Same Old Song

Spinning More Than Records at KUT

This much is a certainty: Phil Corriveau is out as the general manager of KUT, the University of Texas-owned public radio station. Why he is out depends on whom you ask. And the harder part is trying to separate fact from spin, rumor, and speculation.

The July 8 edition of Dale Smith's radio column in the Austin American-Statesman's XLent. section unquestioningly printed the official version: that Corriveau and UT had disagreements over budget, and Corriveau's firing (or "non-renewal of contract," if you prefer both Corriveau's and UT's language) was "a friendly parting of the ways." This version was later repeated to the Chronicle by Corriveau and Ellen Wartella, the dean of UT's College of Communications and the person who made the decision not to renew Corriveau's contract.

However, staffers who would talk to the Chronicle -- including people who claim to really like Corriveau -- said the Statesman's version of the events was, to quote one source, "bullshit," and that he lost his job due to insurmountable personal problems.

The most confident declaration came from one staffer who said, "Phil was well-liked by almost everyone on staff, but contrary to what was reported, Phil had a lot more problems jousting with his personal demons than he ever had battling with the university bureaucracy."

Asked what might cause even friendly former subordinates to say such things, Corriveau said, "I really don't know. I did take a six-week leave of absence last year, and I suppose there could be some speculation about that, but it was to work on some personal projects. I had to take a break. I was burned out."

Wartella would only say, "I can't comment on any of that" when questioned about the allegations.

Corriveau says he is currently preparing résumés for other radio management jobs, including ones for stations in Minneapolis and Lexington, Ky. Wartella, meanwhile, has stepped in to serve as acting general manager.

Regardless of which version one believes, however, it doesn't really shed much light on the future of KUT, which itself has been the subject of much speculation. Some observers fear that the demographic and population changes which are currently turning Austin into Anycity, USA, could have the same effect on UT's NPR affiliate. The concern among both programmers and longtime listeners is that many newcomers to the area, the same people who gravitate toward the Starbucks rather than the Quackenbushes, don't care about the excellent local programming that has distinguished KUT among its peers and instead would rather hear the same syndicated NPR programming that they heard in their previous locale.

Wartella may have only inflamed such fears by telling the Statesman that she wants "someone who will move the station in new directions" and that Corriveau's replacement should have a "vision of the future."

Former KUT Station Manager Phil Corriveau photograph by John Anderson

Former KUT Station Manager Phil Corriveau
photograph by John Anderson

Asked to elaborate, Wartella told the Chronicle she didn't want to go into it into great detail, but "I don't want to change anything radically. As long as I've been dean," she said, "there has been a discussion of what is the right mix [of syndicated and local programming], and none of it has been resolved in six years of my being here. ... I'm not going to tell you there isn't discussion of more NPR, but that's an ongoing discussion. I don't want to change too much. I have a great respect for KUT and its staff."

A central Wartella idea that might actually be a positive change is the introduction of a local news show at the station. As long as it doesn't result in substantial cutbacks to KUT's excellent music programming, it's an idea that would fill a huge void in Austin radio -- currently, KLBJ-AM is the only station with regular news programming, but doing a mediocre job at it -- and any alternative to Austin's television news is welcome.

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Lee Nicholskoop, Jim Ellinger, Hannah Riddering, Zakes, Chamkis, Kut, Phil Corriveau, Ellen Wartella>,

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