Upon graduation, they’re given names like Valentine, Big Boy, Savage, Foxx, Cucuy, Stench or any other name no parent, no matter how dysfunctional, would ever christen their child. Then, they’re released into the world to try to make our morning commutes easier by screaming into the microphone between commercials and songs they’re forced to play.
But there’s a nepenthe to all of this. A cure that’s about to celebrate its 30th birthday – KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” (MBE), the paragon all other stations should strive to attain. Ranking as one of the top reasons to live in Los Angeles, 89.9 is radio enlightenment. “Well, I guess it depends on what you need in the morning to get going,” the third and current MBE host, Nic Harcourt, says about morning radio.
MBE originated with Tom Schnabel in 1977 and was taken over by Chris Douridas in 1990, both of whom still have shows on the station. While MBE has grown into, as the Wall Street Journal recently deemed, “one of the most interesting and influential radio shows in the U.S.,” it still humbly broadcasts from the basement of Santa Monica Community College.
KCRW’s tagline is “Handpicked music,” and this is no metaphor. Adjacent to the main studio is a library that resembles the backroom of an independent record store, which Harcourt browses in the morning, plucking from the shelves a few of the CDs he wants to play, only knowing for certain the first song of the day.
“I need to be able to do the show on the fly, that’s what makes it interesting. If you’re able to program that way, you allow things to happen that you don’t ordinarily hear. Every now and then there’s a train wreck, but that’s part of the thrill,” he says.
Harcourt, who’s also the station’s Music Director, has become so adept at his job that he did our interview while on the air, answering questions between popping in Beck CDs and taking quick breaks to give artist information, his fingers moving along a mixer-board with the same dexterity as Rodrigo y Gabriela’s down a guitar.
Later, he moved his small crew to an adjacent glassed-in studio where Architecture In Helsinki did a live in-studio set, running around from their computers to trumpets, narrowly avoiding collisions with the other six members in the booth. Harcourt sat outside, asking incisive questions and giving away show tickets to KCRW subscribers.
For the 30th anniversary, celebrated this Labor Day, each of the previous MBE hosts will host a three-hour special of their favorite moments. Harcourt plans on selecting ones that continue to resonate. Not completed yet, he already knows that he’s going to use his Willy Nelson session “because, first, it’s Willy Nelson. I still remember that day, sitting feet from him … he had this beat up old guitar with holes in it and all that shit.”
And “love them or hate them” KCRW was the first US radio station to play Coldplay; appropriate for its name, Harcourt recorded the session on a Saturday morning while suffering from pneumonia.
During each of the hosts’ tenures, Harcourt says, there have been massive shifts in the type of music being made, how it’s being made, and how it’s been distributed; “From Tom championing world music to Chris championing alternative rock when it first exploded until Pearl Jam came along and kind of destroyed it all” and Harcourt who prefers independent, unsigned bands.
One thing has remained constant throughout the last 30 years: there’s no mandated playlists, no asking a station manager’s permission to play Meiko beside Glen Campbell followed by Buffalo Daughter. Never heard the bookends of that three-song playlist? That’s the point.
Says Harcourt, “Every audience has an affinity to hear what they can’t hear anywhere else. The station has grounded itself, almost by accident, to become a place where people can expect discovery.”
“Morning Becomes Eclectic” 30th Anniversary programming will air Sept. 3. There are also three remaining shows in KCRW’s World Festival series at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 12, 26 & Sept. 9. For more information, visit www.kcrw.com.