Ruth Seymour, Former KCRW General Manager and Public Radio Pioneer, Dies at 88

Ruth Seymour, a pioneering figure in public radio who led KCRW for many years until her retirement in 2010, died Friday in Santa Monica after a long illness. She was 88.

After serving as program director at KPFK, Seymour joined KCRW in 1977 and was instrumental in transforming the station from a small college radio station to an influential national radio powerhouse.

Under her leadership, KCRW expanded into an eclectic and innovative format of news, talk, music, current affairs and cultural programming. It was also one of the early stations to adopt streaming online, which made KCRW known around the world

KCRW’s President Jennifer Ferro said in a statement, “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. 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.”

Actor/comedian/voiceover artist Harry Shearer, whose “Le Show” aired for decades on KCRW, said, “Ruth was a towering figure in public radio, embracing a breadth of subject matter and styles that, frankly, does not seem possible any more. She imagined a listener who was endlessly curious, open to a wide range of opinions and musics, and worked tirelessly to satisfy that listener.”

NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg, one of the “Founding Mothers” of NPR remembered, “Ruth was one of the great pioneers of public radio — at her station as well as in the NPR firmament. My favorite mental image of Ruth was during the first war in Iraq. 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!”

Among the programs started during her tenure was “Which Way, L.A.” with Warren Olney, as well as political roundtable “Left, Right & Center.”

Known in Washington, D.C. as a fierce defender of public broadcasting funding and issues such as licensing and royalties for streaming, Seymour also advocated for the 2008 municipal bond that built the station’s first stand-alone building, located on the campus of SMC’s Center for Media and Design.

She also presided over the growth of music show “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” and was the first to air Ira Glass’ “This American Life.” She gave radio dramatist Joe Frank a creative home, and offered iconoclast Harry Shearer a weekly hour to do anything he wanted on “Le Show.”

Seymour started her radio career in 1961 at KPFK Los Angeles, becoming program director in 1971. After receiving and broadcasting the Patty Hearst-SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) cassette, station manager Will Lewis refused to hand it over, and Ms. Seymour broadcast the FBI and LAPD raid to retrieve it live on air. The tape was never located; Lewis spent 16 days in a federal jail, ultimately released by Justice William Douglas on First Amendment grounds.

Her honors included Amnesty International’s Media Spotlight Award in 1997, and honorary doctorates from two universities.

Born Ruth Epstein in the South Bronx, she studied with Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich and attended City College of New York. She married poet Jack Hirschman, and after their divorce adopted an Anglicized version of her great-grandfather’s name.

She is survived by her daughter Celia Hirschman, her sister and brother-in-law Ann and Richard Zimmer and their children Jessica and Daniel and her cousins Anita Getzler and Greg Epstein.

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