Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The troubles of KCRW

Chris Douridas, above, from his Web site.

Famous Van Nuys resident Sandra Tsing Loh guest-blogs for Cathy Seipp on the trouble, past and present, of KCRW-FM, touching on her own firing for the expletive that indadvertently reached the air, but centering on the current controversy surrounding Chris Douridas, who is under suspicion of attempted kidnapping and drugging a teenage girl at a Santa Monica bar. (Note to all: L.A. Times is requiring registration these days, but you don't have to be a subscriber to do it). Sandra's comment was prompted by the break in the media silence by L.A. Times columnist Megan Daum, who I think was pretty darn kind to all concerned. At one insipid point, this happens in Daum's piece:

Others, though, are nearly choking on the drool of their schadenfreude. When the news of Douridas' arrest broke, even the fact that it was buried on page B3 didn't keep people from circulating e-mails filled with catty conjectures about who might be next. What if Daniel Schorr was caught shoplifting at Wal-Mart? Imagine if Terry Gross was nabbed on Sunset Boulevard in a compromising position with Divine Brown. Imagine!
Is she outing Terry Gross here? That aside, the whole paragraph trivializes a serious matter -- potential kidnapping and rape of a child. If I was her editor (and I am not), I would kick that one right back with a "What are you thinking?" note.

However, Sandra hits it right:

KCRW, of course, has a long history of removing people from the air any time for any reason. After (was it?) 10 years, Ruth (Seymour, who runs the station)
recently thought afternoon announcer Cindi Burke’s voice suddenly sounded funny -- gone. Joe Frank has a horrific story to tell about being fired by Ruth just before his new series was scheduled to start, with the twist that KCRW then issued a statement that Joe had decided to take a voluntary leave for health reasons. . .


As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (aka: in LA Times), I came of age in a time when KCRW’s signature broadcaster was Joe Frank, a writer who spoke openly to us, across the ether, about our deepest, darkest, weirdest, most embarrassing, and at times most hilarious predilections. When he satirized KCRW’s own pledge drives ("Do you enjoy long moonlit walks on the beach in Bali? Do you. . . ? Do you. . . ? Sorry--in fact no, you DIDN’T win the Bali sweepstakes"), it was the break in the sonic wash that gave KCRW, for me, a kind of. . . call it a kind of three-dimensional personality. It was something recognizably human.

My "relationship" with public radio in general, and KCRW in particular, is, for want of a better word, fragmented. I do listen to a lot of public radio, but my listening time is divided between KCRW, KPCC, KKJZ and KCSN, and I'm mostly trying to catch NPR news and jazz or classical music (the latter two of which barely appear on KCRW and are nonexistent on the mostly talk KPCC). So I was happy to see Sandra's commentaries picked up by KPCC, including the new "Loh Down on Science" (am I spelling that right?), produced by Loh's alma mater Caltech and which airs at 9:20 a.m. weekdays in the middle of "Day to Day" on 89.3.

I've blogged recently on the salaries of top public radio on-air talent, and I don't know where Douridas falls in this spectrum. But he went from host of the daily "Morning Becomes Eclectic" to a much-lower-profile weekend shift, supplementing his income all the while by doing soundtrack supervising and other record-company work. While not disturbing as alleged kidnapping, the fact that most of the big KCRW DJs (including Nic Harcourt and Tom Schanbel) have outside jobs in the record industry is a giant red flag (as in conflict of interest). Especially if you're dragging in $100k from the station, do you really need to be supervising soundtracks or doing A&R?

I don't know Ruth Seymour or any other KCRW employees for that matter, but it's pretty clear from listening to the station and reading about it that the whole operation is basically Seymour's personal fiefdom. It may be a "public" station, it may be housed at Santa Monica College, but Seymour is firmly in control of it. One thing's for sure, the station's profile has risen tremendously under her tenure. It's a big business that drags in a lot of money from listeners and corporations. I don't know if this is good or bad, and I don't really doubt that the public interest is being served to some extent, but I sure do miss Cindi Burke and Joe Frank.

I also miss the great jazz shows I remember from the '80s -- "Smoke Rings," and "Straight, No Chaser" (although I can't for the life of me remember which one aired on KCRW and which was on KPFK). I also think it's a crime that Marian McPartland's excellent "Piano Jazz" has no L.A. outlet.

But it all comes down to this. I don't have cable TV, so for news it's all about NPR in the car. As long as the "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Day to Day" keep flowing, I'm reasonably happy.

Other things I love about public radio: Chuck Cecil's "The Swingin' Years," on KKJZ and KCSN (no, I'm not 80, I just act like it), KPCC's Larry Mantle (he deserves his $100K) and Kitty Felde, Les Perry's "British Invasion" show on KCSN, Chuck Southcott's KKJZ bop program on weekend mornings and afternoons, those "Car Talk" guys, Terry Gross (gay or not) and "Fresh Air," the fact that "Day to Day" is produced in Los Angeles (or is it Culver City?), the entire KPCC news team, KCRW's "Left, Right and Center" (so that's where I know Robert Scheer from).


James Hames said...

I miss the KCRW Tim Hauser and Billy Vera Sunday afternoons... and Deidre O'Donohue weeknights.

And the weekend's Sancho Show on KPCC was unrivaled

But alas, things change.

Love the blog

Steven Rosenberg said...

Jim, nice to hear from you -- I've gotta put a resedaweb link on this page.

All those shows were great. Deidre O'Donohue's being dead probably means she won't be returing to the air, but I certainly enjoyed "Snap."

Loved the doo-wop of Tim Hauser ... now it's KKJZ on weekend mornings -- cool jazz/bop substitutes quite nicely.

KCSN is probably the only real public-radio station in the L.A. area -- it's got that campus/community feel that none of the others have. And it could stand to have more of a CSUN component. I remember the UC Santa Cruz station as being VERY student-oriented.

Ilene said...

I miss Joe Frank. I do not miss the Honda Civic Deathrattle with the worn weatherstripping that rattled over the canyon while we listened to Mr. Frank through a radio dial tone created by the car on the way to Gorky's. Well, I sort of do.

Remember his whole thing about Barry Manilow's Mandy? Man. Dei. Man. God. You came without taking. We couldn't get out of the car we were laughing so hard.

James Hames said...

KCSN picked up Ann the Raven which is cool, but where did the 3hrs of German Beer Garden music go????

Thanks for the link: Reseda, it's the center of the universe!

The Joe Frank Rent-a-family episode w/ the series of 3 fone calls from the exwife... frightening... As Harry Shearer said about Frank's program, "It's like a fist coming through the radio."

BTW, Hope all is peaceful at that place there. Hi to all

Anonymous said...

the whole operation is basically Seymour's personal fiefdom.

this is absolutely true, and there is no control or oversight of ruth at all. she has _absolute_ power.

One thing's for sure, the station's profile has risen tremendously under her tenure. It's a big business that drags in a lot of money from listeners and corporations.

----and it brings otherwise obscure or never-to-be-found artists and thinkers to a wider audience---which is good. Thank god for it! And as the station never lets you forget, there's all that green stuff that goes to NPR--which is without equal in radio reporting. It is a true phenomenon. KCRW is a good thing---and without Ruth it would not be there at all.

But it's confounding the way she treats the very people who make KCRW great. These are the people who channel pure magic, like Joe Frank; who bring a fascinating musical landscape to the nights like O'Donoghue did; and many others below the radar in less glamorous but essential positions you'll never hear about. (Like a senior employee told by Ruth to 'shut the fuck up' during a big donor meeting last year, for example.)

You don't just get fired--you get told what a miserable failure you've become, and cast out in an incredibly heartless way; or, it's just "goodbye" without warning, and Ruth will refuse to meet with you, or even discuss whatever the matter might be. THAT'S what deserves oversight. Where's the KCRW board of directors? (The Santa Monica College board of directors is not the same thing, at least I don't think it is.)

There is a "KCRW Foundation." They're shadowy. Try to find current foundation members....they must be out there somewhere....and write them, if any of this matters to you. Or, write letters to the station.

Does anyone know Tom Hanks? He's a big supporter. Maybe he should say something to Ruth. He seems like a decent sort who would be appalled at some of the things that happen at KCRW. I bet Ruth would listen if Tom Hanks said something like, "Hey, this stuff is really uncool." The only things that impress Ruth are money, fame and ....yep....the opinions of others, -if- she deems them worthy. Which seems to be a pretty arbitrary designation.

What really sucks is lying to the public---- for example, telling people Sandra Loh said "fuck" on the air on purpose, that it was her "Janet Jackson moment." And carrying out a myth that Joe Frank was just laying low and all was cozy and well with him and the station, when in fact he'd been brutally cut loose.

There may have been a window of opportunity there---if Joe came crawling to Ruth within a certain amount of time, groveling, she might have magnanimously worked out another future comeback.

But he didn't.

Submitting to humiliation is required if you're to get back into Ruth's good graces, and stay on. At some point, those with any sense of self at all decide it's not worth it to roll over and pretend she's absolutely right, that they basically do suck, and are lucky just to be anywhere near KCRW.

KCRW is not that unique; most workplaces have tyrants, petty tyrants, evil honchos with friendly faces (think Ken Lay) and so on. But usually there's some sort of check-and-balance system, even if (think Ken Lay) it has to be the law.

Not at KCRW.

Steven Rosenberg said...

I don't think KCRW's existence was or is dependent on Ruth Seymour. And I don't think a station has to be as successful as KCRW is to fulfill its mission, which is to entertain and inform. The major public radio stations in L.A. are quite "professional," and I think a little more community-oriented vibe would be welcome. And when it comes to local news, KPCC does a better job than KCRW.

That said, Seymour has certainly been successful at increasing the station's profile, audience and budget. And if that isn't the bottom line, I don't know what is.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to the area and may stay here indefinitely if for no other reason than to satisfy my addiction to KKJZ. Wow! Imagine an all-jazz-all-the-time (with blues mixed in on weekends) radio station! Very nice to this newbie to the big city.

Sean said...

KCSN is probably the only real public-radio station in the L.A. area -- it's got that campus/community feel that none of the others have.

KCSN also has a couple of former
KCRW people still on its DJ staff, if you're fond of the olden days at KCRW ...

Mike said...

It's been months, but the topic is still relevant. I really miss all the things KCRW had, and no longer has. Rene Engel and Matt Wright, Joe Frank, Bob Claster, and so many others... I was introduced to so many of my favorite musicians and bands by Rene and Matt: Tish Hinojosa and Sarah Hickman, among others. I first heard Lyle Lovett when he appeared on Deidre O'Donahue's show. I miss them all, and with all of them gone, I no longer listen to KCRW...

screen shadow said...

yeah, sarah hickman...i don't think anyone on kcrw has played her for, maybe, 10 years. electronic beats with all their sonic uniformity are much more hip. at least we can listen to tom schnabel on demand, thank god for the internet!

Anonymous said...

I lived in LA 17 years ago and the only thing I miss is the radio. Sunday Sings Jazz, Jonny Otis, The Car Show (cars bore me, but the show was interesting anyway),Joe Frank, Harlan Ellison/replaced by two "speculative fiction" guys (same story). I also miss a clever and amusing show called Le Show, which is presently the lamest thing on the air. Come on Harry, try harder or quit! Did you hear the bit where he played the Gary Glitter song and mixed in a baby crying? Is that supposed to be 'edgy'? Way way far off the mark. That one wouldn't get a giggle on the worst morning zoo program imaginable because it isn't the least bit clever.

Anonymous said...

>I really miss all the things KCRW had, and no longer has. Rene Engel and Matt Wright, Joe Frank, Bob Claster, and so many others...

Just a note -- Matt and Rene's "Wednesday Music Magazine" were on KPCC (before it became all talk), and not KCRW. I worked with them both and god it was a blast to be around them. I really miss the music that you used to hear in the evenings on KPCC ...

Anonymous said...

Music in the evenings was the main reason I listened to KPCC during the week (it was clear the student DJs loved the hand-picked music they played), and the TRULY eclectic (KCRW's uber-trendy MBE be damned!) mix of styles and genres they brought to weekends (who rememebers Chuck Cecil's The Swingin' Years, Gee Dad, It's A Wurlitzer or Tibor Paul's European Sunday Concert?) was magical. The Sancho Show was this amazing weekly anarchical Latino event that is much missed! KPCC has become a very classy news organization, perhaps the best on LA radio, but a lot of charm and character was lost along the way!

Anonymous said...

As for KCRW, I abandoned that station a long time ago... they no longer get my money or my ears. So VERY pretentious, musically, and a pathetic also-ran as an NPR news station. Retire Ruth! Let your people GO!

Anonymous said...

I quit KCRW a number of years ago and it was not a happy parting. Still can't listen to the station. Thankfully there's some excellent programming on the other public stations in town, KPFK, KPCC, KCSN. We in LA are truly blessed to have such an offering of cool radio programs.

bix1951 said...

I hear the annual budget of KCRW is more than $13 million

I would like to know exactly where that money goes.