Living on the Air in Austin

Live Music Flourishes in the Studio

The Pilot Ships on KVRX's Local Live, Sunday, April 5

photograph by Bruce Dye

Six days a week, the business office of University of Texas student radio station KVRX bears a striking resemblance to the "Bullpen" on WKRP in Cincinnati; walls are adorned with promo posters and flyers for shows, old teacher's desks and filing cabinets ring the room's periphery, and a lone water cooler is the only traditional workplace fringe benefit in sight. The small, ratty-carpeted room is the epicenter for most of the station's off-air activity. Student volunteers come and go throughout the day to prepare news reports, plan fundraising events, and do whatever else is necessary to keep the station jumping. On the seventh day, however, this cozy-yet-unassuming office space is somehow transformed into a concert hall of the airwaves. Every Sunday at 10pm, KVRX's Local Live presents a wide variety of artists, both local and national, performing live in the station's business office. Although most of the artists performing on Local Live hail from the local underground rock circuit (Pilot Ships, 1-4-5s, ST-37, Thighmaster, and Silver Scooter, to name a few), the show has featured many non-rock acts such as the Jubilettes, Don Walser, and Kinky Friedman. National acts, such as Railroad Jerk and the Grifters, also drop by to play live while on tour or during South by Southwest.

The hour-long show has come a long way from its October, 1995 beginnings, when last-minute bookings and late starts due to technical problems were common. Today, preparations for Local Live begin around 6:30pm, three and a half hours before airtime.

"We have to convert the production room from a normal production room to the Local Live production room," says Amy Kingsley, who coordinates the show's broadcast each week. "We have to crawl up, get the snake [the bundle of wires connecting the production room to the office] out of the ceiling, and plug everything in. Then, we move all the baffles and all the chairs out, shut the computers down, and turn off the phones and fax machine. Then we get all the mikes and mike stands out."

The evening's musical act is told to arrive at 7pm, but most usually show up around 7:30pm. "After The Simpsons," jokes Angie Edwards, who books the bands appearing on Local Live and acts as the show's announcer. Kingsley's crew of volunteers then helps the artist unload equipment and mikes all their gear before going through a sound check.

"I guess the sound check usually takes around half an hour," says Kingsley, "but then we usually tape a few songs and have the band listen back to them, and the band gives their input on what they want the sound to be like. We pretty much make adjustments until they're happy with it or until they're sick of listening to it. Then we wait until 10pm.

"When they're done playing, we take everything down, set the room back up for business, set the production room back up and go home. It's all over around 11:30pm."

KVRX is just one of a handful of Austin radio stations that have made a significant investment in bringing locally produced, live-in-the-studio performances to the listening public on a regular basis. That investment is reflected in both the frequency of on-air performances and in the release of local CD compilations documenting those performances.

KVRX, for instance, has released two Local Live compilations, including this year's Austin Music Awards sleeve art winner, Late Last Night As I Lay Screaming, and work has already begun on the third collection. Meanwhile, KGSR has put out five acclaimed volumes of its Broadcasts compilation series, four of which have been double-disc sets that retail for the bargain price of $10.71. KLBJ-FM's ninth Local Licks Live CD will be coming out in May, and the station is also planning a compilation of acoustic performances from the Dudley & Bob With Debra morning show to be released this summer. KUT, the university's other radio station, has released three compilations culling performances from the long-running LiveSet program, but they are only available as premiums for listeners who pledge money to the station. A fourth is now being prepared for KUT's fall fundraising drive.

These compilations often feature unique, one-of-a-kind performances by a myriad of artists, and because they have limited pressings and distribution, the discs can quickly become sought-after collector's items. More importantly, perhaps, these types of radio compilations often expose up-and-coming artists to a new audience by including them alongside more established names, while also raising the profile of the radio station itself on both the local and national levels. In addition, proceeds from both KGSR's and KLBJ-FM's compilations go to local charities.

"It's a good way for us to be in touch with these bands, present them to our audience, and also do something good for the community and have the musicians do something good for the community," says Jeff Carrol, KLBJ's Program Director/Operations Manager.

KLBJ-FM donates the proceeds from its Local Licks Live CDs to the Victims of Family Violence Emergency Fund, a local fund designed to provide assistance with housing and living expenses for family violence victims who cannot otherwise find shelter. And at this year's Austin Music Awards, KLBJ's new sister station, KGSR, presented a check for $37,000 from the sales of Broadcasts Volume 5 to the SIMS Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that directs musicians to low-cost professional counseling and therapy.

KGSR Program Director Jody Denberg has had national and local artists playing on the air ever since the station signed earlier this decade. Sarah McLachlan, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, Lou Reed, and Son Volt are just a few of the luminaries whose performances have appeared on the Broadcasts series.

"I had seen other radio stations doing live, in-studio discs," says Denberg. "Once we finally got a DAT player, we started to amass a great collection of tapes. Just going through them, we realized we really had something there. Following the lead of other stations like KBCO in Boulder, Colorado, who had already established a series and had done it for charity, we decided to do it. We thought we could get this music - these really unique versions of familiar songs - out to the public, who often call for them anyway, while raising money for charity at the same time. It was just a win-win situation."

For KGSR, the motivation to make the investment in the airtime, legwork, engineering, and equipment that is necessary to have swell-sounding performances in the studio is more aesthetic than commercial. Although it might be easier to have a performer drop by just to chat and play a few cuts off their latest release, Denberg insists on having all but a few artists play music when they come by the station to promote their album or concert.

"Having an artist in to sit down and talk about his record can be quite boring sometimes unless it's an artist who really is going to demand your attention," says Denberg, who also started KLBJ-FM's Local Licks Live in 1984. "There have been a few that I've been willing to have up to the station without having them play, like a Lindsey Buckingham or someone of that gravity. Other than that, it's just kind of boring. The clichés abound.

"When you have someone performing, then there's actually something of interest there to the listener. So it's an aesthetic concern and an artistic concern, and hopefully it translates into the station being more interesting and more appealing in the commercial sense."

KLBJ-FM's highly rated Dudley & Bob With Debra has featured sporadic in-studio performances from the beginning, but the frequency of live music from mostly local artists has increased significantly in recent months. Jeff Carrol says this is due to the addition of a morning show producer, who can book the bands and the purchase of new equipment to make the artists sound better.

"Their show kind of got away from recorded music about five or six years ago," explains Carrol. "Conversation and phone calls kind of allowed us not to have to play music, so it got away from that for a while. This was a way to incorporate it back in and yet still keep the talk show part going, because they can interact with artists, and listeners can phone in and talk to the artist. It all seemed to fit together pretty well.

"Because we're not playing recorded music, the demographics of the show are such that there's a lot of people who are not normal rock listeners, who can listen to our morning show and be exposed to some of this music in a different kind of setting. For example, Pushmonkey may come in and play acoustic, which might be more palatable to a 40-year-old mom than if they had plugged in."

For KUT, part of the motivation to start LiveSet in February 1984 was the eagerness of all the station's deejays to have artists play live from Studio A in the basement of UT's Communications Building.

"Anybody that's on the air can contribute to this show," says LiveSet engineer Walter Morgan. "They can find somebody and invite them to be on. All of the announcers would like to have live acts on their program from Studio A, but as far as engineering staff, it would be tough to do that across a 24-hour schedule. We thought we would centralize it and have one show that the different programs can feed into."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore performed on the inaugural LiveSet broadcast before the show even had a name. Since then, the show has featured on-air sets from a wide range of acts, including Jerry Jeff Walker, the True Believers, and Powersnatch. One of the show's most notable recent sets came from the Damnations, who used the performance for their acclaimed Live Set CD. Morgan maintains a tape library at KUT containing every one of the almost 600 installments of LiveSet.

As with KVRX's Local Live show, LiveSet tapes on Sundays with performing artists arriving in the studio around 4pm - four hours before the show begins. They set up, do a sound check, have dinner, and return to the studio at 8pm to do the show. The sound quality is often on a par with recording studios, a fact Morgan partially attributes to both Studio A's acoustics and the station's collection of vintage equipment.

"We're blessed with two things in that room," he says. "One is a lot of air in that it has a high ceiling and it's a very large room. It's hard to get good sound if you don't have a lot of air to work with. And we have a good mike cabinet. We have some Legacy mikes that we bought when they were brand new. We never get rid of a microphone once we get it."

When KGSR has an artist on with more than just vocals and guitar, Denberg brings in engineer Bill Johnson, co-producer of the Broadcast CDs. "He will actually do a separate mix for the on-air sound and I don't have to deal with that," says Denberg. "I just have one button that I push the volume up on. He does the mix in another room and then it comes to me. That really simplifies things."

Denberg mixes the guitar/vocal performances himself. "After listening to the last five years of tapes, I have a better idea of how hard I can push the guitars, and where I can go with the vocal levels so I can try and get a good mix, because you're just mixing someone on the fly," he says. "And I've had people like Richard Buckner and Peter Case tell me they thought the performances of their songs on my CDs were better than the ones they got on their own albums, so we must be doing something right there."

Sound quality is one of the reasons why KLBJ-FM decided last year to move Local Licks Live from Pearl's Oyster Bar to a multi-track studio at the Austin School of Music. The show is sent from the studio via ISDN lines back to KLBJ, resulting in a much cleaner, CD-quality sound. Although some of the ribald immediacy that comes with having a jovial club audience in the room is lost, Local Licks Live host Loris Lowe does provide the band with as much of an audience as the studio setting allows.

"We usually have about 20 people in the studio who are invited to the show after winning call-in contests," says Lowe. "We also provide food and beer to the band and audience."

In addition to the Austin School of Music studio, KLBJ-FM also has artists play live in the station's conference studio, which can seat an audience of about 60. The room is also used for town meeting-type broadcasts done by KLBJ-AM.

"When the KLBJ building was built in '87, we built that studio with bands coming in to play in mind," says Carrol. "It was something that radio had done many, many years ago and had gotten away from. The then-general manager Ted Smith had this brainchild of bringing that back to radio, and we're glad he did it. And as all the consolidation goes on - we've obviously merged and we have five radio stations in the building now - we've been very, very fortunate to have leaders in place with the wisdom not to divide that room up and turn it into cubicles."

Although KUT's Studio A isn't set up to hold a substantial audience, Morgan does allow a small group to watch the artists playing on "LiveSet." "We encourage the bands to invite friends and family or whatever to come and sit in the studio with them so they have somebody to play to," he says. "It's always better to have somebody to play to, but they cope with it."

KVRX probably has the most challenging set of circumstances to work with in presenting live acts on the air. The station has made tremendous strides from the days when on-air performances were limited to acoustic acts you could hold a microphone to, but having bands play in the KVRX business office does present some problems.

"It's a pretty limited space," says Kingsley. "A three-piece band will walk in here and say there's a lot of room, but other bands say they can't fit everyone in here. We have a lot of problems with bleed-through. Really loud bands are really hard, because the sound insulation really isn't very good in the production room. If you have a loud band 15 feet away from that room, it's really hard to hear what you're doing, to hear the vocals correctly and everything."

Worse, loud bands also end up having a harder time being able to hear each other. "You know it's going to be bad when they ask for headphones," says Edwards. "That just makes me cringe. If everything's set up and they start asking about the monitors, that's when I start worrying."

Both Morgan and Kingsley say musicians are constantly telling them that it's much more stressful to play on the radio than before a live audience at a club. Playing live in the studio with little or no audience response can drastically alter the performance dynamic to which artists have grown accustomed. The rhythm of song-applause-intro-song is either somewhat mitigated or missing altogether. In a sense, it's like having a traditional case of studio jitters while you're onstage. No wonder it makes some people feel like they're taking the SAT.

"It amazes me how even the most veteran players get nervous playing on the radio," says Morgan. "Everybody gets nervous on the radio, which I think is another thing that makes it sound good. There's an energy there and a certain amount of adrenaline flowing that gives you something.

"I enjoy the mistakes. Listening to records that have been slaved over so that every little drop of mistake is gone is fine. There's a place for that, but I like hearing the mistakes, because the recoveries are usually really good. Something about those mistakes, especially if you're in a live situation, pushes you to go further beyond that. I just think it's more interesting to hear people play live."

Different acts do different things to calm their nerves when playing live on the air, but one of the most interesting tactics came from Foreskin 500.

"When Foreskin 500 played, they got totally naked," laughs KVRX's Edwards. "There are pictures of that in the first CD. They were naked and very smelly."

"I heard that it was hard to get into the room afterwards," adds Kingsley. "People didn't want to go in there."

Compared to the logistics of putting out a compilation with a multitude of artists involved, full-frontal nudity is a cakewalk. For KVRX, just the process of picking songs for their CD compilations is an arduous two- to three-week process.

"The first year, we got a group of five or six people and we listened to all the DATs in the production room, which is tiny," says Edwards. "I guess it was about 50 hours of music. Because there might be a good track on any tape, and to be fair, we listen to all of it. Then we vote on a song off of every single tape. Some of them are so horrible that we can actually just listen to some of it and say no. Then we pick which bands are going to be on it by voting. Everyone disagrees, but after you've been in there so long, you get to where you're just like, `Okay.'"

Getting clearance to use the performances on a disc is another major hurdle, especially if you're doing double-disc sets like KGSR. "It's not just the record labels," says Denberg. "You have to receive clearance from the artist, their management, and their record labels. This year, we hired a full-time person to handle all those clearances for us, because we were dealing with 40 artists, 40 labels, and 40 managements."

Even if all of the people who need to grant their permission live in Austin, getting clearance can still be formidable. "Getting everybody's permission is always hard, because bands change management, go on tour, or leave town," says KLBJ-FM's Lowe. "I've had to track down people in Europe before. It's a lot of work, but it seems to get easier every year."

Nevertheless, radio stations around the country are putting out compilations of in-studio performances. KXLU in Los Angeles has released a number of compilations featuring artists such as Beck and Engine Kid. In addition to airplay on KXLU itself, KLXU Live discs have been added to other station's playlists. Noncommercial pioneer WFMU in East Orange, New Jersey also has a live compilation entitled Live Music From a Dead Campus, a reference to the fact that the college that started the station (Upsala) no longer exists.

On a larger scale, you have the release of live on-air performances "from the vaults" of both radio and television. BMG is busy releasing discs of concerts originally broadcast on the nationally syndicated King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show, while the Peel Sessions series has long been a good way to hear vintage BBC radio performances, and even TV shows such as the Late Show With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and even Ed Sullivan have had their musical segments repackaged for CD after broadcast. The prevalent school of thought on the subject seems to be: If you have it, why not release it?

The continuing endurance of live on-air musical performance recalls the excitement surrounding the earliest days of radio. In the Twenties, music on the radio practically had to be live because direct electronic pickup had not yet been developed. Small groups played in the studio, while big bands and orchestras were picked up via remotes from hotel ballrooms or dance halls. Pre-recorded "platter" music did not truly dominate radio until after World War II.

In the postwar years, Saturday night live music shows such as the "Grand Ole Opry," broadcast over WSM in Nashville, and the "Louisiana Hayride," broadcast over KWKH in Shreveport, were wildly popular and highly influential in breaking artists such as Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley. Meanwhile, B.B. King was deejaying and playing his own live music on the air at WDIA in Memphis. Records may have promulgated rock & roll, but the artists who started it got a lot of their ideas from live music on the radio.

Although the advent of new technologies usurped radio's role as the dominant mode of communication a long time ago, live on-air performances showcase the medium's resilience. The immediacy and wonder of enjoying a concert on the airwaves in the comfort of your living room or car is just a turn of the dial away. Even after all these years, there is still something magical in the ether.

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