Carson Daly during his morning radio show at KAMP-FM 97.1 in Los Angeles. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Carson Daly and Christina Aguilera have some pop history together.
It goes back to when she was a young singer moving up on the charts, thanks in part to appearances on MTV's "Total Request Live," hosted by Daly. Now, a little more than a decade later, they're reunited on NBC's breakout music competition "The Voice" — Daly as the host and Aguilera as one of the judges.
"One of the first days [of shooting 'The Voice'] Christina tweeted out a photo of her and I from the set. One girl wrote me and said, 'I've been waiting for this photo for 10 years,'" Daly recalled. " 'The Voice' just has a lot of that generational timing."
"The Voice," which will crown its first winner on Wednesday after a final performance show on Tuesday, has turned out to be a surprise hit for the suffering network. It premiered as the No. 1 show on its night and became NBC's most highly rated prime-time show in the last five years, averaging just fewer than 13 million viewers per episode.
Daly, 38, first made a name for himself during his stint as host of "TRL" from 1998 to 2002. The show provided a launching pad for such pop jewels as Britney Spears, Eminem, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Aguilera — something neither he, nor his fans, have forgotten.
"It's been really nice being able to join forces yet again, with someone that's been such a familiar face throughout my career," Aguilera wrote in an email. "And so great to connect on a positive project we both believe in so much. Carson's always been very vocal and has been his own 'voice' in music dating back to 'TRL' and now hosting a music show that showcases raw and real talent is a great marriage for him."
Another judge, Adam Levine, recently premiered his band Maroon 5's new single, "Moves Like Jagger," (with a backup vocal by Aguilera) on Daly's morning radio show on KAMP-FM (97.1) before performing it later on "The Voice." Years ago, Daly gave the band its debut TV performance on his NBC late-night talk show "Last Call," something Levine said he's "always been so grateful for."
It's all in a long day's work for Daly, who starts his day in KAMP's Culver City studios, spinning top 40 hits for his highly rated morning drive-time show. Then he drives to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank where he spends much of the day rehearsing and then taping episodes of "The Voice."
His schedule would be longer if "Last Call" wasn't on a summer hiatus. But he is used to the grind. He's been doing this dance between music, TV and radio for a long time.
"Balance has become a really important part of my life. I love music, and I always just wanted to be close to it," Daly said. "If that came doing a huge show like 'The Voice,' great. But if I was a disc jockey in some small town, that would be fine too. The fact that I have all these jobs, it keeps it all in perspective, because I remember what it's like to not have a job."
Daly, who famously left his lofty perch as nighttime DJ at KROQ-FM (106.7) for "TRL," isn't afraid to take risks. He insisted, for example, that "Last Call" move away from the studio to more location shooting and it has helped bolster ratings for the show that was rumored to be nearing the chopping block. The new format increased its viewership by nearly 25% last season, according to NBC.
"I loved the traditional late-night shows, but I never knew what I wanted ["Last Call"] to be," Daly said. "When we went through the writers strike and more recently the Leno-Conan debacle, I really saw my fate hanging in front of my eyes. My budget got cut so much I didn't even know how I could afford to be on the air. Plus I wasn't happy with the show, to be honest, and I was scared of losing it."
"You could look at any late-night show that's ever been on any network and it's had its bumpy moments. They did what any successful late-night show does, and that is to fit the suit to the person who's wearing it," said Rick Ludwin, executive vice president for late night and prime time for NBC. "It was certainly our goal to have Carson be as visible as possible on this network.... He was the perfect choice for 'The Voice.'"
Daly, like the rest of the big-name talents recruited for "The Voice," had reservations about joining the show. Though launching talent isn't unfamiliar territory for him — "Last Call" also provided early breaks for the Killers, Jack Johnson, Ray LaMontagne, Modest Mouse, among others — venturing into the reality competition business was enough to make him flinch.
"I had a preconceived notion with how music was treated on television so the phrase 'musical reality competition series' just registered badly to me,' " Daly admitted. "I came to find out it was a high priority. 'The Voice' crystallized once I saw the Dutch version [of 'The Voice.'] I'm just not going to be on any show that has William Hung on it."
The show took off and Daly and his star judges will be back for another season. The show will also have the coveted post-Super Bowl airing on NBC.
"All of the stars aligned and so many things were firing on the right cylinders," Daly said. "I didn't care who showed up the first day to watch it. I knew it was going to be a hit."
When there was time for a quick break, he checked in on son Jack, who along with Daly's mom and girlfriend, was spending much of the day with him.
The 2-year-old wore a shirt that read "Team Dada." Daly's glad for the support.
"People say to me, 'What do you do, what's your talent? You're just standing there,'" Daly said, laughing. "And I go, 'That's it. I did my job. I made it look easy.' That's my job, to make something that's innately very difficult, look simple. When people look at you, they think they see nothing. But behind that is a machine, with all these little wheels turning."