Public radio's homesteaders on the pop frontier
Critique by Dave Bunker
What can pubradio give to listeners in the range of popular music? Four national programs demonstrate various options. Originally published in Current, Feb. 11, 2002
The other "have-not" program on our list is also the newest. Sounds Eclectic is a two-hour weekly national version of the long-running and successful weekday program Morning Becomes Eclectic on Santa Monica’s KCRW. PRI began distributing it nationally in October 2000 and has now placed it on 29 stations, as with Rock ‘n’ Roots mostly away from major markets, though KUOW in Seattle recently added it. "I have been a little surprised at the resistance in the bigger markets to the program," says host and producer Nic Harcourt. There is no person for whom the show is a full time job. Harcourt programs and produces as part of his regular duties as music director of KCRW, with help from other staffers at the station. The station covers production costs.
"The idea of the program," says Harcourt, "is to take a broad range of progressive-sounding music and put it into a program where it can appeal to and perhaps open up people to new ideas." It is not meant to educate, he adds, so much as to present new music worthy of people’s consideration. If a short label for the mix is needed, Harcourt suggest "progressive," though he’s not using the term as it once applied to 1970s art rock.
The music on Sounds Eclectic overlaps somewhat with the music on World Cafe, in the area of contemporary AAA artists like Steve Earle and Shelby Lynne, but it otherwise covers territory untouched by the other shows, with a lot of music by artists you have probably never heard of. Some, indeed, are unsigned bands who sent their demos to Harcourt. The show’s focus on the newest of the new has to do in part with Harcourt’s clear interest in finding and promoting unknown bands, and also with the fact that the show is produced in LA’s huge pool of ambitious new talent and cutting-edge pop innovation. Older music appearing on the program does so because it has been newly reissued.
The genres covered by Sounds Eclectic includes progressive pop, world beat, jazz, African, reggae and classical, with a focus on new music. The actual mix only briefly and occasionally includes jazz and classical. On the other hand, it does include appearances by country-tinged performers such has Lyle Lovett and Hank Williams Jr. This is a stretch from the show’s core sound, but Harcourt feels he makes it work through the careful use of segues, and he says listeners like it.
The program’s core sound doesn’t have a generally accepted label. It tends towards medium to slow tempos, unusual instrumental timbres with a liberal use of synthesized and digitally sampled sounds, hypnotically repetitive and/or spooky melodies, light percussion, and evocative but elusive lyrics sung intimately, rather than belted out. As with World Cafe, it seems likely that only some of the artists in the mix are headed for permanent spots in the pop firmament.
Surprisingly, Sounds Eclectic has a stricter rock threshold than either American Routes or Rock ‘n’ Roots, and maybe even a shade stricter than World Cafe. Harcourt explains this choice partly as an effort to appeal to public radio program directors, and partly as arising out of a conviction that this is what public radio audiences want to hear: something akin to the undiluted rock of their growing-up years, but more sedate. "It is important to remember that people do mellow," he says.
Harcourt’s minimalist announcing style matches the music well. He develops a strong "insider" mystique, using music industry terminology and dropping producers’ names without explanation, and he never comments on the quality or elements of the music, implying that we should just know. We’re eavesdropping, and if we are hip enough, we’ll be able to keep up. If not, we’re out of luck.
The show is produced to a high standard, with a touch of commercial sound, like a specialty show on a hip alternative rock station. The producers sprinkle the half-hour music blocks with little stinger ID’s ("You’re listening to Sounds Eclectic from PRI") and set back-announces over music with the music levels jumping up between the announcer’s phrases. Each week’s show also includes interview segments with bands as part of a live set, and these interviews are edited down to a commercial-style choppy brevity. On the other hand, in some of the interviews we get to hear the excitement and humor behind the host’s cool façade. More human touches, and a little more help with the arcana of the business for the average unhip listener, would make Sounds Eclectic more generally engaging.
Nic Harcourt, host and producer of Sounds Eclectic. (Photo: KCRW.)
To Current's home page Earlier news: 1994 feature on parent program Morning Becomes Eclectic and past host Chris Douridas. Outside link: Sounds Eclectic's website.
Web page posted March 25, 2002
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.