Perhaps the most accurate description of Larry Monroe lurks in what Monroe doesn't know about the moniker for his Phil Music program. Phil Music, one of Monroe's four regular shows on KUT, takes its name from the fictional host for the weekly Thursday program. The running gag is that Phil is out every week doing something more pressing (it's a different excuse every week) and hence is unable to make it to the studio. Monroe stands in to cover for him and uses Phil's excuse as the jumping-off point for the music on the show.
The Phil Music name dates back to Monroe's earliest days at KUT. In 1981, the station still carried the Austin City Council meetings live. When the council went into executive session, Monroe played music to cover the gap, usually about an hour or less, and he would write into the log book "fill music." A Firesign Theater lover and a fan of weird names in general, he looked at the entry and thought to himself, "Hey, that's a person's name." A show was born. When Lee Cooke became mayor, the show grew. With Cooke at the city's helm, the amount of discussion at meetings dropped dramatically. Instead of filling an hour, Monroe was now doing Phil Music from nearly 8pm to midnight. It's been that way ever since.
What Monroe doesn't know is Greek and the translation of the Greek root "philos," which means "to love" or "loving" -- as in "philosophy" (love of wisdom) or "philanthropic" (love of mankind). In a sense, Phil Music isn't just the name of a nonexistent slacker, but rather a description of Monroe himself, a lover of music.
How else to explain Monroe's 17 years with KUT, during which time three of his four shows, Texas Radio on Sunday nights, Blue Monday on Mondays, and Phil Music on Thursdays, have been running for almost the entirety of his tenure? The fourth show, Segway City (Monroe prefers the phonetic "segway" instead of the musical "segue," because he didn't want people calling it "sah-gyu-ee"), which runs overnight Saturdays, is only two years old in its current incarnation, but Monroe has been using the title since long before he came to town.
At a time when commercial radio is enormously profitable and radio stocks are a wonder on Wall Street, public radio still has to go begging for funds to stay on the air. It's radio that allows folks like Monroe incredible freedom at times, but that freedom comes at the expense of a comfortable paycheck. Yet Monroe, a living musical library, does it. And he's a dying breed, a deejay who cares more about what's lasting than what's next, a deejay who can actually craft a set of music.
"It's one of the reasons that I've insisted and persisted in doing it," explains Monroe. "Free-form radio will not die as long as I'm alive, because I will keep doing it if I can get a job doing it. I'm 56, and I've been doing free-form on the radio since 1969. It hasn't been a steady stream, but it's been my focus for all of that time. It wasn't like when I was 40 I decided to do this. It was determined a long time ago."
Monroe actually started in radio when he was only 13. After receiving his broadcasting license, he began announcing local high school basketball games in his home state of Indiana (high school basketball is to Indiana what high school football is to Texas). After graduating from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana with a dual degrees in radio & television and English, he began working as the overnight deejay at a station in Ann Arbor. A year and a half later, he got caught up in a management switch and was fired. Two weeks later, the new manager hired him back. Two months later, he was fired again.
Monroe ended up commuting to Detroit for a slot at WABX, which had been named the best underground station in Billboard magazine the previous year. In order to compensate for money lost in a failed TV venture, however, the station's general manager had to go to a more financially bankable format. So they moved the jazz and blues records down the hall into a separate closet, and in Monroe's words, "put the Alice Cooper records right next to the deejays' faces." Peeved at the turn of events at WABX, Monroe went in for his Sunday night shift and quit on the air.
Returning to Ann Arbor, Monroe got a job as the program director at the same station he had been fired from twice previously. After a year, that station also changed to a more rigid rock format. In Monroe's deejay slot they put a guy who called himself "Larry Rock." The station, whose call letters were WIQB, became known in Ann Arbor as "Why I quit broadcasting," which Monroe did -- for a time, anyway. But after working for a couple of years as part of a child development study team at the University of Michigan, Monroe began scouting out lower latitudes and plotting his return to radio. First, he tried Nashville.
"Fortunately, it was still February and there was some snow on the ground and I realized I wasn't far enough south," he quips.
Following the advice of musician Commander Cody, who on several run-ins around Ann Arbor had told Monroe about Austin and how cool it was, Monroe staked out Central Texas. During a scouting trip to Austin in June,1977, he got a job at KOKE-FM, a radio power during the heyday of the cosmic cowboy movement. With job in hand, Monroe moved his family here on August 5, 1977. The next day, he went down to the station and told them he was fired up to be there. They told him, in turn, that they were fired up to have him and that he started on September 15, the day of a format change to Sterling Country KOKE, home of the country hits.
"And my heart just dropped," recalls Monroe. "My job had disappeared."
In the wake of that minor catastrophe, Monroe bounced around. He landed a volunteer show on KUT, but lost the slot when he opted to attend a Bob Dylan concert and sent a tape to the station in his stead. He was even victimized by a format change a second time; he did the last shift at KHFI before it switched to the short-lived Disco 98. It is by no means unique to be displaced in radio by a format change. It's par for the course. In fact, there have been two such changes in Austin in the last month, but Monroe wasn't just looking for a job in radio, he was looking for a job in radio where he could do his show. On March 1, 1981, he found it -- at KUT.
"One of the things that disturbed me most about the radio I listened to was the randomness of it," says Monroe. "I would be so jarred when an element would change and it just shouldn't be there. What I wanted to figure out was how to make the transitions smooth."
To do that, Monroe began looking for a connection -- lyrically, musically -- between the songs so that one dovetailed perfectly into the next. It was free-form radio in the sense that what got played was not determined by a computer generated format, but neither was it purely random. Better to call it free-form, thematic radio. Monroe played what he wanted, but it was predicated upon making the appropriate segue from song to song.
"I mostly found out that when I got in trouble at radio stations, it was my mouth that got me in trouble," admits Monroe. "It was almost never the records. So, I figured out how to say anything I wanted to say. And in the early days a lot of it was political; it was Vietnam, it was the Chicago Seven, it was Nixon, and it was Watergate. I figured out how to say anything I wanted to say with the records so I wouldn't get in trouble with my mouth."
That's another thing Monroe does, or doesn't do -- talk. He rarely speaks during his stints on the air, usually waiting until the end of an hour to do the back announcements. Instead, he relies on the music to take him where he wants to go, or take him wherever it leads, as Monroe works mostly on the fly. When one song starts, he has about a two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half minute window to figure out what goes next -- to decide what picks up the lyrical thread, or what seems to fit next naturally. Sometimes, he detours from a given trajectory so quickly that he finds himself wondering how he got where he did. Still, it makes for radio that holds your attention in a way that commercial radio can't.
Ask any radio consultant and they will tell you that people use radio for 10 minutes at a time if you can hold them for that long. Yet instead of asking, "What else is on?" Monroe's listeners ask, "What's next?" because rather than pandering to a number and programming to it, Monroe gets his audience involved. He has them not only listening but thinking. Many times a listener, hip to whatever puzzle Monroe is trying to piece together, calls suggesting what to play next only to find out Monroe already had that very song loaded into the CD player, ready for the air.
"People really do consider the radio in many ways more of a friend than a machine," posits Monroe.
Rather than exploit that fact, Monroe respects it. And that may be what really defines Monroe. Part relic, part idyllic throwback to an era barely passed, Monroe has made it his life to be that friend, and play records like one, not like a machine.
"I've never regretted it," says Monroe of his career choice. "I have never one time regretted it. I have suffered from it in some ways, and mostly financially. I wouldn't say I've suffered in any ways others than financially and psychologically dealing with what you have to deal with to live as close to the edge as I had to live for years. I would much rather be full-time, have a house with a library, have a garage.
"But it was the choice I made. I wanted to keep doing radio and do it my way. And once I got into the position where I could do it this way, a lot of the other choices were made for me. I could probably get another job or a supplemental job, but then I wouldn't be able to put the time into the real job."
If only all your friends had that kind of dedication.