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Longtime KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour dies at 88

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Public radio has lost another personality - Ruth Seymour. For 32 years, she was the general manager of KCRW in Los Angeles, one of the most influential radio stations in the country. She died today at age 88 at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Anyone listening to KCRW from the late 1970s till 2010 knows her voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUTH SEYMOUR: I'm Ruth Seymour, KCRW's general manager, and my guest...

JENNIFER FERRO, BYLINE: She was very direct, and she could be really strong in what she said. She was also extremely funny - really funny - and so smart.

DEL BARCO: Jennifer Ferro worked with Seymour closely for 16 years and is her successor at KCRW.

FERRO: She literally did not care what other people thought. She was always like, I want to push ideas forward that have intellectual rigor, that matter.

DEL BARCO: Ruth Epstein, as she was born, grew up in the Bronx. She studied Yiddish literature and theater and married a beat poet. After living in Europe, she began her radio career in Los Angeles at the Pacifica radio station KPFK.

FERRO: And she got kicked out, and they changed the locks on her.

DEL BARCO: Like Ferro, former NPR correspondent Frank Browning says Seymour always spoke her mind.

FRANK BROWNING: She had no patience for rigid minds, either of the left or the right, and she never cleaned up her accent or hid her Polish Ashkenazi roots.

DEL BARCO: Seymour got to KCRW when it was still in a classroom at a junior high school. She woke up the once sleepy community college radio station with DJs who played eclectic, cutting-edge music from around the globe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: In 1979, Seymour introduced LA audiences to a new program called Morning Edition. At the time, Jay Kernis was the head of programming for NPR. He spoke to KCRW in 2010 when she retired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAY KERNIS: To me, Ruth was always in a conversation with the audience. She was always saying, hey, I want to try this show. You like it? OK, we'll leave it on. You don't like it? Forget it.

DEL BARCO: Seymour brought on the air new voices, like Joe Frank, with his late-night monologues...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOE FRANK: The other day, I was ushered into the office of Ruth Seymour.

DEL BARCO: ...And art connoisseur Edward Goldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EDWARD GOLDMAN: You know, Ruth, definitely - she knows how to put you in a corner.

DEL BARCO: For many years, Seymour hosted a weekly radio program with Amnesty International. She celebrated Hanukkah every year on the air, and she also hosted a weekly show called The Politics Of Culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

SEYMOUR: Today, we're going to focus on religious tensions with three writers.

Well, you know, I got to tell you, if you say there's no question, then you're denying there's even an argument.

And we're going to talk about a rather contentious issue today. We're going to talk about the left and the split on the left. Now, there's always been...

Revolutionary Russian thinkers, writers, literary critics and philosophers.

DEL BARCO: On air, Seymour also read aloud articles from The New York Times, and she would break into regular programming when there was big news, like the 1992 Rodney King uprising or the 9/11 attacks. Seymour was also a familiar voice during the station's fundraising pledge drives.

IRA GLASS, BYLINE: No one berates the listeners directly, except for Ruth Seymour.

DEL BARCO: Public Radio host Ira Glass.

GLASS: Ruth is, like, the unchanneled id of all the things that all of us want to say to the listeners but feel like, well, you can't say that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SEYMOUR: Take it in your own hands. Listen on your own damn dime - 800-600-KCRW.

DEL BARCO: Glass says he partly owes his success to Seymour - that she wanted KCRW to air the radio show he created in Chicago - the one NPR turned down. This American Life became one of the most popular radio shows in the country. Glass says Seymour pitched it to other public radio managers.

GLASS: She's like, look, I got nothing to do with this show. I barely know these people. I'm not an investor in the show. This isn't a KCRW show. I'm - you know, I don't have a financial stake in this. I'm not sleeping with anybody on their staff. But I just want to say, you know, I think this show is something special. I hope you pay a lot of attention to it. And I never would have dared to ask her to do this.

DEL BARCO: When Seymour retired as KCRW's general manager, the staff crowded into the recording booth to celebrate her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SEYMOUR: It has been a joy and a privilege to serve you, and I know that you will keep KCRW the distinct and unique station that it is. Good night, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

DEL BARCO: That was KCRW's Ruth Seymour signing off.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.