been crossed, she’ll quickly cast you out of the warmth of her love.”
Seymour championed his award-winning NPR program “Heat,” hosted by Hockenberry, then dropped it like a hot potato, contributing to its demise.
Others say that Seymour polices the station’s every utterance; that she’s apt to order a producer to get a caller she doesn’t like off the air, harangue disc jockeys for playing a particular piece of music and verbally accost program hosts for remarks she deems impertinent.
“She rules by intimidation,” said British gadfly and author Ian Whitcomb, who left the KCRW fold voluntarily. “She’s forever saying that if you don’t like something, they’re lining up in the halls to replace you.”
Once she decides to purge someone, it is usually with little notice.
Several years ago, former disc jockeys Michael Ochs and Jack Cheeseborough discovered that they had been given the gate when they picked up a copy of the upcoming program guide and noticed that their names weren’t in it. “It was an ignominious way to go for someone who’d given his sweat and tears to the place,” recalls Ochs. “As I said at the time, it was like being fired as a blood donor.”
Seymour insists that her firing methods are no different than elsewhere in radio, where it isn’t customary to fire someone and then put them on the air. “Some of these people I’ve felt great affection for,” she said. “But you have to be an artist about these things.”
When she arrived at KCRW in 1977 the station was housed in a couple of converted classrooms on a school playground. It had a few erudite, unpaid disc jockeys--among them Tom Schnabel and Isabel Holt--who played mostly jazz for an audience deemed to be so small that no one had ever bothered to measure it.
“You could hear the hum of the transmitter through the wall,” recalls Holt. “It sounded like four refrigerators.”
The station, which had been around since 1947, was owned by the Santa Monica Unified School District, which wanted to close it.
But Richard Moore, then president of Santa Monica College, had a different idea. “I said, ‘I’ll take this albatross off your hands if you’ll deed it to the college,’ and they did,” said Moore, who now heads a community college in Nevada. He envisioned KCRW doing more to promote the college than an army of public relations experts. Casting about for someone to run it, he discovered Seymour through a mutual friend.
Moore ran interference for her in what was then a conservative white-bread community that had not yet been gentrified by a younger, more diverse and upwardly mobile professional class that would provide fertile soil for the liberal politics of two of Santa Monica’s own, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.
Seymour, who already knew “Tom and Jane,” recalls Santa Monica as “a very conservative town that would have liked to have built a moat next to the freeway so that, in fact, you’d have to have a passport to come in.”
She pursued grants, held on-air fund-raisers and installed a new transmitter atop the Hollywood Hills.
She attracted an extraordinary lineup of talent, including satirist Harry Shearer and macabre story-teller Joe Frank. Seymour, who earns about $80,000 a year, also added high-caliber comedy and drama, some from the BBC and some produced by KCRW with help from Hollywood celebrities whose friendships she cultivated.
On the music front, she brought in disc jockeys as trend-setting as the music they favored: Deirdre O’Donoghue, Mara Zhelutka and Rene Engel, among others. The station’s most enduring musical staple, “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” is widely imitated.
But it was NPR’s news programs, and particularly “Morning Edition,” that enabled KCRW to turn the corner.
In 1979, on the week that Seymour’s station hooked up to its new transmitter, there was only one truly important public radio station in Los Angeles, and it was across town at the University of Southern California.
Seymour recalls NPR chief Mankiewicz phoning her a few weeks before “Morning Edition’s” debut, anguished that KUSC, the network’s “big enchilada” in the nation’s second-largest market, intended to air the two-hour program before 6 a.m. Seymour saw an opportunity. She put “Morning Edition” on the air not once, but three times a day, stretching from 3 to 9 a.m. She followed a similar strategy with “All Things Considered,” airing it back-to-back in the afternoons.
“That way,” she said, “nobody was going to have [the programs] when I didn’t have them. We weren’t going to give anybody an opening.”
Not coincidentally, KUSC--long the undisputed leader among public stations in Southern California in terms of listenership--has slipped behind KCRW in the last two years. According to recent Arbitron figures, KCRW attracts an average weekly audience of 371,000 listeners compared to KUSC’s 352,000.
There are 277 radio stations in the NPR family--not including those that merely rebroadcast the signal of parent stations--and most are on college campuses. The colleges already owned stations that they mainly used as training labs for students when NPR came into existence in 1975.
As a result, NPR affiliates tend to be managed by faculty often at least tepidly liberal in their politics but who are more eager to avoid making waves within their academic institutions than to take risks with creative programming.
Seymour has never fit the mold, and neither does she try, preferring instead to play the provocateur.
“Ruth will stand up and yell, ‘That stinks!’ ” says John McNally, who attended affiliate meetings with her during more than a decade at KCRW. “Public radio people weren’t used to that.”
Seymour in some respects has had the last laugh, setting the standard for fund-raising and creating a programming model in KCRW that is the envy of former naysayers, including those trying to extricate themselves from the waning classical music format common to much of public radio.
Now, when Seymour attends affiliates’ meetings, says an NPR source who spoke on condition of anonymity, her modus operandi is to make a grand entrance, stick around long enough to let it be known that she is a force to be reckoned with, and then retire to hold court in some quiet corner.
She enjoys the respect that befits someone who led the charge to save NPR from several disasters.
The efforts go back to 1983, when an overly ambitious expansion plunged the network deep into debt, forcing NPR to turn to its stations to survive. A few revolted. Others responded with token efforts. But Seymour held three special pledge drives for NPR News.
She led a fund-raising effort in 1985 to save “Weekend All Things Considered.” And in 1991, when NPR had to pass the hat to cover the Gulf War, she again played a critical role, orchestrating a campaign to persuade other stations and the CPB, which provides critical funding to public radio and TV stations, to come to the rescue.
The war greatly expanded NPR’s audience, spawning a 24-hour news cycle and a national call-in show. “‘Without Ruth,” muses NPR news chief Bill Buzenberg, “none of it would have been possible.”
As her own boss at KCRW, however, she isn’t immune to criticism.
Hawkish on behalf of Israel, Seymour and KCRW often seem to fixate on the Middle East and Europe and, until recently, hardly seemed to acknowledge the existence of Los Angeles.
To the latter issue, Seymour responded with “Which Way, L.A.?” a daily public affairs program that since the 1992 riots has become familiar fare from government offices to kitchen tables.
Although she has harped at NPR officials to include more conservative voices, her own efforts have been less than impressive.
Twice in three years she has given regular air-time to David Horowitz, the arch-leftist-turned-conservative commentator who is widely credited with inciting the current Gingrichian assault on public broadcasting. But after an on-air stint that coincided with the start of the new Republican-controlled Congress, Horowitz has moved on.
Even when it comes to promotion, which has made KCRW the envy of public stations everywhere, Seymour takes her lumps.
“KCRW is in your face, pitching you, always promoting a restaurant, a movie theater or some other tie-in,” said Josephson. “It’s as close to being commercial as a non-commercial station can get.”
A master of the pledge drive, Seymour is endlessly coming up with new gimmicks, offering classes in beer brewing, flight lessons and even limousine tours to movie stars’ graves as inducements for people to give.
Not above squeezing a crisis for all it’s worth, she worked listeners into a generous tizzy in 1992 after a few Republican senators used a procedural ploy to hold up a bill authorizing funds for the CPB. The legislation was overwhelmingly approved.
She even persuaded a few congressional opponents to record on-air pitches in February, as the debate about public broadcasting began to heat up.
Of KCRW’s $3.6-million annual budget, less than 17% comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that Gingrich and others have said they intend to eliminate from the federal budget by fiscal year 1998.
Seymour launched her on-air campaign in March, after pressing her case in Washington with key House Republicans.
But the same month, the House approved a 15% cut for 1996 and 30% for 1997 in funds already appropriated for the CPB. In a much less painful move, the Senate approved freezing the CPB’s current $285-million subsidy for each of those years.
Last week, a legislative committee approved cuts that fall about halfway between the two approaches, but the ultimate outcome remains uncertain. President Clinton has threatened to veto the so-called “recision” package that contains the cuts.
NPR sources say Seymour has been a key strategist in rallying public stations to action.
Critics have called her campaigning shrill.
“Ruth and others like her overreacted,” said Rohrabacher, who caught Seymour’s ire after instigating an unsuccessful push to double the cuts proposed by the House.
Seymour remains vigilant, bracing for what she expects to be public broadcasting’s fight for its life.
“You begin to resent this,” says National Public Ruth. “God didn’t put us here to deal with nibbling ducks.”