A 9-hour edition of the station's influential 'Morning Becomes Eclectic' on Labor Day will feature past hosts Tom Schnabel and Chris Douridas along with Nic Harcourt.
Singer-songwriter Gary Jules is something of a pilgrim as he walks unannounced into the state-of-the-art Santa Monica College studios of KCRW-FM (89.9), an offering in hand. Nic Harcourt, who is at the console from which he hosts the station's flagship music show, "Morning Becomes Eclectic," leaps to his feet; big grins are on both faces as the two embrace.
Jules has popped in to this bustling hive just to say hi and drop off very early advance copies of his next album, something no other station will have for a while. After all, this is of one of the most influential music programs in the nation, instrumental in hundreds of artists' careers, not to mention in helping to create a whole aesthetic reflected in today's movie, TV and advertising music selections."That's why I'm here," says Jules, who himself went on to national recognition and even a No. 1 song in Britain after Harcourt championed his version of the Tears for Fears '80s hit "Mad World," which he'd recorded for the soundtrack of the cult film "Donnie Darko."
Jules is merely the latest in a steady parade of visitors -- from rank unknowns to international superstars -- who in the course of the last 30 years have come by the station to visit, chat and often perform on-air for one of the three men who have held the "MBE" helm as the show has grown to national prominence: Tom Schnabel (who took the chair in 1977 after a three-year stint by founding host Isabel Holt), Chris Douridas (who came from Dallas in 1990) and England native Harcourt (hired in 1998 after working at a Woodstock, N.Y., commercial station).
Each of the three will be choosing from among those visits segments to feature in his portion of a nine-hour Labor Day special Monday celebrating the three decades of "MBE" covering their collective stewardship. Like the regular weekday program, the special begins at 9 a.m.
It was quite a different scene the first time Schnabel welcomed a guest 30 years ago. KCRW was housed in a cramped basement at an elementary school across the street from the sponsoring college.
The equipment was a makeshift hodgepodge and there was no staff to speak of. And whereas today KCRW is carried on several signals throughout Southern California and has a global reach via its Internet channels, back then the signal faded out around Robertson Boulevard, just a few miles to the east. And the studio was not exactly presentable.
"My first interview was Ravi Shankar," Schnabel, 60, says as the three chat one day recently in a tiny meeting room after Harcourt finishes his show. "I had to scrub down the studio because it was so dusty!"
Shankar, it turns out, is one of the handful of artists who have had on-air sessions with each of the three.
"One of the most amazing moments for me was sitting in there with him three or four years ago with his daughter, Anoushka," Harcourt, 49, says. "I was sitting on the floor cross-legged, just watching him. When you sit with people like him or Willie Nelson, sitting as far away from me as Tom is now, it's amazing."
The "MBE" legacy, though, is mostly tied to the championing of fresh artists and unknown sounds. Schnabel is perhaps best known for opening doors in the U.S. for a wave of world music figures, notably Nigerian Afrobeat stars King Sunny Adé and Fela Kuti and Pakistani Qawwali giant Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Douridas, 44, is famously associated with introducing the world to Beck. And Harcourt is credited with being among the first to put the spotlight on Coldplay and Norah Jones, to name just two.
An illustration of the unique "MBE" approach came on a recent show in which Harcourt made a distinctive segue from "Another Go Around," a frothy Doris Day track from the early '60s, to an equally giddy and romantic song, "Whisper," by new L.A. act A Fine Frenzy (the nom de pop of young L.A. singer-songwriter Alison Sudol). The latter was embraced by Harcourt before the recent release of the act's debut album, and he has booked an in-studio performance for Sept. 11.
"It gives a stamp of approval that is unimpeachable," says Jason Flom, chairman of Capitol Music Group, which has released the A Fine Frenzy album. "People know that you can't do anything to influence Nic, other than have great music that he responds to. It's watched by lots of people throughout the industry."
There are, though, complaints that the spectrum of sounds has narrowed over the years.
"There is that criticism of people who ask is it as eclectic as it used to be," says Keith Caulfield, analyst for Billboard magazine, who follows radio trends. "Some think it conforms to more what commercial radio sounds like. But no, you don't hear much of what they play on commercial stations."
The definition and scope of eclectic has certainly changed over the years. Schnabel would sometimes play whole symphonies and often programmed 15- or 20-minute pieces by John Coltrane, Kuti and other jazz and world music figures. Douridas brought in a stronger song orientation, leaning more to alternative-rock and pop outsiders. Harcourt continued the trend, his jazz and world forays generally coming in electronica remix versions.
"I think that reflects our tastes," Douridas says of the move away from lengthy pieces. "I don't think Nic would enjoy playing something like that on his show. And my attention span would not support playing a full symphony."
Schnabel confesses that when Douridas took over, "I was like the jealous ex-wife. 'How can he play this?' But he got better and better. Chris' and Nic's strength, and I don't have this, is they can find a great band or artist. I don't have ears for that. If I had gotten the Beck cassette, I wouldn't have known it was that good."
Whatever one feels about the shifts, it's hard to argue with the success. Audience growth has been steady, rising more than 40% in the last 10 years (158,000 weekly listeners on average today, up from 112,000) -- not counting the 270,000 times the show is accessed via the Internet each month, with 200,000 podcast downloads.
And each of the personalities remains a KCRW presence. Douridas, who in recent times has gone through legal and personal difficulties, including the death last year of his teenage daughter after an epileptic seizure, hosts the show "New Ground" noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Schnabel continues to explore his tastes with "Café L.A." in the same time slot Sundays. Both also do daily online versions of their shows.
One of the areas on which they've had the most profound influence has been Hollywood.
"I remember getting the first 'O.C.' soundtrack album and said, 'That's my playlist!' -- right down to the unsigned artists, like [L.A.-based singer-songwriter] Alexi Murdoch," Harcourt says.
"I used to get calls in the car, [director] Michael Mann would call and say, 'What was that song? I've got my assistant on the phone taking notes,' " Douridas says.
Jeff Antebi, founder and CEO of the Waxploitation label and management firm, credits the station for giving crucial exposure to his client Gnarls Barkley, whose "Crazy" became the biggest hit of 2006. "Very few programs have as big an impact as 'Morning Becomes Eclectic' on the film and TV industry, which is one of the few growth areas for music," he says.
David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," has said that it was while driving around L.A. listening to KCRW that he first heard "Woke Up This Morning" by little-known English band Alabama 3 and realized instantly that he'd found the perfect theme song to capture the sense of dark paranoia central to his depiction of modern mob life.
And the influence has been at times more direct. All three hosts and many of the other on-air music staff members at the station have served as music supervisors for major TV and film productions. Douridas, who hosted the 1997 PBS music series "Sessions on West 54th," ultimately worked as a consultant for Mann and went on to a thriving music supervision career, with "American Beauty" and the first two installments of the "Shrek" and "Austin Powers" franchises among his credits, while Harcourt has worked on various projects, including the upcoming films "Gone Baby Gone" and "Pride and Glory."
That, though, has been a source of controversy, with charges of at least the appearance of conflict of interest in a situation where the hosts stand to profit from jobs in the very music world they promote from a platform of a station funded by listener donations and tax-derived public moneys. Harcourt says that he has been very conscious of keeping his two worlds separate.
"I've worked on movies and the publicity department has called and said, 'Can I get the director or star on the show?' And I always say no," he says. "I will always err on the side of caution."
As they prepared their memories and highlights for Monday's special, each of the three -- when pressed -- was able to single out one moment that stood above the others, defining his time as "MBE" host.
"I got to sit down with Paul McCartney a few weeks ago," Harcourt says. "Just blew me away. I wasn't nervous until I sat down and then, uhhhhh. But he was very casual, he's like [imitating the Liverpool accent] 'Oh, me and the boys . . . .' "
For Douridas, the standout happened at the end of his run.
"Tom Waits came in and performed live on my last show," he says. "He sang 'Can't Wait to Get Off Work.' That was the last song that aired on the show. Tom is my biggest music figure."
And Schnabel chose an emotional session with a giant of the jazz world:
"If I had to pick one, it's Nina Simone," he says. "She broke down crying talking about her life. She started sobbing and I just let it be. Didn't cut her microphone or do anything. Then after about 30 seconds, I asked, 'Do you want to go on?' And she said she did. A professional therapist wrote in, said, 'That was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard, and the way you handled it was perfect.' That meant a lot to me."