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KCRW's Jason Bentley wakes to a new day

November 29, 2008 | 11:49 am

On weeknights, as Jason Bentley sits in KCRW's basement studios, building a city of the mind out of music, he often gets feedback from listeners tuning in around Southern California and across the globe. Some are artists engaged in their own solitary labors. Others are weary night-shift workers and jazzed-up club kids, floating down the freeways on a river of sound. A few are restless souls on the other side of the world, where the sun has already risen, firing off electronic messages in bottles from Shanghai, Guam, Europe.

Most are strangers, tapping out communiqués on their iPhones and laptops, but a number are friends and colleagues who say that "Metropolis," Bentley's popular show of electronica, dance music and whatever else he decides to stir into the mix, has remapped their aural horizons. "He doesn't like this part, but sometimes when I'm driving at night I'll text-message him because I'll be literally dancing in my car," says Johanna Rees, who programs special concerts and presentations for the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Then there are the lovers, making after-dark confessions to the smooth-voiced man behind the mike. "For some reason, people like to tell me that they've had some sexual encounter," Bentley says. "They're like, 'Dude! We just had sex in the back of my car to that last set!' "

Bentley laughs. "Music is powerful stuff. People are looking for inspiration, and that really makes me happy because that's what I'm trying to do, is inspire by music and be inspired by music."

For the last 16 years, Bentley, 38, has been delivering countless hours' worth of syncopated uplift via KCRW's Santa Monica-based signal (FM 89.9). With "Metropolis," a beat-rich concoction heavily influenced by his long tenure spinning records in clubs, he has constructed a soundscape that resembles the L.A. evening skyline: angular, futuristic and pulsing with nocturnal energy. On those occasions when the tempos all come together and the moods segue seamlessly, listeners might feel that, stepping into the night air, they've become characters in some ultra-chilled-out 21st century film noir.

He has come a long way with the station since joining as a phone volunteer in the summer of 1988. But soon Bentley will face a new challenge. This month, KCRW announced that on Dec. 1 he would be its new music director and host of the station's signature "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program, succeeding Nic Harcourt.

Bentley acknowledges that his new daytime slot will require him to rethink his playlists and redefine his on-air persona a bit.

"There's more of an edge and an attitude [at night], whereas in the morning I feel like the soundtrack needs to be a little more up and optimistic and inspiring," he says. "It's a little bit of an opportunity to come out from behind that atmosphere and that persona of the night time. And that's what I've got to do, maybe, is be a little more open and more vulnerable with people I don't know. It's a little scary."

Not that Bentley hasn't had to win over audiences before. As a DJ, he says, "you've got to face a lot of hostile crowds, you have to face a lot of empty dance floors."

He remembers what it was like trying to warm up a massive throng impatiently waiting to hear Rage Against the Machine. "Thirty-thousand people chanting 'Rage!' to the rhythm of my records, and they were ready for me to go away." Or when he finally broke through the background chatter to connect with the Oscar-night glitterati at this year's Governors Ball by playing an Edith Piaf song as an homage to the film “La Vie en Rose.”

"There have been a lot of challenges where I just have to find the right song," he says. "Music has always been my armor, and it's going to be my armor again, as of Dec. 1."

His professional peers agree that Bentley is combat-tested when it comes to braving the thickets of new music constantly sprouting across major and indie record labels, YouTube, MP3 file attachments and music sharing services.

"I think he's fearless," says Jason Gaulton, coordinator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Muse program, which develops auxiliary programming aimed at young and early-middle-aged art enthusiasts. "He's more concerned with the roots of music than fitting into any genre."

Bentley's passion for discovering compelling new sounds is inseparable from his lifelong ardor for contemporary urban life in all its chaotic grandeur. It took hold while he was growing up in Boston's funky Jamaica Plain district, a cosmopolitan, mixed-ethnic enclave. In those days, one could pass through an Italian, African American and Latino neighborhood just by walking a few blocks. Thoughts and dreams took shape to the clanky rhythms of the local T subway system.

On weekends, Bentley would accompany his social-worker father, a music enthusiast, on treasure hunts through local record-store bins. And he'd hone his announcer's chops in the make-believe rock radio station that he rigged up in the family basement. "I was 'Jive Jason,' but I'm sure I will regret telling you that."

The family moved to Santa Monica when Bentley was 13 (and had flunked out of the elite Boston Latin college prep school). Slowly at first, he began transferring his urban sensibility from Jamaica Plain to Los Angeles. College radio stints at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Loyola Marymount helped give birth to his appreciation for world music and electronica. "Fundamental to the electronic scene is what's the next sound, what's the next frontier. It's just part of that head space," he says. "When that's the motivation, I think there's really a purity and an excitement to what's going on."

While all the cool kids who were DJ-ing wanted to play punk and hip-hop, Bentley was laying down Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour, imitating such KCRW predecessor-role models as Tom Schnabel. By 1992, he was on-air himself.

As music director, Bentley hopes to bring even more attention to KCRW's DJs, several of whom, like him, have other gigs music-directing film soundtracks and serving as programming advisors at various live-music venues. He's looking forward to "working with individual DJs to help them be the best that they can be, to be their harshest critic and their biggest cheerleader."

And he's looking forward to spending more evenings with his wife, an interior designer.

In the end, he says, KCRW rises or falls on the generous input, both financial and creative, of its subscribers, people willing to pay for the privilege of having a radio station that plays Moby, Iggy Pop, A.R. Rahman ("the Mozart of Mumbai") and School of Seven Bells all in a single three-hour block.

Serving such an audience is a wonderful and humbling experience, Bentley says, and he wants to be worthy of it.

"Believe me, we're an endangered species. There's not a lot of stations out there like this."

--Reed Johnson

Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times