Jason Bentley on Leaving KCRW: ‘I’d Rather Go Out on My Own Terms’ (EXCLUSIVE)

"It’s not about anything specific... It was intuition," the exiting music director and "Morning Becomes Eclectic" host tells Variety.

Jason Bentley has been at KCRW since he began as a volunteer in 1988, taking a weekend shift in 1992 before becoming elevated, for the past decade-plus, as music director and host of the public radio station’s influential “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show. Bentley’s Labor Day exit from those two jobs after his August 30 air shift comes amid reports of the influential station’s declining ratings and sagging membership base, though the veteran on-air personality insists his move was “voluntary” and that “the time was right for a new voice, a new vision.”

The press release cited the 10 years that your three predecessors — Tom Schnabel, Chris Douridas and Nic Harcourt — spent in the same roles of MD and host of “Morning Becomes Eclectic” as being a precedent for the timing for your departure.
The significant move to the new studios, the actual physical change, it just felt like, on some level, mission accomplished. Now, it’s time for someone else to carry the load. I care about the organization. It was intuition. I sensed it was the right timing. It’s not about anything specific, like I didn’t get a promotion. I’d rather go out on my own terms, rather than being one of those guys that hang around too long.

It would seem like a dream job… all those perks and the visibility.
It’s a great job. But I would caution anybody interested in applying that it really requires a full investment of time and attention. It doesn’t work any other way. You have to be in the right place in your life to approach it — not “What can I get out of this?” but “What can I give to this?” Just contribute freely and not be too particular about any other agendas, be it your family or personal opportunities. That’s what it needs and, frankly, what it deserves. The culture of public media is a lower-energy lifestyle than the corporate world. People who pursue a career in this area “aren’t going for it,” typically.  So while you need to bring that energy to the role, sometimes you aren’t surrounded by that same sense of urgency.

It’s not like in the corporate world, where you work hard, you kick ass, get bonuses and promotions. Since it’s a non-profit, it’s not structured that way. It’s a test for someone in a job that demands complete attention but isn’t structured to give you those incentives. You must come to terms with serving a community and benefiting in terms of intangible rewards — a sense of purpose, people who thank and encourage you on the street like a sort of folk hero. The idea of ambition, climbing the ladder, is sort of frowned upon.

It’s almost as if you’re imprisoned in a gilded cage.
But you do have freedom, and there’s a great reward in helping break emerging artists by bringing them to the attention of this very welcoming, inquisitive audience. The trade-off is it’s not structured to provide you with upward mobility. There’s that kind of cooling effect through the organization. It’s less arrogance than just the nature of working at a non-profit.

Are you leaving for more financial rewards?
Making more money is part of it. But it’s really more about ownership than anything. I just got married in October and we want to start a family. The things I need to put my heart, soul and passion into are things I have some invested interest in. I have no regrets, nor any bitterness. My priorities are changing, and I’d like to have a little real estate. I’m 48 years old now and I’ve given so much to this organization, and it’s time to challenge myself in different ways and find a piece of the pie moving forward. But it’s a risk.

The station’s been in a ratings battle with KPCC. Does that kind of thing mean anything for a public radio outlet?
They look at the numbers and listenership, of course, and use that in their toolbox to get underwriting. More than that is the membership base, and that’s a big issue because we’ve seen a decline. Our numbers are about 45,000, which is terrible — an embarrassment in a city of this size. That needs a dramatic improvement. We have to add more value to becoming a KCRW member, like concerts and events exclusive to them.

Has the new building given the station momentum moving forward?
We’re definitely still in a growing pains stage, working out kinks. We’re all committed to the process, but there are plenty of challenges. We need to regularly engage the business and international community. It’s a work in progress, but it’s happening.

How did you decide when to leave?
I wanted to, as best I could, have a chance at a victory lap, a Kobe Bryant send-off, if you will. I will host the first World Festival date this Sunday night (June 16) at the Hollywood Bowl with Chromeo and Toro y Moi, representing its 20th anniversary, where I will be able to address the public for the first time on my decision. I always wanted to be part of the transition process, getting the best people moving forward, so I’ll be on hand until Labor Day, because that’s the unofficial start of the school year when we re-set and gear up for the fall. I felt that would be the best time to have a new voice, a new vision. I’ll also be out there at our “Summer Nights” events DJ-ing, to shake some hands and say goodbye. The clock has just started ticking since the announcement.

Could you have stayed if you wanted?
I could have… I was on a hand-shake agreement. Most people in positions like this stay forever. I understand the continuity in people’s lives, the comfort factor. But I just got to that point where I wanted to see what else was possible.

So you’ve got nothing lined up?  Are you thinking music supervision, A&R, your EDM DJ career, concert promotion?
Honestly, I know this sounds naïve, but I just really want to focus on getting this transition right. I will obviously get out there and take meetings; I’m totally open to anything like that. I see myself as a curator of music and culture to this community. Maybe a Jason Bentley Presents series of concerts. These random, strange things seem to come my way that I love doing. Music publishing is something else that interests me. I’m just going to take a deep breath and see what’s out there, but not get too caught up in the anxiety. Sorry I don’t have a flashy job to brag about.

Is there a future for public radio on the smart car dashboard?
We’re in a healthy radio market here. There’s a real connection in this market to film, television and advertising. We’re in a good place at KCRW.  Podcasting is certainly a buzzword these days, but I think it’s been a little overhyped at the moment. The big streaming services haven’t figured out yet how to humanize and personalize the experience like a good radio station does. Until they do, the KCRWs of the world are in a good position.

I hear Apple is looking for an electronic music guy.
Oh, really? I’ll kill myself if I’m just an anonymous guy in a corporate cubicle compiling playlists. I’m just really worried about disappearing down that rabbit hole. But if any suitor understands my value and my profile in the community as a real personality, then I’m certainly willing to listen.

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