In praise of KCRW and great music radio
How a station like Los Angeles’ KCRW reminds you of the power of great music shows
It’s amazing what a great music radio DJ can do. Last week in Los Angeles, I found myself drawn again and again to KCRW, one of the local National Public Radio stations because every time you’d turn on the station, you’d hear an amazing tune. It wasn’t just the station’s acclaimed breakfast show Morning Becomes Eclectic, currently presented by Jason Bentley, but also the various evening and weekend shows presented by DJs like Travis Holcombe, Garth Trinidad, Anne Litt and Liza Richardson.
What was particularly enthralling for a music fan like me, someone who has largely given up on music radio over here, was the fact that this was, well, music radio. No rambling intros which had more to do with the DJ’s ego, no zoo-radio breakfast show banter or japes or tomfoolery from numpties who you feel actually despise music (come on down, a lot of Irish radio’s current breakfast show presenters), no inane chatter whatsoever. In fact, there were times when you’d get a run of six or seven tracks without a word from the DJ. If you wanted to find out what the DJ had played, you went to the website and got the information there. Sure, there were occasional interviews and live sessions, but the bulk of the programming was simply tunes.
And what tunes. There was one particular half-hour which included music from Action Bronson, Papa, Hanni El Khatib, Cayucas, Fitz & The Tantrums, Prince, AlunaGeorge, Laura Mvula and Major Lazer. I didn’t want to get out of the car as I was so curious about what the DJ would play next. This was a set programmed by someone who had a deep love for what they were playing, who knew what was required to keep the listener with him/her and who felt there was no need to back-announce every damn tune. It was music radio which credited the audience with some intelligence.
I know, I know, there are shows like that over here too. There are plenty of music radio DJs in Ireland and the UK who tick all the above boxes. There are many who are also huge music fans. But most of them are confined to the margins or relegated to digital-only stations. This was prime-time stuff. This was music radio which caught the listener when they were going about their daily business and not when they’d tuned out from the stresses, strains and demands of the day.
Turns out I’m not the only alone in saluting what KCRW and other NPR stations are doing. This piece in a recent Wall Street Journal looks at NPR Music, the organisation’s well-regarded and increasingly influential music wing.
While NPR is best known for its speech programming (or, to quote Steve Oney who wrote the WSJ piece, “its radio news broadcasts, which are often characterized by sonorous interviews with heads of state and winsome features about pumpkin-growing contests”), it is increasingly gaining respect for its music programming too. You won’t get pop or Top 40 music here, but instead carefully selected and curated music choices. NPR Music’s Amy Schriefer’s quote says it all: “we want to create the feeling you used to get in record stores when somebody would hand you something and say ‘you have to hear this’. That’s why some of our picks sometimes seem a little off the wall or under the radar.”
Which is what what a lot of music listeners want and can’t find anywhere else. Many will argue that we live in a time of infinite choice when it comes to music, with every single tune just a Spotify or Deezer or YouTube click away. Who needs DJs when you have millions of tunes to choose from? But it turns out that many still rely on guides to get them through the noise. That’s why we have curated online stations like Radio OTR, that’s why music bloggers have been kings of the wild frontier of late and why there is so much buzz and heat around Jimmy Iovine’s incoming Daisy music service. We’re humans and we need those filters. And it’s why we still turn to DJs on stations like KCRW to give us their opinion in the form of ace, choice music selections. Hey, maybe there’s a business model in all of this? Hmmmm….