Ruth Seymour, the hard-driving broadcast pioneer who transformed KCRW into a public radio powerhouse during her 32-year run at what was a sleepy Santa Monica-based station, died Friday. She was 88.
Seymour died after a long illness at her home in Santa Monica, former KCRW producer/publicity director Sarah Spitz announced.
The Bronx-born Seymour joined the FM station in 1977 as a consultant and became general manager a few months later. Her mission statement for KCRW was “to matter,” and she built it to be “singular, idiosyncratic, daring, independent, smart and compelling” — six words she employed over and over in her fundraising letters and on-air subscription drives.
During her tenure, KCRW became the West Coast flagship station for National Public Radio and launched a mix of news, talk, music, current affairs and cultural programming that included the signature music show Morning Becomes Eclectic; Which Way L.A.?, hosted by Warren Olney in the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots; Le Show, hosted by Harry Shearer; the political roundtable Left, Right and Center; To the Point; and The Politics of Culture.
“I believe we catch a lot of listeners by surprise,” she told the Los Angeles Times in a 1982 interview. “They tune in for one thing, just leave the radio on, and then find themselves wrapped up in something they didn’t expect.”
Through the internet and popular podcasts like The Business, hosted since 2009 by The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters, KCRW gained a strong national profile and reputation before she retired in February 2010 and was succeeded by her onetime assistant, Jennifer Ferro, now station president.
“Ruth was singular in every way. She had a powerful vision that never wavered. There was a spirit in Ruth that no one else has,” Ferro said in a statement. “She didn’t just save NPR or create a new format — Ruth took chances and made decisions because she knew they were right. She trusted her gut. She broke rules and pursued excellence in ways that can’t easily be explained. She was a force of nature.
“Ruth’s legacy lives on at KCRW. She inspires us to be original, to host the smartest people, the most creative artists and to talk to our audience with the utmost respect for their intellect.”
The older of two sisters, Ruth Epstein grew up across the street from the Bronx Zoo. Her father was a furrier and her mother a garment worker, and the family didn’t have a telephone until she was 15.
She attended Sholem Aleichem Folk School in addition to public school and then City College of New York, where she studied one-on-one with the renowned Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich.
Seymour came to Los Angeles in 1961 to accompany her husband, the poet Jack Hirschman, who had landed a teaching job at UCLA after a stint at Dartmouth University, and she was hired as the drama and literary critic at the FM station KPFK. There, she interviewed the likes of Andy Warhol and Anne Sexton.
After freelancing in Europe for station parent Pacifica Radio, she returned to KPFK to serve as program director in 1971, and she produced a celebrity cast reading of selected scenes from the Watergate tapes with Shearer, Rob Reiner and, as President Nixon, Christopher Guest.
However, she was fired in 1976, a couple of years after the FBI had raided the station looking for a cassette from Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army that KPFK had put on the air.
When Seymour arrived at KCRW, it was owned by the Santa Monica School District, had just five employees and was operating out of two converted classrooms on a playground at John Adams Junior High School.
Seymour replaced the oldest transmitter west of the Mississippi with a new one in 1979. Also that year, she ran NPR’s new two-hour Morning Edition program three times each weekday starting at 3 a.m. in a bid to outmaneuver L.A.’s then-leading public station, KUSC. “That way nobody was going to have [the programs] when I didn’t have them,” she said.
She let Shearer do pretty much anything he wanted on his weekly one-hour program.
“Ruth was a towering figure in public radio, embracing a breadth of subject matter and styles that, frankly, does not seem possible anymore,” he said in a statement. “She imagined a listener who was endlessly curious, open to a wide range of opinions and music, and worked tirelessly to satisfy that listener. There will not be one like her again.”
Said Seymour in 1987: “Our audience always understood what we were trying to do. From the very beginning, we were regarded as slightly demented. Not exactly irresponsible but adventurous, interesting. And idealistic.”
She would get the station a new home in the basement of the student activities building at Santa Monica College, which licenses KCRW, in 1984. She also advocated for passage of a 2008 municipal bond that built the station’s first stand-alone building, now located on the campus of SMC’s Center for Media and Design.
In 1996, Seymour made KCRW the first station to carry Ira Glass’ This American Life outside of its home base, Chicago’s WBEZ. She also did interviews, including one with poet Allen Ginsberg in 1985.
“My favorite mental image of Ruth was during the first war in Iraq,” NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg recalled. “She put on a radiothon to raise money to send NPR correspondents to cover it (the great Anne Garrels and others). And to make her on-air pitches, she wore camouflage and combat boots! She knew it would be war to raise the funds, and she dressed for the challenge. I loved and admired her enormously and found her to be a great teacher and inspirer.”
The Times wrote in 1995 that Seymour ruled “with an iron fist … she is renowned for attracting and nurturing brilliant on-air talent and for swiftly cutting them loose if they step out of line or their Arbitron ratings slump.” In 2004, she would fire radio personality Sandra Tsing Loh after she said “fuck” on the air.
“Well, you’re not allowed to do that, especially if you use it as a verb, which she did, and especially if you use it as a verb on Sunday morning in the middle of Weekend Edition,” she recalled a few years later. (The engineer on duty, however, is supposed to replace an expletive with a bleep).
Seymour replaced Claude Brodesser-Akner as host of The Business with Masters, who heard from the exec minutes after she had been laid off by NPR during the 2008 recession. “She called me before I had even gotten into my car,” Masters recalled. “I didn’t know her. She said, ‘Sweetheart, are they meshuga? Their loss will be my gain.’”
During every Hanukkah from 1979-2007, Seymour hosted the three-hour live show Philosophers, Fiddlers and Fools, which featured Yiddish folk music, songs and stories and a memorial to the Holocaust. “I always broadcast the program on Friday evenings so I could bid my listeners a gut yontif,” she said in 2010.
Years after she divorced Hirschman, she changed her surname in 1993 to honor her paternal Polish-born great-grandfather, a rabbi.
Survivors include her daughter, Celia; her sister, Ann, and brother-in-law, Richard; her niece, Jessica; her nephew, Daniel; and cousins Anita and Greg. Her son, David, died at age 25 from lymphoma.
A public memorial service is being planned.
This story was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.