Faster Than Sound – Austin Radio: “We Never Stopped or Went Off the Air”
Austin radio stations stay on-air and spirited during COVID-19
By Rachel Rascoe, Fri., May 8, 2020
On Monday morning, KUTX host Susan Castle kicked off her first show back in the station with Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again." After seven weeks broadcasting remotely, three deejays now power the all-music public radio frequency. The no-contact skeleton crew does the work of 15 regular employees at the University of Texas at Austin beacon.
"Yeehaw!" exclaimed Castle on-air. "Here I am – live in person. I've got my mask handy and a gallon of Purell by my side. I hope I remember how to press the buttons."
Taylor Wallace, who shares weekdays with Castle and Jody Denberg, launched her first afternoon show with early Pavement track "Trigger Cut/Wounded-Kite at :17," which repeats, "I'll be coming back today."
At COVID-19's onset, many local stations switched to a remote jukebox shuffle, but broadcasters including KUTX and KOOP are making careful steps back toward the charismatic commentary and custom mixes beloved by noncommercial radio listeners. Alongside safety in the studio, they grapple with a changed industry, like a 40% drop in listenership at KUTX.
Despite the loss of Austinites stuck in traffic, stations reported slight upticks in online listenership. Nationwide, a March study by Nielsen found that some 80% of American adults spend the same or more time with radio as a result of COVID-19. To keep his own show going at community station KOOP, President Art Baker dug an old 4-track recorder and mic out of the back of his closet.
[Full disclosure: The Austin Chronicle hosts a radio show Fridays on KOOP, but it's not currently airing.]
The all-volunteer team behind KOOP hobbled together home-recording setups to prerecord their music and talk shows.
"Some volunteers are working really crazy hours making this happen right now," says Baker. "Plus, everybody is trying to balance their lives on top of this. They're having to be teachers as well as parents as well as deejays."
The station currently broadcasts remotely without any visitors to the North Austin office. KOOP General Manager Federico Pacheco says around 75% of their typical shows are back up and running. He's now working on a plan to reintroduce a few members on-site later this year, pending collaboration with the cooperative station's board of directors.
"It's amazing, the spirit of these people," adds Pacheco. "We never stopped or went off the air. We have been doing our work – just in a different way.
"What we need to find out next is how to use the station in a scaled-back way where everyone feels safe. We have what I call a 'generational cocktail' – some people who want to go back as soon as we can, and other people [who] say we should stay remote."
During the nighttime portion of KOOP's shared 91.7FM frequency, student station KVRX remains on an automated mix without hosts for the foreseeable future. Station Manager Ariel Young says the crew is limited by technical can-do, as well as the team's current preoccupation with finals. Over spring break, after reading plans for UT's shutdown, she quickly realized her upcoming radio show would be her last before graduating.
She blasted the Killers, New Order, and Charli XCX over the station's typically underground-only airwaves – a time-honored tradition for staff seniors. Most others missed out on their rule-breaking final show. Young says the group will still elect a summer staff and continue collaborating on online content outside the FM.
"I want to make sure people can still connect as friends, because KVRX is such a social music org," explains Young. "I made sure that we kept virtually meeting with our staff and deejays. That's what we're doing for our big end-of-year meeting as well – a gigantic Zoom."
Alongside logistics, the pandemic requires a tonal shift in fundraising requests and music selects. Over my weekend listening to KUTX, the late Charles Bradley covering Black Sabbath's "Changes" felt zeitgeist-y. LCD Soundsystem's "North American Scum" read as aptly political.
Program Director Matt Reilly calls many of these projections "happy accidents."
"It's sort of like, if you've ever gone through a breakup, all of a sudden every song is about a breakup," he explains. "A lot of songs just all of a sudden start to fit."
Still, he says the station has agreed to avoid some gloomy titles. For example, they've stopped playing a February track by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit called "Be Afraid."
"We need to maintain our smartass personality, but at the same time be cognizant of where everyone is right now," acknowledges Reilly. "This is a freaky time, and hopefully people are finding us as a resource to get away from the news or screaming children. Maybe it takes your mind off the troubles out there for a little while."
R.I.P. Joe Priesnitz & Ray Hennig
Joe Priesnitz, longtime manager of Eric Johnson, died April 25 following a years-long battle with multiple myeloma. He was 66. Over decades in the music industry, he cared for the careers of Austin icons including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Christopher Cross, Joe Ely, Kelly Willis, and the Gourds.
His first management client, in a partnership that lasted 38 years until Priesnitz's death, guitar hero Johnson wrote on Facebook: "He was a brother and a treasured companion in my life. We had such cherished and wonderful times together, building musical dreams and adventures ... He is an irreplaceable jewel in my heart."
Ray Hennig, 91, owner of onetime reigning music shop Heart of Texas Music, died April 30. He opened the store in Waco before relocating to South Lamar in 1973, where he famously sold SRV his trademark "Number One" Stratocaster, which Christopher Cross had traded in.
According to a 2012 Chronicle article, Hennig told Vaughan, "Damn, Stevie, that's the biggest piece of shit I've ever traded for." After years serving locals like Willie Nelson and Ray Benson, the shop closed in 2012 when South Lamar Plaza redeveloped.
Black Fret donated $25,000 to HAAM, raised during a livestream series held at Scholz Garten. The nonprofit also sped up the release of $250,000 in grants to 19 local acts selected for their annual development program, including Erika Wennerstrom, Superfónicos, and Think No Think.
SIMS Foundation launches a "Sofa Sessions" livestream series to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, promising later appearances by Jamestown Revival and Plain White T's. This weekend packs performances by the Wind & the Wave, Shawn Pander, and Max Frost.
Freddie Gibbs gave a generous endorsement of local beatboxer Ben Buck over Instagram Live. Following Buck's brief performance, the acclaimed Indiana rapper said, "I respect that. You're doing something different, man. You might be the white Rahzel, you never know."