Six months into KUTX, Laurie Gallardo defines more than just the 'Austin Music Minute'
"Yes, ma'am, but I don't see that information posted yet."
Silence. The young woman behind an L-shaped desk in the KUT Public Media Studios lobby at UT's Belo Center for New Media listens to a caller, whose animated tone is audible.
"Was it a man or a woman singing?" asks the genuinely helpful receptionist, who nods at the reply. "Hmmm. Keep checking to see if it appears on the playlist."
For all the talk of SiriusXM and Spotify (see "Nights in White Satin," Aug. 5, 2011), neither clouds nor online streaming services seem to have taken the place of old school localism. The chance to discover homegrown acts entices listeners to stay tuned, or so bets KUT. Over a dozen years, the station underwent an almost complete face-lift after tightening up the programming and repopulating itself with familiar voices from other stations and the past.
Most recently, it bravely – and some feel rashly – spun off its music half into KUTX 98.9FM, leaving the news and talk shows on the long-held KUT 90.5FM. KUTX also took a chance in bringing to the fore voices being groomed on KUT: Programming Director Matt Reilly, and hosts Rick McNulty, David Brown, and Laurie Gallardo. Between them, the latter boasts arguably the highest profile.
Four nights a week Gallardo hosts a three-hour block of programming, 8-11pm, playing a mixed bag of contemporary, indie, and classic rock, with liberal doses of Texana and Austin artists. Especially those local acts, because six times a week, Gallardo's Austin Music Minute tells you who to watch for on the horizon. In between, she'll record announcements or other on-air filler. Gallardo acknowledges the pressure, but stresses the thrill of introducing those tuning in to new wonders.
Just ask the young woman at the front desk, fielding calls for titles three or four times a day.
You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio
If commercial radio, much like print media, remains a dying form of communication, it's also still evolving. Among radio stations in the U.S., but especially in Austin, National Public Radio's KUT 90.5FM has operated on its own terms, or rather, its listeners' terms. In decades past, that meant an emphasis on programming, but it's expanded to include ratings and numbers.
NPR's long been associated with traditional formats, ones that usually included a mix of news shows, cultural commentary, and music programming, often with blocks of jazz, folk, and classical music. And yet, because it largely depends on its fan base for funding, it's beholden to them, or so goes the conventional wisdom. By the Nineties, radio found itself changing fast for a future that was changing even faster.
In the first decade of the new millennium, adjustments implemented by then-new General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt at KUT were already underway. In 2003, Associate General Manager and Director of Broadcast and Content Hawk Mendenhall ran into Laurie Gallardo at a fundraiser, remembered her résumé, and brought her aboard KUT. Not bad for a UT-El Paso graduate who'd done time in public radio learning "to edit reel-to-reel with a razor blade and white china marker."
Gallardo came aboard aware that KUT was changing direction, but not of how much she would be part of the results. Still, the internal conflicts didn't come to a head until 2009, when the hours of popular air hosts Larry Monroe and Paul Ray were cut and replaced. KUT wasn't the only station undergoing changes; Monroe left amid an influx of KGSR refugees including Susan Castle, Matt Reilly, and Kevin Connor, and more recently Jody Denberg and 101X's Trina Quinn.
Public reaction was brutal, one that longtime KUT listeners – "the Armadillo crowd" – saw as hippies being traded out for hipsters. Among criticisms heaped on the new KUTX was its location on the dial and its tower, which sometimes makes reception dodgy in southern Travis County. That's ironic because KDRP grabs listeners there. The upstart radio station from Dripping Springs doesn't have near the numbers of KUTX, but it's perceived as having some of KUT's old integrity, especially with the presence of beloved Larry Monroe.
"This was all very difficult for me," says Gallardo, choosing her words carefully. "I took it very personally, because I look at everyone here with great reverence. I wasn't raised to be a punk-ass who comes strutting in saying, 'I know what I'm doing and you're old.'
"When the whole thing with Larry unfolded, when Matt Reilly came on board, when Kevin got here, it was painful. I admit I was angry. I work with great people, how could it be so nasty? Then I was sad because I didn't understand the hostility, and I saw fear. Typically, people fear change, but I thought that was only in El Paso.
"I did PR and grant-writing for Planned Parenthood in El Paso. I know about backlash."
"But I had no beef with Larry. I loved hearing him nerd out. He's a total geek – how can you not love geek? But he was upset, and I had to walk away from the ire. Some of that anger may have been directed at me because I was the new kid on the block, no matter how long I'd been here at the station."
Listeners Like You
Sitting in one of the several conference rooms that overlook Guadalupe Street, Laurie Gallardo leans back and muses about the last decade at KUT, for which she just received a 10-year plaque in honor. At 42, she has every right to be proud.
No question that Gallardo and Matt Reilly have emerged as the most prominent of the newer hosts developed. They carry the same program load as John Aielli and Jay Trachtenberg, while working alongside station stalwarts Jeff McCord, Michael Crockett, Ed Miller, and Hayes McCauley. They bring knowledge and personal experience to the air, and for Gallardo that means dealing with a minimum of 24 bands a month for Austin Music Minute alone.
"I didn't start the Austin Music Minute; Teresa Ferguson did," Gallardo is quick to acknowledge in referencing the onetime host of KUT's Femme FM. "I learned a lot from her. I inherited it from her, and have a tremendous amount of respect for those who came before me. They paved the way."
Both KUTX and Gallardo depend on her own sharp instincts, honed in the metal and punk clubs of El Paso, when it comes to who gets on the Austin Music Minute. More than one band has found regular airplay after being featured.
"I don't find myself saying 'no' as much as I try to mix up the sounds. I don't have one kind of music featured, so on one hand you'll hear Crooks, then the next day something totally dark like Knifight, and after that maybe Aimee Bobruk. That's my rule of thumb: Mix it up. Don't keep playing the same thing. And it's about local shows, so I can include touring bands."
Being a public personality has had its downside, too. Besides being accused of usurping, Gallardo was arrested for DWI on New Year's Eve 2012, an event overshadowed by John Aielli suffering a heart attack four days later. And to a certain aging demographic of listeners, Gallardo's throaty enthusiasm for indie rock three hours a night just isn't their bag.
"It seems a lot of music critics, like at Pitchfork, just write endless descriptions pouring out of their brains. I admire the passion, but it seems ruthless. I'm not that way, and some guys don't take me seriously because I'm not that way. Fine. Let them not know what to make of me.
"If I ever start feeling overwhelmed, I just remember what I was doing in El Paso and what little we had there."
What You Love
"This is the dream."
Laurie Gallardo glides through the serene, light-filled Studio 1A.
"Everyday I wake up and say, 'Don't complain, Gallardo,' like my mom would say," she laughs as she deliberately pronounces her Spanish last name with the English stress on the Ls.
"'This is not a job,' I tell myself, 'It's what you love.'"
No complaints about these new digs at the KUT Public Media Studios, either. They're a far cry from the days when the on-air booth was a component of the lobby at the old Communications Building across Dean Keeton Street and a maze of offices nestled deep in its bowels.
The rabbit warren effect still exists, but in a more airy, well-lit atmosphere. Gallardo's cubicle sits centrally located on the music side of the spacious studios among the other personalities and staff; the news department resides on the opposite side of the rectangular space. The much-touted Studio 1A is a thing of acoustic beauty.
"I was at my desk and looked up to see Patti Smith," marvels Gallardo. "Though there was a window separating us, I could see her joking around, making everybody laugh. She was having fun, enjoying her life, and it was coming through. Seeing it that close put a lump in my throat, a reminder that everybody's human. This is a place to share that."