Media Watch

A Blizzard of Rhetoric?

John Aielli
John Aielli (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

Amid a blizzard of rhetoric about HD Digital Radio and "extending" shows, finding the nugget of real news in last week's press release from KUT 90.5FM required careful reading. The headline trumpeted the expansion of Paul Ray's Saturday-night show, Twine Time, from two to four hours, a move likely to please longtime listeners. Describing the press release in an e-mail to the Chronicle, station spokeswoman Erin Geisler wrote, "In a nutshell, Twine Time is being expanded, and many hosts are being extended to our forthcoming HD Radio channel."

She didn't mention the news sure to make longtime fans of the local National Public Radio affiliate spew their morning lattes, the item which didn't appear until the eighth paragraph of the release – the station has cut another hour off John Aielli's iconic weekday morning show, Eklektikos. The show now runs from 9am-noon, instead of 9am-1pm. Frequent Chronicle contributor Jay Trachtenberg's afternoon music show has been expanded by one hour to cover the noon-1pm slot Monday through Thursday, and on Fridays a new show focusing on Texas music, hosted by David Brown, will fill the hour.

While many listeners will certainly applaud the move – not everyone is thrilled with Aielli's flair for connecting, say, a White Stripes cut with a lengthy block of Gregorian chants – it is undoubtedly dismal news for fans of Eklektikos, the public station's signature show. Under current management, Aielli's program has been slowly sliced down in the recent years, from six hours to its new three-hour format. The latest cut will only fuel speculation that the station is trying to ease out Aielli, who is in his 60s and often seems out of sync with management's focus-group-approved, corporate approach. (Reached at home, Aielli, who was on vacation last week when the station sent out the press release, refused to comment or answer any questions.)

According to the release, Eklektikos is "ending one hour earlier so that Aielli can focus on his new program" for KUT's planned HD Radio service, which has the faint odor of corporate double-talk. Under this theory, Aielli's fans will be thrilled to hear that he is toiling away on a new program for the HD service, even though something like 17 people in Austin currently own HD receivers.

Cutting the show may appear like another slap in the face to Aielli's fans, but program director Hawk Mendenhall insists this is the station's way of expanding his horizons. In the future, Aielli's new show of interviews and music – dubbed, with Orwellian flair, "Aielli Unleashed" – could expand to six hours and be heard on the Web through, as well as the HD service, he said.

This is dicey territory for KUT management. Aielli is still the station's most identifiable personality, and he's always prominently featured in KUT's donor solicitations. The station's spin maestros are apparently attempting to show some sensitivity about the "Aielli issue." If they weren't worried about lingering perceptions that they were slicing Aielli, the headline might have read "KUT Expands Trachtenberg Show!!!" – news sure to whip the masses into a listening frenzy.

With Bushian skill, the station hopes to cut Aielli's airtime while making it look like a promotion. Although Mendenhall said Aielli's audience has been "holding steady," the station is clearly looking to boost listenership in the key midday slot. In addition to cutting back Aielli, the station is dropping the regular live-music segments during the noon hour, due to a noticeable "dip" in listeners, Mendenhall said. (He says live music will be spotlighted at other times of the day.) "Every change we make we hope will draw a larger audience," he said, while continuing to insist that the move to reduce Aielli's show was primarily part of the station's "integrated strategy."

With the help of grants, KUT has been investing heavily in HD technology, the great tech hope of terrestrial radio. Beyond a better-quality sound, it allows traditional over-the-air radio stations to broadcast more than one channel on their frequencies, offering a chance to compete with satellite and Web-based services. Although it doesn't require a subscription to hear HD, consumers will have to buy new receivers, which, at this point, cost more than $200.

While few doubt that HD is the future of radio, the big question is: When? As anyone familiar with the wacky world of consumer technologies can attest, it could take years for a significant number of consumers to make the switch to HD. And it enters a crowded field, with many services already boasting devoted followings. The Grand Poobahs of radio are set to launch a massive marketing effort in the next year, but there is little indication that the stodgy traditional radio stations will create new programming to excite listeners. Emmis Communications recently announced its HD plans for Austin, featuring commercial-free "smooth jazz," "Old Skool" hip-hop, and hard-rock channels – hardly the type of programs to woo listeners away from Howard Stern.

KUT management is hoping programs developed by Aielli and the other longtime music hosts, including Ray and Larry Monroe, "will help create demand for the HD Radio receivers among our listeners and the community at large" – and justify the pioneering investment. This is, at best, a risky strategy, especially if HD doesn't take off. Aielli's fans may not appreciate sending money to a station that is forcing it to buy new receivers to hear their favorite programming.

All the talk of new platforms may also be seen as ominous news for conspiracy theorists who believe that management would like to shift Aielli and the other longtime music shows to the Web and HD, freeing up airtime for more news and public-affairs programming.

"News and information programs on KUT far outperform music," Mendenhall said. "But we're committed to music being part of the lifestyle of Central Texas and part of the fabric of Austin life."

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