Last Thursday was KCRW General Manger Ruth Seymour's birthday. It was also the day staff and station friends gathered at the Rose Cafe in Venice to honor Ruth for the thirty-two years she spent helping KCRW transcend its basement location to shape the culture in Los Angeles.
As most who follow local media know, Ruth is retiring. Perhaps by the time this piece runs, we'll know who will take her place. The Santa Monica College trustees were expected to make that announcement imminently.
Holding the good-bye at the Rose was resonant. Many Venice old-timers remember when you'd order coffee and croissant and see Ruth perched on one of the tall stools there. She'd be clipping stories from the New York Times and other major newspapers. Then, at noon, every weekday, she'd read them aloud with KCRW Operations Manager Mitchell Harding on the program "Newsstand."
The Rose was where Seymour would call staffers for a one-on-one meeting. Not everyone got one of those. The meetings were highly sought-after and much anticipated. They were dreaded too.
The Rose was a place where Seymour hired people and greenlighted projects. But it was also a place where she told people they weren't performing and said "no" to proposed program ideas.
But, at the Rose this one last time, Seymour had nothing but warm words for the 80 or so people crowded on the back patio.
"KCRW was about being in the moment. It was about now, whether in culture, the arts, music, or news," Seymour said. "And I think we succeeded."
She went on to recall how people would ask for a mission statment, to describe what she wanted the station to be. She said she could do it in two words: be important.
Tom Schnabel, world music pioneer and long-time music director, recalled when the station was still located at John Adams Junior High School across from Santa Monica College.
"When Ruth came to the station, it faded out like a junkie on a twenty dollar fix," he said. Today, KCRW comes in loud and clear across the Southland, thanks to many repeaters, a much improved transmitter, and a whole lot of fundraising.
Schnabel also talked about Ruth's gutsiness, citing her faceoff with reggae musician Peter Tosh as he drew on an over-sized spliff in the junior high hallways.
"You can't do that, " Ruth said to the 6-foot seven-inch musician, who didn't back down but did take note.
To the Point and Which Way LA? host Warren Olney spoke of how Ruth had let him to "reinvent" himself. He noted that many people had found a new life life at KCRW and attributed that to Ruth's genius. He said reinvention engendered devotion, something Ruth herself modeled every day in her own behavior.
Former KCRW music director Chris Douridas left everyone in tears. Douridas recalled how Ruth had "been there" so many at the station at critical times, often in meetings at the Rose.
The crowd choked up as Douridas recalled how Ruth helped pull him out of the funk he'd fallen into after his young daughter passed away. She told him about the summer she spent in Greece after the death of her 20-year-old son David from leukemia.
She said she was mulling over an offer to run a small radio station at a junior high school in Santa Monica. The choice she made, of course, was historic. And Chris said when he finally was ready to make a move, he knew he did it, in part, for David too.
Seeing Ruth and so many other key female staffers like Sarah Spitz, Jennifer Ferro, Karen Radziner, Frances Anderton, Kajon Cermak, and Ariana Morgenstern at the party last Thursday reminded me of the very important way KCRW changed my life. I came there as a young woman and saw women not only in charge but killing it.
I'd gone to a women's college where women, by default, got to do a lot of cool stuff. I myself fell into booking the campus's live music programming. But then I found myself in graduate school and the working world. I saw that was not the norm. So when I started spending more and more of my time at KCRW, things felt right again. I could see myself in Ruth's and the others' fabulous shoes.
I took that to other newsrooms around the country, where women weren't always in charge. I've always been grateful and aware of that gift, even as it sometimes made things hard for me. Ruth and the people around her gave a lot of women that same sense. I hope they know that.
Ruth has been honored widely for her contributions. More accolades and articles are sure to come. The station too is entering a new era. It will be watched closely by many who wonder who can possibly fill Ruth's shoes.
Assistant General Manager Jennifer Ferro may have captured the moment best when she asked the crowd to make "a toast to the past and a toast to the future." I'm predicting a future that merits one.
Anthea Raymond was an intern, volunteer, producer, and reporter at KCRW long ago. Today, she often fills in as host of KCRW's local Morning Edition broadcasts. She also recently produced a holiday special on Venice, California for the station.