Million Dollar Vision: KCRW’s Jennifer Ferro Sets a New Course

This guest blog post was written by Laura Hertzfeld.

The stairs leading down to KCRW-FM at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California, are legendary. It’s become a rite of passage for some of the biggest names in music to shuffle down into the tiny studios to play a set for Jason Bentley’s taste-making show, Morning Becomes Eclectic.

It’s here that now world-famous bands like Coldplay and Vampire Weekend played sets before they were selling out venues around the world, and KCRW is taking a similar approach to finding the next big names in storytelling and reporting as it’s taken to finding music stars.

KCRW’s new General Manager, Jennifer Ferro, recently announced the creation of an Independent Producer Project and tapped KCRW’s production director, Bob Carlson, to start seeding talent both within and outside of the public radio system. Ferro’s been pounding the pavement herself to secure funding from local foundations and private donors in the L.A. area.

“The one thing missing in public radio is talent development,” general manager Jennifer Ferro said. “The relationship that people have with public media is personality. We need more new personalities.”

The first project they are funding in what they hope will be an ongoing experiment on-air and online is called UnFictional, a show featuring the work of various independent producers. UnFictional is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation, which gave $100,000 to the Independent Producers Project fund. Ferro said she’s hoping to raise $1 million over the year, and a new director of development will be on board next month to push the program forward.

“I told Bob Carlson [KCRW’s production director] to make me a show,” Ferro said. “He knows how to tell a good story … I see us creating a community of producers. I see us funding documentaries.”

Ferro has served as general manager of KCRW since March, when she took over the reins of the station after Ruth Seymour, beloved Los Angeles personality and GM at KCRW for more than 30 years, retired. Seymour is credited with countless innovations at the station, and her term as GM was honored with a full hour-long program earlier this year called The Truth About Ruth. Ferro is hardly new to the KCRW family — she was previously assistant general manager and has been at KCRW since 1994.

“I’m not interested in doing anything radically different. You don’t have to change your whole perspective to stay fresh and relevant,” Ferro said. “We will continue to do things until they aren’t working.”

But one thing that is changing is the nature of radio. Ferro understands that the medium is in transition and that radio is not the only way that people listen to KCRW, as online and on-air continue to converge. As a result, she sees the station’s future success by focusing on community engagement and multimedia.

“My big goal is maintaining relevance. My goal is to be where our audience is,” Ferro said. She describes programming as a combination that includes radio, digital space, and in-person.

Wednesday night, KCRW hosted a private show for donors and journalists, featuring singer Manu Chao, a French-born, reggae/rock legend in the Latin world. The show was held at a small studio, but it, like most KCRW events, will have a life well beyond that evening, with blog posts and photos following immediately the next morning and a planned release of the music from his set to listeners online and on-air in early November.

But KCRW’s reach in L.A. moves well beyond the studio, to DJ events at spaces from a mall in Santa Monica to a plaza in Chinatown to a Halloween masquerade ball at a downtown hotel.

“Being in front of people is key. Our greatest asset is community building.” Since Los Angeles is a spread-out city that’s often described in literature and film as an isolating place, Ferro sees KCRW as “connective tissue.”

Ferro also sees space for independent producers across the board. She was inspired by Lu Olkowski’s In Verse project — one of AIR’s MQ2 pilot projects — which combined poetry, photography, and audio to tell compelling stories. While the first Independent Producer Project ventures are primarily radio focused, with two-to-six-month stipends, Ferro sees the programming ventures growing endlessly. “[In Verse] wasn’t necessarily all about radio. It had video, photography. I would love for the Independent Producer Project to flower into a larger project,” she said. “KCRW is about creativity and artistry. With storytelling on the radio, we often think in one dimension, but Good Food [Evan Kleiman’s food program] and DnA [a program about architecture and design] — these are visual media.”

Ferro added that the best way for producers to come to KCRW is to be open with their concepts, since the station hopes to help these projects grow and make a home for them. “We’re at a very big stage. Producers shouldn’t come to us with a rigid set of ideas,” she said. “KCRW wants to be involved at the beginning of these projects. We’re taking advantage of an opportunity.”

Other projects within the public radio system, like WNYC’s Radiolab, Jay Allison‘s shows out of Woods Hole, Mass., and AIR’s MQ2 have made strides in promoting independent producers, but Ferro said that while she looks to other branches of the public media family for inspiration, KCRW isn’t comparing itself to anyone else in the system as far as innovation.

Public radio raises million of dollars a year and there’s still no lifeline for independent producers. Those are the products that give you the driveway moments,” Ferro said. “I want to create a funding structure for independent producers that starts to raise money and give out grants.”

Great content alone will not be enough to stay relevant as the digital landscape gets more and more cutthroat, and Ferro is looking at ways to expand the KCRW imprint.

“It’s about brand,” she said. “We have to get people to come to us. Digital marketing is another key focus — you’re not in front of the computer when you’re in your car, which is when most people are connecting with KCRW, so we have to do more with online and community events.”

Community events will have an even bigger presence in just three to four years, when KCRW will finally move from its storied basement home. A new, 30,000-square-foot space is planned for KCRW, including a community area for events and concerts — putting more eyes on the station from the street and giving it a more visible physical presence in Santa Monica. Last week, Brooklyn electro-pop band MGMT stopped by the studio, which has framed pictures on the walls of the legendary acts that have played there since Morning Becomes Eclectic started in 1977.

Watching the set, music publicity director Rachel Reynolds shared that Ferro’s favorite picture in the studio is of cellist Yo-Yo Ma carrying his instrument down the dark stairwell. Ferro’s also carrying a heavy load of legacy and history as she digs into her role leading KCRW, but she’s already proving in her short time at the helm that the station is only continuing to move quite the opposite way — up.

Laura Hertzfeld is a writer, editor, and producer with a passion for politics, pop culture, and social media. She is currently working with Ashton Kutcher and popchips on social media strategy. Most recently, she consulted for the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) as managing editor of, a public media project about how communities around the U.S. are coping in the economic crisis. Laura spent 2008 covering the presidential election for PBS and has also contributed to NPR’s Morning Edition, PopTech, Los Angeles Magazine and Premiere. Laura can be found on Twitter (@laurahertzfeld) and writing about news and culture on her personal blog, News Junkie & Vagabond.