Influential public radio station KCRW has finally left the basement and entered its new home: a sparkling, 34,000-square-foot, three-story $21.7 million glass structure on the campus of Santa Monica College. Part of a $115 million development of its Center for Media and Design, it’s a glittering, shiny and massive step up from its previous studio — affectionately referred to as the dungeon — less than a mile away.
A beaming station President/GM Jennifer Ferro leads Variety on a tour of the new facility, designed by Clive Wilkinson, the South African-born architect whose notable work includes a number of the interiors at Googlepex, Google’s Silicon Valley home. Ferro is a 25-year KCRW veteran who started as an intern at the station, then learned the ropes from her legendary predecessor, Ruth Seymour (whom she succeeded in 2010), and she led the charge to monetize the new building. By adding high-ticket donors to the usual pledge drive, she managed to raise more than $50 million, with nearly half going to construction, and the rest allocated to new programming, distribution and technological updates. The names of the building’s major beneficiaries line the steps to the second floor — every single subscriber is inscribed on a wall that resembles the Vietnam War Memorial.
“There are only a handful of public radio stations that have made this kind of investment in creating a community center like this,” says Ferro. “And once you’ve tripled your studio spaces, you have to create programming to fill them.”
Most of KCRW’s 105 employees have been in the new offices for a little over a week, though certain sales and marketing personnel have been ensconced for a year. Like everyone else, KCRW music director and “Morning Becomes Eclectic” host Jason Bentley, who just broadcast his first show, is still getting used to the opulence of their new surroundings.
“You become accustomed to where everything was in the old studio,” says Bentley, a Boston native who has been at the station since 1992, hosting the EDM show “Metropolis,” then taking over as MD and morning host after Nic Harcourt left in December 2008. “My brain is working twice as hard thinking about where my back-up to the back-up is.”
KCRW’s move comes at a crucial time for terrestrial radio, which finds itself jockeying for attention as new, smart-car dashboards feature such add-ons as satellite radio, voice recognition and subscription streaming services like Spotify proliferate the automobile market. The station is also in a battle with competing NPR stronghold KPCC, which, with its all-talk format, leads KCRW in weekly audience (800,000 to 540,000) and members (73,000 to 45,000).
“As the budgets get bigger, the pressure feels more intense,” acknowledges Ferro. “The one thing we all want is to stay relevant and continue to find new sources of funding. We’ve all watched every arm of media get disrupted. It’s a very competitive market out there.”
With its 26 individual recording studios and a fully equipped theater dedicated to live performances and discussions (ample parking and proper load-ins are a major bonus and a far cry from roadies forced to lug amps across the campus and down the elevator), the KCRW Media Center is doubling down on its commitment to music, even as it features an array of specialty shows.
“Public radio used to be a favorite thing for politicians to attack, going back to Newt Gingrich calling us ‘a mouthpiece of the left,’ but things are changing,” says Ferro. “Because the poles are so wide apart, Public Radio is now in the middle, something even Republicans can support. It speaks to the role we play in our communities. We’re not just a newspaper or a jukebox. We reflect our listeners’ interests, with shows about books, food, film, the entertainment industry. And we now have the capacity to work in any digital format.”
KCRW was founded in 1945 as a way to train World War II veterans in the then-new technology of FM broadcasting — its call letters stand for College Radio Workshop. The station became a charter member of NPR in 1970, making Santa Monica College just the second community college to own a public radio station.
Bentley estimates he’s been on the air for 12 to 17 hours per week on KCRW for the last 27 years, so while he’s tickled to be working in a new building, it’s also been a time to assess his own career goals. “It’s nice, bright and sunny here,” he says. “Very impressive, very exciting… By far the biggest change for this station in its history.”
Bentley has been involved in planning for this moment for more than a decade, and last summer began some tinkering on the talent side, with the exit of longtime Sunday night contributor Gary Calamar, who joined another fellow KCRW alum Harcourt at Cal State Northridge’s KCSN.
The changes made Bentley think about his own future, even if he has no immediate plans. “To a certain extent, my mission has been accomplished here,” he says. “The significance of the move to this new physical space is not lost on me personally. It’s just a good time to take stock of my own growth trajectory. With this new chapter, it may be time for a new point of view here. It sounds arbitrary but I’ve always had a ten-year frame in mind, and I just marked that milestone.”
Of course, there’s still a lot on his plate at the moment to even contemplate anything else. “The key is building bridges to communities outside of our bubble,” he says about adding subscribers and listeners to the station. “Sometimes I feel we spend too much time preaching to the choir in our own echo chamber. We need to work harder to reach new audiences in this city by being scrappy, on the ground. We’re more than a radio station. We are part of the fabric of this city.”
Bentley’s next order of business is to secure a booking to launch the station’s glistening new performance space at a “virtual ribbon-cutting” in May. “Being here has been the privilege of a lifetime,” he adds. “I appreciate it all. I don’t want to take anything away from this sense of accomplishment we’re all enjoying right now. But I have to be honest about what’s going on in my mind about the future.”
Ferro is still pinching herself, the culmination of a long, much-delayed journey to her new surroundings. She calls the new open framework of the brand-spanking new KCRW Media Center a nod to the old days of working in one room, where if one of the 30 or so employees had something to report, they’d simply shout it out for everyone to hear.
“After everyone had unpacked their crates and sat at their desks, that’s when the tears started to flow,” she says. “The best part for me is when I can overhear people interacting and collaborating.”