Excellence in Action

Jennifer Ferro ’91

Jennifer Ferro is President of KCRW, a Los Angeles-based public radio station known around the world for its curation of music, public affairs and cultural programming. As President of KCRW, Jennifer Ferro has worked to transform the institution from Southern California’s flagship public radio station to a worldwide digital content distributor that seeks to build community through the discovery of music, news and culture both in person, online and on the air. Ms. Ferro serves on the boards of NPR Berlin, Zocalo Public Square, an ideas exchange that creates live events and original humanities journalism, and is Vice Chair of the AIR Board, an organization dedicated to supporting and promoting independent producers in public media. In 2011, she was chosen as one of Los Angeles’ Game Changing Women Leaders Who Make an Impact in LA by Los Angeles Magazine. Jennifer graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Political Science in 1991.

Describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.

I went to UCLA and studied Psychology and Political Science. While I was at UCLA, I worked for Student Media and worked on the feminist magazine. One of my friends there recommended I come to KCRW and do some reporting. What we were doing at the feminist magazine was reporting, editing, and writing. It was all the same skills, but with audio.  I went to KCRW and I met a producer who was doing an arts show. He gave me a tape deck and asked to do a story on a dance performance. I went to cover the event and it was really fun.  Soon after, I started volunteering in other parts of KCRW. After I graduated, I worked for a criminal attorney and I was not very happy.  After two years of working in that challenging environment, I decided to quit and volunteer at KCRW figuring something good would happen.  After a while, I ended up getting offered a job at KCRW as the Assistant to the General Manager. After a few years, I realized it was time to get a career started and told my boss I needed to go start my life. She asked me, “What would you like to do in order to stay here?” and I said I would like to be her “number two.” She agreed and I worked in that role for about 15 years. Seven years ago, my boss retired and I applied for the role as the head of KCRW and got the gig.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

I just wanted to work around people that I thought were smart, interesting, and doing good things. I found this all at KCRW and I love it. For many years, I worked for little money, but it didn’t matter because I felt I was doing something important. It was worth the sacrifice.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your position?

We at KCRW get to talk about things that are happening in the world that are very interesting, important, super relevant, and nobody is telling us what we can say or play. We are sharing information and ideas that enrich people’s lives. It feels like we are at the front of a lot of culture and information. We create this community of people that we bring together even when they are alone  in their cars. They are connected by big ideas, music, and culture. It feels like something that is very powerful to be associated with.

How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?

UCLA is where I wanted to go since I was a little girl. I liked being in a big, slightly anonymous environment where you could reinvent yourself.  I found at UCLA that you’re going to sink or swim on your own. There are so many opportunities at UCLA, but you have to go find them yourself.  It’s like the real world.  If you don’t show up to class, no one is going to come find you because someone else is there to take your place. I think that is really a good lesson to learn because you have to go get what you want in life. If you see something that is interesting to you, you have to go make it happen.  If you need help, you need to ask. The great thing about UCLA is that there are a lot of people around you who will help you but it’s not like anyone is going to curate your experience for you. The diversity of experience is also unlike any other.  You are exposed to so much and it’s all right there in Westwood.

In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?

I don’t know if I really used it before I got a job. I don’t think I was sophisticated enough after college or during college to use the network that was available. Now I would just be so much smarter about using it. I think UCLA ONE is a really fantastic platform. If I had UCLA ONE as a recent college graduate, I would be searching through the alumni network all the time, just looking at who’s involved, engaged, and would want to help me as a student or recent graduate.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

I really loved being at KCRW but there were a lot of years where I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to stay where I was. I think that’s a big challenge, having to decide when it’s time to move on. I’m a stayer, I’ve been in the same house for 17 years, I’ve been married for a very long time. I think there was a lot of challenge because I wasn’t sure if that was the right move, and I don’t know how I got through it because I just stayed. My heart just loved my environment, my head said I should go get more money or different experiences, but I trusted my heart and, for better or worse, my heart always wins.

What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in radio?

Commercial radio and public radio are two different things. I only know about public radio which I think is a really incredible industry. Public radio allows you to connect with people through doing credible and trusted work.  You really learn about building a community.

The thing that I always advise is for people to volunteer and start to explore internship opportunities. While you’re in college, start to really make those connections. At KCRW, we have a lot of live events and we use students, who are part of our Summer Marketing Internship program, to engage the public. So that is one way to get involved.

I think the single most important thing for any UCLA student to do, is build their personal network and build it outside the university environment. Whenever possible, take advantage of meeting people — especially anyone who is involved on the UCLA ONE network because they’ve already leaned forward to help.  What you should do as an undergrad is to start reaching out to people to meet with them and talk about what they do and how they got there. From there, what ends up happening is that in some of those meetings you will develop a relationship with someone and then they will talk to you about opportunities that might interest you. That is the way that you’re going to get your career started. It isn’t necessarily your degree because there is not always a defined career path. You have an opportunity now because as a student, you can ask for advice and most people are more than willing to give it. It’s through these relationships that you are going to find out about jobs and opportunities. If I were doing it differently, I wish I would have understood that more and I would have taken advantage of my position as a young student. You’re asking for help and there is nothing more powerful than asking for help because most people want to help you. It makes them feel good!

How do you support and participate in the UCLA community now?

I’m engaged as a mentor in UCLA ONE and I really love that program. I’ve had about 4 or 5 different undergraduates that have been my mentees and I 100% believe in the positive effects of the relationship both for myself and for the students. I’m always available, I try to just take two mentee’s a year but I will meet anyone who reaches out. I will do anything to talk to a UCLA student to just listen, give advice, or get to know them. That is my way of giving back and I just try to remind people to not stress about grades, instead take this opportunity to go meet people and start building that web of people in your life that can help you later on and that you can help too.

What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?

I think that UCLA is such an exceptional institution. I love that its public. I love that it is based in Los Angeles – the greatest city in the world.  When you look at Southern California, all the public policy people have a relationship to UCLA, either they went there for undergraduate or for post-graduate. Really quality people from just regular means have come from UCLA.

What’s next?

We are just about ready to open a new building for KCRW. This is a project I have been working on for almost 10 years, and we raised almost $51 million dollars to make this building happen. This is a big accomplishment and when we get to open this building in the next 3-4 months, this will be a huge achievement of mine. I am not really looking past this point, because I have been aiming for this for the last 10 years.

Interviewed by Stephen Mendoza, Business Economics student (exp. ’18)