Santa Monica’s NPR station is moving into a state-of-the-art facility that will expand its mission

By Andrew Dubbins

KCRW President Jennifer Ferro (upper right) and Music Director Jason Bentley say the station’s future home will amplify its mission
Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner

After 35 years broadcasting out of a cramped, dimly lit basement on the campus of Santa Monica College (SMC), KCRW 89.9-FM is emerging into the light. In late spring, the trendsetting NPR member station with more than 500,000 weekly listeners will relocate to a new three-story building with tall windows and sweeping views of L.A.

“I haven’t seen the sun in years,” joked Madeleine Brand, host of KCRW’s “Press Play,” who emceed the building’s ribbon-cutting last Saturday.

KCRW’s new 35,000-square-foot standalone building shares a campus with SMC’s state-of-the-art Center for Media Design, which offers classes in media content development. The high-tech 3.5-acre campus is designed to meet LEED Silver Certification standards for indoor environmental quality as well as energy and water efficiency. But architect Clive Wilkinson, who previously designed one of the Googleplex interiors in Silicon Valley, said everything here revolved around one question: “How do you get band equipment into the studio?”

Renowned for popularizing seldom played genres of world and folk music while serving as a launch pad for sophisticated underground pop, flagship KCRW music program “Morning Becomes Eclectic” has been among the first to play artists such as Adele, Coldplay and Fiona Apple. Bands have had to arrive at 8 a.m. to prep for live sessions and drag their equipment a long distance across the SMC campus.

In KCRW’s new space, all the music facilities are on the ground floor. There’s an artist’s entrance (with easy access for tour buses) as well as a green room, music library, technical operations center and 1600-square-foot performance space, allowing bands to play for a live audience. Also on the ground floor — the only furniture KCRW brought over from the basement — is a cafeteria bench where the likes of Tom Waits, Wayne Coyne and Jack White would sit to have a smoke before live sessions.

For large-scale performances and cultural programing, KCRW will now also have access to SMC’s outdoor performance stage and courtyard — which can accommodate up to 1,500 people — as well as the Center for Media Design’s more intimate 180-seat theater.

The new space will “amplify everything we do,” said KCRW Music Director and “Morning Becomes Eclectic Host” Jason Bentley, who wore a glittery black jacket and gold-framed shades. He’ll miss some things about the basement — for one, the hallway lined with musicians’ photos from decades of live sessions — but not staff poking their heads into his studio, saying “I’m booked in here … when are you out?!”

Connected by a lofty atrium, the second and third floors of KCRW’s new building have a newsroom feel — with long desks, interview studios, meeting rooms and collaboration nooks where reporters can meet and share ideas.

Warren Olney, host of KCRW’s “To the Point,” said he’s excited to have a window after 25 years underground.

“NPR is so important to journalism,” said Olney, who joined KCRW in 1992 after quitting TV news because he felt the emphasis has shifted from public service to entertainment. But just as KCRW is evolving, Olney is transitioning from daily broadcasts to weekly podcasts. “I have to learn a new way of thinking,” he said.

Reinvention and experimentation have long been at the heart of KCRW. The station was founded in 1945 to train returning World War II veterans the then-new technology of FM broadcasting. In 1978, Ruth Seymour — who watched Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony from off to the side — became general manager; she began inviting talented people to speak uninhibited on culture, art, music and literature.

Seymour’s vision, said current KCRW President Jennifer Ferro, was to create a hub of intellectual thought “in a city that has a reputation for being a place where nobody reads books, let alone discusses big ideas.”

SMC, which holds KCRW’s FCC license, gave the station freedom to take risks and the staff grew from 14 in the 1980s to 125 today, spilling out of the basement of SMC’s Cayton Center into various classrooms across campus.

Ten years ago, Seymour and Ferro asked SMC Senior Director of Government Relations Don Girard if KCRW could borrow another classroom. “You need your own building,” Girard told them. Since then, some 5,800 private donors — including the Ahmanson and Annenberg foundations — donated to a capital campaign to help fund the new building.

“KCRW is a feeling. We connect to people so personally when they’re doing things like sitting in traffic,” said Ferro. Excited to spread the feeling, she’s planning a full roster of podcasts, new digital content and more public events.

“I heard it said a long time ago, ‘The smaller your physical space, the larger to create what you can’t see,’” she said. “The new era of KCRW is to show what we can do with physical space and invite you inside.”