Waxing Originality: An Interview with Morning Becomes Eclectic Host, Nic Harcourt

I was giddy with excitement to do this interview with Nic Harcourt. I first heard Morning Becomes Eclectic when I did a summer stint in LA in 98. I was blown away by the shows content, and coming from doing Capital Hill Pirate Radio in Denver as well as listening to Boulders Radio 1190, gave me hope that my choice in going for a broadcasting major at the time was a smart move. I even applied to go to school at Santa Monica City College. It was respectable. Of course after some deep thought and consideration I realized that college radio is great college radio because it is run by students and that Nic Harcourt is just one example of brilliance in all the murkiness of the FM dial. Plus, coming to the conclusion that my speaking voice is somnambulistic, which could jeopardize my delusions of becoming the next John Peel or Rodney Bingenheimer, turned me off that particular career path. As is the case with most things, most radio sucks, mostly. Just like most music sucks, mostly. That is until you find something that speaks to you and doesn’t suck. Those little gems do exist and what a wonderful world we live in where you just have to look a little deeper to find them.

nic harcourt

Everybody has an opinion about radio. Personally, I think that commercial radio sucks. It is predictable and boring, and with the ever present censorship from the FCC destroying anything funny or original, it’d be a safe bet to say that you could go from San Diego to Buffalo, NY and hear the exact same morning show or afternoon drive time brain bubbler.

Yeah, for some, the morning radio experience was bearable having Howard Stern to stir the pot and get you laughing, sighing with disgust and pity, or pounding your fist against the wheel screaming, “INDECENT, VILE, REPREHENSIBLE.” Now he’s going to satellite radio where listeners will have to pay for quality programming. Depending on what your perspective of ‘quality’ happens to be. Whatever the case, radio is poison, a giant viper-like marketing tool used by corporations to ‘buy people’ while being heavily monitored by the government.

Luckily, stations like Santa Monica’s non-profit KCRW (89.9 FM), and more specifically the Morning Becomes Eclectic radio series, provide exceptional programming and-gasp-good MUSIC! Music that you won’t hear repeated a million times in the span of an hour. The show’s host, Nic Harcourt, joined KCRW in the spring of 1998 after nearly a decade in Woodstock. NY, where he built a program similar to the one he successfully produces now.

KCRW is a not-for-profit radio station licensed through Santa Monica City College that has the luxury of being autonomous from advertisers whims and a CEO’s stock portfolio. We caught up with Nic Harcourt while on a commute with his two very vocal 2-year-old daughters.

Shane Roeschlein: How do you decide what to play? Do you get an obnoxious amount of submissions from bands?
Nic Harcourt: Morning Becomes Eclectic has evolved over time, and you know, it’s a bit of both. You find bands yourself and then bands send stuff in. We get about 400 CDs a week. We try and go through them as best we can. Obviously, we can’t go through every CD, but you try and listen to snippets from tracks.

Its purely subjective, I do a free-form radio show, and at the end of the day when you do a free form radio show, the host has to want to play it. If I like it and I feel like playing it, I’ll play it. It has to be unique and unlike regular radio.

SR: You’re on the third Morning Becomes Eclectic compilation and there are performances by bands like Radiohead, My Morning Jacket and Paul Weller, to name a few, but most interesting are all of the bands that blew up this year!
NH: Its worth me pointing out that when people look at these compilations and say most of these bands are already known, quite often the acts we’re putting on the CDs of our live sessions were recorded before they were known. The Sounds Eclectic 3 CD has a live cut from Interpol and a cut from Franz Ferdinand, and those bands are huge right now. Those cuts were from their very first radio station sessions.

We draw from the material we already have and some of it is from bands that have broken through already and some of it isn’t.

SR: What do you base your interview criteria on? It seems similar in concept to John Peel and the BBC sessions but in an interview type of setting?
NH: It depends on who they are, you know? If it’s somebody who is really huge, like Coldplay for instance, who I’ve had on the show three times, and the first time I had them on the show was their first live performance in America. It was the first radio appearance in America and their first gig. We had a record of theirs by then and had played it but the audience didn’t really know anything about them. Whenever I have a band on that people don’t know much about then I ask them questions about their background, where they’re from, who their influences are. I figure that my listeners want to know who they are. But if it’s a band that’s a little more popular-and we’ll use Coldplay as an example again-coming back on the show their third time as a multi-platinum artist-you tend to focus on things like what they’ve been up to and maybe how they’re handling fame and success.

Though the majority of the artists we have on the show are artists that don’t get a lot of opportunities to play live radio sessions, or at least they’re at a point in their career where that hasn’t happened for them yet.

SR: Where do you see radio in the next five years, and do you feel commercial radio can get any worse?
NH: Maybe, but I don’t see it getting any better. Commercial radio has finessed its approach to such a point where its sole purpose is to sell products and deliver goods to a specific demographic audience. It comes down to selling beer and donuts and burgers. I don’t see that changing. But the good news is that we now have the Internet.

Stations like the station I work at are finding a whole new audience outside for our cities who are looking on the Web for an alternative to commercial radio.

There is a lot of talk about satellite radio right now. My belief is that the real fun and games start when we can have a truly wireless Internet and you can listen to Internet on a hand-held device or in your car. I think that will democratize the process more.

SR: You obviously have a good barometer of judgment on strong, independent music. A lot of places are adopting your programming model, slapping a new coat of paint on it and calling it original, what’s up with that?
NH: I think that indie rock is hot right now and I think that you’re finding the commercial world is calling itself that now. They call themselves “Independent.” You’ve got stations calling themselves independent, and you have shows like the O.C. that serve a similar purpose, but I think they’re just lifting that from somewhere else, you know what I mean? Those guys aren’t discovering new music; they’re taking it from places like KCRW or Weblogs. It’s all well and good for the O.C. to decide to put the Shins on their programs, but the Shins were getting airplay on non-commercial and college radio five years ago. The O.C. isn’t cutting edge, but I suppose they seem cutting edge for the mainstream.

THANKS NIC!

Morning Becomes Eclectic: Morning Becomes Eclectic is committed to a music experience that celebrates innovation, creativity and diversity by combining progressive pop, world beat, jazz, African, reggae, classical and new music. Recognized nationally as a forum for promoting a wide range of music ahead of the curve, the show has become a very attractive whistle stop for both established and emerging artists from around the world.

KCRW now offers podcasts of some of the live sessions performed by unsigned and independent artists on Morning Becomes Eclectic.

The show is hosted by Nic Harcourt.

For more information, please visit http://www.kcrw.com/show/mb

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