Maybe he's not a god. But, man, does he have ears
Since this profile was published in Current, Dec. 12, 1994, Douridas left public radio (in March 1998) for work in the record industry.
By Jacqueline Conciatore
You wouldn't expect such a soft-spoken guy to be the West Coast's "Power DJ."
The overblown title is from an October Entertainment Weekly list of Power Status Symbols on both coasts (Howard Stern on the East). If it seems to ill-fit the gentle and musically sophisticated Chris Douridas, ultimately it is more apt than not.
Host of KCRW's daily three-hour music program Morning Becomes Eclectic, Douridas likely won Entertainment's notice because of who listens to his program and who drops by KCRW's Santa Monica studios to perform a song or two or three. Hundreds of top artists, including Phillip Glass, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Seal and, most recently, the Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Garbarek, have performed live sets for the third hour of Morning--a regular program feature. Talk guests have included the likes of Beatles producer George Martin, comedian Steve Martin, actor Jeff Bridges and director Wim Wenders. Adding to Douridas' clout is his new position as talent consultant for Geffen Records.
"I don't know if [Douridas] wields power," says Mike Morrison, program director at commercial L.A. station KSCA. "I don't think he revels in the notion of making or breaking careers. He tries to expose music any way he can that he thinks is exciting and interesting. He has the ear of the music industry, the film industry, practically the entire entertainment industry."
"I would say 'influential' is a better word."
A melange of music
What many people say about Chris Douridas is that his love for music comes over the air as nearly tangible. The love translates itself into a wide-open embrace of virtually all music. Typically, Morning showcases progressive pop, world beat, jazz, African, reggae, classical and new music; sources include store releases, pieces from unsigned artists, and KCRW's archives of produced materials as well as live studio performances. This means a set might start with Peter Gabriel, go to Arvo Pärt, and end eight artists later with Miles Davis. "I try to integrate music of all styles," Douridas says. "I think it's rather enlightening to hear Górecki's Third Symphony alongside "Mercy Street" from Peter Gabriel. Both will illuminate the other."
The only music Douridas shies from for his 9 to noon show is heavier rock--but even there, he is reluctant to shut doors. On a recent album he recently received from a band called Bush, he spotted a song he thinks will hit big. "I like the song," he says, "I tried hard to fit it in, but it's just a little too far outside of the mix.''
"There is a very fine line between eclectic and chaos."
Long shadow over Texas
Douridas, 32, has been with KCRW since 1990. Prior to joining the station, he was a nighttime jock for KERA in Dallas, where he acquired a reputation for nurturing new and local talent. One of the hallmarks of his tenure there was a program called Sound Sessions, for which a local studio gave musicians free time to record, in exchange for a mention on the air when Douridas aired the recordings. Recently, KERA released the first Sound Sessions CD.
Douridas left for Los Angeles with his bride, a day after getting married--his wife is a film actress named Mieke--to further his radio career and pursue a second career in acting. He first lined up work with KUSC, as a substitute classical music host and news editor for Marketplace. When veteran KCRW music director Tom Schnabel resigned, Douridas wasted no time applying for the position, which he won after serving as interim programmer for six months. Since then, he has enjoyed the aforementioned radio success. Earlier this year he compiled some of the live Morning performances for a CD, Rare on Air, that received good reviews. He's also served as music consultant on films such as Gas, Food, Lodging, recently had a role in a television comedy series, Ellen, and is discussing with PBS his idea for a television travel program.
All of this good karma does not extend to his previous associations. Douridas is proving to be something of a problem back in Dallas, where a group of his fans are, via the local press, lamenting what they see as the passing of KERA's musically adventurous and exciting heyday. "It's been a big deal for us, since he left," says current Music Director Abby Goldstein. "We're having a lot of trouble living him down . . . I finally broke down and wrote a letter saying, 'Nobody here can be Chris Douridas. Maybe our jocks could be appreciated for who they are. That would be nice. . . .' "
Douridas says he was "shocked" to read a lengthy article in the Dallas Observer wishing for KERA's bygone days. "First of all, I was thinking, 'Poor KERA.' Then, I thought . . . if I came back and did my show there, I wonder if they'd be satisfied with that?" Goldstein, too, wonders if the Dallas fans haven't been legend-building. "With the mystique of Chris Douridas now, I don't think people remember so much what he did. They just remember the name. Don't get me wrong. The guy is good. He has an incredible sense of music and an incredible feel for radio. I think he should be recognized. But I don't think people should be calling him a god. Nobody is a god."
''He definitely has ears''
What many people also say about Chris Douridas is that he has a knack for spotting hits. "He definitely has ears--that's what they call it in commercial radio, the ability to pick hits," says Sandy Wells, a freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Radio Guide. "He can tell when a musician knows what they're about."
For example, Douridas is credited with premiering bestseller Górecki's "Third Symphony," along with new-music artists such as Wild Colonials and Beck. Other artists that premiered on KCRW include Cranberries, P.J. Harvey (in the U.S.), Michelle and D.J. Othello. "I can't tell you the number of times an artist we played on KCRW got signed by a record company that heard the airplay," Douridas says. If there is occasionally a dispute over who really "breaks" an artist or piece of music--as there was with KUSC over Górecki's "Third"--Douridas says: "Who gets credit, I don't care. We always have next week."
Douridas has no single approach to rotating pieces he thinks deserve an audience. "We put [a record] through a rotation of sorts--move it around through the show over a period of weeks," he says. How often to repeat, or for how long, depends on the work itself. "You can feel a song sort of burning into an audience, and you can feel when it's burned out."
With a reputation for being in sync with a record-buying public, it's no wonder Geffen recently hired Douridas as a talent scout. "They pay me to bring them artists I come across who are unsigned," Douridas explains. The arrangement has brought some conflict-of-interest charges. Douridas responds that the job has no effect on his airplay, and that many programmers at KCRW have similar relationships with record companies. "If there were any conflict of interest, don't you think I'd be hearing from Warner?" he asks. "What's the concern? That I'll play nothing but Geffen records? The playlist doesn't support that." If anything, he says, he's apt to avoid playing Geffen.
The issue may ultimately be one of pay. Says Morrison, who this year left public station WXPN, Philadelphia, to join commercial KCSA: "If public radio wants to keep Chris Douridas, he needs to figure out other sources of income."
Douridas says, however, that the Geffen contract is, more than anything, just one other way for him to help promote new music: "My clear concern is to get the record out."
A reservoir of unpredictability
In an interview and performance session on Morning Becomes Eclectic, everything about Joni Mitchell is a surprise. She is generous with words, almost a run-on talker. Describing at length a "surreal" Fourth of July night in Hawaii--the subject of one of her songs--she vividly conjures up detail after detail after detail as if she had a moving picture of the evening before her eyes. When she sings, the transition from talk is nearly breathtaking, because her voice is so luminous and ringing.
Surprises. They're not popular as radio fare these days, as programmers increasingly rely on audience research to guarantee they won't play anything that prompts listeners to reach for the dial. But for some radio listeners, whom Wells calls "refugees from the heyday of FM radio," predictable radio is death set to a tune. Wells himself finds most radio so monotonous that he's developed an extreme theory. Most radio stations, he believes, find one song they like and play it over and over--it's only disguised as different songs. "In spite of the incessant sloganeering of stations, 'We play variety,' they never do," he says.
Douridas himself is more gentle in his criticism of trends in music programming. Research that helps stations give a targeted group of listeners precisely what they want is "valid," he says. "The research is going to lead you to build a station that is going to work. That research is not going to lead you to build a station that has a bite to it, or that has . . . the element of surprise." Ultimately, such stations may hit a higher common denominator of listeners, but they may not be enthusiastic or loyal listeners, which would have ramifications for public stations that depend on listener avidity to translate into pledges, he says.
Douridas maintains that unpredictability is in fact at the heart of good radio. Otherwise, he asks, why not toss out the radio and listen only to tapes and CDs? For Morning Becomes Eclectic listeners, the unpredictability of Douridas' musical choices quenches a thirst for radio as an experience, not as wallpaper. With Morning, "there's a sense of participating in an adventure," says Wells. "[Listeners] are an elite. They're special. They know what's going on, just like in the '50s when kids followed rock 'n' roll, they know what's in. [Douridas] is doing it in a more elite and genteel way, but he is bringing people along, exposing them to artists. They trust his taste."
How does Douridas feel about being a gatekeeper for so many trusting people? "It makes me feel grateful that we have the audience we have. It's satisfying to know that when you have an artist, you can have a hand in their success. I want the music to do well and to thrive."
To Current's home page
Later news: Douridas hosts Saturday-night concert series for public TV, 1997.Web page created July 30, 1995
Revised Aug. 18, 1998
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.