“At the beginning people like me never got near a microphone.”
Ruth Seymour has been the general manager of the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW for 32 years, legendary for her innovative programming, her ability to pick talent and for that grating, Bronx-born voice on every fund-raising drive. She announced her retirement on Wednesday, and got grilled by Sharon Waxman.
We thought you’d be the last person out of the building at KCRW. What changed?
I just felt it’s time. There comes a moment where you say, "It’s time to leave. You’ve been here more than 30 years. You’re in your 70s." And it’s a good time to go. Media is in the process of tremendous change. More and more we don’t really know where it’s going to end up. I think it can benefit from new leadership.
Are you tired of the radio business?
No. I think it’s wonderful, exciting. My God, what an opportunity to be able to explore ideas that you think matter and are important. And we’ve always gone against the grain. Nobody does "(Morning Becomes) Eclectic" today. KCRW has never been single-format, and it has been successful in spite of that.
The Number Nazis — they always used to struggle to explain KCRW’s success in the face of all the rules that we broke. They’d say you have to be all talk, or all music, and we were none of that. That was interesting.
How do you explain that success?
I wasn’t after success. I was after vibrancy, adventure. But they finally came up with a theory, and they called it "appeal."
What does that mean?
It means that people are interested in what you’re broadcasting. You appeal to people who have more than a single interest, interested in new ideas, interested in different areas.
That still holds today?
Absolutely. You just need enough people to keep you solvent. And that was always my theory: We’ll have enough people to pay the electric bill.
I also think that because the Internet and electronic communication is so detached, that radio — the human voice, the intimacy of radio — is something that is increasingly important, not less. It’s a warm medium. People love you or hate you.
You can only assume if they dislike you enough, they’ll let you know about it.
What do you say to people don’t like your voice? Do they tell you?
Are you kidding? They say it to my face, they write me letters. But less and less — I became an acquired taste. At the beginning, people like me never got near a microphone. Now regional accents are quite common. And we have a lot of trasnplanted New Yorkers — for them, I was a taste of home. But I’ve lived here since the early ’60s.
How hard has fund-raising gotten?
I hate to put the kibosh on that idea, but it’s gone well. We are a relatively inexpensive donation. And we made the point that not every nonprofit is going to make it through the recession — and people have responded to that.
Your numbers are not down?
They’re not. In the last go-round we were up in terms of numbers of people who subscribed — over 52,000 subscribers.
And the dollar number is up, too?
Yes. But despite the increase in subscribers, the dollars are not up that much. And you take a hit in underwriting.
You’re known as combative. Are you tired of the fight?
Strong people ruffle feathers. Certainly I have. But I have learned as I got older, and — temper has changed to temperament. I do think you become more measured as you get older. I’m not sure that’s a great idea. When you’re full of vim and vinegar, you take lots of real risks.
Do you regret …
I don’t have regrets.
What about the Sandra Tsing Loh thing? (Seymour fired the popular humorist for saying “f—“ on the air.)
My first responsibility is to protect the license. I don’t want to go down in history as the person who made it acceptable to say "f—" in the middle of "Morning Edition" on a Sunday. And the FCC never contacted me about it. The press was so angry at my actions that the FCC didn’t do a thing.
So you feel it was a good decision.
The licensees felt that way. Listen, it’s the law. It wasn’t used as an expletive; it was used as a transitive verb.
Does that matter?
I think so. Bono (on the Golden Globes) used it as an adjective. I don’t want to get into it. It’s a long story. The woman is suffering today. She’s got enough problems in her life.
You have a reputation as a risk-taker. What do you think is your legacy?
I haven’t the slightest idea. I’m someone who doesn’t do five-year plans, or one-year plans. It’s so much for the moment. That is the nature of the medium. If anything, I think it will be that KCRW is unique. It has a singular identity inside the public radio system.
Who would you like to see take over?
I’m not a queen. I don’t appoint an heir.
I have no idea. The school (Santa Monica College) has a process. I’m not a part of it. I think that’s wonderful.
Is it entirely your decision to retire?
Yes. Nobody pushed me.
What are you going to do with your time?
I haven’t got the slightest idea. I once had a period when I didn’t work. I lived on an island in Greece. It was a pivotal time. You discover all kinds of things about yoruself..