Mixed Signals

Behind the Glass at KUT Radio

The hulking, mono- lithic glass menagerie at the southeast corner of 26th Street and Guadalupe that now houses KUT Radio, Austin City Limits, KLRU-TV, and a righteous number of University of Texas offices, didn't exist in 1964; instead, there was a hamburger stand. The UT football team were the reigning national champs, a Texan from Stonewall was not even a year in the Oval Office, and it was two years before Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower. Still, in '64, Austin was more sophisticated than when it first became the Texas state capital and tumbleweeds were known to flutter up Congress Avenue from time to time. Even then, however, the booming (sub)urban explosion that would hit University, town, and country was a good 15 years in the future.

In keeping with the times, KUT wasn't much of a radio station back then, either. Run on a shoestring budget by an all-student, volunteer crew, the station cranked out 4,100 watts from a 1939 GE transmitter. The effect was somewhat underwhelming. "Our signal on a good day probably went about as far south as Rundberg and as far north as Ben White," says Bill Giorda, KUT General Manager. The spanking-new UT communications complex, including that big glass building, wasn't built until 1970. Before then, KUT shared space with TV station KLRN in the back of Taylor Hall. Traditionally, university radio stations are stuffed into basements, closets, attics -- wherever there's space -- and KUT was no different: The radio station and KLRN had to share Taylor with another, rather important tenant: UT's chemistry department.

The fledgling station didn't even get a line in the budget until 1967, when the University finally forked over $25,000. It barely survived the mid-Sixties, when more and more students in the College of Communications began majoring in television, leaving radio in the lurch. Even after it was made available as an extracurricular activity to any UT student who wanted to work there, the station was off the air more often than it was on -- nobody was around to work during exams, holidays, and summer break, so the station just shut down.

Today, all that has turned around. And then some. For one thing, KUT is on the air 24-7, and there's not a student in sight. Once the station was budgeted, full-time, salaried professionals began to appear and the students quickly fell by the wayside. There would be 20 years of radio silence from UT students -- not that most of them cared -- until the Student Radio Task Force began broadcasting KTSB over cable radio in 1988. The station changed its call letters in 1994, when it became KVRX and split the 91.7 frequency with KOOP. KVRX is still completely staffed, managed, and operated by students.

KUT, now far removed from its origins as a student-volunteer enterprise, boasts 21 full-time staff members and 26 full- and part-time disc jockeys. From its state-of-the-art studios overlooking Hole in the Wall in one direction and The Daily Texan in the other, KUT radio is an industry giant, a nationally recognized paradigm of what many people believe is the essence of listener-supported radio. Instead of adopting a standard public-radio format such as classical, jazz, or public affairs, the station reflects the music of its community, with blues, folk, rock, and country as popular on the station's programming as they are with its audience -- legendary in the public-radio world for its independence, persistence, and generosity. The station, busting 100,000 stereo watts for 14 years now, recently expanded its signal even further, penetrating the San Angelo area this past April Fools' Day; plans are to expand into Waco as well. KUT's budget has grown a little, too -- it's now a whole lot closer to $2 million than $25,000.

Perhaps the biggest change, however, is that after more than three decades at KUT, Bill Giorda is calling it quits. His leaving has brought things to a head, and while everyone connected with the station is wondering what comes next, they also know one thing for sure: When Giorda leaves things will be different. Nobody can say how just yet, but everybody seems to have their own ideas about what they'd like to see happen to the station.

Giorda, who says the main reason behind his retirement is just that it's time to go, has been at the center of KUT's operations for 32 years. While no one will come out and say that they are glad to see him go -- at KUT, they aren't much for grand pronouncements of any kind -- there's a clear sense of anticipation in some of the station's voices. Many KUT staffers feel as if there's been a monkey on their backs for years now, and Giorda's leaving is a way to get it off. The internal workings at KUT are a lot less smooth than that black polished glass they happen behind.

As in any situation where creative, artistic types, and managerial, button-down minds collide, there's been a fair amount of tension at KUT. "Fair" may or may not be an understatement: The situation has been described, at different times, as "war," "chaos," and "very uncom-fortable." How much of that is real and how much is imagined is hard to say; KUT staffers on both sides of the gulf are understandably reluctant to wave their internal laundry in front of the press. Most either wouldn't, asked their name not be used, or insisted their comments be kept off the record. Management wasn't any different. Asked for an interview, one member of the station's management replied, "I don't think it's in the best interest of the station to have a wide variety of people talking to the press without following the proper protocol."

What the jocks have to say is this: after years and years of micromanagement and very little recognition for what they've accomplished, they're just fed up. They're tired of being chastised for not signing the log right or not playing the right underwriting cart or for putting carts they do play in the wrong place. For a long time, they've felt mistreated by KUT management -- though they're careful not to single Giorda out specifically -- and neglected by those who look out for other parts of the station besides what goes out over the air.

"I don't think there was any one thing, just this build-up over a lot of years," says one longtime KUT jock. "Essentially we were totally ignored, and the airstaff just got no respect from management. It just kept going on and on and on. There was always a saying here that you never got praised for anything; the only time you ever heard from them was if you had done something wrong. I did one particular shift for many years, and it could have been a regular show, but over the years I did all these specials and interviews -- stuff I thought surely no one else was doing on the radio. Never once in all that time did I ever get a compliment. After awhile, you go `What's going on?'" Eventually it got to the point, says another longtime jock, where air staff and management don't even look at each other in the halls.

Whatever is going on down there, it's seen from two distinct points of view. Chances are this frigidity the air staff felt coming from management wasn't even frigidity at all. It's just the way Giorda operates. He's a very hands-off, supervisory sort of manager, and delegating management responsibilities to those who, for their own reasons,chose not to give the air staff feedback is almost the exact same thing Giorda did with regards to KUT's programming: Let it be.

Giorda's philosophy with his air staff has been almost totally hands-off, and while that style may have left jocks feeling like they don't have a friend in the world, they are also at total liberty to program whatever music to which they and their listeners respond. To tinker with that would be to mess up an important part of the formula that has made the station so successful. "[Giorda] needs credit for leaving us alone for our programming -- to trust us enough to do it," says Paul Ray, former leader of the Cobras, multiple winner for "Best DJ" in the Chronicle's annual Music Poll, and no fan of KUT's management. "It paid off that he did. He had an idea of what [our shows] were and just left us alone to program them. I'll give him that."

KUT's programming attitude -- unique, eclectic, funky -- dates back to before the station's first on-air fundraiser in 1975 (KUT raised approximately $3,000 that day giving away a bunch of Jascha Haifetz box sets), to the dawning of "Eklektikos" in 1972. Giorda set the show up with Aielli, but then backed off, leaving "Eklektikos" to become the amazing program it is -- and, apparently, setting a pattern for KUT's programming. "I said to John, `As long as we've only got 4,100 watts and we're not stereo, we've got maybe some time and some room to experiment,'" remembers Giorda of the days before a federal grant authorized a new transmitter and cleared the station to broadcast at 100,000 watts.

So Giorda left it at that. Lord knows he had other things on his mind. Giorda is an expansive man, with an expansive view of that 26th Street and Guadalupe corner, who has expansive stories about anything and everything about radio. He'll talk your ear off about the Senate's approving a treaty clearing up any broadcast trouble along the border (and how KUT had to get approval from both the U.S. and Mexican broadcast authorities because of it); the difference between Class A and Class C stations and what a headache it is to switch from one to the other (which, basically, is what it took KUT about its first quarter-century to do); and even the difference between 8-bay and 12-bay antennas. The man knows why you'll be able to pick up KUT better as you're crossing the river on Lamar this Christmas, when the station switches over from a 12-bay antenna to one with only eight. And why does this matter? Giorda's happy to explain.

"If you have a 12-bay antenna," he begins, "and you've got those signals coming off of those 12 bays, and they start hitting hills and they start hitting buildings, a lot of those signals are arriving at somewhat different intervals. You'd be traveling, and as you're traveling, the signals are hitting your antenna in the car at a slightly different rate. What happens is they start canceling each other out, and so that's why you get this sort of interrupted signal and it drives people absolutely nuts. One of the ways that you can do it is simply to have a smaller number of bays."

He loves that stuff. If KUT were a late-night talk show -- and with all the supposed drama coursing through its innards, sometimes it sounds like one -- Giorda would be Freddie De Cordova of the old Tonight Show, the one with Johnny, Ed, and Doc. He'd be the ultimate executive producer, the guy standing just offstage at the monitor: always with an eye on what's happening, but who leaves the talent to sink or soar on their own. And both Giorda and the air staff have been lucky -- the station's fortunes, at least if you measure by listener contributions and ratings numbers, have largely soared since he took over.

It would be like, who's more responsible for the success of the Tonight Show? Johnny, whose brilliant wit and charming manner kept the audience coming back night after night while ingraining his image into America's collective brain, or Freddie, the guy who worked behind the scenes, doing the shit work, dealing with advertisers, the network, and Standards & Practices, pulling everything together and keeping the ship in order so the talent could perform so smoothly? As anyone who watches The Larry Sanders Show or follows Bill Carter's reporting of television shenanigans for The New York Times knows, it's a toss-up as to which job, talent or producer, is more stressful. Giorda's talk about bays, treaties, grants, and effective radiated power may seem like a bunch of mystical radio mumbo-jumbo to layman's ears, but it's truly the man's bread and butter. Giorda, more than anyone else, has had to wade through stacks and stacks of paperwork, dealing with all kinds of radio business, just about as long as he's been there.

Lest anyone think these tales of paperwork nightmares and eight-year waits for permits are just modern-day bogeyman stories about the evils of bureaucracy, Giorda is a one-man testament to the fact that, yes, they do happen, and yes, the amount of red tape involved is indeed prodigious. In one shining example, FCC rules, dictated by the number of stations in a market and the market's proximity to Mexico, classified KUT as a Class A station, one that could not broadcast over 5,000 watts or have an antenna higher than 300 feet. KUT and Giorda, sensing immediately the limitations of such a setup, wasted no time in trying to get their status changed. The station applied for a change to Class C status (that's 100,000 watts and a 1,200-foot antenna) with the FCC around 1972; the change was not approved until 1980. Then, KUT couldn't do anything for another year, because the paperwork for a grant it was trying to secure to buy a new transmitter and antenna got lost in the bureaucratic ballet. "The FCC moves kind of like molasses going uphill on a cold day," says Giorda, and that's still probably an understatement.

What's more, there's the two-step Giorda has to do anytime he even thinks about applying for money from ol' Uncle Sam. KUT was one of the 60 or so original stations to be awarded a community service grant back in the late Sixties and early Seventies; he ticks off a list of five or so criteria the station had to meet to get the grant like some people list stuff they need at H.E.B. Throw in NPR and the fight in Washington to give public radio any money at all, and you've got one hell of a busy man. It took two weeks for Giorda to sit down with the Chronicle, simply because he was in Washington reviewing grant applications from public radio stations nationwide.

As general manager of one of the most successful public radio stations in America, Giorda also gets a front-row seat every time Congress starts wrangling out how much money to give public broadcasting. This year, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets a whopping one-sixtieth of one percent of the $1.5 trillion federal budget, a check that comes to barely $250 million, or about one dollar a year for every man, woman, and Yankee in the country. Now the government wants to cut even that out, and it's up to men like Giorda to convince them not to. So, if Giorda has let the folks that work for him go and do as they please, come what may, it's probably because he's had other things to do.

The air staff member who comes closest to empathizing with Giorda is Jay Trachtenberg. Trachtenberg is the jock most likely to be up to his nose in paperwork, something all KUT jocks seem to fear like Ebola. He was recently made Air Staff Manager, a point man for the air staff to go to with complaints and questions, who then brings them up in meetings with management. (Trachtenberg's fellow jocks laud his performance as ASM, and say the longtime chill finally shows signs of thawing.) The position seems to have taught Trachtenberg a little about what goes on in the world outside the control room -- mainly, that it ain't pretty, and maybe the air staff is actually lucky being disc jockeys instead of desk jockeys.

"You can't be within the bureaucracy without becoming another bureaucracy," says Trachtenberg. "Not only do you have basic FCC things you have to deal with, you have to deal with an unbelievably restrictive and oppressive bureaucracy. That's just part of being at UT. Granted, that's one area the air staff never had a good appreciation for, of how much red tape and shit there is that [management] have to deal with."

If that prodigious mass of paperwork and bureaucracy has caused a chill in the jocks' relationship with management, it hasn't mattered one iota in the one relationship that may count above all others -- the relationship between the air staff and its audience. If anything, the loyalty of KUT's listeners helps the station sidestep some of that evil paperwork; because of its listeners' generosity, KUT faces the possible upcoming budget-slashing in a better position than a lot of public broadcasting stations. The massive amount of financial support KUT receives from its listeners -- more than half the station's nearly $2 million budget -- will make any broadcasting cuts sting a lot less in Austin than they will elsewhere.

Good thing, because budget cuts, both at the federal and university level, aren't the only uncertainties KUT faces as Giorda steps down. The station is re-evaluating a lot of things right now, including its air staff/management relationship, its relationship with UT College of Communications Dean Ellen Wartella -- herself a relative newcomer upon whose shoulders the burden of finding Giorda's replacement sits -- and even some of its programming ideas.

But if KUT changes now, a lot of people who have nothing -- and everything -- to do with how the station is run are doubtless going to be upset. These people are the listeners, who when it comes down to it are KUT's backbone. They like the station the way it is, regardless of who's in charge. One reason the listeners seem to get on so well with the air staff is because they both love the music. That's it. KUT stands as a reminder that yes, it's still possible, even if they do play too much jazz, to hear great music on the radio on a regular basis. KUT seems to be a model of dysfunction turned inward on itself so that in some weird, cosmic way, it just works. "If you draw a bee out as a blueprint, it's not supposed to fly," says Dana Whitehair, the station's Manager of Technical Operations. "If you looked at KUT's programming, and tried it any place else, it wouldn't work."

That, in a nutshell, is why the station has come so far: Its jocks play music its listeners want to hear (and in some cases can't live without), and the listeners respond by keeping the jocks and their programs on the air via contributions and pledges. Everything else is secondary, really. The sum total of the station's operations is to make money, and to do that, the listeners have to be happy. Giorda has overseen this process for 32 years now while keeping out of the way of the air staff and taking care of the details. Soon, this will all be somebody else's job.

Bill Giorda's last day is scheduled to be August 31. He estimates, though, that the search for a successor will keep him as acting General Manager until mid-October, early November at the latest. As he walks out the door, some people may be a-grinnin', and maybe some daring soul will break out the Wizard of Oz cast album and spin "Ding, Dong, The Wicked Witch is Dead." Before they do that, though, they might want to consider where the station has come over the last 32 years, and if they don't thank Giorda, they should at least acknowledge him.

When his successor comes in, things will be different. Nobody knows what to expect. KUT's got a pretty good thing going now; almost everyone agrees the best thing that could happen to the station is that hardly anything change. But general managers are notoriously unpredictable. The next one may not be like Giorda at all. Maybe he'll be a hands-on type of guy, who insists on signing off on all the programming and personally approving each deejay's playlist. Maybe the changes will work and the station will become even more brilliant than it is now. Or maybe they won't. n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Christopher Gray
Margaret Moser Tribute: Alvin Crow
Alvin Crow
Summer camp with the kids

June 30, 2017

Margaret Moser Tribute: The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones
That Margaret Moser, she’s a rainbow

June 30, 2017

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle