November 19, 2009
Which Way LA and its Cousins
Yesterday, Ruth Seymour, the long-time general manager of, and the creative force behind NPR radio station KCRW, announced that she will retire next spring. Her retirement provides an opportunity to note what an important contribution she, KCRW and its sister NPR station, KPCC, make to our community and our sanity.
KCRW and Ruth are being lionized for the eclectic mix of programming that is the station’s hallmark—-cutting-edge music programs, public radio standards (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, etc.) and locally generated broadcasts (Which Way LA?, Left, Right and Center, etc.) and rightfully so.
However, I think Ruth’s most significant contribution is the locally generated programs that offer a nearly extinct species of local broadcasting—-thoughtful discussion of important issues with an intelligent, articulate and informed host. KCRW’s two standout local efforts hosted by Warren Olney are Which Way LA? and To The Point. Both are Ruth creations.
I distinctly remember hosting an ADL leadership retreat in Palm Springs on the weekend of the Los Angeles riots in April, 1992; our scholar-in-residence was Warren Olney, known then as a thoughtful commentator on LA issues and a charming, erudite guy. He told us on the Saturday of the weekend that he had to leave a bit early because he had received a call from Ruth who had asked him to host a special “short term” broadcast later that week that was tentatively titled, “Which Way LA?” The rest is history.
The role of Which Way LA?, Warren Olney, Larry Mantle’s Airtalk on KPCC and Patt Morrison with her daily broadcasts (also at KPCC) can’t be over stated. They are what is left of public affairs broadcasting in LA.
At one time, two and three decades ago, every FCC licensee had a legal obligation to provide some form of “public affairs” programming. While these may have often been deadly dull interviews ghettoized on Sunday mornings, at least they existed and they occasionally did good, revealing work. I remember debating Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas (then the newly appointed head of the SCLC) on a freezing Sunday morning in 1977 at the Watts Towers for a KNBC program that devoted 15 minutes to a discussion of the
case and the issues surrounding affirmative action.
Today, no such legal obligation exists and public affairs programming on local stations has virtually disappeared; too often replaced, at least on radio, by talk show hosts who favor spinning, screaming and yelling over discussion and illumination.
That’s where Ruth, Warren, Larry and Patt come in—-they are the last, best hope for keeping politicians accountable, exploring important civic issues in a way that cuts through spin and BS, and allowing conflicting ideas to be discussed in civil and long-form settings. With the decline in influence of the Los Angeles Times, their roles are more important than ever.
We are all indebted to Ruth, Warren, Larry and Patt, and should take this occasion to think about how much we count on and need them. Ruth’s retirement is an appropriate time to be reminded of what a critically important role these four individuals have played and are playing in keeping Southern California from devolving into chaos and tilting into the sea—-at least four folks are watching and holding leaders accountable in a public and often revealing way.