National Radio Week: Nic Harcourt & WDST

Interviews, National Radio Week, The Afternoon Show w/ Kevin Cole
08/15/2017
Matthew Howland

As part of KEXP's National Radio Week coverage, on the KEXP Blog we will be spotlighting some of the stories and personal testimonials given by a variety of radio luminaries in interviews done with KEXP DJs John Richards, Kevin Cole, and Morning Show producer Owen Murphy. These interviews articulately explain the enduring legacy of early independent radio stations, as well as the importance of radio to shape and create a community through shared love of music.  In the words of WFNX DJ Kurt St. Thomas, "if you pay enough attention, radio will probably change your life."

Few in radio have achieved the success of Nic Harcourt. Formerly the host of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, Harcourt's music taste influenced much of the popular independent rock landscape in the early 2000s, typified by musicians like Damien Rice, Norah Jones, Adele, Arctic Monkeys, and Sigur Ros. Harcourt heavily supported all of these artists in the foundational stages of their careers. Harcourt, who now DJs for KCSN in Northridge, CA, spoke to KEXP about the station where he started his career, Woodstock, NY's WDST-FM. He also advocated for the increased importance of public, listener-supported radio stations, and described the experience of doing remote broadcasts at a small market commercial radio station. Kevin Cole will pay tribute to WDST on Tuesday, August 15th at 3 PM.

While at WDST, Harcourt acted as DJ and music director from 1990 to 1998. Harcourt described the challenges of working as a music director at a commercial station, and the compromises made to reach a larger audience:

The station was based in Woodstock, broadcasting out of Poughkeepsie. Poughkeepsie was well served by a powerhouse classic rock station called WPDH, which was coincidentally profiled in Spin as “the perfect example of a classic rock station.” So we were up against them and Top 40 and country. Here we were coming out of the Catskill mountains, up a little further, and playing a mix you would call “eclectic” or AAA. Some older music, but putting new music into that mix. So the challenge was trying to find an audience, and a big enough audience as a commercial station, to then go sell advertising. Without someone paying to run commercials, the station doesn’t exist.

One of the challenges within the context of a station with a format is putting together a show which meets both my expectations for passion and discovery, as well as the goals with the station. Any radio station is bigger than one DJ. So I have to figure out a way to put together a mix in the morning which encompasses both of those sides of the equation, while also finding an audience which then tells other people. [There was] not a lot of money around [WDST] for marketing, so it was really about finding an audience and developing an audience. The challenge, then, is putting together a mix which satisfies both sides of what I need to be doing, and at the same time hoping people will find us and like it.

Harcourt described a playlist emblematic of WDST at this time as follows:
It would be some Van Morrison into Pet Shop Boys into something obscure by some band which I don’t remember from the highlands of Scotland. Then into some Elvis Costello, and some newer artists at the time, like Liz Phair and Ani Difranco. It’s hard for me to remember the details of what a typical day would be, but you get the picture. There would be some Beatles and some Dylan, some classic stuff. Whatever was coming out in the early or mid-90s, we would be looking at trying to fold it into the playlist to make a cohesive set that someone wouldn’t want to turn off.
Though Harcourt sounded still skeptical of the commercial radio format, he spoke fondly of the DIY aspects of the business, particularly attempting to recruit local businesses for advertising.
Most of the DJs were the people who would voice commercials. There was something very mom-and-pop about that, like when you’re listening to a station and can hear someone plainly reading the copy that was written by the restaurant that is advertising it. Woodstock is a small town, everybody knows everybody else, so you local business owners would come over and do stuff [at the station].

The thing that came to mind was remotes. This is where DJs go out do an event that is broadcast live on-air, which is usually tied into a client or advertiser. As a DJ, one can make some extra money doing that, maybe fifty dollars, to go hang out at a gas station or an audio/video store.  Keep in mind we never made a lot of money. In small market radio, if it was a warm body and knew how to press the buttons overnight and would work for minimum wage those were the qualifications in those days. So you would do these remotes because you needed some extra money.

I remember once doing this event at a doctor’s office for cholesterol screenings. So I am down there trying to make this sound interesting for the radio, and it is not interesting in any way, shape, or form. I would say, “Well, I just had a blood test done for my cholesterol…” There is something about small market radio that is quaint and fun. I am sure it still exists to some extent, but nowhere near as much as it did.

Ultimately, however, Harcourt ended the conversation by advocating for the voice and community created by a public radio station, as well as the importance of maintaining independent voices on the radio dial.
I feel that there are so few outlets for original art, even in the music business. Whenever you lose an outlet for original voices, whatever that is and whatever media it is, it is a sad day. Our culture becomes more homogenized. When you see radio stations that were doing the business of championing new music for thirty or forty years needing to shut their doors because of the financial situation, it is truly sad.

KEXP is celebrating National Radio Day all week long both online and on the air; click here to see all our coverage on the KEXP Blog.

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