I fell in love with rock music and radio at an early age. Like all great love affairs, the peaks have been exhilarating and the setbacks deeply disappointing. Eventually, I was resigned to a comfortable but passionless relationship as the years went by and radio seemed to lose all interest in me.
Where did the excitement go? Was I, along with my follow baby boomers doomed to spend my middle age listening to the same handful of classic rock hits over and over again? Or worse, tune into the artificial, overly produced, formulaic songs of the pop divas or watered down country music hits?
There still had to be great music out there, but it was hard to find on the dial. Here in Los Angeles, we had KCRW, a NPR affiliate that played music from 9 ‘til Noon on a show called “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” A blend of indie rock and world music, there was a lot to discover and enjoy there. It was much better than anything else on the radio, but there was only three hours of it each day and it was a bit esoteric and hit and miss for my tastes.
Things got much more interesting for several years after Nic Harcourt took over the show. An Englishman, a one-time wannabe rocker who spent several years in Australia before discovering his calling as a DJ and music programmer in Woodstock, NY, Nic had a distinctive voice, impeccable taste and a singular talent for recognizing great music. He was the first to play bands like Nora Jones, Coldplay, David Gray, Franz Ferdinand and others.
He eventually gave up the grind of the morning show, but still hosted a Sunday night show for the station. Then one day he was gone completely, fired suddenly for doing a one-hour show, for no pay, on a small, public, college radio station called KCSN. I had never heard of it, but having read about his controversial firing, I made my way a bit further left on the dial to 88.5 to see what the fuss was about.
I was fortunate to find Nic back on the air every morning, and learned that the station had brought on veteran music executive and radio personality Sky Daniels as General Manager, chief programmer and afternoon drive time DJ. He gave KCSN a distinctive sound like no other blending the thrill of discovery with the pleasures of rediscovery, something entirely different from nostalgia.
KCSN plays a good deal of classic rock, but it’s not “Stairway To Heaven” all day every day. They’ll play The Kinks, but you’ll more than likely hear a deep cut from “The Village Green Preservation Society” instead of “Lola.” Bruce Springsteen will pop up every now and then, but you’re more likely to hear his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped” or the very early “Incident On 57th Street” rather than “Born To Run.” The station programs old music in a way that’s intelligent and stimulating, decidedly not mind numbing, repetitive or wistful.
If those deep cuts were all they played, it would still be an improvement over everything else on the air. But now I’ve got Spotify on my iPhone, and I’m damn good at curating playlists of old and delightfully obscure songs myself.
The greatest pleasure I derive from KCSN is the new music. It’s exhilarating to be connected to the freshness of young artists like Dawes, Real Estate, Cage The Elephant, War On Drugs, Laura Marling, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes and Courtney Barnett.
Maybe the thrill isn’t as intense as sneaking my transistor radio into bed as a 10-year-old to listen to the sounds of the British Invasion until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, or when the free-form, album oriented format of WNEW-FM emerged in the late sixties with seminal DJ’s Rosko, Jonathan Schwartz, Zacharly and Allison (The Night Bird) Steele.
Still, hearing KCSN for the first time reminded me of a time in the late 70’s when I was back living in New York, working at my first job after grad school in an ad agency, with the dreaded disco era in full swing. One morning day I was awakened by my clock radio, tuned to WNEW-FM of course, to be mesmerized by a raw, driven sound that was kind of like my favorite 60’s garage bands on steroids. The New Wave had arrived and young guy from England named Elvis Costello rocked my world.
It’s been a very long time since I felt that way. But thanks to KCSN, radio is as compelling as ever.