When Ruth Seymour announced earlier this week her retirement as general manager of Santa Monica's pioneering public-radio station, KCRW, it really did mark the end of an era. Ruth basically founded the modern KCRW, and set the template for much of modern public radio as a result. She built it, with the aid of probably thousands of devoted and largely talented volunteers, and over the years she rebuilt it a couple of times.
She's been a legendary force. It's a cliche to call people "forces of nature", but Ruth was certainly that, and more. Many were the people at KCRW who crossed her, for big and little reasons, and found themselves off the air and out the door before they could exhale. Fortunately, I managed to survive all my years there with only one gripe: Ruth excised the 6 p.m. repeat broadcast of my one-hour Le Show, to make way for a syndicated program featuring the station's then-music director, Nic Harcourt, who at that time was on KCRW's air fifteen hours a week. But, hey, we all needed more Nic.
In my early days on the air, Ruth resisted the idea of syndicating my (and other) shows, but she soon had converted to the idea of a larger KCRW footprint, and today the station syndicates more programming nationwide than any other public radio outlet. Also, early on, she said the best thing any person in management ever has told me: "I don't listen to your show, that way, I don't run the risk of getting mad." We never had a meeting, I never got a memo. We did have some nice dinners.
In all the different versions of KCRW, Ruth stood fast behind her basic idea: that a public radio station should build a diverse community of listeners, with different tastes, and should sound different at 2 in the morning than at 2 in the afternoon. This flew, and flies, in the face of a mounting chorus of consultants who want public stations, like corporate-owned ones, to be "branded" with one uniform sound.
The community college that owns KCRW's license will now select a successor, and that person may well succumb to the conventional lack of wisdom. In the meantime, the wacky diversity of KCRW's airwaves stands as Ruth Seymour's eclectic legacy.