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KCRW's Jason Bentley: 'Being a Tastemaker Is Something I Take Very Seriously' (Q&A)

"Shazam actually calls us all the time to ID songs," says the 20-year radio veteran and station music director.

Andrew Bird and Jason Bentley
Mark Leibowitz
From left: indie artist Andrew Bird and KCRW's Jason Bentley.

Even after 20 triumphant years on the air, KCRW Music Director Jason Bentley, the host of L.A. indie institution “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” has one recurring fear: “That someone will burst into the studio, kick the door open and tell me what to play, yelling, ‘You can’t do this!’” That’s rather unlikely because the 42-year-old music aficionado and certified crossover hit-maker can, and does, play anything he wants.

And what he plays often winds up in the national firmament: Adele, Gotye, Jack White, The Black Keys, Beck, Wilco, Coldplay, Gary Clark Jr., Michael Kiwanuka, Alabama Shakes, The National, Phoenix ... It’s hard to think of any singer-songwriter or indie act that didn’t get airplay -- or play live -- from the station’s Santa Monica College studios. “I guess I’ve been pretty successful at going rogue,” he says with a modest laugh. “Shazam actually calls us all the time to ID songs.”

With all his credits -- spinning this year at Coachella, going live from Sundance (where he interviewed indie artist-turned-film scorer Andrew Bird and hosted a KCRW concert series), presenting major acts at the Hollywood Bowl, DJing the Governors Ball at the Oscars -- Bentley could be arrogant but that would clash with his passion for music. “Being what people call a tastemaker is something I take very seriously,” he says. “I love what I do. It’s not about me -- it’s something much bigger we’ve created in a community that was willing to embrace it.”

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His picks for the next big things? Frightened Rabbit from Scotland, singer-songwriter Jake Bugg (“Justin Bieber combined with Liam Gallagher”), Tom O’Dell (“Chris Martin-ish”) and Toro y Moi (“a Filipino kid from South Carolina -- funky, fresh and super sexy”). Says Bentley: “You’re always just trying to create something of meaning for people.”

The Hollywood Reporter: What was it like during your early days at KCRW?

Jason Bentley: Our station General Manager was Ruth Seymour and she was a fierce defender of the arts and free speech. We only this past year installed a "drop button" -- a delay that works as an insurance policy so you're not fined for foul language on the part of guests. Ruth didn't believe in that! KCRW was more in the pocket of NPR back then, our audience was mostly Westside intellectuals. It's now become this glowing beacon for everyone. I was initially drawn to the station by Tom Schnabel's world music taste, and by the radio drama of Joe Frank -- he was doing stuff I'd never heard before: His show was like eavesdropping on a private conversation but with a lot of dark humor. I was very flattered when he'd drop into to the studio when I was doing my show to find out about some weird electronic music I was spinning.

THR: You were such an early champion of underground electronic dance music. Today, it's so popular, it's almost mainstream.

Bentley: I worked as a champion of that scene -- it was my defining youth culture, my punk rock, my British invasion. It's part of my musical personality, I still work in it. It's become infused in alternative music; it's not a separate thing anymore. I went out a couple of weekends ago to some college bars -- there's a hip new slower house style. That's what's cool now: Aeroplane, Cosmic Kids, Penguin Prison, Flight Facilities -- it's young and fresh, and it's their music. And I'm used to knowing more than anybody else. This scene blew me away!

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THR: How do you adjust to new sounds?

Bentley: I'm still sort of the same obsessive music fan I was as a teenager -- I still have that bright-eyed enthusiasm. I'm always listening to what's next. I change my ear quite well, looking for new labels, new producers. I have the passion to be in that mindset all the time!

THR: To what do you attribute your longevity at KCRW?

Bentley: I feel privileged to has a sense of purpose in this community. It sustains me -- and I don't question it. I never get tired or bored of going to work. If anything, I hit a level of exhaustion to do everything I want to do -- to fit it all in. I'm pretty meticulous, though. I don't take on anything that doesn't matter to me.

THR: You guys have broken so many artists, it's almost ridiculous. But there was a time when people like Adele and Alabama Shakes and Jack White didn't get Grammy nominations.

Bentley: The fact that people start with us has become rote. An artist's first live performance in the States is almost always with us now. But some of these acts are so big now -- Adele, Phoenix, Silversun Pickups -- it's almost hard for us to play them now. But yeah, we helped break Beck, Wilco, even fun. . . . And now the big stations are playing most of these artists. The rise of the music festival has made all formats available everywhere.

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