The last nine months have been hectic ones for public radio stations.
A new Congress with an ideological distaste for public radio stations has sought to defund them and a series of controversies ensued, including the firing of Washington Post and Fox News contributor Juan Williams by National Public Radio, which made front-page news nationwide and led to the resignation of a high-ranking executive of the radio station.
But at Santa Monica’s KCRW, 89.9 on the FM dial, the mood is upbeat. Changes are on the horizon, but the vision of staying true to what has brought it acclaim remains one of the station’s driving forces.
The radio station, located on the campus of Santa Monica College, recently finished its latest pledge drive, which took place Aug. 9 through 19. It was also the second for General Manager Jennifer Ferro as the head of the station, although she has been involved in other drives before she took over the helm of KCRW in 2010.
Prior to the end of the pledge drive, Ferro said she was unsure how the House majority’s push to defund public radio would factor into the station’s ability to raise funds this year.
“I don’t know if it will do anything this year because I don’t think that it’s in the public consciousness yet, but when and if this becomes a big issue, I definitely feel that it might have an impact,” Ferro acknowledged. “When those threats come out into the general public and we start telling people that this is a very real threat and that we need their support, I think a lot of people will step up.”
Laura Shumate, the pledge drive director, described the mood during pledge drive week as “hectic, happy, positive, intense, scared, startled.
“You’re like a cat that’s ready to pounce all the time,” Shumate added. “You just want to figure out that magic combination to get the people to act because while there is a certain urgency, we want to be as upbeat as possible.”
In a party line vote earlier this year, House Republicans voted 228 to 192 in March to strip NPR of all federal funding.
According to NPR’s website, it provides content to 900 independent stations, including KCRW, and reaches 27.2 million listeners every week.
Shumate, a veteran of eight pledge campaigns, said because of congressional pushback against public radio, the station was prepared to lose some of its funding.
“And that’s what made the message even more important this year,” she said. “It’s not because we need to get paid… we need them to support it because it’s their radio station.
“There are so many things, from news, music, arts, culture that is important to them and they rely on us to send back to them and tell them about it.”
Ferro is gratified that the station has between 52,000 to 56,000 members who support them on an active basis. “It’s really great to know that we can always go to our audience and ask them for support if we need to,” she said.
Former KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour ran the station for 32 years before retiring last year, and Ferro said having an experienced staff as well as a dedicated listening audience has made the transition somewhat easier. “Having listeners who support everything that we do with a financial gift is a really big deal,” she said.
Since taking over for Seymour approximately 18 months ago, Ferro said she feels a great responsibility to maintain the radio station’s relevance.
“If this were a small, tiny little station, then I might feel like there was no place to go but up,” she explained. “But where we are, we do have a place to go down, and I don’t want to be the one that takes us there.
“I want to keep going further and further,”
Ferro believes that the station’s unique format – news, music talk – sets them apart from other public radio outlets. “A lot of stations are just one or the other, and I think that’s why our listeners like most, if not all, of our format.”
Dr. Ray Reisler is one of those listeners that Ferro referenced. He contributed to the station’s fund drive again this year and sees it as an investment for the programs that he enjoys. “I feel that it is important that foundations support public radio at a time of excessive government cutbacks,” said Reisler, the former executive director of the S. Mark Taper Foundation.
His wife, Veronica Peinado, is a KCRW fan as well.
“I remember listening to ‘This American Life’ one day and I said to myself, ‘This is the station for me,’” recalled Peinado, who came to the United States from Uruguay 10 years ago.
The station plans to move into new digs in a few years at SMC’s Stewart Street campus. The station’s new offices will be housed in a three-story, 30,000-square foot building, with a 1,600-square foot performance space.
“We’ll be doing a lot more public events, and that’s what we’re really excited about,” said Ferro.
“The building represents a new era and new leadership. Everything is about going outward,” she continued. “We’ve done more public events since I started than we ever had before, and we’re really about making a connection with our audience.”
Ferro said there are intrinsic rewards to public radio that go beyond certain programming.
“Public media gives you news that is there to serve the audience, not because of a corporate interest or to make money off of people,” she asserted. “And I think that it is more important than ever, as newspapers contract and are not able to serve as they want to, our main goal is to serve the audience.”
Because it is a non-profit, KCRW and other public radio outlets are free to offer its news without a corporate executive leaning over their shoulder, Ferro said. “It gives us a lot of freedom and I think that’s more important than ever,” she reiterated.
The same goes for music. The station can showcase artists that might not receive airplay on other stations due to the need to cater to large ratings or advertising dollars, the station manager said.
The incident with Williams, who was fired from NPR last October after comments he made on the cable channel Fox News that many felt equated Muslims who dressed a certain way on airplanes as being terrorists, led to the resignation of NPR Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, and was a difficult time for public media and its proponents.
Ferro laments that the Williams incident caused public radio to become politicized.
“Because the management at NPR did not fire someone correctly, there was this assumption that the product that comes out of public media (was biased) and it could not be further from the truth,” KCRW’s general manager said.
“And that was the real shame: that you have (NPR) reporters that were putting themselves in dangerous positions in Iraq and Afghanistan where other commercial bureaus have left,” Ferro added. “The same goes for the local news front, where we give voice to local issues. Public media is putting the investment there.”
Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown, who was a radio personality in college and later became a radio news reporter before heading into politics, understands the pressures of radio and the role of stations like KCRW in an era of bombast and political theater.
“KCRW provides a crucial independent voice on a dial now dominated by shrill partisanship and driven by commercial concerns,” said McKeown, who was the general manager of FM radio station KROQ in the late 1970s. “Listener support enables continued reporting and analysis by people like (“All Things Considered” public affairs host) Warren Olney, whose picture is in my personal dictionary next to the word ‘astute.’”
With new changes on the horizon, Ferro reiterated that the station will stay committed to bringing programming that its loyal listeners rely on and tune in to hear.
“Public radio is quite strong because of the passion that surrounds it from the people who listen to it,” she concluded. “We have a great responsibility to cover issues in a fair and balanced way, in the true sense of the word.”