Ruth Seymour: ‘The art is to keep yourself open to change’

Seymour

Seymour

Over dinner at a ritzy Santa Monica restaurant, Ruth Seymour hammers on a recurring gripe: the risk-averse world of public radio. “We’re running like lemmings,” she says. “‘What does the research say? Do we dare to eat a peach? Do I wear my trousers rolled?’ That’s what we’ve become! We’ve become J. Alfred Prufrock!”

While Prufrock, the timid T.S. Eliot character, frets over eating a peach, Seymour would have downed it, or tossed it aside, long ago. In a 40-year public radio career, the brash, innovative and outspoken general manager and program director of Santa Monica’s KCRW has played the roles of conscience, life-saver and gadfly of the public radio system.

On the surface, she seems unpredictable, almost self-contradicting. She scoffs at public radio’s over-reliance on research, but believes public radio’s listeners pledge during the programs they most adore—a notion that others repudiate.

She accuses NPR of poor decision-making, informed more by committees than passion, but she has organized special fundraisers to aid the network in times of need.

She’s bullish on the Internet—KCRW has three separate online programming streams—but didn’t own a computer until last year. And the way she couples spur-of-the-moment decision-making and openness to change with highly principled management has prompted some to call her the “Lady of the Iron Whim,” one of her many nicknames. She is not afraid to make enemies, or even fire longtime volunteers, if it helps keep the schedule fresh.

“Ruth can be a very difficult person. There’s no secret about that,” says J. J. Yore, executive producer of Los Angeles-based Marketplace Productions.

“The truth is that public radio would be a much stronger institution if there were more people like her in it. She’s powerful, she’s strong-willed, she’s incredibly smart, and she has great taste in radio.”

“The important thing is, she breaks all of David Giovannoni’s rules,” says independent producer Larry Josephson, who met Seymour when she was program director of KPFK, Pacifica’s station in Los Angeles. “She breaks all the rules of all the consultants, and everybody. The station isn’t all one thing, the music is cutting edge . . . and it’s very, very successful. That’s the thing to keep in mind.”

“Alive to the world”

Seymour’s success—and, to some extent, her notoriety—are wrapped up in KCRW, the restlessly eclectic NPR affiliate squeezed into a basement at Santa Monica College, its licensee. But her history in public radio goes back to the early ’60s, when she became KPFK’s arts director.

After two years at KPFK, she and her then-husband, poet Jack Hirschman, left for Europe and embraced the bohemian lifestyle. She returned to the station in 1971, became program director and survived Pacifica’s withering internal politics until 1977, when she says she and general manager Will Lewis were driven out in one of the network’s all-too-familiar coups.

She looks back fondly on what she calls Pacifica’s “golden time.” “It was a wonderful time to do this kind of work,” she says. At KPFK, Seymour met leaders of America’s avant-garde movement, including Andy Warhol and John Cage. And the atmosphere suited her. Born to working-class socialists, Seymour grew up in a Bronx household amid impassioned discussions about politics, literature and the arts. She says her parents were “alive to the world,” and today, she prides herself on leading a station that reflects their spirit.

Wherever her career has taken her, she has surrounded herself with curious people, trusting them to create enthralling programming. Meanwhile, she makes sure the programming draws an audience and fits her strong idea of public radio’s mission.

“We are so frankly an intellectual station,” she says of KCRW. “You’ve got to be able to read and think and be connected. . . . There isn’t anything that doesn’t interest us, which is one of the reasons that we’re so eclectic.”

Listening to KCRW can be baffling and exhilarating. One minute, David Brancaccio is wrapping up Marketplace, and the next, a couple of avant-garde artists are mulling over a question like, “Do you believe in light?” Its signature morning program, Morning Becomes Eclectic, draws on a wide range of hip, challenging contemporary music, seemingly a recipe for alienating listeners who seek consistency.

Yet KCRW pulled a cume of 463,500 last fall, trailing not far behind classical music public radio station KUSC in the vast L.A. region. In its latest fundraiser, its best ever, it raised $1.7 million.

As a g.m., Seymour has fused the freewheeling spirit of Pacifica’s golden age with pragmatic sensibilities befitting a major market. “To some extent, a lot of what built KCRW was the original, Lew Hill vision of Pacifica,” she says, referring to the network’s founder.

After KPFK ousted Seymour, Santa Monica College hired her to resuscitate KCRW, which at the time was an eclectic-format station sitting on a middle school playground. “You opened the door from the swings into the studio,” she remembers.

The station’s transmitter, then the oldest west of the Mississippi, ran at 26,000 watts, but the antenna was so low—below sea level, in fact—that the signal petered out in Hollywood.

With a tiny facility and little audience, Seymour and her crew had nowhere to go but up, she says, and they loved it. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” she quotes. “And we didn’t have anything to lose. So there was a great sense of euphoria, and people found us.”

She took stock of her staff, and brought in Will Lewis as a consultant. She also started scouting for talent, bringing in people whose work she championed, even if they toiled in the field’s margins.

“Her programming instincts are just unsurpassed,” says Lewis, now Seymour’s management consultant. “She could go into any public radio station in the country and come up with a better schedule than the one they have.” Lewis points to the weak midday listening plaguing much of the system. At KCRW, he says, midday fall-off is low by comparison. “So we’ve fixed our ‘midday problem,’” he says.

Today, Seymour freely admits that she delegates programming responsibilities to her knowledgeable hosts while sometimes knowing little about their areas of expertise. KCRW has put itself on the map for championing contemporary alternative music, but Seymour prefers listening to the competition, KUSC.

Jason Bentley, host of KCRW’s dance music show Metropolis, recalls that Seymour once called him during his shift and told him his record was skipping. What she didn’t know was that that’s how dance music is supposed to sound sometimes. “I’m like, ‘I’m looking at it right now. I know it sounds like it, but it is not skipping,’” he says. “She wasn’t even hearing it.

She insisted. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll fix it.’ Fixing it was mixing into another record.”

A legacy of change—and rancor

Over the years, KCRW has woven itself into the cultural life of Los Angeles by reflecting it, with its extensive programming on film, food, dance, theater and the visual arts. Top executives at record labels tune in, and songs played on KCRW find their way into movie soundtracks.

“It’s a place of great creative energy because it’s basically an anarchic place,” Seymour says of Los Angeles. “The illusion it sells is that you can change your life tomorrow. It’s about the moment that is happening and not about the one that is past, or the one that’s going to come.

Seymour on KCRW: "There isn’t anything that doesn’t interest us, which  is one of the reasons that we’re so eclectic.

Seymour on KCRW: "There isn’t anything that doesn’t interest us, which is one of the reasons that we’re so eclectic."

“So we never have had five-year plans. When people say, ‘How do you envision the station,’ I always say that is misunderstanding the nature of radio.

The answer is, I don’t know. I just know the art is to keep yourself open to change, to be ready to change on a dime, and to not have to need the sense that you know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Seymour’s willingness to take chances has earned her admirers, but has also alienated former employees who see her as disloyal. Public radio, after all, is a field in which one program host of lore willed his on-air time slot to someone when he passed away. One embittered former KCRW volunteer still can’t bear to listen to the station, 12 years after Seymour took him off the air.

“It’s not even on my buttons in my car radio,” says Roger Steffens, a Los Angeles-based actor, voiceover artist and reggae collector who brought a popular reggae show to KCRW in 1979, when the station was just getting off the ground. During a 1980 fund drive, Steffens says, The Reggae Beat brought in more money in three hours than the station made in its entire previous fund drive. Steffens was a volunteer, but after his show took off, Seymour commissioned him to help with fundraisers and started paying him an annual salary.

By 1989, Steffens was hosting a weekly interview program, on which he says he featured high-profile guests such as David Crosby, Timothy Leary and Cream drummer Ginger Baker. It was that year that Seymour pulled him off the air. “She called me . . . and in the filthiest possible language told me that I was wasting her airtime with my nobodies,” he remembers.

“She is one of the most disloyal and willfully ignorant people I have ever met,” he says. “It’s just really sad to see the way a lot of very talented people have been kicked in the teeth by her over the years,” he adds, referring to other hosts Seymour has yanked.

Josephson also had a scuffle with Seymour, over his weekly talk show Modern Times. Seymour and Josephson had agreed that KCRW, which aired his show live, would not air repeats. But Josephson wanted a weekend off, so he cobbled together a show of canned and rebroadcast material. He says someone at KCRW told Seymour, and that she called him, “screamed into the answering machine,” and fired him. “We didn’t speak for five years,” he says.

Seymour claims Josephson resigned, and denies using a potty mouth with Steffens. But she admits that she fired him, and defends her decision. “While it’s true that someone like Roger really helped to create the original KCRW, he has very little to do with the station that evolved,” she says. And she is unapologetic about canceling shows, which has been a longtime staple of her programming philosophy.

“If you don’t remove shows, you’re never going to have any room to put new ones on,” she says. “In Los Angeles, where every month there is a new flavor, you’ve got to take a look at what you’re doing, and say, ‘Is this working or not?’ When it isn’t working, you’ve got to move. . . . My sense about public radio is that people sit on programs that haven’t performed, and are non-performing, and are not growing. They’re either stagnating or losing audience. This is a disaster.”

Her management style is demanding, but her hosts know the game. “It’s like, ‘Do your thing, but you may be cut,’” Bentley says. “‘If you don’t do well in this subscription drive, you’re curtains.’ You have to establish that you have a pro-active audience.”

“The fruits of her labors”

Seymour has also stepped on toes in the public radio system, where she refuses to shrink from speaking her mind. “She tends to say things among her colleagues at public radio’s professional gatherings that so many of us are thinking, but that for some reason we don’t dare speak, as if we’re going to be put in the brig,” says Torey Malatia, president of Chicago Public Radio. “That’s a rare quality these days in an increasingly politicized public radio environment.”

Malatia recalls that when NPR and Minnesota Public Radio announced their online partnership eXploreRadio, Seymour pushed for the networks to disclose the details of their agreement at a time when others were reluctant to speak out. Stations eventually received the details, but “I wonder if we would have had the ability to find out if she hadn’t said anything,” he says.

“It’s often remarkable, to me, anyway, how consistently we appreciate the fruits of her labors,” Malatia says. “Yet it’s really not spoken of very much. We get the benefits of all that, but I don’t know how much it’s appreciated. It should be appreciated by all of us.”

Another time, Seymour says, NPR pondered taking Weekend All Things Considered off the air, and she rallied to its defense, seeking support on Capitol Hill. As is evident today, the show stayed. “That’s when I learned the value of making a stink,” she says.

Yet Seymour promotes fierce loyalty to NPR. Though she implicates the network in her harangues against public radio’s skittishness and fondness for red tape, she took to the airwaves and raised money for NPR when it faced bankruptcy in the early ’80s, and again in the early ’90s, when coverage of the Gulf War threatened to drain the news division’s resources. Her efforts have earned her another nickname: National Public Ruth.

“I can’t be bought, because it doesn’t interest me,” Seymour says. “Your disapproval is not going to stop me. I couldn’t care less. And I think if you project something like that, it frightens people.”

“There are a lot of bureaucrats who shake their heads at Ruth’s behavior,” Josephson says. “She doesn’t tolerate people who get in her way. But none of these Prufrocks who criticize her could have accomplished what she has,
and that’s the point.”

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