Once more unto the beach

Let some sunshine into your life with cutting-edge sounds from California

KCRW www.kcrw.com

Having spent the past few weeks listening to America's National Public Radio on the internet, and getting used to that funny growling gurgle the signal makes when it's "buffering", my radio nose has led me to the California-based speech and music station KCRW. Until recently I had only heard of its long-running breakfast music show Morning Becomes Eclectic, famed for its British presenter, Nic Harcourt - a sort of west coast John Peel - and its live sessions by the great and the good of alternative rock.

Listening to the station, which grew out of the Santa Monica College community radio service, makes you wonder whether it's broadcasting from a giant glass pod from where every one of the DJs can see the beach. If much British radio smells of damp and sounds like heavy cloud cover, KCRW, by comparison, is drunk on sunshine. Its speech content is serious (one of the attractive things about the station is that it gives equal amounts of time to speech, music and 5 Live-style rolling news) but full of spark.

Arts and culture take precedence, the latter adhering to Brian Eno's definition of culture as "everything we don't have to do". I understand now why David Hockney left Bradford for southern California: there's light, there's art, and there's a man called "Dr Cocktail" who'll mix you a drink while chatting eruditely about its name and history. Seriously, there is: Dr Cocktail is otherwise known as Ted Haigh, a Hollywood graphic designer who moonlights on Evan Kleiman's stimulating Good Food show.

Good Food is, in form, style and content, everything that a single-subject radio magazine should be. Kleiman is a warm and engaging presenter who is capable of letting the listener know, without squeaking or sighing, that she finds food intensely pleasurable.

In a single episode, broadcast this past week, Kleiman and her guests covered Spanish delicacies, the seven-course Vietnamese "beef dinner", "crazy-making" food additives, chocolates that have been blessed by Buddhist monks (none more Californian), Chinese New Year feasts, what to do with parsnips, and the aforementioned Dr Cocktail's Valentine's Day casebook. There wasn't a single egg-white omelette or wheatgrass smoothie in earshot.

My lips smacked involuntarily as I imagined the salt crystals that the Catalan chef José Andrés sprinkles on fried piquillo peppers, then I went a bit numb at the thought of an absinthe, gin and grenadine cocktail named Maiden's Blush. Dr Cocktail tried them all first, in service to his listeners, and reported that the latter had turned him into "a whirling dervish" in the hours before airtime. The good doctor was still whirling, by the sound of it.

There were hints of what Radio 4's Food Programme could be, if only it were to shed its dry, cod-liver-oil-necking outlook, during Kleiman's informative interviews with a nutritionist and the food scientist (and chief influence on Heston Blumenthal) Harold McGee. Have you ever heard Sheila Dillon intoning brightly at the end of each show, "I'll let you know who won our copper skillet sweepstakes next week"? Would that she did.

Talking of which, the endless gamut of subscriber drives - you can listen to KCRW for free, but the station would rather you contributed to the communal saucer - and the fundraising competitions and, the uh, "copper skillet sweepstakes" do pall after a while. Being a public service, the station is not actually funded by the federal government, not even its priceless archive of rare vinyl records and CDs.

Some of that music is truly on the cutting edge, but much of the rest is so quintessentially Californian as to sound repetitive and sloth-inducing to anyone not either on the beach or driving towards it in an open-topped Jeep. Harcourt's Morning Becomes Eclectic maintains bossa-nova speed throughout, mixing piping-hot British acts such as Duffy and the Ting Tings with dippy ballads by Jack Johnson, the singing surfer.

But the last word must go to KCRW's Bookworm presenter, Michael Silverblatt, ending his interview with the neurologist Oliver Sacks. "Beautiful. I think I like talking to you more than almost anyone," he cooed, an Angeleno in heaven.

He's not alone there.

Pick of the week

Mark Lamarr’s Redneck Music
Starts 16 February, 8pm, Radio 2
The 1950s throwback goes Appalachian.

The Kremlin and the World
18 February, 8pm, World Service
Tim Whewell starts his investigation of Russia’s “issues”.

21 February, 8.30pm, Radio 4
Frances Stonor Saunders on “Jackanory politics”.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation