The Story of KCRW: past, present and future

If your radio dial in your car is set to 89.9FM, you are probably familiar with an interesting mix of news, culture, and music known as KCRW. Whether it’s the unconventional playlists of music in the morning and evening, the voice of Kajon Cermak trying to soothe the traffic afflicted soul, or the reporting of Steve Chiotakis giving you a rundown of the day’s affairs.

KCRW is rooted in the things many Santa Monica College students care about, but many are unaware that the iconic radio station is a part of the SMC family.

The basement of SMC's Cayton Building may seem like a very odd home for one of the iconic radio stations of southern California, but College Radio Workshop FM has thrived in this unconventional setup for the last 30 years, and within that history, the school and the station have both been driven by the same vision.

First founded in 1945 by veterans returning from service in World War II as an aid to help train them in the new technology of FM radio and to acclimate them back to civilian life, KCRW grew from humble and honorable beginnings. It was a charter member in NPR’s incorporation on February 26, 1970 while operating out of John Adams Middle School across the street from SMC. In 1979, KCRW moved into their current home in the basement of the Cayton Building in an effort to gain more studio space and develop the station more. SMC gained ownership of the station in return for the use of the basement and became the second community college in the country to own a public radio station.

“KCRW is a blend of all things culture, and that has been our core vision throughout our history,” said Danny Sway, the Director of Volunteer Services for the station. Inside their studio, you can get a feel for what he means.

As you enter, a huge portrait of Wayne Coyne, lead singer of The Flaming Lips, stares back at you through the narrow hallway with a warm grin. On another wall, next to the door to their live session room, a huge collage of Polaroid photos showing the guests that have appeared on their morning music variety show, "Morning Becomes Eclectic." The amount and variety of bands, musicians, comedians, artist, and writers on the wall is impressive and gives a sense of the prestige associated with the station.

Throughout their history, many of KCRW’s staff started as volunteers or interns. Music Director Jason Bentley and current KCRW President Jennifer Ferrero both started as volunteers and, through their dedication, moved up to full-time positions within the station. Within this internship program, there are only 40 spots available, but 10 are allocated specifically for SMC students as a class worth no credit or one unit. This was achieved by a push from the student body and the Associated Students to have more access and opportunities at the station.

Sean Dellorco was an SMC Film major in the Fall semester of 2015 when he landed his internship for the station as a video tech. He has now has been added to the staff as a video production assistant. “I’m living proof it works. Having gone to SMC and being able to intern here gave me an opportunity I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It was awesome and empowering,” Dellorco said about his experience at KCRW.

When asked if interning helped her land a dream job, Blake Veit, the producer of “The Treatment” on KCRW, said, “In one word, yes!" Veit had transferred from Cal State Fullerton to SMC and spent two semesters as an intern at the station before being added to the staff.

Cynthia Munoz, a broadcasting major, and Isabel Castillo, a communications major who is also running for school commissioner, are two current SMC students enrolled in the internship program. “It was a wonderful feeling after being accepted into the program, it’s so competitive,” said Munoz.

Castillo said, “You have to go through their whole process and then fill out the application and wait. When I heard back it was amazing, being that it’s such a prestigious place.”

The influence of the college atmosphere on the station can't be underestimated either. “College students in general are tastemakers for music," said Eric Lawrence, the Music Librarian for the station. "That carries a huge influence for not just KCRW, but commercial and public radio stations as a whole.” In their vast music collection, some of the bands' members could even be traced back to SMC.

The afternoon anchor Steve Chiotakis said, “The crux of public radio is that the majority of it is hosted by colleges, and with that influence we focus on catering to intellect without bias. Our roots are SMC but our sensibilities are LA.”

President Jennifer Ferro detailed how SMC and KCRW are tied together in more ways than just a landlord/tenant agreement. “KCRW and SMC are intrinsically tied together," she said. "KCRW was able to grow into a global public media outlet because SMC had the vision to see that lifelong learning could happen with a radio signal. We have a great partnership that aligns really well with such a forward-thinking institution as Santa Monica College.”

The history between the two has given each party opportunities and prestige they wouldn’t have otherwise. With their new studio being built on the new campus for Media and Design — scheduled to be completed this fall — they will soon depart from their long held home in the basement.

So if you’re curious, peek down the stairwell behind the vending machines on the ground floor of Cayton and catch a glimpse of SMC and public radio history, before it’s gone.