On Monday (Dec. 2), Jason Bentley quietly passed his five-year anniversary as music director of Santa Monica, CA radio station KCRW and host of its flagship show, “Morning Becomes Eclectic” without fanfare or celebration.
“I keep my head down, keep working,” says Bentley, at once amused and indifferent to the milestone.
Through his stewardship of the tastemaking public radio station and a new partnership with NPR Music, the DJ who still thinks of himself as a raver at heart has become the darling of a format traditionally dominated by folk music, thanks in part to the rise of EDM and his own crafty ability to introduce new music to the masses.
Becoming America’s most influential radio DJ isn’t without its challenges. Bentley’s appointment to his current position took a portion of the station’s audience by surprise.
“There was widespread panic when I took the reigns initially. They thought it was going to be electro pop hour,” he explains. “I’m smarter than that and I know that it’s about something bigger than me. I feel like I’m the current custodian of MBE, which has a lot of history. Listeners have grown up with it and I respect that. I’m just the current curator.”
Since its inception in 1979, KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic has served as a cultural touchstone for Southern California’s music fans, popularizing unheard genres of world and folk music and later serving as a launching pad for artists like Fiona Apple, Ben Folds Five, Coldplay and Adele. Previous hosts and music directors, Tom Schnabel, Chris Douridas and Nic Harcourt, have all enjoyed time as indie music kingmakers and later (or concurrently) music supervisors on major film and television projects, among other dealings.
Bentley, 43, began at KCRW fresh out of high school as a phone-volunteer, eventually working his way up the ranks and on the air, hosting his own nightly electronic dance music showcase, Metropolis, starting in 1992, before the first wave of ‘90s electronica had even hit the US. He stepped into his current position in 2008, replacing Harcourt who had spent ten years on the job.
“I’ve come up through this family, this organization,” he explains. “[Listeners] really feel that I’m part of the fabric as opposed to an outsider coming in, trying to change the culture. I feel like me and KCRW are just synonymous.”
It’s the depth of his connection to the station that Bentley says allowed him – a dance music guy – to go where the folk and rock dudes had gone before.
“Moving into the music director role was such an evolution for me,” Bentley says. “I was more geared towards what I do with Metropolis. It was an invitation to open my mind up. A lot of things I never would have given a chance, I’ve genuinely come to like: folk music, blues and jazzy stuff. I’ve realized that when I give something a chance, talented people will pretty much blow you away.”
While Bentley jettisoned Metropolis when he took over MBE, he revived it earlier this year as a weekly program. Now in syndication by NPR Music’s online platform, Metropolis is available beyond the station’s terrestrial reach as an entire show and in a la carte fashion, offering the interviews and mixes as separate pieces. As both an ambassador of dance music and a sanctioned public radio presence, Bentley is able to present an entire genre to an audience that has traditionally resisted new forms of music, particularly ones associated with youth culture.
“Dance music has been a huge part of my life,” Bentley admits. “It is the most significant movement of my generation. There isn’t another genre that’s been as impactful, even as the next generation comes up. As my generation comes into the halls of influence and power, like at NPR, there’s a real interest in that music being represented.”
Morning Becomes Eclectic hasn’t strayed completely from its folk and world roots, but playing Skrillex or Deadmau5 on public radio at 10 a.m. might have been unthinkable before Bentley. And as outside-the-box as it is, it’s something station manager Jennifer Ferro fully supports.
“It’s like people have discovered EDM now,” says Ferro. “Jason is able to split his personality and understand his audience. EDM is like his native language, but he really does shift gears for MBE and he’s totally dedicated to the audience and what that stands for.”
Ferro says Bentley is such a perfectionist that he listens to the playback of his show every night at the gym, looking for ways to improve his craft.
“Nobody does that. It’s so unique,” she says. “You can trust him. He really is down for the cause.”
Since Bentley was appointed to his current position the station has seen steady growth in both its ratings and membership, particularly among listeners aged 25-54 – a coveted and often elusive demographic in public radio.
While stations like Philadelphia’s WXPN and Seattle’s KEXP compare to KCRW in their musical curation, none have the power of amplification of being in the No. 2 radio market, with a listener base full of filmmakers, TV producers, and record label executives. With the popularity of electronic music still growing, the station is in a similar position to where commercial rock station KROQ was 20 years ago in terms of influence. Still, in an age where anyone with Internet access can discover new music, the role of the radio DJ isn’t what it used to be.
“For a while I worked hard at getting us to a point where we were on the same frontline as the music blogs,” Bentley explains. “It took a lot of wrangling with labels and managers for them to think of us not as a radio station but like a tastemaker blog.”
Citing early support for acts like The Alabama Shakes and Phoenix as examples of how the station has cultivated its status as being ahead of the mainstream, Bentley says he feels relaxed about the role he and KCRW play in the industry as tastemakers, even if that requires a nuanced position.
“If something hits a saturation point, I just can’t play it and it’s a bummer,” he says. “Like, Adele. I just can’t play it and I love Adele. She started at KCRW. We [played] her whole first album. She’s been at the station maybe four or five times.”
While the criteria for airplay isn’t always tangible (Phoenix is in; Coldplay is out), it’s often rooted in Bentley’s own instincts about what his audience wants to hear and what the platform of the station can do for a given artist.
“Lorde came out of the box with major label support and tipped to be huge so I was a little bit aloof,” Bentley confesses. “I was like, I don’t know if this needs my help. It’s super catchy; I get it. I sort of dutifully played it, featured her live early on and then she just totally exploded and I don’t really go near it anymore. It’s a case where it felt like it was already good to go, and I was like, there’s no place for us here.”
Beyond KCRW’s base on the campus of Santa Monica College (a new purpose-built station is expected to open near Santa Monica’s media corridor in 2015), Bentley is involved with several film projects, including music supervision for the forthcoming documentary about Electric Daisy Carnival, “Under the Electric Sky.” Working with longtime friend and EDC-founder Pasquale Rotella, Bentley tapped their mutual friend Kaskade to work on the project too. But while sidebars like this appeal to him, Bentley’s primary focus remains on the station, his show and the music.
When asked if he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and bow-out after 10 years in the MBE chair, Bentley isn’t so sure.
“My attitude is as long as I get up in the morning and I’m really happy doing what I do, I’ll be here. If there’s ever a hint of it being tiresome or a drag, then maybe I would reconsider,” he says. “For me it’s a dream job.”