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Marking 30 years of eclecticism

August 28, 2007|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Singer-songwriter Gary Jules is something of a pilgrim as he walks unannounced into the state-of-the-art Santa Monica College studios of KCRW-FM (89.9), an offering in hand. Nic Harcourt, who is at the console from which he hosts the station's flagship music show, "Morning Becomes Eclectic," leaps to his feet; big grins are on both faces as the two embrace.

Jules has popped in to this bustling hive just to say hi and drop off very early advance copies of his next album, something no other station will have for a while. After all, this is of one of the most influential music programs in the nation, instrumental in hundreds of artists' careers, not to mention in helping to create a whole aesthetic reflected in today's movie, TV and advertising music selections.

"That's why I'm here," says Jules, who himself went on to national recognition and even a No. 1 song in Britain after Harcourt championed his version of the Tears for Fears '80s hit "Mad World," which he'd recorded for the soundtrack of the cult film "Donnie Darko."

Jules is merely the latest in a steady parade of visitors -- from rank unknowns to international superstars -- who in the course of the last 30 years have come by the station to visit, chat and often perform on-air for one of the three men who have held the "MBE" helm as the show has grown to national prominence: Tom Schnabel (who took the chair in 1977 after a three-year stint by founding host Isabel Holt), Chris Douridas (who came from Dallas in 1990) and England native Harcourt (hired in 1998 after working at a Woodstock, N.Y., commercial station).

Each of the three will be choosing from among those visits segments to feature in his portion of a nine-hour Labor Day special Monday celebrating the three decades of "MBE" covering their collective stewardship. Like the regular weekday program, the special begins at 9 a.m.

It was quite a different scene the first time Schnabel welcomed a guest 30 years ago. KCRW was housed in a cramped basement at an elementary school across the street from the sponsoring college.

The equipment was a makeshift hodgepodge and there was no staff to speak of. And whereas today KCRW is carried on several signals throughout Southern California and has a global reach via its Internet channels, back then the signal faded out around Robertson Boulevard, just a few miles to the east. And the studio was not exactly presentable.

"My first interview was Ravi Shankar," Schnabel, 60, says as the three chat one day recently in a tiny meeting room after Harcourt finishes his show. "I had to scrub down the studio because it was so dusty!"

Shankar, it turns out, is one of the handful of artists who have had on-air sessions with each of the three.

"One of the most amazing moments for me was sitting in there with him three or four years ago with his daughter, Anoushka," Harcourt, 49, says. "I was sitting on the floor cross-legged, just watching him. When you sit with people like him or Willie Nelson, sitting as far away from me as Tom is now, it's amazing."

The "MBE" legacy, though, is mostly tied to the championing of fresh artists and unknown sounds. Schnabel is perhaps best known for opening doors in the U.S. for a wave of world music figures, notably Nigerian Afrobeat stars King Sunny Adé and Fela Kuti and Pakistani Qawwali giant Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Douridas, 44, is famously associated with introducing the world to Beck. And Harcourt is credited with being among the first to put the spotlight on Coldplay and Norah Jones, to name just two.

An illustration of the unique "MBE" approach came on a recent show in which Harcourt made a distinctive segue from "Another Go Around," a frothy Doris Day track from the early '60s, to an equally giddy and romantic song, "Whisper," by new L.A. act A Fine Frenzy (the nom de pop of young L.A. singer-songwriter Alison Sudol). The latter was embraced by Harcourt before the recent release of the act's debut album, and he has booked an in-studio performance for Sept. 11.

"It gives a stamp of approval that is unimpeachable," says Jason Flom, chairman of Capitol Music Group, which has released the A Fine Frenzy album. "People know that you can't do anything to influence Nic, other than have great music that he responds to. It's watched by lots of people throughout the industry."

There are, though, complaints that the spectrum of sounds has narrowed over the years.

"There is that criticism of people who ask is it as eclectic as it used to be," says Keith Caulfield, analyst for Billboard magazine, who follows radio trends. "Some think it conforms to more what commercial radio sounds like. But no, you don't hear much of what they play on commercial stations."

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