How KCRW stayed on-air after Friday’s shooting and evacuation

Written by

While our focus in covering last week’s shooting has been on keeping up with the news, KCRW also happens to be located on Santa Monica College campus, where the rampage ended. This is an account of what happened behind the scenes at the station and how it stayed on-air after being evacuated.

KCRW General Manager Jennifer Ferro was leading a small station tour when a staffer interrupted to tell her there had been a shooting outside.

“Are you sure? Do you know what [gunshots] sound like?” Ferro asked him, thinking perhaps he’d mistaken fireworks for a weapon firing. Then Ferro saw another staff member, Kate Andersen, running down the hall.

“There’s a gunman,” Andersen said, breathless. “We just ran as fast as we could.”

At the same time, Ferro’s phone started receiving text messages from a friend in the Santa Monica Police Department, warning her of a shooting.

At that point, “I knew it was real,” Ferro said. “My immediate concern was our staff. I wasn’t thinking about what was on our air.”

It was a little past noon on Friday. The Santa Monica shooting rampage that left six people dead had just culminated on the Santa Monica College campus, where KCRW is headquartered. Throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening station managers, producers and engineers would scramble to cover the news while being swept up into the story.

The predicament posed a logistical challenge as well as some sticky editorial questions to be sorted out on the fly — the same ones that come up even in recounting the situation here: How do we weave the station’s experience into our coverage without overshadowing the news? Where’s the line between transparent and self-serving?

“I didn’t want us to get to a place where

everybody was talking about what was happening at KCRW and not what was happening with the shootings,” said Gary Scott, KCRW’s program director for news. “There wasn’t a whole lot of tension there; it was just about making sure we were doing news reports, and if KCRW’s experience was part of the news, there was no question we’d tell people.”

Nonetheless, he added: “There is an audience of people who might want to know what happened with KCRW, or why they heard certain things. We just need to tell that story in the right context.”

Scott and “All Things Considered” producer Avishay Artsy headed outside at the first report of gunshots. When they saw a pair of cops running onto the campus with rifles out, followed by the sound of rapid-fire gunshots, they returned to KCRW’s locked offices. Scott sent an email instructing everyone to stay put.

After about an hour had passed, however, Ferro got word of a suspect down. Scott and Artsy headed back outdoors to track down witnesses and gather information for the station’s anchors.

Most of the rest of KCRW’s staff remained gathered in the newsroom, watching local TV news for updates, putting out calls to police and feeding whatever they could to on-air hosts Cheryl Glaser and Eric Roy. Then, around 2 p.m., there was a battering on the doors. “Santa Monica police!” voices shouted seconds later, instructing everyone to get out.

“We’ve never in the history of KCRW… not had one single person in the station,” Ferro said. “Leaving your board in master control is like giving up your radio station and we’ve never, ever done it.”

But with employees’ safety potentially at stake, that’s what she decided to do.

Police officer escorts KCRW staff during Friday's lockdown.
Police officer escorts KCRW staff during Friday’s lockdown (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The station had switched to a live stream of KCBS-TV by then, and engineers left that in place as police herded the staff out of the building and off the campus.

Right outside college grounds on Pearl Street, we passed a man’s dead body laying face up on the sidewalk. He wore all black, down to the socks on his feet. Shocked, several people broke into tears at seeing the body.

Remembering the report that a suspect was down, at that point KCRW Membership Director Beth Topping realized with horror she’d encountered the shooter (since identified as John Zawahri) a few hours earlier.

Topping works out of the college’s Liberal Arts building, separate from the basement complex under the school cafeteria that houses most of KCRW’s staff and studios. After hearing the gunshots, Topping said, she and her colleagues headed for the secured underground offices.

On the way out, Topping saw Zawahri in a hallway, wearing a bulky vest and other protective gear. At first, she thought he was a cop.

“He looked like SWAT,” she said. “He had a gun across his chest. It was a rifle. He didn’t say anything. He was just walking calmly and casually through the hallway. I turned back to look at him. He still didn’t say anything.” Uneasy, she ran out of the building.

After the evacuation, KCRW Program Director for Talk Harriet Ells called NPR West Managing Director Quinn O’Toole, who agreed to let KCRW borrow a studio to resume broadcasting. So Glaser,  “All Things Considered” host Steve Chiotakis, Assistant News Director Sonya Geis and producer Artsy headed to NPR’s facility in Culver City. But it wasn’t a simple solution.

KCRW Engineer David Greene had to dispatch one of his team members to KCRW’s transmitter in Beverly Hills to physically plug in a cable that could connect to NPR’s studio.

Broadcasting in Los Angeles resumed around 3:30 p.m., nearly two hours after the evacuation. It was several hours before outlying stations in Indio, Mojave and Oxnard could be hooked in. In the meantime, Greene turned those outlets over to KCRW’s online music stream from a virtual console at his home computer in Burbank.

“In the back of my mind, I was preparing for this,” Greene said, recalling previous bomb threats called in to the college over the years. “But it was a big challenge.

“Of course,” he said, “it’s nothing compared to the emotional stuff everybody had gone through. The technical stuff … was stressful, but it was something that could be figured out.”

After the evacuation, police cordoned off a perimeter around the campus, locking down everything including the staff parking lots. Stranded, most of KCRW’s staff ended up on a nearby street where newspaper reporters and television camera crews had gathered. Most of KCRW’s news department remained there for the next several hours, simultaneously documenting and being part of the story. Topping and news director Scott gave interviews about what they’d witnessed to various outlets. (In a sort of through-the-looking glass moment, Scott’s interview with KCBS aired on KCRW as we were still broadcasting the channel’s audio.)

Ells and news producers tracked down other witnesses in the crowd, recorded interviews with smart phones and emailed them to Artsy.

By 6 p.m. Friday evening, most of KCRW’s news team had made it to the NPR West offices. Cheryl Glaser, producer Evan George and I did a short roundtable interview there with Steve Chiotakis about what we’d seen, again splitting the reporter-subject hats. The not-so-surprising consensus: Even when you are in the business of covering the news and the seemingly increasing number of rampage shootings, it is a surreal, scary and unexpected thing to be in the middle of one.

Audio: SMC students talk to Alex Chadwick about the shooting

At 8 p.m. Friday, engineer Greene remotely turned KCRW’s airwaves over to its music stream on all stations.

Saturday morning, the Santa Monica College campus was still locked down. A skeleton news team decamped again to NPR West to start broadcasting updates at 9 a.m. They were able to return to KCRW’s headquarters late that afternoon, and by Sunday the station was operating as usual again — at least on the technical side.

“We’re not back to normal,” Scott said. “It’s too soon to know exactly what the mood of the station is… I think as people come in and get back into their routine, people are finding a rhythm that’s comfortable and familiar. They’re owning the space again.”