UK Magazine Straight No Chaser was first launched in 1988 as a “designer fanzine,” calling itself the “magazine of World Jazz Jive.” The magazine, co-edited by KCRW favorite Gilles Peterson, persists as a place for global music fans in a brief relaunch with a series of final editions. We were excited to have Straight No Chaser visit KCRW and give some love to the old-school radio dial in the latest of these special issues. We’re reprinting the article here:
By Will Page, Straight No Chaser
The internet brings us closer together, and that allows us to branch-out further apart. KCRW, a publicly funded local station housed in a dark basement underneath a college in Santa Monica, CA, is testament to just that. Its reach on the FM frequency is restricted terrestrially by radio towers throughout Southern California from Los Angeles to Orange County, Palm Springs, the Mojave Desert and Santa Barbara, yet it’s used the internet to creep into every corner of the globe. Best known for its anchor show Morning Becomes Eclectic, which airs between 9am and Noon weekdays, the station has crafted itself as a curator that carries the respect needed to stand above the noise in this age of infinite choice.
The station’s music director Jason Bentley is keen to stress the perennial balancing act that’s enabled the show to earn the recognition it now carries: “Morning Becomes Eclectic (MBE) has been going for four decades, under the stewardship of four different music directors in that time. Each MD has brought their own enduring influence, and in my case, it’s been advancing the artistry of the DJ balanced with smart programming. I believe the successful balance of art and commerce builds audience organically.” The list of acts that have ‘broken;’ on MBE is as long as the 101, but, to his credit, Bentley doesn’t subscribe to the “I saw them first” school of bragging rights: “There are so many cases of KCRW playing a support role in the upward trajectory of an artist’s career that it’s not something we make much of anymore. It happens a lot, which is mostly a credit to our voracious LA Metro audience, influential beyond measure.”
What might be passively consumed through that relic of the analogue-era known as the radio, or via the simple thumb press on a piece of glass aka-the-smartphone, risks glossing over Bentley’s work ethic that built the brand: “I am always looking for great execution overall, so it becomes more of a practice over time, like a martial art. You visualize the perfect flow, mix, voice, conversation, performance, and timing. Always imperfect enough to want to try again the next day. Luckily our music department, engineers, and support team at the station share the same focus in their work.”
Bentley sees their extended reach from the internet as a means to an end, which is to be both ‘about’ and ‘from’ Los Angeles. For a city with so much to offer yet so sparse it can be hard to find, he sees the internet turning their tightly-regulated definition of ‘local; on its head by allowing those with an intrigue into the undercurrents of LA to tap in: “It’s so unique that people talk about it when they travel around the world. “I heard it on KCRW…” means something powerful. Bands that come through KCRW mention it when they go on the road. And, of course, being in LA and reflecting Los Angeles makes someone take notice. People care about the culture that’s created here.”
For those not familiar with the US definition of public radio, and how it precariously sits on the dial, it’s worth taking stock of how it has functioned to date. This is not a public service broadcaster model like the BBC, which is assured of several billions in funding each year – far from it. The station’s President Jennifer Ferro, who has admirably worked her way up the ranks over a period of 20 years, breaks down the station’s model for survival in the Trump era: “Public radio is funded through a partnership of a small federal government investment and a lot of individual givers plus some corporate sponsors in the form of underwriting or advertising. The funding from the federal government is often under threat and we are facing that again now with President Trump’s preliminary budget. The government subsidy to KCRW is just 5% but to small stations across the country it can be as much as 30%. The absence of this kind of financial accelerator would depress the whole public radio economy and have a big impact on what you hear and the non-corporate and creative voices that come from public radio.”
When reminded about a certain US commercial radio exec who was infamously quoted in the UK boasting “in my business, the audience is the product and the advertisers are the customers”, Bentley balks and stresses the chalk-and-cheese comparison with his deeper pocketed competitors on the commercial side of the fence: “The for-profit versus public service models are so fundamentally different, it’s hard to compare the two. We engage a thriving indie music ecosystem through smart cross-genre programming, and work with key partners to develop artists over time. Ultimately, we’re serving the audience’s interests, so as long as we maintain their trust (and inspire membership) through the best in music curation, we’re in business.”
One final ingredient which makes up the secret sauce of KCRW’s survival is …. traffic. Lots of it, too. Unlike New York City where moving from A to B tends to involve foot, subway or taxi – none of which is ideal for maxing out dwell time on FM radio – anyone living and working in Los Angeles needs to acclimatise to the concept of ‘taking one’s place in line’. That’s the colloquium for being stuck in traffic for, literally, ever and a day. Ferro knows that this inconvenient truth plays into KCRW’s hands: “I like to say that you are not “in” traffic in LA, you are the traffic. Los Angeles is a series of island neighborhoods separated by oceans of traffic. We spend hours in our cars and develop ways to deal with that isolation. One of the ways is to connect with your friends at KCRW and get smarter and culturally enriched in the process.”
Station veteran Garth Trinidad has been calming the city’s commuters’ nerves for over two decades with his soothing voice, and openly admits to Straight no Chaser as being a source of inspiration throughout his career: “What always got us West Coast DJs perplexed was why we found ourselves relying on this publication from London to tell us what was popping in our own neighbourhood.” Eclecticism is a word that’s ingrained in both Chaser and KCRW’s respective lexicons and he lays out what that means as a DJ: “KCRW’s DJ culture has always been a reflection of the organic, discerned music-loving community in LA and now the world – meaning the DJ’s themselves are integral to the social architecture of the community. We evolve along with the community. In the last 20 years, technology has allowed listeners to need us less but desire us more – the community has more access to new and hard to find music than ever, but it’s been proven that the human touch, voice, curation etc can never be replaced and has made KCRW even more of a destination. We are trusted because of our shared aesthetic value and expected by the community to take risks. It’s amazing.”
On heavy rotation, Trinidad flips a long list of artists that he views as bubbling to the point of spilling over: Tom Misch, Amber Mark, Nabihah Iqbal, Jordan Rakei, Rostam, Yaeji, Leyya, Mondo Cozmo, Superorganism, Charlotte Day Wilson, Phoebe Bridgers, Kali Uchis, Lo Moon, Middle Kids, Gitty, Nulifer Yanya, Petit Biscuit, Sango, Sofi Tukker, Angelica Bess, Wajatta (Reggie Watts x John Tejada). In amongst this list, Trinidad’s take on the concept of genre is important as music is finding itself being digitally transformed in its purpose and delivery: “All things indie reign supreme – the latest generation of artists pursuing music is experiencing a creative freedom that’s allowing for an exciting confluence of genres. The bold return of the folk singer, garage funk rock, new wave disco, trap house, millennial jazz bands – all illustrates an incredible indie renaissance!”
B00ty, spelt with zeros, is just one of the many LA bands that are on the verge of getting it on, recognise the value of the station to the city’s music undercurrents: “Living in LA, if you pay any attention to music, it doesn’t take long to realize that KCRW is the home for real music in this city. If you’re on a date and they say they don’t know KCRW, that’s the last date… There’s pretty much no higher honor than hearing our music played on KCRW, the station where we’ve discovered so many of our favorite artists.”
That renaissance in indie, and the resilience of a cash-strapped radio station in Santa Monica, bodes well for its survival in this current wave of digital disruption. Jennifer Ferro reflects on the reasons why: “We are not a typical 24-hour radio station. We are a curator and a trusted friend who shares what you should check out. We know thousands listen to a song on KCRW, Shazam it and then add it to their streaming playlist. It adds value to your life by connecting you with artists and music you didn’t know about before. For KCRW, radio leads, streaming follows. For the rest of the radio universe it may very well be the opposite.” For the time being, be grateful for what we’ve got and don’t touch that dial.
High Five: West Coasting the Cool Spots with DJ Garth Trinidad:
- Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice
- Sound Nightclub in Hollywood
- Caña Rum Bar near downtown
- The Underground Museum in Mid-City • The Virgil in East Hollywood
Five Favourite MBE Memories:
- Peter Tosh (6’ 5” tall, dreads down to his waist) walking into our middle school classroom in November, 1982, smoking a giant cone-shaped spliff.
- Sun Ra, talking about shopping for socks on the planet Neptune
- Gil Scott-Heron in shock because he visited MBE the morning after John Lennon was killed
- Paul Simon telling me how the members of Zulu choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo reacted (after flying on a plane for the first time) to having a white chauffeur drive them around New York City
- Astor Piazzolla speaking perfect English (I hadn’t known the Argentine tango composer spent his first decade in New York)