Radio personality Madeleine Brand got a mayoral shout-out last week when Eric Garcetti tweeted, “On behalf of a grateful city, welcome back to the radio, @TheMadBrand,” a nod to her Twitter handle.
On Monday, the host, who lives in Silver Lake, returned to the airwaves with a new show for her former competitor KCRW-FM (89.9), broadcasting from its home in the cramped basement of Santa Monica College’s cafeteria building.
For fans of the defunct “Madeleine Brand Show,” the new program, dubbed “Press Play,” is a welcome reemergence after Brand’s high-profile departure from KPCC-FM (89.3).
Public radio is especially competitive in Los Angeles, one of the few markets big enough to contain two NPR-affiliate stations fighting for the same air space and the same audience support.
KCRW raises roughly $15 million a year from corporate underwriting, grants from foundations, listener donations and other sources. Meanwhile, KPCC’s revenue topped $20 million in fiscal 2012, according to the most recent data available.
Following a brief stint at local television station KCET, Brand arrived at KCRW in September to develop “Press Play” after occasionally filling in over the summer for veteran newsman Warren Olney on his long-running current affairs talker “To the Point.”
Brand said she is ready to go back to the grind of a daily show.
“Radio is my longest lasting and most enduring love,” the 48-year-old mother of two said in KCRW’s small conference room. “This is the station I’ve been listening to since I came [to Los Angeles] 10 years ago, so it’s really exciting to be inside the hallowed walls of the basement.”
“Press Play,” which debuted Monday at noon against Larry Mantle’s “AirTalk” on KPCC, is KCRW’s first new daily show since 2001.
It’s part of KCRW’s effort to smooth out the transition between the popular “Morning Becomes Eclectic” music program and “To the Point.” Brand’s time slot was previously occupied by PRI’s “The World” — a jarringly serious news magazine coming after the indie rock showcases anchored by Jason Bentley — which is moving to 3 p.m.
It could also boost listenership, if it’s as popular as her last effort. During its last month on KPCC, the “Madeleine Brand Show,” which debuted in 2010, was the station’s most listened-to in-house program. From July through December of last year, KCRW averaged about 475,000 people tuning in for at least five minutes each week, according to Nielsen Audio. During the same period, KPCC brought in an average of around 700,000 people.
Jennifer Ferro, KCRW’s general manager, said she’d been courting the host for a long time. Brand’s sense of humor and interest in news, arts, culture and literature made her the ideal fit, she said.
“She’s the friend you wish you had,” Ferro said. “She’s super-smart, she’s funny, and she knows what’s going on, whether it’s in music or books or film. That’s exactly the kind of thing that makes her really attractive.”
Although “Press Play” has similarities in tone and subject matter to the breezy “Madeleine Brand Show,” it will feature new segments, including regular appearances from the self-deprecating Time magazine contributor Joel Stein, along with weekly spots on science, film and politics (the latter bringing on Matt Miller, who writes for the Washington Post and moderates KCRW’s debate show “Left, Right and Center”).
The program won’t focus on the minutiae of local government, Brand said. Rather, it will cover issues important to Angelenos and bring a local lens to national stories, such as income inequality.
Just as crucial to the show’s flavor are the stories people can take with them to a dinner party. Monday’s debut included an interview with “This American Life” host Ira Glass, talking about the first radio show he ever recorded, and a conversation with Bentley about the Grammy Awards.
“It’s not just story selection,” Brand said. “It’s tone, it’s an attitude, it’s a sense of humor — it’s serious inquiry, but not taking itself too seriously.”
Although the KCRW space seems to be bursting with its roughly 100 employees, the station is planning to move aboveground. Last year, it kicked off an aggressive fundraising drive with the goal of generating $20 million, in part to fund a new three-story, 35,000-square-foot building on Santa Monica College’s Academy of Entertainment and Technology campus. It has raised $5 million so far, including a $2-million grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
“We can sit in a junky basement with no windows and still produce great things, but the exciting thing is, we’re going to be an institution you can actually come and visit,” Ferro said. “Being aboveground is a perfect metaphor for our next phase.”
Brand’s tenure at KPCC, airing from the comparatively glamorous Mohn Broadcast Center in Pasadena, came to an abrupt end after the station tried to pair her with a Latino co-host — longtime sportscaster A Martinez — in order to attract a more diverse audience and fulfill the requirements of a $6-million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The experiment, named “Brand & Martinez,” lasted just four weeks. Brand left in September 2012, and was replaced by Alex Cohen. The show was re-branded “Take Two.”
Brand said she was surprised by the amount of attention the KPCC drama received. For that matter, the on-air personality seems nearly as surprised by the response from those excited for her new act.
“Was that show that good?” she wondered aloud. “I guess I didn’t realize what an impact the ‘Madeleine Brand Show’ had. It’s a lot of pressure.”