From Pilot to Prime Time: 50 Years of Austin City Limits

Five decades of music television resonate at ATX TV Festival

A 1911 Steinway grand piano sits on the second floor of Terry Lickona's chic backyard bungalow residence. It's a new addition to the Clarksville homestead where the recognizable executive producer and host of Austin City Limits has lived for nearly his entire residency since landing in Austin in 1974. 

Lickona is quick to admit that he doesn't actually play piano (yet), but as he runs fingers over the keys, he soaks in a sense of reverence for those whose hands have made magic on the instrument – artists ranging from Bobbie Nelson and Ray Charles to Jerry Lee Lewis and Tom Waits. The piano is the last remaining piece of Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus, original home to Austin City Limits for the show's first 36 years.

Lickona has been at the helm of the show since season 4, but others, like Audio Director David Hough, have been with Austin City Limits since the first pilot was recorded with Willie Nelson on October 17, 1974. As the PBS mainstay approaches its 50th anniversary next year, Lickona, Hough, and other ACL veterans (producer Jeff Peterson, assistant producer and Chronicle music contributor Michael Toland, and relatively new archivist Liz Antaramian) will kick off the celebration with a panel reflecting on the show's history and future at this weekend's ATX TV Festival.

"Much like the artists that come to do the show, nobody does it for the money," laughs Lickona about the impressive tenure of much of the staff. "This business – television, broadcast, film – most people do one thing for a certain amount of time, and then they move on. Those of us who've stayed, and just speaking for me very personally, it's the music. I mean, it sounds cliche, but it's the whole idea of discovering new music and then being able to share that with an audience that also appreciates discovering new music. It's fun.

"I think that stability and the consistency that it's brought to the show has really helped to establish a signature look and feel and vibe and everything about it," he adds. 

Austin City Limits remains a remarkably unique show, even in an age of endless streaming content and concert footage. Airing a fully taped concert usually only happens for rare network specials of the biggest global artists, and still none compare to the high quality and intimacy created by director Gary Menotti. The lingering shots on individual band members capture the experience of watching a show live, enthralled by the guitar solo or the energy of the drummer. The music and performance always retain central focus, with no frills or gimmicks – a format that has stayed the same over the decades, even through new emerging styles brought by MTV and VH1 or YouTube and TikTok.

"Obviously, it's not the same show that it was when it started out," offers Lickona, "but in a lot of ways, it does feel like the same thing, the same process. ... At its most basic level, we still do things pretty much the way we did back in the day when we did that first pilot with Willie. The formula is about as simple as it gets – we book a band or an artist and we give them our stage to get up there and to do whatever they want to do."

The biggest evolution for the show has been the music itself, expanding from the original vision of Texas progressive country to now embracing a wide range of music from around the world. The 2002 partnership with C3 Presents that created the ACL Festival provided a major boost for the show's brand, and in 2011, the show moved into a new 2,750-seat home Downtown at the Moody Theater. 

"Nothing lasts 50 years without having its ups and downs," Lickona acknowledges. "There were lean years, a period of 10 years when our budget was frozen and we weren't sure we had the money to produce a full season or we'd lose an underwriter or two. And the pandemic, that was the one thing that finally just shut us down along with the rest of the world. We didn't know if we could sustain the show or come back if we lost our funding and had to start over. But people just hung in there to support us, including the PBS station.

"PBS has stayed true to its mission, through good times and bad, and managed to scrape together the funding to continue producing programs like they do and getting an audience that appreciates them."

Austin City Limits' home on Austin PBS has also proven key to its success. The mission-oriented nonprofit station allows the show to resist chasing ratings and fads, and prevents the kind of executive turnover that can sweep away shows with a new corporate vision, as with the current content catastrophe striking streaming services today. 

Still, the show is not without ambition to grow, most notably in how it might mine its five decades of archives, which have all now been completely digitized. The upcoming 50th anniversary offers an opportunity to rejuvenate those episodes and honor the city that has literally backdropped the series' extraordinary run. 

"I'm just trying to book season 49 first and get through that," says Lickona on the anniversary plans. "But we're thinking about it a lot. We want to make it a community celebration, because the show never would have lasted this long without the support of Austin." 

Backstage With Austin City Limits: 50 Years of Making Music in Austin

Thu., June 1, 3pm. Driskill Maximilian Room, 604 Brazos

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