Nic Harcourt has a decision to make. It is about 10:30 a.m., an hour and a half into the Aug. 20 edition of Morning Becomes Eclectic, the flagship program of Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW. Harcourt, the show’s host, is sitting in a swivel chair, surrounded by a variety of monitors and consoles. His thinning hair is mussed and matted by the constant addition and removal of headphones; the sleeves of his Brooklyn shirt are short enough to reveal a tattoo of an orange tiger prowling his bicep. A track by New York indie rockers the National is dwindling down to its final seconds, and Harcourt, as usual, is flying by the seat of his black jeans.
“I don’t know what I’m going to play after this right now,” he admits, “but I’m going to figure it out by the time we get there.”
With that, Harcourt stands and, propelled by the pink cowboy boots on his feet, exits the studio. He walks across the hall into the cramped, office-size warehouse known as the KCRW music library to pick out a song. His choices number roughly nine zillion. This summer, the station has been running commercials asking for donations in order to digitize their collection, claiming they’ve maxed out their physical space. They are not lying. Shelves are packed to exploding with vinyl records; CDs burst from overstuffed drawers. It appears as if the addition of just one more disc will cause the entire thing to collapse like a Jenga tower.
Harcourt returns with a CD by Jesca Hoop, one of the many artists Morning Becomes Eclectic has nurtured from demo to full-length debut. He hands it to producer Ariana Morgenstern. “Track one,” he tells her — a tune called “Summertime.” The baritone of National singer Matt Berninger fades out, Hoop’s delicate croon comes in, and the transition is seamless. To a listener, it sounds pre-planned, purposefully designed to elicit some specific emotional response. But aside from a small stack of albums grabbed before show time, Harcourt’s three hours on the air are filled with these kinds of last-minute decisions. And that is exactly how he likes it.
“Usually, when I’m pulling the stuff, I might have an idea of a couple of [segues], or I might have an idea of a couple things that might go together,” Harcourt says, “but pretty much what I do is, I know what the first song is going to be, and then I sort of build the show from there. It’s a work in progress each and every day, and that allows for all sorts of things to happen — sometimes good, sometimes bad. But that’s the only way I can do this type of show.”
Harcourt has been doing Morning Becomes Eclectic for nine years. He is considered by some to be the most influential DJ in America. That is probably true: Listen to recent film soundtracks and TV commercials and you will hear cuts whose first taste of exposure came when Harcourt plucked them off the wall of the music library.
But if Harcourt is truly the heir to legendary BBC presenter John Peel — as the Washington Post has called him — it is because this show has allowed him the freedom to become so. Morning Becomes Eclectic, which can be heard in the Ventura area on 89.1, started two decades before Harcourt even came out to Los Angeles, and its concept, then as now, is in the title: musical eclecticism — radio without borders. On any given morning since 1977, the playlist is likely to include anything from quietly strummed acoustic folk to thumping Latin dance to soul, vocal jazz, guitar-rock and piano-funk; bands on majors, independents or without any label at all; artists from another continent to, quite literally, right next door. Once, a former host celebrated his birthday by playing an entire Bruckner symphony. There are some limits, of course — going from Norah Jones to, say, a Hungarian metal band just wouldn’t make sense — but those have more to do with taste than the monetary pressures that have turned the commercial airwaves into a creative dead zone. Even before radio died, Morning Becomes Eclectic was the most adventurous program on the dial. And even in the Internet Age, where any music nut can send the contents of his or her iTunes out into the ether, the program’s diversity remains unrivaled.
Being on a subscriber-supported station, Harcourt is not beholden to corporate interests, but he doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to appease those subscribers, either. After all, those tuning in aren’t expecting to hear a handful of pop hits for the 8 millionth time; they want to be turned on to something new. As such, Harcourt operates on a simple mantra, created and espoused by his predecessor, Chris Douridas: “Play what you love. Not what you like, not what you think people want to hear, play what you love — period, end. There is not enough time to play things that are mediocre.”
A tale of three hosts
In 1977, Harcourt was 20 years old, still living in his native Birmingham, England, having his consciousness rattled by the then-emerging sound and extra-musical chaos of punk rock. And, well, that is the most detail he can offer about that particular year. “I was probably drunk somewhere,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the basement below the Santa Monica College cafeteria, Morning Becomes Eclectic was beginning its first broadcasts, using an ungainly transmitter from 1946 positioned directly adjacent to the studio. It had massive, foot-wide vacuum tubes that glowed in the dark; the whole structure “looked like something out of Frankenstein,” says ex-KCRW music director and original Morning Becomes Eclectic host Tom Schnabel. The studio itself wasn’t much better: It was basically “a big room with crappy turntables.” Back then, hosting a show there was potentially hazardous. “I remember being in the studio during a lightning storm with this 110-foot tower next to me, thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to me if lightning hits that 110-foot steel tower? Am I going to die?’ ”
Technically, Schnabel is the show’s second host — Isabel Holt, who created the program, presided over on-air duties for its first two years — but his is the first voice much of Morning Becomes Eclectic’s earliest audience heard. Before, KCRW’s signal carried south into San Diego and northward almost to Ventura County, but nowhere to the east or west. Shortly after Schnabel took over in 1979, the station received a grant, allowing them to move a new transmitter to the top of a mountain and reach the greater Los Angeles area.
While Holt initially established the show’s wide-ranging format, Schnabel brought an even broader sensibility to the Morning Becomes Eclectic playlist. “I took it as it was and I think I expanded it. I wouldn’t say I changed anything, but I added stuff I was already into.” Much of that included so-called “world music,” a catchall term for non-Western musical genres that, at the time, hadn’t even been coined yet. Schnabel is credited with helping popularize international artists such as Nigerian Afrobeat master Fela Kuti, Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and reggae acts like Burning Spear and Steel Pulse in the United States. During his decade-long stint, Schnabel also proved influential in the careers of globally renowned pop mainstays such as Massive Attack, Terence Trent D’Arby and Sade.
“It was a really interesting time in terms of music, and we were right there on the cusp,” Schnabel says. “It was exciting to hear people call in and say, ‘What is that?’ ”
By the late 1980s, KCRW’s reputation as a cutting-edge tastemaker had spread outside Los Angeles. In Texas, Chris Douridas was producing Sound Sessions, a program with a likeminded philosophy to Morning Becomes Eclectic, for Dallas public radio station KERA. “I didn’t pattern the programming in Texas after KCRW at all,” he says, “but after I started playing eclectic music in Dallas, I started getting calls from listeners saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing something similar to this station out in L.A.’ ”
In 1990, Douridas moved to California in hopes of getting a job at that station. Six months later, Schnabel announced he was leaving the hosting chair at Morning Becomes Eclectic. Douridas, who had been hosting a classical show for KUSC and working part-time at the American Public Media business program Marketplace, leapt at the chance to succeed him. As Schnabel built off Holt’s concept, Douridas added on to the foundation laid down by Schnabel, mixing alt-rock into the show’s established palette of jazz, classical and world music.
“The connoisseurship of Chris is he can really recognize bands and artists,” Schnabel says. “If I had gotten a cassette of Beck’s work and listened to it, I’d say, ‘He’s doing a lot of pop-culture, Andy Warhol-type things — so what?’ But Chris recognized this guy was going to be huge and helped put him on the map.”
Beck isn’t the only alternative era musician to flourish in the 1990s thanks to Douridas’s support. Gillian Welch, eels, the Cranberries and PJ Harvey all received label deals after getting play on MBE. So acute was Douridas’s ability to spot talent, he was hired as an A&R consultant at Geffen Records while still serving as music director at KCRW, later becoming an executive at DreamWorks and music supervisor on several high-profile film and television projects. In addition, he saw the station into the digital age (its Web site went online way back in 1995) and oversaw the release of the first mix CDs compiling the station’s favorite artists.
When Douridas decided to move on in 1998, Harcourt was living in upstate New York, working as music director at WDST in Woodstock. Between the late ’70s and then, Harcourt had battled alcoholism, sung for several unsuccessful punk groups, gotten married, lived in Australia, gotten divorced. He never had aspirations to be a radio personality. “It happened by accident,” he says. Unable to find a suitable replacement for Douridas in the L.A. market, KCRW began to search elsewhere. At the urging of friends, Harcourt “half-heartedly” applied. A month later, he was introducing Southern California to his distinct Austro-Brit accent and well-traveled ear.
“I was saying this nine years ago, when people were saying, ‘What’s the difference between you and Chris?’ Well, he’s from Texas and I’m from the industrialized midlands of England. We have different reference points,” Harcourt says. “But if anything has happened, I think the show has opened up. It’s more inclusive than it’s ever been. I’ve had an opportunity to grow with my own listening experience as well. I’ve discovered a lot of music from doing this show, and I still do. I never set out to do anything particularly different.”
Purposefully or not, things have changed since Harcourt became the voice of Morning Becomes Eclectic. Its reach is now wider than ever: thanks to the Internet, ad agencies in New York and Chicago can know immediately what is hip in L.A. by listening to the show online. Artists who have broken under Harcourt’s tenure — Norah Jones, Dido, Pete Yorn, the Shins, Doves, Damien Rice and Coldplay, whose first stateside gig was a performance on Morning Becomes Eclectic — are known as “KCRW artists.” In particular, Harcourt has been a significant booster for Latin alternative acts such as Kinky, Café Tacuba, Plastilina Mosh and El Gran Silencio, who have managed to build followings among people who don’t even speak Spanish. In 2002, he began organizing the annual Sounds Eclectic Evening at Universal City’s Gibson Amphitheatre, welcoming such luminaries as Franz Ferdinand, Elliott Smith, DJ Shadow and Lily Allen.
“I think Nic’s biggest contribution thus far is the way he markets what KCRW has been good at for years,” Douridas says. “He has been very successful at getting KCRW out into the community … Instead of looking inward, he’s looking outward.”
Today, Morning Becomes Eclectic can be seen as a whole made great by the sum of its parts, a living project grown by each successive host. As individual as their approaches have been, there are certain things that link Schnabel, Douridas and Harcourt — particularly Ravi Shankar, the show’s very first in-studio guest. “He’s been on with all three of us,” Harcourt says, “and every one of us point that out as one of the transcendent sessions, when you’re sitting on the floor in there cross legged with Ravi Shankar.
“But,” he adds, “it’s just as cool to have a young band on that you’ve never really seen or just heard demos or whatever. We’ve done that numerous times, and that can be really exciting as well.”
Everything’s bigger in L.A.
Across from where Harcourt is sitting, through a sound-absorbing glass window, just such a young band is setting up. It is Oliver Future’s first time on Morning Becomes Eclectic, and the band, admittedly, is a bit nervous.
“We all listen to the show and are fans of it, and I know lots of people that do and lots of people around the country that do,” says drummer Jordan Richardson. “All those things coupled together, when we got here, we realized it’s like walking into Shea Stadium.”
Like Douridas, the members of Oliver Future discovered KCRW while still living in Texas. Singer Noah Lit picked up a Flaming Lips single at a record store, and the B-side featured a pair of covers — “Knives Out” by Radiohead and “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Aussie pop tart Kylie Minogue — recorded live on Morning Becomes Eclectic. When the band relocated to Echo Park two years ago, KCRW became the only station they’d listen to (including its National Public Radio content — Lit does a mean Carl Kassell impression), and a performance on Morning Becomes Eclectic a goal to reach for. Although there are similar programs on the radio back home, Lit says they do not compare.
“It’s different,” he says. “It’s like playing a big club in Austin versus playing a small club in L.A. It’s Austin — it’s a great, awesome town — but it’s not L.A. [People say] everything is bigger in Texas, but not really. The chicken fried steak is bigger.”
At 11:20, Oliver Future begins its set. Its widescreen pop sound is best heard in this environment, behind a control board, every guitar, horn and synthesizer perfectly mixed. After a few songs, Harcourt chimes in for a quick chat. Lit stammers slightly during the interview, makes awkward jokes and worries aloud about embarrassing himself in front of thousands. “I embarrass myself every single day, so please, don’t worry about it,” Harcourt assures him. They finish with a version of the Flaming Lips’ “Morning of the Magicians,” a nod to the origin of their relationship with the show.
Another career springboarded to stardom? Maybe. But Harcourt insists that isn’t the point. He doesn’t put his support behind unknown bands in hopes of making them famous. He is just doing what he has done since he started: playing what he loves. If he wasn’t, or if he couldn’t, he would probably never make it to the studio.
“There are days where it’s a job like anything,” he says. “But I had a moment this morning where I finished the first set and I really enjoyed it. I finished doing that first set and I was like, ‘That’s why I do this.’ This morning at 8:30 I could barely move out of the house. Twenty after 9, I was feeling really good about what I’d just done.”