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Radio | Around the Dial

'Cafe LA's' Eclectic Menu

Tom Schnabel's wide-ranging musical tastes are different for the weekends.

April 20, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's not uncommon to see Tom Schnabel cheering on a jazz group at a Southland jazz club.But it's equally likely to see him swaying in rhythm to a world music concert at UCLA's Royce Hall or listening intently to a classical string quartet recital.

"Eclectic," in other words, could be Schnabel's middle name. And why not? For many L.A. radio fans, it was his decade-long tenure as the host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW-FM (89.9) that introduced them to a panoply of new and fascinating musical sounds.

For the last eight years, Schnabel has had a different show--"Cafe LA"--comparable in its eclecticism, but different in its focus.

"My theory is this," he says. "The listening audience for 'Morning Becomes Eclectic'--at the time that it's on, from 9 a.m. till noon weekdays--has a more set schedule. It's a sort of dedicated audience of people who work in offices or who are at home where they can listen to the radio while they work.

"But on Saturdays and Sundays, when 'Cafe LA' is on from 2 to 5 p.m. [also on KCRW], people are moving around more. They're usually not alone in an office and they're often with someone else. So, in terms of my playing, say, some Bach suites, people may not want to hear that. They like to hear something different when they're driving as opposed to when they're in their offices--music that has some movement, some vitality if only because people experience themselves differently on weekends from the way they do during the week."

The notion that a radio show could even conceive of the possibility of alternating classical music with jazz, world and other forms received a major boost in the '80s, when Schnabel was developing "Morning Becomes Eclectic" into an influential Southland radio voice. It was the beginning of the thread that would eventually lead Schnabel to "Cafe LA."

"The 'Morning Becomes Eclectic' title was there before I began to do the show in 1979," he recalls. "But most people don't remember it because the station coverage was so small at the time that the signal hardly got past La Cienega Boulevard. We had a weird antenna that went straight north to Malibu and down to San Diego but it didn't reach past West L.A. or over the hill.

"There was some pop and folk music, some jazz, and that was sort of the basic recipe for the show."

Schnabel's primary interests were classical music and jazz, however, and his early programming was structured accordingly.

"I didn't play a whole lot of pop, since pop really wasn't a major part of my background--at least not up to that time. But I did play a lot of the sort of crossover jazz that would appeal to someone who liked classical music--things from ECM records, the Ralph Towner solo guitar stuff, the Keith Jarrett solo performances. I found it appealing and evocative; for me it had a sort of psychological and spiritual resonance."

But the decade of the '80s also saw the emergence of two other musical forms: one a completely new format, the other one that had made only rare radio appearances in previous decades. Both intrigued Schnabel.

The first was new age music.

"George Winston came in around 1981, I think," Schnabel says. "There had been a bit of Windham Hill because of Alex DiGrassi and William Ackerman's solo guitar recordings. And I played them. I liked DiGrassi more because I thought he had a little more technique and his compositions had a little more clarity.

"But what was really interesting was the reaction from the listeners. I mean, you can't argue with the phones ringing off the hook with people asking, 'Wow, what is that? It's absolutely beautiful.' And there really was sort of a pristine quality to some of it. But, God, there was a lot of bad new age, too, just as there's a lot of bad Cuban music and a lot of bad world music now."

World music, the second form to emerge in the '80s, had turned up on radio prior to "Morning Becomes Eclectic," but usually in the context of academically oriented ethnomusicological presentations. When Schnabel realized the response that reggae recordings were receiving, he sensed that there was a considerably larger world of other, equally compelling music.

"We started playing African music in 1980," he explains. "Mostly, it was what I could borrow from wherever I could find something. But I think the real launch of the African thing was King Sunny Ade. Aside from the Bulgarian women's choir it was the most distinct, unusual, unclassifiable sort of new sounding music I'd heard up to that point."

By the time Schnabel departed the program in 1990, KCRW had become one of the most important public radio stations in the U.S., and his pioneering eclectic alternative format had twice won awards (in 1986 and 1989) for best noncommercial station from the College Music Journal.

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