Faster Than Sound: KAZI, "The Voice of Austin," Perseveres for 40 Years
Austin's first-ever community-run station debuts new general manager and KUTX collab
Marion Nickerson wasn't around for the founding of KAZI 88.7FM, but he got there as soon as he could. Just days after the station began transmitting on August 29, 1982, a 24-year-old Nickerson, freshly relocated from his hometown of Amarillo, began volunteering at the new frequency launched to serve Austin's African American community. After a full career in community media, including years in television at Austin Community Access Center, the veteran now returns for a second stint as general manager of KAZI.
"I started sweeping the floors and dusting off the equipment," says Nickerson. "I feel so blessed that I got here on the ground floor, because of the opportunities that opened up. I've retired from everything else I've done, and I'm still at KAZI. I'm still having fun."
He stepped into the role this month, just in time to celebrate KAZI's 40th anniversary. Before the debut of other local noncommercial outlets like KOOP and KVRX, KAZI established the volunteer-run, listener-supported format as Austin's oldest community station. With a schedule heavy in hip-hop, R&B, gospel, and talk shows – alongside specialty blues, jazz, neo-soul, reggae, and oldies on Saturdays – KAZI maintains four decades as "The Voice of Austin." (Search programs by genre at kazifm.org/shows.)
While meeting at their longtime Northeast Austin headquarters earlier this month, morning program The Funk Train played in the background, prerecorded, as Nickerson noted host Tra-C was out shopping for school supplies with her grandchildren.
"It's community-based and socially conscious," adds Nickerson. "It's always experimental in noncommercial radio, because we've got to pay bills, but we don't have to worry about changing our [programming] because of ratings. We've had several R&B-formatted stations come to Austin [over the years], and because they couldn't make money, they changed.
"We're still the same, because people are still listening to us."
This Monday, August 29, KAZI will kick off an on-air anniversary campaign – organized by Pepper Thomas of The Hot Pepper Show – working in memories and fundraising for the future. Nickerson hopes for visits from a few station alumni, which include media figures like KXAN's Quita Culpepper, KUTX's Jay Trachtenberg, and KOOP founder Jim Ellinger, as well as notable DJs like Casanova, 2DQ, and the late Southpaw. Nickerson remembers MC Overlord as a reliable KAZI volunteer before his music took off.
The celebratory week also includes Summer Jam, Saturday, Aug. 27, 6:30pm, on the Long Center Terrace – which marks a new partnership between co-presenting stations KUTX and KAZI. Confucius Jones, half of hosting KUTX show The Breaks, approached KAZI's Keyheira Keys about collaborating on the lineup of Austin hip-hop and R&B artists Geto Gala, Anastasia Hera & the Heroes, Moody Bank$, and Tribe Mafia. Keys, a creative consultant of Northern-Southern Gallery and Six Square, hosts Monday show Keys to the Street and volunteers behind the scenes.
"The biggest needs are resources, funding, and volunteers with different skill sets," says Keys. "The legacy, and the changes that KAZI has been able to withstand, is something to be celebrated, especially in a city with a diminishing Black population. Surviving as a small, independent radio station that was essentially upheaved in the pandemic – it just shows the determination of the people behind it."
Keys brought notable weeknight evening host DJ Hella Yella to the station, joining a number of programming changes made during the yearlong tenure of previous general manager James Q. Davis and program director Abdi "AJ" Jones. Davis became GM last June following Steve Savage, who held the role since 1996. Bringing experience from iHeartMedia, Davis managed to combat drops in listenership and fundraising faced during the pandemic.
Still, shake-ups on the schedule proved controversial with some listeners, particularly the addition of the nationally syndicated Rickey Smiley Morning Show on weekdays. This summer, the KAZI Board voted out Davis, installing Nickerson as his replacement starting August 1. Board Secretary Beverly Shaw told the Chronicle via email: "The Board of Directors felt this change was in the best interest of the station."
Nickerson says Davis introduced a "more hyped format with more danceable, mostly fast music," providing the example that "during the day, our DJs won't play Gregory Porter or Cassandra Wilson, because that's a little too slow for them." The 2021 changes led some hosts to retire. With veteran host J Hunt as the new program director, Nickerson plans to maintain the existing shows while bringing the next generation into available time slots.
"We're not going to make immediate changes," says Nickerson. "We're reevaluating, because some of the DJs may leave or may not. We've been trying to get them to stay, telling them, 'Hey look, this is working.' [Davis] came in and added a stricter structure, which was good, because a lot of the on-air people had become lackadaisical. He came with a corporate mindset, but everybody here was so chill and so relaxed. It was a shock to their system.
"Our only real adjustment will be giving the DJs more freedom to adjust the format as they see fit, because some of them want to play a more medium tone. Hearing fast music all the time is like going to a club, eventually you've got to go outside and rest. In your car, that's just an injection for road rage on I-35."
The station plans to launch podcasts and YouTube content in September, and seeks volunteers for these formats. Nickerson jokes about plans to drink Olde English 800 40 ounces with the other volunteers still on air after 40 years: Da Genie, James Grey, and gospel host Min. Rozann Nichols. They join other legacy DJs like Dinky D, Gregg, and 007 in mostly weekend slots.
"What makes KAZI unique is we still have live DJs," says Nickerson. "Usually on weekends, the seasoned hobbyists come up with their turntables and do their mixes. They set their coffins up, and they go for it. The more time and freedom they have to create, the better product we get."
Keeping Up With Texas Slowcore
Fans of Teethe entered another dimension this week when the little-known Dallas slowcore act received a shout-out from Kendall Jenner. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the Kardashians star said: "I just discovered a band called Teethe and they have a song called 'Tag' that's really beautiful. I love Julia Jacklin and Billie [Eilish] of course." How Jenner discovered a murmury under-100K-plays track by an unsigned Texas act remains unknown, though the model previously spurred suspicions over the concept of culturally savvy celebrity book stylists.
Currently on tour opening for Charlie Martin of Hovvdy, Teethe is comprised of Truman "Boone" Patrello, Grahm Robinson, Madeline Dowd, and locally based Jordan Garrett. Toting Southern-swept single "Lucky," Teethe returns Sept. 30 for an already sold-out gig with Momma at Mohawk. The members also recently played Hotel Vegas as the excellent Dowd-fronted project Crisman, signed to Topshelf Records. Related, Martin recently announced a sans-Teethe Mohawk performance, Sept. 22, on his first-ever solo tour of 2021 record Imaginary People (which features an album cover by Dowd, who makes cool art at madelinecrisman.com).