Madeleine Brand's new radio home, KCRW 89.9 FM, is in the basement beneath the cafeteria of Santa Monica College, down a staircase tucked behind a row of vending machines, like a secret passageway in a mystery novel. A cramped warren of rooms with industrial-grade carpet, it looks like the college radio station that it, technically, is - nothing glamorous about it.
Except, perhaps, Brand herself.
Nearly two years have passed since Brand, 48, found herself transformed from the sweetheart of L.A.'s other NPR affiliate, KPCC, to public radio martyr. The KPCC show that made her the darling of the city's intelligentsia, The Madeleine Brand Show, has been off the air nearly as long as it was on it.
But who could forget the fuss that ensued in the summer of 2012? How KPCC station brass crudely reworked Brand's beloved one-hour interview show into a two-hour, two-host show, Brand & Martinez, in an attempt to woo Latino listeners? How, just one month later, the once-eponymous Brand walked away, giving up her dream job for ... what? Maybe just to get away from her mismatched co-host.
Today Brand laughs off that speculation. "I didn't jump without a parachute. I didn't just say, 'That's it!'?" she says.
She first landed at public television station KCET, serving as a special contributor on SoCal Connected, but rumors swirled that the younger/hipper KCRW had been interested even before she left KPCC.
Brand says coyly, "We were in talks." Those talks finally resulted in a deal in late 2013, a coup for KCRW, which has long been more associated with its cooler-than-thou music programming than with talk.
And so today Brand is recording promos for her new show, Press Play. It's one hour, with one host - almost exactly what The Madeleine Brand Show was before KPCC came at it with a wrecking ball: smart, relevant and a tad irreverent. It's less a big change than a return to form.
"I always felt," she says, "that this was the better home for me."
KCRW program director Gary Scott agrees: "The affinity she has for culture is the affinity we have here." He adds, "She can ask a hard question, and she knows how to get into a story, but she doesn't sound self-important, and she knows the value of a laugh or dry wit to keep it honest and interesting."
In person the L.A. native is more striking than in photos, with a 5-foot-10-inch frame, green eyes and a strong jaw. Dressed in skinny jeans, ankle boots, and a striped top layered over a different striped top (hey, it works!), she might be a slumming celebrity, or a hip Silver Lake mom.
She is, in fact, the latter - Brand and husband Joe have a girl and a boy, ages 12 and 9. And therein lies the rub. She's made peace with the station's dingy studios (in a few years KCRW is moving anyway). She's cool with being back at a college radio station, years after she got her start as a DJ at UC Berkeley.
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No, hers is a problem any L.A. resident can identify with - that commute from Silver Lake to Santa Monica. "It's awful," she says. "It's the worst!" But with her kids happy in their schools in Pasadena and Silver Lake, she has little choice.
But that doesn't mean Madeleine Brand is a masochist. She admits she has hired a driver, even though it sucks up a "big chunk" of her income.
"You get out of the car after an hour, and you've been in a battle," she says, sighing. "Too much of life is a battle." Sometimes, the happier ending comes from walking away.