RADIO : Around the Dial : Two Radio Station Music Directors Find Niches of Their Own

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Want to know how Nic Harcourt and Nicole Sandler think they've done so far as each celebrates one year on the air at, respectively, KCRW-FM (89.9) and KACD/KBCD-FM (103.1)?

Don't ask what they've been playing. Ask what they've been hearing.

"I'm not hearing, 'You have big shoes to fill' anymore, which is nice," says Harcourt, who took over for the highly influential Chris Douridas both as host of the Santa Monica College station's flagship "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show and as music director. "That drove me insane after a while. I brought my own shoes."

If silence is golden to Harcourt, tonally challenged humming is the prize for Sandler. As lead on-air presence and music director of the station known as Channel 103.1, she's battling her own legacy as part of KSCA-FM (101.9), which, in its two-year stint as an adult alternative station before being sold and converted into a very successful Spanish-language music station two years ago, built an intensely loyal, if not ratings-topping following.

Signs of that building again at the new location are becoming increasingly evident.

"On my voicemail I say, 'If you want to know about a song we played, maybe you can tell me something about it or sing something from it,' " Sandler says. "And people do! And believe me, I'd rather return that call than one from some record company geek trying to get me to play his record."

The fact is that both Harcourt and Sandler believe that they are emerging from the shadows of their predecessors and establishing their own places in the market. The numbers bear them out. Sandler and her boss, program director Keith Cunningham, say that the ratings their station has gotten so far, though not cracking the Top 30 in the market, meet projections set by owner Clear Channel for what is meant to be a niche station.

"We'll always be a niche station," Sandler says. "But we're super-serving this audience--upscale, intelligent people."

And in KCRW's recent summer pledge drive, subscribers during Harcourt's shift increased more than 10% over last year, with total dollars pledged by those subscribers up a whopping 24%. And 1998's summer drive--Harcourt's first at KCRW--saw comparable increases over 1997.

A CD for Harcourt and a Party for Sandler

In that light, both Harcourt and the 103.1 team are ready to celebrate. Each is marking a year on the air, more or less, with something to sum up their tenure so far.

For Harcourt, it's an album compiling guest performances recorded on his show that will be released Tuesday, actually closer to a year and a half since his April 1998 arrival.

For Sandler and Cunningham, it's turning a Sept. 14 Greek Theatre concert featuring adult alternative favorites Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby and Shawn Colvin into a public party--though it's technically nearly two months early.

"The CD is a fair reflection of the show in the last year and a half," Harcourt says. "I started it off with [African artist] Angelique Kidjo, which is not someone people would expect as the lead track. But that was the perfect start, and [post-lounge stylists] Pink Martini is at the end. So you have a world artist to begin, an unsigned band to end, and in between country with Lyle Lovett, jazz artist Brad Mehldau, a couple of acts with pop hits in Semisonic and Sixpence None the Richer and then a lot of progressive, hip others like Morcheeba, Air, Mercury Rev and PJ Harvey."

It's a mixed bag but, as the show title--and now the album title as well, to differentiate it from the four "Rare on Air" CDs released during Douridas' reign--indicates, that's the whole idea.

"The very nature of the format is some people will like one song and not the next," he says. "You have to trust that your audience is sophisticated or educated enough to know the experience of the program is discovering things along the way. We actually don't get many complaints anymore, but when we do, they're all over the place: too much world music, not enough world music; too much jazz--there's more jazz now than there used to be--or not enough jazz."

On the air, Harcourt is trying to increase the discoveries, playing and hosting in studio such bands as Los Mocosos, a rock en espanol band from San Francisco that, since its KCRW exposure, has gotten a little airplay on commercial stations KLOS-FM (95.5) and KROQ-FM (106.7).

He also recently started using the first part of the 10 o'clock hour on Fridays to play a few unsigned, unreleased acts that have sent in unsolicited demo tapes, and he will continue to do so as long as he feels the quality is deserving.

Still, as far as matching Douridas' stature as a taste-maker for both listeners and the entertainment industry, Harcourt has fallen victim to changing times and audience habits.

"Harcourt is probably better, or at least not worse, than Douridas," says one major-label talent scout and producer. "But there is a whole generation that grew up listening to Douridas--people who started out as interns at Paramount or somewhere making $20,000 and by the time he left were executives there making $500,000. Douridas really influenced their taste, but they're in a different place now and don't need that."

Harcourt is sanguine about the role of taste-maker to the entertainment industry.

"Four or five years ago, A&R; people who were listening to 'Morning Becomes Eclectic' were able to go out and bid a million dollars for someone like [Canadian singer-songwriter] Hayden," he says. "That climate is not there anymore. The impact of people getting signed from being on 'MBE' has changed. The music industry is looking for boy bands for 17-year-old girls. That's not what we do."

Conservative Lineup of Familiar Faces

The old KSCA, too, was seen as a place for discoveries, an L.A. launching pad for such megastars-in-the-making as Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Paula Cole and Hootie and the Blowfish--and in turn got a big boost from those acts' skyrocketing fame. Against that history, the Channel 103.1 concert's lineup of very familiar faces seems a bit conservative in terms of stamping an identity on the outlet.

"Every time I turn it on, they're playing old stuff," says another major-label executive. "Maybe they need to play familiar things to keep listeners on for ratings, but the station confuses me. Maybe I'm not their target audience, but I can't tell who is from what they play."

Again, though, it's a matter of different times and circumstances. There are no new adult alternative acts shooting to mainstream stardom now, no one for a station to hitch its wagon to. And this is a problem in a format that earns its biggest affection and credibility by turning people on to rising new stars and veterans they don't expect to hear on commercial radio.

To that end, Sandler and Cunningham say, several new features are being implemented to develop new acts and broaden station horizons. Recently the station instituted "New Music Mondays," on which a larger share of fresh material will be given a tryout, and plans are in the works to use nighttime programming to reach more toward such edges of the adult alternative range as world music, jazz-influenced material and roots music.

A syndicated world music show produced through the Putamayo clothing and music company will air Sundays at 10 a.m. starting Sept. 12.

"We have a promo spot we run that says, 'Classic rock is great, but so is staying up to date,' " Cunningham notes.

Still, it's a tricky thing.

"The key is balance," Sandler says. "We want to play a lot of new music, but we want to balance it with the familiar. Otherwise we'll be so eclectic and perceived as too cool for the room, and no one will listen."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday September 4, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 8 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction Correct quote--In the Around the Dial radio column in Thursday's Calendar Weekend, KCRW-FM (89.9) music director Nic Harcourt's comment about the role of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" as a taste-maker should have read: "The music industry is looking for boy bands or 17-year-old girls. That's not what we do."
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