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

September 02, 1999|STEVE HOCHMAN | 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."

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."

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.

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