Jennifer Ferro, general manager of KCRW-FM (89.9), at the National Public Radio station’s studios at Santa Monica City College.

Jennifer Ferro, general manager of KCRW-FM (89.9), at the National Public Radio station’s studios at Santa Monica City College. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Jennifer Ferro’s path to the top at KCRW-FM (89.9) began with a simple favor asked of her two decades ago by veteran General Manager Ruth Seymour, who had turned KCRW into the Southern California flagship of National Public Radio. Ferro, a recent UCLA graduate, was just volunteering at the time, but Seymour liked her work so much that she was offered a job. The local radio legend retired in 2009, and Ferro, who had stayed on, won the top post at the station – inheriting a whole new set of challenges. For one, another NPR affiliate in town, KPCC-FM (89.3), had begun investing heavily in its all-news format. But first and foremost, she was tasked with leading the station into the digital age. Ferro has been investing in KCRW’s mobile apps and Internet streams, bringing the station an international audience. But her ambitions are bigger yet. She’s now leading a $20 million fundraising campaign to underwrite the digital transition and upgrade its longtime dwellings beneath a cafeteria at Santa Monica City College to a shiny new building with a state-of-the-art studio on a satellite campus. Ferro recently sat down with the Business Journal to talk about mixing high culture and the “Real Housewives,” why she wrote a letter to an unusual pen pal – and how Southern California needs a new generation of philanthropists.

Question: How did you get started here?

Answer: When I was in college, I started listening to KCRW and I just really loved it. I started to volunteer and I came here and loved all the people. But nobody could get a job here.

So how did you get one?

Ruth needed something transcribed and I had just bought a Macbook – dark gray and plastic. I did the job for her, I left, and her assistant came in and said, “I’m going to the Peace Corp in Cameroon – I’m quitting.” So (Ruth) said, “Oh, get that girl with the laptop back and see if she wants this job.”

What was it like being Ruth’s assistant? Was she demanding?

When I was her assistant she was demanding. It was tough for me. I wasn’t the type of person who liked taking direction from people. I used to talk back a lot, but I don’t think I do it so much anymore, because I’m so much older. I would say, “I disagree with you,” and she appreciated that. She would always say, “Let’s spar. Let’s fight this out.”

Was there a memorable match?

I had just had my first child and I think I was still on maternity leave. I was in a different frame of mind. I was relaxed, I had just taken three months off to have this kid and she called me. She was like, “This person has to go, or this thing has to change.” And I was like, “I see your point.” She said, “What’s wrong with you? You had a baby and lost your whole fire? You sound boring.” She got me angry, so I started arguing with her. It’s funny because I don’t really like to argue with people.

So you had to rise to the occasion?

I had no problem doing that. It’s weird, you get in a certain situation. If I had not been a person who could argue, she would have fired me. She wanted people around like that. In my situation now, I don’t argue with anybody. We’ll disagree, but it’s intelligent people debating things. It’s nothing to be pissed off about.

What did you learn from Ruth?

I think what happens when you run an organization is you are constantly faced with having to make decisions based on evidence and educated hunches. You also have to be careful not to make decisions based on who you like or what makes you feel good at the time. It’s hard to separate the two, but essential if you’re leading any organization. Ruth had the ability to cut the BS and make the decision that you’d end up realizing (was right) many, many months later. It was invaluable to see that firsthand.

What’s been your career highlight?

Getting this gig. An achievement has been building this larger donor program, getting an engaged board and trying to tap into this next generation of philanthropy.

How do you feel about going out and fundraising?

I love fundraising. I think there’s a certain (net worth) you get to where you don’t get stressed and then the rest you should give away and do good things with because you can – make investments in something that will make (you) feel really good. And I think it lasts longer than buying something. When you buy something you have that feeling – that good feeling – for a couple of days. You buy a car and after two months it just feels like your car. When you give to an organization that does good things, it’s an enduring thing. Every time you interact with that organization you say, “I helped make that happen.”

So what are you raising money for now?

We have a new building that we hope to start construction on the next year, and we’re looking for bigger investment. It’s a whole new thing. We’re going to raise money to finish construction on our new building and get the special equipment we need for the studio, then we’re also looking to raise an additional $10 million for a programming fund and a technology fund to be able to weather this (digital) transition. It’s an amazing way for people to invest in what we’re doing.

How much are you going for?

We’re going to look for a $20 million campaign over the next three or four years.

What are the challenges of raising money?

In the past there were these major philanthropists who determined the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, and thank God they did. There was industry here and they donated to all of these causes and it made Los Angeles what it is. Now, there are fewer large businesses based in Los Angeles, but there’s a lot of entrepreneurship and tech – there’s all these people in their 40s – I don’t want them to wait 20 years to start feeling philanthropic.

So you’re not just counting on someone like Eli Broad anymore?

I would welcome and love Eli Broad’s participation in KCRW – but I would say that if all of the non-profits in the city are relying on Eli Broad, then it’s not good for the city. We have to be able to diversify our base.

What do you think of KPCC investing in its news, and providing better stuff for a similar audience to yours?

What they’re doing is solid and wonderful and being done all around the country. It’s a great service.

But there’s room for both of you?

What’s interesting is watching the diversity of our audiences. There’s an age thing. When you play music, you’re going to get a younger audience – with the kind of music we play – than you would if you were playing all news.

Do you pay attention to Arbitron ratings?

Yeah, we do, but the Arbitron just measures radio listening. We’ve made this big investment in alternative ways to listen to KCRW. In my car I often plug into my iPhone. I don’t necessarily initially go to the radio. What we do is offer alternative choices – we have an all music stream an all-news stream. You can listen to bits and pieces. That’s the future. Radio won’t go away, but the dominant way people access us will be something else.

What does that mean for radio?

Pretty soon we’re going to look back and say, “Oh, my God, remember when we used to listen to radio?” We don’t think of ourselves as a radio station. I want to make sure that we transcend that medium in a way that allows us to sustain being able to do what we do. That’s the biggest challenge, but the most fun. At the end of the day it’s really about membership for us. We want as many people to consume what we do as possible, with iTunes or podcasts. That’s what we want. We want that engagement.

What do you listen to?

In terms of music, most of my stuff has been influenced by KCRW. I have young kids, so sometimes I’m forced to listen to KIIS-FM – which I actually don’t mind – because they like to listen to Ryan Seacrest, which I think is fascinating, because he’s really engaging. People love that guy and I like to listen and figure out why. Then I get to hear about these people and say, “Who’s that?” “Oh, she’s on ‘Gossip Girl.’” It’s important to know that. There’s some reason why it’s important to know why that particular woman is on “Gossip Girl.” I don’t know why yet.

To know what the rest of the country is doing?

Exactly. One thing I’m so not into – I have no interest in being an intellectual snob. I watch Real Housewives of whatever – all of them – but I’m still reading about Nikola Tesla. There are a lot of people in our audience who are like that. You appreciate the hyperintellectual things, but I’m not embarrassed to say that I participate in all of this popular culture stuff, too.

What do you do on weekends?

My 10-year-old is a soccer player. I coach her – I’ve done six or seven teams so far. One of my kids tags along – she’s the book reader.

Which side do you fall on?

I’m a jock. When I was younger my brother was 13 months older. I was constantly keeping up with him and hanging out with his friends. My scale of achievement and success was – I can do whatever the boys are doing. My mom was a Cub Scout leader for a little bit, so I was in the Cub Scouts. Baseball, softball, soccer, football … whatever. My daughter turned me more into a girl than I ever was before – all girls now are born to be princesses. At 4 or 5 they get out of the princess phase, but somehow Disney got into our wombs and these girls come out wanting to wear all this stuff.

Do you accept that you’re a soccer mom?

Yeah, I guess it’s a slight twist. I’m not driving kids to soccer practice and waiting in the car. I’m out there playing. My coaching is like, “When you’re on this field, be fierce.” Girls are just so polite, which is what we all want for society – kind and polite – but you need to have a little bit of the other side. One of the first drills I do with them is a shoving drill. I get them to start shoving each other. One person protects the area and does what she can to shove the other ones out. They end up really loving doing that.

And you’re on some soccer teams of your own right? What position?

I’m a winger, kind of on the striker side. I’m on a women’s team over 40. I still have some speed. It depends whom you play with. I play with people whom I’m still fast against. I tore my left ACL five years ago playing soccer then tore my right one in February. I should be good now – I’ve got new parts.

Did they take a tendon from … elsewhere?

They don’t really do that anymore – certainly not for a woman of my age. They give you an allograph, so that’s a cadaver tendon or ligament. So that’s a whole interesting thing. I’ve got two of them. This time I got a card – like I could write a note to the donor family.

And what was it like for you to pen that letter to the donor family?

I felt bad. How was I gonna say, “Thanks for letting me play soccer as a 40-something-year-old woman?” It’s not the same as saying, “Now that I have your heart, I can live again.” But it is an amazing gift.

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