The morning soundtrack that has been influencing Hollywood for more than two decades is about to veer into more peppy territory and, ultimately, bring about change within much of KCRW’s music programming. The influential station, which will see a switch in the music director position on Monday, is about to be placed on a path to cohesion in the music programming.
Jason Bentley, established as one of the top dance and electronic music DJs in the States, takes over the post of KCRW music director and “Morning Becomes Eclectic” host, considered one of the premier tastemaking jobs in the music industry. He is already looking to distinguish it from the last 10 years under the helm of Nic Harcourt.
“The show will be decidedly less Hotel Cafe and more Cafe L.A.,” Bentley said, distinguishing between the singer-songwriter club and the Sunday world-music show hosted by Tom Schnabel, the DJ who started “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” “There’s always a place for singer-songwriters, but I don’t want to inordinately focus on that sound. ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ has become a little too associated with that sound.”
A self-penned checklist already exists for Bentley’s transition from his evening, beat-driven “Metropolis” show. Learn more about Latin alternative. Find ways to incorporate more jazz and classical. Reduce the amount of music played that’s months away from a release date. Offer a newly defined vision of world music. First act to book: Femi Kuti.
For acts not expecting to crack the top 40 at commercial radio, “MBE” is a crucial playlist to crack. It has helped develop core audiences for acts that have become quite popular, among them Beck, Caetano Veloso, Massive Attack, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Coldplay, Sigur Ros and Norah Jones. A lot more people know the music of Nina Simone, Nick Drake and Fela Kuti because of the daily three-hour broadcast. And many of the acts that have played live sets on the show or been placed in heavy rotation have seen rewards in the form of key placements in film and TV.
THERE’S A FLIPSIDE, though, to this willingness to play unknowns — specifically, lapses into pretension and, at times, a drowsy sameness. But each of the show’s three hosts has played the role of pioneer and shepherd. Schnabel ushered in world music as a genre unto itself, revealing modern applications for indigenous music. Chris Douridas was an instrumental voice in the blossoming L.A. scene of the 1990s; Harcourt’s run paralleled the rise of the Internet, and his direction established KCRW as a brand in New York and San Francisco through concert sponsorships.
Bentley has unity on his mind. He is interested in finding common threads and making those work across the station’s different shows to establish more of a KCRW sound. School of Seven Bells is getting play from several of the station’s DJs. Brazilian Girls have been a prominent favorite of the station and identified as such. The latest album from Raphael Saadiq, he said, is the type that could be easily incorporated into several of the station’s shows.
“No DJ is an island,” Bentley said. “I don’t want to diminish what people want or feel they should play. The station is a celebration of diversity. I’ll take a look at shows that are too isolated. We want a sound that feels joined, improve interaction among the DJs and have an avenue for us to exchange ideas. We haven’t done that in a long time.”
I APPLAUD Bentley’s desire to unify the station. Too often, KCRW has resembled fiefdoms connected by a desire not necessarily to present the best program but instead to secure a hip music supervisor job. Playing music that has little or no relation to the city — a demo tape from an Ohio songwriter, as a random example — serves no one except the TV showrunner, filmmaker or A&R exes who might have an appropriate project. Two hosts do a fine job keeping their DJ roles and music supervision jobs separate, Anne Litt and Gary Calamar, and the station could stand to benefit if their tastes had greater influence on the station overall.
Truly championing artists requires getting the music played on multiple shows and allowing interviews with artists to be included at various hours and not just mornings. And Bentley seems to have a good handle on that, which he made clear when he drew a distinction between what he does on air and what he’ll do in determining the types of shows that will be aired.
“DJ’ing is that pure instinctual move when you run into the music library with one minute to go to get that perfect record. Through programming, you’re (determining) what gets repeated. It’s more of a calculation. If we strike a balance, it will make those last-minute dashes real rewarding.”
A Q&A with Bentley can be found at Variety.com on the Set List blog.