You Won't Hear That on Commercial Radio

Morning Edition

Teresa Ferguson on Morning Edition

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

"You've introduced me to the Derailers, Tosca, Steve James, Shirley Dominguez, and Goddess knows how many other talents from all over the world. Who else could celebrate Oprah's court victory with a morning full of cow songs? Or follow up an hour of Greek tunes with a blues tune, "Grease in my gravy, fatback in my greens?" Boston can have stuffy old WGBH; I'm at home here in Aielli Nation."

-- Letter to KUT from Eklektikos fan Scott Baldauf

There are days when opening the mail is flat-out the best job at KUT, the University of Texas at Austin's non-commercial radio station (90.5 FM). It's especially true after pledge drives. Not only do those checks come pouring in -- seasonal tithing from KUT's faithful -- but many come with encouraging notes attached. Keep up the good work. Love the programming. Thanks for being here all these years!

Like any media outlet, KUT gets its share of negative notes -- complaints, cavils, or, as they say, "constructive criticism" -- but the celebration far outweighs the critique, and now and then there's an out-and-out love letter.

Consider the note that came from a group of students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Typed in the raised dots of Braille, with a print translation scribbled in the margins, it thanked John Aielli and staffer Betsy Pilkington for an uncommonly good day. The students had come to KUT for a standard tour of the station, but got much more: While they were touring the 25,000-volume CD library, Aielli invited them into the on-air studio to listen in on the program in progress. Packed into the control room, 10 students and several teachers were feted by standard Eklektikos fare -- if there is such a thing -- before Aielli began taking requests from the gang. "From 'Fur Elise' to Metallica to Garth Brooks," wrote one of the teachers of the set that followed, "you won't hear that on commercial radio."

You won't hear that on commercial radio. It could almost be a slogan down at KUT, which has made a habit of playing songs that are too old-fashioned, too obscure, or just too damn good for commercial radio. And it's not just Eklektikos, either; the whole KUT lineup is impressive, from Soundsight to Femme FM and back again. The accompanying articles profile four of KUT's seasoned veterans -- the station's pillars, if you will -- John Aielli, Paul Ray, Larry Monroe, and Jay Trachtenberg, but they're far from the whole story.

Dan Foster, Ed Miller, and Sue Fawver split slots on Folkways, the Saturday morning pick-n-grin program that enjoys enormous audience support. Louis Harrison's American Pop, 2-4pm, Sundays, is an erudite blend of history and song from the strings-horns-and-a-golden-voice era of popular music, while Teresa Ferguson's Femme FM on Saturday nights features a motley chorus of women's voices from Ma Rainey to the Spice Girls (well, maybe not the Spice Girls). Michael Crockett's Horizontes, Fridays, dances lively with music from Latin America, while Hayes McCauley goes intercontinental with his Friday night World Music party. Add to that the musical shishkabob served up by KUT's regular overnight hosts -- Andy Langer, Jeff Johnston, Paul Kauppila, Mark Rubin, Larry Monroe, Jeff McCord, and 10-year wee-hour veteran Ken McKenzie -- and you've got a program schedule that's nothing short of remarkable, a diverse and dynamic mix that has led many to consider KUT an aural oasis on Austin's FM band.

KUT Disk Jockeys
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

On top of the strum-toot-plink of music programming, there's also a fair amount of jawing on KUT; talk shows run the gamut from old NPR reliables (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk) to the locally produced (Soundsight, Access, In Black America). Latino USA, produced by KUT in partnership with the UT's Center for Mexican-American Studies, is distributed to more than 170 radio stations nationwide. Considering that the standard schema for public radio stations around the country is a tripartite classical/jazz/NPR split, KUT casts a wide net indeed.

And audiences are noticing. Listenership has more than doubled in the past 12 years, growing at twice the rate of Austin's population, and KUT enjoys a healthy market share -- around 4.5% in a crowded market -- good enough to place it in the Austin's top 10. The numbers may not match those of commercial giants like KLBJ or KASE, but for public radio, it's pretty darn good. Nationwide, KUT boasts the largest audience of any public radio station in its market size; over 100,000 people tune in each week.

More than the numbers, though, KUT takes pride in the loyalty of its listeners, who show their support throughout the year and during the semi-annual pledge drives, which attracts roomfuls of volunteers and donation totals that regularly exceed expectations. And this year, KUT returned to its familiar roost atop The Austin Chronicle's "Best of Austin" awards, taking home Readers' Picks for "Best Rush Hour Radio," "Best Evening Radio," and "Best Radio Talk Show Host" (Aielli), and splitting honors with KGSR for overall "Best Radio Station."

Because of John, I have a list of new "friends": Junior Brown, Irma Thomas, Lyle Lovett, and the Cirque du Soleil. The NPR station in Houston was strictly classical, which was enjoyable, but not nearly the fun KUT offers. Living in the small village of Wimberley, it's very traumatic to endure Austin traffic, but as long as my station is set at 90.5, even sitting in bumper to bumper, I'm being entertained, informed, or both. Thanks for many hours of good music and plenty of chuckles. -- Char Moreland

While some reports have a radio station operating on the UT campus as early as 1912, the university's first licensed station got its start in 1921, bearing the call letters 5XY -- changed in 1922 to WCM, and in 1925, to KUT. The station was the brainchild of physics professor Simpson L. Brown, who worked as general manager, technical director, and producer for a programming schedule that included faculty lectures, Longhorn football games, local crop reports, and the hem and haw of the University Symphony. The start-up was short-lived; the first incarnation of KUT ran out of money in 1927 and closed shop, shipping its equipment to the Physics Department for science experiments. In 1929, another station bearing the call letters KUT started up, a commercial station with no relation to the original KUT, which later changed its handle to KNOW.

There wouldn't be another university radio station for 30 years, until 1958, when a reborn KUT signed on the air from a new station at Whitis and 24th, with a 4,100-watt signal and a signal radius of 15 miles. Eklektikos wasn't on yet -- that didn't happen until 1972 -- but the station did pull a wide enough audience to stay on the air. Since that time, the KUT crew has passed a few landmarks: In 1971, KUT became a charter member of National Public Radio (NPR), broadcasting the network's All Things Considered premiere in May; In 1982, the station saw a significant signal upgrade, as KUT began broadcasting with 100,000 watts of power and a signal radius of 97 miles; In 1995, they passed the 100,000 listener mark; and in 1996, they added their first repeater station, KUTX in San Angelo, bringing public radio to that stretch of West Texas for the first time.

Rockin' with KUT
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Just this September, KUT inaugurated Internet broadcasts from its Web site, sending its local programming worldwide over the phone lines. You can now listen to Phil Music in Katmandu, if you can get a linkup. Preliminary evidence suggests listeners are doing just that; during their most recent pledge drive, KUT received donations from former Austinites in 10 states, many of whom wrote that they were thrilled to be hearing their old favorites over the Internet ("I am listening to Eklektikos on my computer as I write you from Baltimore," began one letter). And while KUT doesn't know which visitors to its Web page are listening in and which are just browsing, the site regularly receives hits from such far-flung places as Sweden, Portugal, and New Zealand, with fans in the Netherlands logging on 160 times in one week alone. Aielli even got a request, for something from The Moderns soundtrack, from a loyal listener in Seoul, South Korea.

Greetings from Copenhagen, Denmark. My dear friend John asked me to make a pledge to the Spring fundraiser. I'm pledging 7 Danish Crowns (kronos) for his cause. Sincerely...

-- Erica Goodwin, Copenhagen, Denmark

P.S. Anyone who likes Legos, Hans Christian Andersen, ombudsmen, or Danish Havarti cheese should call in and pledge.

No matter how you slice it, pledge drives are tedious, Legos and ombudsmen notwithstanding. It's hard to imagine that anyone likes the fundraisers -- staff or audience -- and they've surely driven more than one listener to punch the forgotten pre-sets on their car radio, desperately trying to escape the low drone of KUT's open palm.

Yet the grating monotony of the semi-annual pledge drives is a good reminder of how dependable regular KUT programming is, and how much it's missed when it gets interrupted. Which isn't often; KUT spends less than 1% of its yearly programming time soliciting pledges, a number that compares rather favorably with the amount of ad time on commercial stations -- a number routinely around 15% of total air time. Still, fewer than one in 10 of KUT's listeners make pledges, leading station managers to make the familiar plea: There ain't no such thing as free radio.

It does take money to run KUT. Cash dollars. About $1.5 million of them, in fact. Over half of those dollars go into programming and production, with other slices of the budgetary pie heading towards administrative, technical, and fundraising expenses; the rights to KUT's NPR programming alone costs a cool $300,000 a year. The money comes from the university, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, corporate giving, and of course, the generous support of local listeners. How generous? KUT's last pledge drive netted a record $312,000; in the grand scheme of things, KUT's individual donors pay for about a third of the total operating budget. Many donors attach their pledges to the specific shows they want to support.

"Austin is a unique radio market," says KUT general manager Phil Corriveau, a career radio man who came to Austin from Sacramento's KXPR/KXJZ. "Our listeners like to hear locally produced programs, more than any station I've seen." Yet support for local shows isn't monolithic, notes Corriveau. In fact, many of Austin's newer residents lobby for increased NPR programming, eager to hear the shows familiar to them from their old hometowns; witness the sometimes brutal battle between the recently canceled Whaddya Know?, an NPR comedy show, and the locally produced Folkways over a contested hour on Saturday afternoons. (Folkways won.)

While Corriveau acknowledges that it's tough to strike a balance between competing concerns, he says the station is "absolutely" committed to local programming and the heterogeneous hometown mix on which KUT has built its name. Such a taste for home cookin' is not just loyalty to old hands, but smart strategy. Corriveau believes that community programming is the future of public radio; as national programming becomes increasingly available by satellite and over the Internet, carrier stations that don't retain a local flavor will fade to insignificance. Besides, says Corriveau, he has no desire to mess with success.

"The reason KUT is so great is because of the talent we have here, people like John Aielli, Larry Monroe, Paul Ray. Nobody else has that kind of talent in the country. I'm just proud to work here."

As he speaks, a daily dose of Aielli's Eklektikos drifts in through office speakers; this morning's installment has already ranged from Bach to the Beatles to Rufus Wainwright to U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.

You won't hear that on commercial radio.

KUT holds its 40th Anniversary Birthday Bash this Friday at the Austin Music Hall. Morning Edition host Bob Edwards will be the keynote speaker; musical guests include Asleep at the Wheel, Toni Price, and the Austin Lounge Lizards. Tickets are $36 and $25 and are available from Star Tickets (469-SHOW) and at the door. All proceeds benefit KUT.

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