Getting on the KUTting Edge
Austin NPR affiliate's lofty goals aim well beyond the status quo
Last year, a new nine-member "Leadership Council" handpicked by KUT-FM station general manager J. Stewart Vanderwilt began "serious" discussions about the future of the station, Austin's primary public broadcasting outlet. Every aspect of the station has been on the table for review, from the future of KUT's revered music programming to renegotiating the relationship with the University of Texas, its bureaucratic parent, as Vanderwilt moves forward with ambitious plans to re-create the station for the modern media world.
A few weeks ago, KUT management made its first major move toward turning those discussions into reality, by forming a nonprofit entity, Austin Public Radio, with members of the Leadership Council serving as the initial board of directors. Although nothing more than paper at this point, behind the scenes the new entity is expected to play a key role in a possible financial restructuring of the station. At the very least, it will likely serve as an apparatus for a future capital fundraising campaign the first of its kind in the station's history with a new building a high priority.
"KUT has been really successful at the standard fundraising elements of public radio," Vanderwilt said. "But our aspirations of the station and its service to the community go beyond status quo."
Vanderwilt is eager to invest in new technologies, reshaping the station into what he likes to call a "public-service-driven media company." Some form of independence from UT is also on the agenda. "We're at this point where we see what KUT can become and now we're trying to sort out what we need to do," said Vanderwilt, who terms the effort in its "adolescence." There is still no specific plan for a capital campaign, but he says he feels an urgency to move ahead. "If we were operating in status quo mode, we'd see the slow demise of public radio ... and KUT," he said.
Vanderwilt, 43, is clearly struggling with the constraints of the status quo, what he calls "a single-channel service." He talks about buying new stations and alternative forms of distribution in a steady patter, emphasizing that KUT can establish itself as a truly essential part of the Austin community, far beyond its current role. "We feel it our obligation to reach a larger audience," said Vanderwilt, whose picture takes up a full page in the station's annual report. He is shown standing on the dock of the Austin Rowing Club, feet apart, gazing toward the horizon, looking visionary.
Vanderwilt's ambitious goals will surprise no one familiar with his career. He took the reins at KUT five years ago, after 15 years with WBST, the public broadcasting station in Delaware County, Indiana. His level of success there depends on whom you ask. During his tenure he was widely praised for spearheading the growth of Indiana Public Radio, an aggressive plan to buy four new signals and expand the reach of public broadcasting into new communities. But after he left, in an unusual public rebuke, his successor wrote that the plan had not met expectations, and had forced the organization into a financial "retrenching." "The financial reserves are now gone. Several staff positions have not been filled," new General Manager Anthony Hunt wrote in the station's annual report. ("We secured those frequencies for public service which will have long-term value," Vanderwilt countered.)
Since arriving in Austin, Vanderwilt has been slowly trying to update and modernize the station. In 2002 he launched a news department, widely recognized as a major step forward in bringing KUT to the level of top PBS stations around the country. He's also renowned as a fundraising machine; corporate support from the station has skyrocketed from about $900,000 in 2000 to $2.1 million in 2005. The station's average weekly audience has more than doubled, and several people contacted for this story noted that KUT is far more "professional" than in the past.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Vanderwilt has often butted heads with the station's old guard, including the famously undisciplined and much-beloved music programming department, which provides the bulk of the station's local on-air presence. Last year, for the first time, the station used focus groups to evaluate KUT's music offerings, the type of effort usually associated with commercial stations. Disc jockeys, renowned for their independence including Eklektikos host John Aielli have been asked to focus more on "core artists."
"John is free to follow his muse," said Jeff McCord, who assumed the newly created position of music director in 2001. "We do ask him to keep in mind the core artists and explore new music more than in the past. But beyond that John is John." The station is simply trying to be "more purposeful about what we're playing," McCord said.
At the same time, it's no secret that Vanderwilt is eager to expand the station's news and public affairs programming, the staple of public broadcasting stations around the country. "We need to find a way to develop KUT's journalistic voice," he said. But there is only so much time in the day, and music now rules KUT in several key time slots, particularly from 9am-3pm every weekday, as well as 8pm-2:30am every weeknight.
"We see both [music and news] as playing an essential role in this community," Vanderwilt said. "We're constantly talking about what is the proper balance."
One possible solution on the horizon to what Vanderwilt dubs a "Sophie's Choice" between news and music is the much-anticipated advent of high definition radio. The new technology will allow stations to broadcast more than one digital channel on their current frequencies, allowing a station like KUT to offer a variety of programming simultaneously. With the help of grant money, KUT has been investing heavily in high definition equipment.
Vanderwilt is also pumping money into other new technologies gaining a foothold with the public such as podcasting offering the community different ways to access content. In July, Vanderwilt hired NPR.org veteran Richard Dean to launch a new "channels" department, specifically charged with launching HD service and to "develop content streams, online services, satellite and other wireless extensions of KUT and public media content."
The new strategy is not without its risks. It could take years for high definition radio to catch on, considering it will require consumers to buy new radios. If it rolls out at the same pace as, say, high definition television, it could be years before it plays an important role in homes. Nor is there any guarantee that podcasts and webcasts will grab the public's attention for the long term; many prognosticators (and investors) have crashed and burned trying to predict the pace of technology.
But Vanderwilt is unswayed. "I think it is appropriate for us to lead the way on this kind of thing," he said.
Leaving the Nest
Leading the way requires money and resources and facilities, and Vanderwilt is clearly feeling inhibited by the station's relationship with the University of Texas, the station's home since it started on campus 47 years ago. UT holds the license for KUT's signal, and the operation of the station is controlled by the university, under the umbrella of the College of Communication. While KUT operates as a separate unit, everything is funneled through the university, including the station's finances.
Although he praised the university's support, Vanderwilt said he ultimately would like to see the station run by "an organization with the sole purpose to work for the support of KUT." The bylaws for the new nonprofit entity, Austin Public Radio, specifically note that it can be used to "maintain and operate one or more radio stations, including KUT-FM."
Beyond the university's cumbersome financial systems, its structure often unintentionally inhibits the station's ability to make moves, he said. For example, he noted, when there is a campuswide hiring freeze, it applies to KUT. Some KUT employees suspect that the station would also like to free itself from the university's employee regulations and benefits, although Vanderwilt termed that scenario "really unlikely" and any speculation premature, given the early stages of the discussions.
Vanderwilt is more concerned about the station's ability to invest in "new service initiatives," which might be slowed by UT's control. "The whole channels idea will definitely push the boundaries of our current way of operating," he said, citing the university's methodical process in reviewing new initiatives. "In any large bureaucracy, it adds a layer of difficulty to operate as a nimble public service and a focused media organization," Vanderwilt said.
Discussions about KUT's future relationship with the university are at a "serious and preliminary" stage, according to Rod Hart, dean of UT's College of Communication.
The university actually provides relatively little financial support to KUT and it's been steadily decreasing in recent years as UT deals with its own fiscal concerns. In 2000, the university passed the station $430,930, representing 14% of KUT's budget; in 2005, the allocation was down to $250,834, only 4% of the budget. UT's main contribution to the station is 12,000 square feet of prime space on campus, coveted territory. But KUT long ago outgrew the location.
"We currently operate out of inadequate square footage, organized inadequately," Vanderwilt said. "It's a dysfunctional space. If we don't confront that, we would be abdicating our duty to building KUT for future service."
The College of Communication, however, is already overcrowded, servicing 4,000 communications majors in a facility intended for 1,000. "We know KUT would like more space," says Hart, "but we don't have anything to give."
The university is about to embark on its own fundraising campaign to build a new home for the College of Communication, and it's not clear how KUT fits into that plan. The station has asked the university for close to 25,000 square feet, more than double its current space.
"The key is we want KUT to be as successful as it can be and to maintain our close relationship, whether they are physically housed here or elsewhere," Hart said.
The Leadership Council is chaired by Ray Farabee, former counsel to the university, and includes former UT regent and Austin City Council member Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., suggesting that discussions between the station and the university are more than amicable. The panel also includes such diverse players as "Dellionaire" Ben Bentzin, a Republican expected to run for retiring state Rep. Todd Baxter's seat, and Neil Blumofe, a jazz musician and Hazzan (cantor) of Congregation Agudas Achim, a north Austin congregation. Although formed as an advisory committee, it is understood that the Leadership Council's main role will be to lead the way in a future fundraising effort, most likely through Austin Public Radio.
"I've always felt that the station should have some nonprofit organization that could be a source of funds that were not dedicated [to anything] except for the needs of the station," said Leadership Council member John Scanlan, an attorney and longtime KUT supporter.
It might not be easy, however, for KUT to ask Austin's usual suspects to pony up millions to fund Vanderwilt's vision. More than likely, the station will be trying to raise money at the same time as several other large Austin institutions including the College of Communication. ("No matter what, it's really important that we collaborate" with the university, Vanderwilt said.) It will also be difficult for the station to beg for money with the same enthusiasm during the ubiquitous pledge drives when it is raising millions for a capital campaign at the same time.
A "compelling message for the future" will be Vanderwilt's big sales pitch as he tries to move the station into uncharted waters. "We have gone from being a passive organization that sought to make budget each year to being an active organization finding new ways to engage the community," he said. The only way to secure the station's future, he believes, is to position KUT as an essential part of the community, not simply a niche player.
"We don't aspire to be an alternative," Vanderwilt said.