KCRW Got a Groovy Rebrand from the Audio-Space Experts at work x work

Posted inBranding & Identity Design

Radio stations, podcast networks, and other audio-based companies might be rooted in the auditory, but this doesn’t make their visual branding identities any less important. Brooklyn-based agency work x work understands this all too well, and has cornered the sonic market with clientele that includes Spotify, Audible, Stitcher, and New York Public Radio, among many others in the space. The most recent addition to this impressive list of collaborators is KCRW, an NPR affiliate radio station that has been broadcasting from Los Angeles for nearly 80 years. 

KCRW sought out the pros over at work x work for a comprehensive rebrand after the two had previously joined forces in 2019 for On Air Fest, the agency’s annual event for creators in the podcast space. work x work Director of Programming & Production, Jemma Brown, and Creative Director, Scott Newman, led on the project, which will roll out gradually over the next few months. 

I took a deep dive into this rebrand in a recent conversation with Brown and Newman, who shared insights into their thoughtful design and strategy process.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

How did work x work’s relationship with KCRW come about? 

Brown: As Scott likes to put it, we had a crush on KCRW. We thought what they were doing was so cool and so unique. KCRW started in the 1940s out of the after-effects of World War II, but really coalesced as a station in around 1970 or so. It’s definitely a station that has deep roots in the space.

We run a creative agency and work with a lot of public media companies (WNYC, NPR), and we love their missions and their audience. But as a point of difference, KCRW has this unique blend of music, cultural programming, and news, these three component parts. Listeners come for the news and stay for the music discovery, and vice-versa. That’s just such a unique value proposition, and similar to our interests of being a cultural organization in the podcast space. It has roots in journalism, but we’re so invested in music and design and art. So when we brought On Air Fest to KCRW in 2019, it was this organic partnership. That’s when the conversation about doing more work together started to develop.

What was the brief KCRW came to you all with for this rebrand? 

Newman: KCRW brought us into their thinking about a year ago, when they invited us to do an LA event that went very well. They said, “You guys think of audio in a lot of the same ways we do.” It’s about audio, but it’s kind of not about audio— it’s about culture, it’s about community, it’s about engagement. How do we show up where the audiences are? On social, events, on the radio, podcasts, video content. What does a public radio or public media brand need to be today? At a time when people can donate through platforms like Patreon to independent creators who are giving them the content they need, why do they need to donate to a public radio station? So they came to us with these bigger questions about what it means today to be a cultural audio organization, to be a public media organization, and then how can we reposition who we are, and what we look like? 

work x work has clearly cornered the market for branding audio, radio, and podcast companies. What is your branding process for this sector like?

Newman: The best branding is storytelling-driven branding, and I think that’s our unique hook, for design too— not just the progressive sensibility, or beautiful photography. We very much think about how things scale, but we really come at it from a place of story, and that’s what the audio space does too. 

Brown: There’s also an emotional dimension to the work. We did a full strategy process with KCRW, which meant talking to many people from across the org. Yes, they’re a radio station, but a lot of their staff started out as volunteers. A lot of their anecdotes were about meeting their partners through KCRW, so we latched onto this idea of KCRW as social fabric, more than KCRW as broadcaster from the sky. That’s a lot of what’s meaningful for us in our work, it’s thinking about what this entity means to the people it touches, and then how can we express that visually? 

There are a lot of companies who put microphones and headphones on their design, which always tickles us, because you never see a TV show that shows a television in their artwork, yet that proliferates across the podcast space.

I’m based in LA, and can speak firsthand to its complexity, expansiveness, and many interwoven identities. I would imagine attempting to concisely capture that in a brand identity for KCRW was incredibly challenging. What was that like for you?  

Newman: Some of the early iterations of the strategy and brand direction for KCRW was rooted in the idea of reflecting all of LA. There was even an early idea of using the four corners of LA, with the mark depicting KCRW in a shape that represented the four corners. I thought it was really strong, but in the end, the KCRW team helped us understand that you can’t define the four corners of LA, and you can’t even define the different people in LA— it’s just so expansive. It’s infinitely divisible; there are so many LA’s in LA. I love that, and I think once we got that, the rest was really quick. 

We’re not a tourism board shooting the most iconic LA landmarks. It’s really about the moments, it’s about the small stuff: the street tacos and the food trucks, the art scene and culture, the Latinx community, all of the different neighborhoods. That was a big unlock moment: defining LA by un-defining it. 

As a NYC-based agency, what challenges did you face in leading on a rebrand for a company whose identity is so rooted in another city? 

Brown: Scott and I both pride ourselves on being learners and asking questions; maybe not having all of the answers, and being more interested in unpacking than in solving. In that regard, we walked into the project aware of being based in one place, but working so intimately with an organization that is incredibly devoted to their city. You can’t divorce KCRW from LA, so a big part of our strategy process and learning about the brand was also to learn about the city, to discover what the texture and the sound and the feeling of LA is apart from the Instagram photos that come across your feed.

Newman: We’re super collaborative in our process. We never do the “hide in the studio and then unveil the masterpiece” type of approach. We were deeply integrated with the KCRW teams over the course of the last year, so I don’t think we ever felt like we were not there in LA. 

We also have other members of our creative team who are in LA, and who come from different backgrounds and places, so I don’t think that disconnect of Jemma and I being in Brooklyn was relevant. It’s so much about taking the core of the people at KCRW, and what they say they stand for, and then deeply integrating with them. In that way, I think we can really work with anyone with that approach.

There was a benefit that we weren’t in LA too. KCRW and the media landscape even more broadly is about being of a place, but then being relevant nationally, or even internationally. That was one of the questions that we looked at early on. KCRW has a growing membership base in Brooklyn, for example. So in a lot of ways, I think it was good that we weren’t there, and that we could be really expansive in our thinking.

Brown: We also worked with a wonderful photographer named Daniel Topete who’s based in LA. He spent several weeks going around LA, going to markets, following different impulses, spending time in a huge range of different neighborhoods, and capturing portraits. Not just faces, but portraits of the city itself.

You’ve teased a forthcoming “sonic ID” as part of this rebranded system for KCRW. Can you tell me a bit more about what that is? 

Newman: “What does a brand sound like?” That’s what the sonic ID prompt is. The difference with KCRW versus, let’s say, an Intel, or a MasterCard, or another brand that you might associate with a little jingle, is that they are a broadcast company. So there’s the top-of-the-hour sting, the musical moment and the frame— we’re developing that. The sonic ID also plays in and out of podcasts, and a couple other use cases. It’s really broadcast-related branding; sound branding.

How did you and the KCRW team develop and land on the tagline, “Always on LA”?

Brown: The idea came from KCRW, once again, being a social fabric and constant companion. It goes hand-in-hand with this other tagline we’re rolling out right now, “You already belong.” It’s this idea that you don’t tune into KCRW passively— you are part of our community, and “Always on” is a sister message to that. “Always on” through all of the things we’re going through as a city; “Always on” through cultural shifts, climate crises, local arts, news. It comes back to that idea of KCRW as more than a top-down broadcaster— it’s part of the fabric of LA.

Newman: It’s also the idea of it always literally being on. You don’t just put it on and shut it off. So it sort of has an ambiguity too, that can take shape of whatever the use is.

In a rebranding project for a legacy brand like KCRW, I’d guess there’s an important balance of preserving some of the key, identifiable attributes of the original brand, but then crucially updating others. What of KCRW’s branding were you keen on preserving, and what was in dire need of an upgrade?

Newman: We definitely wanted to usher them from the “broadcaster in the sky” to the “dialogue on the ground” approach. The talking-to to the talking-with. That was critical. In their last rebrand from about 10 years ago, there was a lot of call letters and radio talk and broadcast language. Even their logo was a take on a sun. We wanted to get way, way down to the ground.

In the early stages, Jemma was really advocating for mycelial networks, the way mushrooms and fungi are connecting us underground. The idea is that KCRW can be that! So that’s what brought it way down and helped get us out of broadcaster and more into cultural connector

What was sacred though was being punchy and cultural. We shifted the typography of the logo and the mark, but it was a bold font before: all caps, on a slant. We kept that sort of thinking, but innovated against the holding shape. Instead of a circle, we came up with the trace of the letters, and then we used that to create a system of scaling so that we could animate it. The top comes out and the bottom can open. It can kind of do anything— it’s infinitely shiftable. The thinking was, If we can’t reflect all of LA, how do we use the brand to put focus on a specific thing? Instead of imprinting KCRW’s logo onto a thing, let’s have it be able to amplify or provide insight into an image, a moment, a person.

What was the thought process behind the new color palette you developed? 

Brown: KCRW is such a fun and lively brand, and the merchandise is such a big calling card for what they do, so we knew right away that we wanted to lean into very punchy colors. That was an immediate gut reaction. We decided to drive home the fun that’s a really big part of what KCRW does with these lively and exciting colors.  

Newman: Radio in general is very sensitive to being too retro. People sometimes are so nervous to look out of date, so color was a cool way to solve that.