Steve Chiotakis may be the nicest guy in Los Angeles. He’s lighthearted, he’s funny, and he seems to be in a perpetual state of happiness. He has a bright smile and one of those voices that you know you’ve heard before. You probably have, too: Steve is currently one of KCRW’s news anchors.
He’s fairly new to the position, too: he’s only been at the iconic Los Angeles station for a little over a year. Previously, he was on the Marketplace Morning Report where it was his job to handle (and lighten) serious international financial stories like the late aughts recession and the current state of the stock market. That job is what brought Steve to Los Angeles, too.
He sits behind a radio desk with a microphone near his face. Even though he isn’t on the air, he appears trained to this position, ready in case he has to break a story or conduct an interview. He has a drink on hand and a few pieces of paper stacked in front of him. These too are radio standbys that seem to follow him around. The room is very quiet despite the computers and various hardware for recording: everything in here is designed to make the sound of a voice as perfect as possible.
Steve was born in Gary, Indiana but moved to Alabama with his family when he was eight years old. He lived in Alabama for thirty years before relocating West. “I went to high school and college there and started my radio career there, too,” he says. “I stayed in radio for the better part of fifteen years in Birmingham. I went to school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and majored in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Journalism and History.”
“I worked in radio in Birmingham and in public radio for twelve or thirteen years and then was offered a job at the Marketplace Morning Report, which is national show on three hundred odd stations and is based out of LA. That’s what moved me to Los Angeles. So, I packed up my house and tried to sell it–which was not easy in the middle of an economic crisis–and moved to LA, going to work at one o’clock in the morning.”
That may sound like an exaggeration but it is not: Steve would go in to work at 1AM every morning and spend his days sleeping while everyone was awake. He worked very rough hours but it was all for a greater good…well, actually, it was because of the East coast. “It’s all for the East coast! That sucks if you’re on the West coast,” he notes with a laugh. “I would go to work at one in the morning and host three or four casts a night. It was hard. I would sleep during the day, which is very difficult in California because its sunny every day and blocking out the sun can be very difficult. I also lived in Santa Monica, six blocks away from the beach: if you are in Santa Monica during the day, you don’t want to sleep. You just want to go to the beach.”
Steve stayed at Marketplace for three and a half years, leaving in January 2012 to join KCRW’s team. “I took four days off between jobs and took a trip to Lake Tahoe,” he mentions. “That’s was my big vacation! It was ridiculous but a nice zen filled moment.”
His current post gives him a lot of freedom. He is able to step back and focus on what is around him: Los Angeles. “It afforded me the opportunity to come here sort of start from scratch. I think KCRW is trying to get its legs in more of a news gathering operation. That’s what we’re doing here. Gary Scott, our News Director, is really forging ahead with this idea that we can do great things, whether its featured stories or something related. We’re not necessarily breaking stories as that’s not really the bailiwick of public radio. The stories of Los Angeles, as we call it, are what we do–and were making some headway as we are a year and a few months into it.”
In a way Steve has gotten back to his roots and is doing more small town radio, focusing on one place instead of attempting to cover the entire world. The weight of all the news stories on the planet has been lifted from above him: he’s now focusing only on Los Angeles. “I love local radio,” he says. “In Alabama, I loved local radio because it was so gritty. There’s so much texture and personality: you really see how the sausage is made.”
“That’s such a cliché, I know, but you see exact dynamics of the LA city council and how they get along or don’t get along–or, even on the state level and assembly: you see all the different things at work in maneuvering the state ahead with all the propositions. I came to LA and thought, ‘My god, the amount of propositions on these ballots is crazy!’ It’s a state of thirty eight million people all with different opinions and desires so these things are put on the ballot. We didn’t have a whole lot of that in Alabama.”
“I love getting into the nuts and bolts of what drives this place,” he continues, alluding to why he loves his job. “There’s a little trail called Ferndell, supposedly where all the ferns are but they’ve disappeared because people were stealing them: it’s a great place to visit on a Saturday morning. I went with Avishay–my producer–to talk to people who go there regularly, people who visit to see old LA and harkening back to the twenties or thirties when the ferns were planted to be an oasis in the city. I thought that was really cool.”
“Those are the stories that I really like. Stories like the Watts Tower story: the types of stories–and maybe this is a horrible analogy–that make you feel like everything builds like Jenga blocks to make what we have today. Hopefully it doesn’t fall down but everything is a piece of a puzzle. Those are the stories I really like: the people and the things and the places that make LA what it is.”
The most interesting part of Steve’s story is that he never had an interest in Los Angeles. He didn’t care for the city and was only aware of it in the context of work: he only was introduced to it because of the possibility that he may have to relocate here. “I never thought I would be here,” he explains. “Marketplace tried to hire me twelve, thirteen years ago and I declined. It was the same job that they eventually hired me for, too. I remember the when I first came out to LA in February of 2001, there was a heat wave and the temperatures was in the nineties and it was ridiculously hot. I remember thinking that this isn’t where I wanted to be–it wasn’t even in my top ten list!”
“I like Chicago because I remember it as a kid. I like New York–but it still smells like pee–and I like DC because it’s the center of everything. I always liked London and Seattle, too. LA always felt like a dust bowl: it’s dry, it’s dusty, it’s in a sixties time warp, and there’s a lot of people. It wasn’t what I wanted. I spent some time here–particularly the second time when they offered me a job–and I remember thinking to myself that this could be a really cool place.”
“The more I explored what this place was about, going beneath the surface of what you see and the superficial idea that people are all about plastic surgery here, I saw this place as an oasis–a cultural oasis! It’s very cool. It took a little getting used to, too. I remember flying home from the interview the second time around and thinking, ‘God, I hope this plane doesn’t crash because I want to get this opportunity and I want to move to LA.’ Go figure: it went from not even in my top ten list to, ‘I really wish this happens.’”
Steve does understand why Los Angeles could be misconstrued as awful. He has personally taken it upon himself to debunk those myths. “There are so many people outside of LA–especially some friends and family in Alabama and others across the country–who think, ‘Oh my god: how do you live in such a god forsaken place?’ I think to myself, ‘God forsaken? This is an amazing place!’ It’s an amazing place of cultural diversity. It’s an amazing place of people from all walks to life who are trying to get by, people who are trying to make something for their lives or for their family, people who are trying to get into politics or sports or whatever. There are some many people here and so much cultural diversity that I am the luckiest guy in the world to be here: I get to be among these people and report on them. Don’t cry for me Argentina because I am not crying. It’s a great place.”
As you can tell, Steve has no plans to move anywhere else. He’s committed to Los Angeles: this is his home. He is in a very comfortable place–and he loves his job. He cannot stress that enough. “I love KCRW–and I’m not blowing smoke or anything like that,” he adds, laughing. “It’s a very, very odd place–odd in a good way, though.”
“It’s just like LA: this station mimics everything about LA. It’s culturally diverse, we’ve got every kind of show imaginable, it serves a large audience in what it does. The music is certainly worldwide and reflective of the tastes of LA. The news programming is international but we have a lot of local programs like Which Way LA? and Frances’ design and architecture show, DnA. There are so many different shows! I think it perfectly exemplifies what LA is all about.”
“When I first left marketplace, I was asked for a quote or something to say about why I was leaving. If there needed to be a quote, this needed to be it: KCRW is a perfect fit for me. I remember thinking that and I said just that. It’s crowded here and it’s odd. We’re in the basement! It’s gritty and we’re trying to be edgy–and that’s me. That’s the allure of the place: it’s very quirky. We all love each other and there’s not a lot of fighting. There can bickering–but that’s the way it is. It’s like living with siblings.”
“A lot of people know and love KCRW,” Steve says. “…and they aren’t even in LA!”