Recently at KCRW, a bespectacled young producer typed out names on a screen, spelled phonetically. He did so for the benefit of Warren Olney, host of politics talk show To the Point, while he interviewed John Sopko, the czar in charge of reconstruction in Afghanistan.
“Lyman Graham (LIE-man),” the screen read, “Tom Hamburger (like the food).”
Simultaneously, 10 or 12 paces down a narrow hallway in another tiny studio, sat the most influential music DJ in America (according to Billboard), blue-eyed Jason Bentley. Taping his show Morning Becomes Eclectic, he was laughing at the disheveled lead singer of Canadian band Timber Timbre, who was playing a live set in a tiny room, behind soundproof glass.
“Look at his hair,” said Bentley, a grin spreading across his face. “It's like a mullet, except there's nothing in the front, and party in the back.”
Both of these shows were happening at the same time, in the dank, claustrophobic basement on the campus of Santa Monica College that serves as KCRW's current headquarters. Founded in 1945, the station moved into this facility in
1978 1984, and these days decades worth of archives and old albums are stacked to the rafters. The unlabeled entrance to the building looks more like the descent to an alley dumpster than the entry to one of the best-known NPR affiliates in the country.
You're likely familiar with the station's reputation: It produces over 100 hours of original content a week, syndicated to millions of listeners nationwide. Film critic Elvis Mitchell's show, The Treatment, hosts the most powerful people in Hollywood, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Alfonso Cuaron. Senator Elizabeth Warren was on To the Point in May, talking about income inequality, and Which Way L.A. hosted an in-studio debate with candidates for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. On one particularly hectic day 20 years ago, an unsigned Beck showed up in his Volkswagen van, only to be flitted away by Mossad agents guarding fatwa-laden Salman Rushdie, who was already inside.
But before long they'll be free from the cramped quarters. Yesterday, KCRW broke ground on a new 35,000 square foot home base on Stewart and Olympic in Santa Monica, right next to Red Bull's North American headquarters. (Their estimated move-in date is “late 2015.”) Longtime KCRW supporter Ben Harper played live at the groundbreaking, tinkering experimentally on a lap steel guitar, and thanked the station for maintaining the integrity of radio and continuing to inspire him as an artist. Also at the ceremony, SMC President Chui L. Tsang lamented that KCRW has been “incarcerated in a creative dungeon.”
“They've been in a basement in sort of subhuman conditions for a long time, producing a world class radio station against the odds,” says Clive Wilkinson, architect of the new building, “When the project came up, we would've done anything to get it.”
South Africa-born, L.A.-based Wilkinson is famous for his pioneering work in interior design, particularly with corporate headquarters. He built Google's Silicon Valley base the Googleplex in 2004, and Chiat/Day's converted airplane hangar in Playa Vista way back in 1998, long before the tech campus craze. He's also created a 1,100-foot-long “Endless Table,” shared-work-space for an ad agency in New York.
“We pull down unnecessary walls and get rid of dumb circulation pods,” says Wilkinson. “We get as high a level of transparency as possible, making communities gel by breaking down barriers. Everyone can see where everyone else is.”
Indeed, even KCRW's Green Room – that holiest of holy VIP rooms, where the band hangs out before the show – will be a glass box. Everyone will be able to peek at the rock stars inside.
“The only way you get cohesiveness is if producers and hosts are talking to each other,” says KCRW president Jennifer Ferro, “We want to be referential, to produce a single experience.”
[Also in store is a state-of-the-art, 1,400 square foot live performance and recording studio, which is more than three times as big as the spot where Morning Becomes Eclectic hosts up-and-coming musicians these days. Though the current spot has held the first U.S. shows for artists like Coldplay, Beck, Massive Attack, Sigur Ros, Franz Ferdinand and Adele, invited guests must stand at odd angles and in cramped spaces if they want to observe the proceedings.
After 75 years, KCRW finally has begun building a facility that fits its profile. But how does a public radio station that relies entirely on donations afford a Clive Wilkinson project?
With the help of a Santa Monica bond measure, their fundraising campaign has already raised $33 million of the $48 million goal, they say, enough to start construction.
They are currently in the process of selling naming rights to both the main building (the expected price? $10 million) and the studio, which Ferro calls “the best naming opportunity across the entire city,” because its moniker will be constantly repeated on air.
KCRW's new home will be three stories, with lots of glass. Along with Santa Monica College's new Academy of Entertainment and Technology buildings, it will form an enclosed courtyard, near the planned Expo line stop at Bergamot Station. The courtyard will become another venue for concerts, and SMC and KCRW are expected to share facilities for other events.
Like all Wilkinson projects, the interior is where the design innovation is focused. It's the opposite of a traditional office layout. Instead of enclosed personal offices on the outer ring, with collaborative tables and meeting areas in the middle, Wilkinson will put personal workspaces in a collaborative middle, with closed-door conference rooms on the outer ring.
There will be only one private office in the whole building, and Ferro hasn't decided if she'll use it yet.
Together, Ferro and Bentley represent the new leadership at KCRW. Both are relatively new to their jobs. Ferro has been president for three years and Bentley music director for six; both started at the organization as interns decades ago. They are clean-cut, well-dressed and joltingly attractive, turning the old adage “a face for radio” on its head.
They are deftly steering KCRW through hazardous waters – trying to thrive in their traditional medium, while adapting to the Internet age. They just launched a new, fancy website, which works almost like a Pandora-style streaming music platform, except with news and talk in addition to curated streaming music. With an array of live feeds, archived shows, recorded live performances and a like-based curation system, KCRW isn't really a radio station anymore – it's a non-profit media ecosystem.
But with such a wide gap to bridge – from politics to music, from Hollywood to the Middle East – how does KCRW keep from melting down into a hodgepodge of disconnected polarity? What holds the collage together?
“I've been here for 20 years, and what I've learned is that people like all of what we do. They don't just tune in for one thing. There's something at the core, both for us and our listeners,” says Ferro, before concluding with the station's current marketing slogan, “and that's curiosity.”