Man Behind the Music

Mapping the Los Angeles cultural genome through the ears of KCRW’s Jason Bentley.

Los Angeles smells like authentic Mexican food and ambition. It’s a bumper-to-bumper drive through an electrified watercolor painting. It feels like sitting ringside at a title fight between optimism and cynicism, and six days a week for the last 24 years—depending on what time of day you tune in to the radio—it sounds like Jason Bentley.

“Sometimes I think that’s a little crazy or a really long time, but the truth is that I haven’t felt restless or unsatisfied,” he says. “The nature of my job is to follow the currents of music and culture. KCRW has been a constant now for most of my life, and it’s helped me realize my true ambition and interest is to be regarded as one of the great curators of Los Angeles. It’s just coming to terms with what that is and what it can be at the highest level.”

Since 2008—when he replaced Nic Harcourt as host of the influential “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program—Jason has served as music director for KCRW. Rewind the tape 20 years, and you would have found him cutting his teeth as a fresh-faced station volunteer the summer after he graduated from high school. After two years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Jason moved back west and enrolled at Loyola Marymount University, eager to tap back into the cultural wavelengths of LA and expand the range of his signal at KXLU, the college’s FM station.

He hasn’t slowed since.

From 1992 until 2008 he hosted the electronic, music-centric “Metropolis” weeknights on KCRW from 7 to 10 p.m. while also broadcasting his “After Hours” mix show on KROQ from midnight to 3 a.m. on Saturdays. He worked A&R at Maverick Records, imparted his style on the tastemaking Quango record label, served as music supervisor for multiple Matrix films and various TV ad campaigns, and was an omnipresent figure behind the decks of many a nightclub, including the Westside’s bossa:nova he cofounded with Quango’s Bruno Guez and George Ghiz.

He’s been a staple in the LA rave scene since its inception and has been affiliated with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival since Day One. Take your pick—any of the names mentioned above are nothing short of SoCal institutions.

“It’s all related to being a culture leader and curator of public programs,” says Jason about his numerous affiliations outside KCRW. “It’s not that I need to fulfill any lack of freedom; these are trusted partners with the same goals, and working with these different entities allows me to extend my interests in different areas.”

Unlike your typical radio personality, Jason looks exactly like he sounds: sharp, stylish, measured. Many DJs can only be as big as the room they broadcast from. They let their tower do the projecting. Jason possesses the skills of an orator, whether he’s delivering to a convention hall of 1,800 or a standing room only crowd of 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl.

His role as music director has aligned him with esteemed organizations like the Annenberg Foundation, the Hammer Museum, the LA Philharmonic and the Natural History Museum. On any given weekend he might host free concerts or art openings or intimate listening sessions that attract all age groups and cultural walks of life.

Only a ceiling fan in a Southern California home works harder in the summertime. The pace is sustainable only because it has to be.

“This work is my complete dedication and focus, and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for it,” Jason admits. “I don’t really have much else. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. Maybe one day I’ll meet the love of my life and have children; that would be awesome. But I’m really focused and very meticulous in my process and serving this mission.”

Amidst all the pledge drives and interviews, Jason does make time to explore outside his own locale. This year alone he traveled to Berlin, Istanbul, Israel and Amsterdam, sponging up inspiration to help add to the eclecticism of your weekday morning commute.

Back home his close ties to Coachella and Insomniac—creators of some of the largest dance music festivals in the world—are constantly exposing him to new movements. While KCRW listeners have long since settled into Jason’s programming penchants, he admits that the fall of 2008 was a mildly trepid time.

“There was panic in the streets,” he jokes about how his promotion to music director was received by people familiar only with “After Hours,” “Metropolis” and his electronic music pedigree. “A lot of people were naysayers, and rightfully so, but the fact that dance culture has been such a defining thing for me doesn’t mean I don’t like folk rock or blues or jazz. I understand my responsibility as music director has a broader definition. I have worked directly and personally with every music director [at KCRW] to date: Tom Schnabel, Chris Douridas, Nic Harcourt. I had an appreciation for what each of them had brought to the table. I’m not going to be them, but I’m sensitive to what their aesthetic was and I try to represent that.”

All the while the search for consistency and excellence continues, and despite his exploration thus far, he’s still discovering pockets of culture he never knew existed … like finding lost pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle hidden between the couch cushions. An invitation to artist/musician Moby’s 50th birthday party gave Jason his first exposure to The Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, an offbeat LA landmark that’s been a rite of passage for area elementary school kids since 1953 but was completely new to Jason.

And that’s the exercise, the meditation. Pursuing culture through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, up and down streets that seem to have no beginning and no end. Discovering artists, eateries and MP3s like sea glass on the beach.

“You never really know when something in the moment becomes historically significant,” he says. “It sort of moves at a glacial pace, but at some point you’re able to look back and say, ‘Wow, we did some pretty remarkable work.’ I just want to serve the community, bring people together and be a part of the bigger story of Los Angeles.”

Written by Rich Thomas