KUT Austin : Messing With History

Photo from KUTAustin / Flickr

The growing protest against KUT-FM’s decision to cut back the shifts of longtime disc jockeys Paul Ray and Larry Monroe is shaping up as something of a last stand for the public radio station’s old guard disc jockeys. “They haven’t even begun to hear from us,” said musician Cleve Hattersley, co-founder of seminal local band Greezy Wheels, who is spearheading the protest.

His supporters, who include former Mayor Lee Cooke and 570 Facebook fans, have been calling station board members, staging meetings, and enlisting the support of musicians such as Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, and Toni Price. “We’re going to raise such a stink, we’re going to get [Ray and Monroe] back,” Hattersley said.

But they’re battling what station insiders say is a long-running effort to marginalize and push out the station’s core group of ol’ record spinners, the holdovers from a different era — Monroe, Ray, and morning host John Aielli, in particular — who have been part of KUT for 30 years and remain the station’s most recognizable personalities…

— Kevin Brass / Austin Chronicle

Photo by Amanda Klaus.

Austin public radio community
gathers to protest changes at KUT

By Jim Ellinger / The Rag Blog / August 6, 2009

Allow me to share with you some thoughts on last night’s impressive meeting of concerned Austin radio listeners who gathered, and stayed in the 100-plus heat, at Threadgill’s beer garden to express their concerns, and some muted outrage, at our local NPR affiliate’s decision to dump on popular veteran DJs Paul Ray and Larry Monroe.

Included in the more than 150 folks were, variously, past Austin City Council members (and mayors), the UT student body president, scores of musicians, rows of small business owners, potloads of policitos, tons of Tweeters, bloggers, and shutter clickers.

KEYE-42 showed up and did a very supportive piece, with a definite “this story is just starting folks… Stay tuned!” angle. The Austin Chronicle’s Kevin Brass’ did an excellent overview article. 


From my perspective, KUT management will have to either return Ray and Monroe to their respective timeslots, and maybe make some additional concessions, or dig in their heels, claim that they know best what Austin wants to hear and that the station “must” make these regrettable but necessary cuts. As of this date, it appears they are twisting their heels into the plush carpeting at Communications Building B on the UT campus.

The KUT fall pledge drive starts on October 20th, and the station may find itself confronted with hundreds of dissatisfied listeners, literally waving pledge checks in their faces, saying, “Not until you bring Larry and Paul back! AND the Texas Music Show!!”

The whole apple cart of “one of America’s finest public radio stations,” is now beginning to wobble. Even as the station continues to support scores of local musicians and community institutions, better than virtually all the other electronic media in the city, they will have to try and get comfortable with being in the bullseye of Austin’s extremely engaged population. Extremely engaged. Outraged Austin citizens. Pledge drive is 75 days away and counting down. A nightmare.

Back to the meeting: It came as no surprise to me that the vast majority of those who attended were — let’s be frank here — aging hippies and musicians. (DISCLAIMER: I am 55 y.o. and did the live NPR/KUT radio ‘cast from the last night at the ‘Dillo, thank you…) [Austin’s legendary music venue, the Armadillo World Headquarters, closed it’s doors for the last time on New Years Eve, 1980.]

Of course, in Austin, the aging hippie/musician demographic includes plenty of politicos, acclaimed authors, journalists and (Michael) Dell-ionaires. But, the president of the UT Student Association was also joined at the event by the President of the East Sixth Street Business Association.

All these “Don’t call me ‘Sir,’ kid!” listeners represent a sizable percentage of KUT’s long term supporters. The station simply cannot afford to dis them. One proposal (okay, by me…) is to set aside listener pledges to a “Phriends of Phil Music” checking account, to be held until and unless KUT does right by their 25-plus year programmers. Safe bet that it is being discussed behind closed door in the big rusty cube at 25th and Guadalupe this week.

Consider this: radio, once you got the transmitter and AC up and running is damn cheap. It is still the cheapest form of mass communication available. Every soul in Austin, literally 100% of the population, can tune in, all at the same time, real time, for free, maybe even without the lights on. Other community media groups in Austin are struggling with budgets of a few hundred thousand dollars. KUT? Try $6 million. With 60 employees, many apparently making salaries of $80-100,000.

Remember: UT does not DO “poor.”

How about, instead of dumping on the station’s best talent, all of the senior KUT management take a 2% pay cut?

Hold on to those KUT pledge envelopes.

[Jim Ellinger a community media activist in Austin. He is the Vice-President for North America of AMARC, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters. His Austin Airwaves, Inc. is a Texas, not for profit 501c3 educational group working on a wide range of radio projects worldwide.]

Also see Bad Boogie at Austin’s KUT : ‘We Built This City’ by Cleve Hattersley / The Rag Blog / July 29, 2009 [Includes ‘Time to break out the torches and pitchforks? Format change at KUT,’ by John Conquest]

The Rag Blog

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11 Responses to KUT Austin : Messing With History

  1. Donna says:

    Good synopsis, Jim. thanks for expressing it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Finally some good media coverage about the seismic waves emanating from KUT management’s shifty and ill-fated decision. Thanks to the Chronicle’s Kevin Brass for his ongoing, insightful and well researched articles, KEYE, and the energizing leadership of people like Lee Cooke, Cleve Hattersley, and yourself. Your clarion calls are being heard far and wide.

    A few questions – beyond the ‘aging hippy’ demographic, what percentage of UT students rely on KUT for their substantive listening experience? Being from that vintage who began tuning in as a student in the mid 70’s, I know that back then KUT was extremely popular with students.
    Of course there are now many more options, but to my ear, still not a one that compares to KUT. I wonder if, when the students return in late August/September, we can expect a new (and younger) wave of outraged response?

    Question 2 – How can we better track how the money raised at KUT is being spent? What are the salaries and program costs of the ‘new’ DJs and Programs (such as Undercurrents)? I assume that information should be readily available from a public radio, yes?

    And finally – How has KUT’s affiliation with NPR influenced the changes we are seeing?

    I remember the day the music died at Armadillo World Headquarters. I do hope the current management at KUT is not writing the obituary of this most precious asset that is the rhythmic heartbeat and pulse of this city. Like an old and dear friend, KUT has done so much to enhance the quality of all our lives. It speaks now to the world with Austin’s own unique voice and sense of place.

  3. Mariann says:

    Jim — great piece, and good to see yr byline here! But tell, please, what is KUT mgmnt’s rationale for cutting Paul & Larry’s hours and filling the time with canned nonlocal pap? Is it purely an economic argument? Or have they perhaps paid for some sort of study telling them that the younger gen has tuned away from KUT?

    The economic argument is, I believe, pretty well decimated. Perhaps they can save some money on office supplies, ya know?

    A listener-driven argument might be more difficult to refute, but even if they have one to make, management’s response is wrong-headed and ill-conceived. They should, if that were the case, bring on some new young local talent (there is plenty around!), hey, at lower wages than Paul & Larry make; that’s the Amnerican way, right? But NOT canned crap from California.

    To broadcast something like that would, imho, undercut their claim to BE a public radio station, and coud open the door for others to stake a better claim!

  4. Jim Ellinger says:

    Hello C–
    Nice meeting you at the KUT Townhall Meting and thanks for offering to help out in the Radio Research Department!
    Yes, please do send along articles, etc, that you think are pertinent.

    I am on the three main US community radio listservs,
    and post to them a lot. This allows me to present issues and get answers from a coupla’ thousand
    community/public radio practitioners.

    You are absolutely correct that the changes we are seeing, hearing, at KUT are indicative of what is happening across the country.

    These are not good times for radio, in general.

    The next generation, say your stereotypical UT undergrad, listens to little or no radio. Many
    probably could not even NAME any.

    Quick! >> List you top five Austin AM stations! << Yet, radio remains in many places both here in the States, and around the world (where I do most
    my CR work now…) is the best/ only source of news and information. Community radio allows people speak FOR themselves and TO themselves and their
    communities.

    We are definitely a little spoiled here in wonderful wealthy ‘merica, with more input options than we can
    keep track of.

    The current dust up about KUT is largely about MUSIC. And, for sure, how KUT are treating folks we hold in high regard…

    [But Lordie! You hardly hear any one getting up in arms about how koop treated me!]

    Yes, music reflects our culture, and music is what Austin IS, but nobody’s village is gonna’ be washed away if our friends
    Larry and ‘Phil’ and Paul don’t get a fair shake.

    But I digress.
    Thank you for the offer. Radio Research Associates get free beer or ice tea!

    Thanks for reading and supporting the Rag Blog.

    > Hi Jim Radio,
    >
    > We met briefly at the Threadgill’s gathering. I was sitting at the sign-in table where you placed your handouts. After the meeting I asked Cleve if he had any need for online researchers and he replied in the affirmative suggesting I connect with you about that. I live outside of Austin and have been kept abreast of the unfolding events through my friend Av- B– (who sat next to me at the reception table) and in response I have been sending her articles and info I’ve dug up about KUT.
    >
    > So I am at your service as a researcher should you need it, and would be happy to forward some of the info I’ve already collected if you like.
    >
    > I have so far been primarily focused on the national picture and the influences that are shaping Vanderwilt’s and the University’s decisions, which have been less than transparent. It seems to have less to do with ratings and the economic hard times that Vanderwilt has cited, and more to do with adherence to a model that is apparently being promoted and adopted nationwide.
    >
    > I would imagine that you are already well aware of how community/public radio stations across the country are undergoing changes similar to what we have seen at KUT over the last decade. There is an organized and deliberate trending toward commercialization and syndicated programming. For me, this knowledge has placed what’s happening in Austin into a broader context which only magnifies the importance of our local response to these changes.
    >
    > Along these lines I submit the following article which is, perhaps not so surprisingly, even more relevant today than when it was written in the early 1990’s. It struck me that this author might just as easily have been reporting about our own current predicament.
    >
    > Let me know how I can be of assistance,
    >
    > C. L.

  5. Jim Ellinger says:

    Wrote one strident defender of Phil Music” tonight…
    “Is it a requirement that KUT be number 1 in the market? What if we trade our number one ranking and have our unique KUT back? I’d prefer that. Trying to appeal to everyone is what every other station on the dial does. Hawk, PLEASE take your next career step and go work for a big commercial station, you will be a great fit for someone else and we won’t bug you anymore!

    I will not pledge to help you destroy MY station.”

    Dear Ms. G- May I respectfully suggest that you consider ‘toning it down’ a bit? “I will not pledge to help you destroy MY station…” is awfully strong language. Even if these errors of the current KUT Management go unrepaired, they will not result in the station being “destroyed.”

    As of this date, KUT Management continues to engage their critics and to make not wholly unreasonable arguments that their decisions are, in their opinions, in the best interest of the station and the community. And they have numbers to back them up; new and retained members, increased income, market cumes, etc.

    KUT enjoys a tremendously popular reputation as one of the cornerstones of the Austin music community. They are one of the top NPR affiliates in the nation. … Read More

    Point taken, however…I too would prefer that KUT become the #2 station in town and bring back ‘Phil Music’ and friends!

    But for gawd’s sake, let’s not turn this into another koop radio abbatoir.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In my experience many NPR stations play classical music. Classical music does not have huge numbers but NPR stations broadcast it because it is seen to have artistic and cultural value and precisely because it is commercially un-viable. Austin has a classical station but it also has KGSR and they do a great job with AAA- Austin music. Why we need a clone of KGSR at KUT escapes me. There are great

  7. Anonymous says:

    I'm almost 60 and have lived in Austin the last 30 years. I loved hearing music on KUT the first 20 of them (25 years, counting when I started visiting Austin).

    I grew bored of hearing the same people's shows for so many years, while still acknowledging, even treasuring, their value and talents. It's me, not them. So I don't listen to KUT any longer, except for a

  8. I thought it was a bit scary when they brought in Mendenhall from out of State to run KUT. Clearly, he has done/is doing the bidding of some higher-up corporate godwannabe (the same that axed Bob Edwards from Morning Edition perhaps?).
    I disagree that the old programs are mundane. Though ANY country program is too much for me, I see it as truly Texas music and thus an important part of

  9. dospesentas says:

    I was a Dillo regular from the first shows to the last two nights; Gamma and Commander Cody/Wheel – AND sadly at the final auction J.C. Harper held. Damn, I miss that place. I also hung with the Cobra’s on a few occasions. These things are gone. I’ve been blessed to play a lot of Austin venues, but cursed to never set foot on the Dillo stage as a musician.

    HOWEVER; we can still appreciate and preserve what’s left of our local music heritage by supporting Larry, Paul and Phil.

    I know all this doesn’t mean much to our Californian, Floridian, Missourian and Illinois newcomers, but it’s these last vestages of the old Austin that makes the place great.

    Keep the heat on!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Though they say their music programs are “hand-picked” by the hosts, the following is proof positive that KUT is now using a “format” very similar to commercial radio stations like KGSR. KUT management tries to imply that their program hosts are “asked” to play from a group of new releases selected by the music committee, while the actual fact is the hosts are ordered to play from this group of cds. That is a format, plain and simple. And it is a format that many public radio stations, including KUT, are now employing. The following is from a blurb about the Public Radio Development & Marketing Conference held in early July in San Diego. This proves that KUT is part of a nation-wide move to a commercial radio type format on NPR affiliated stations.

    The Public Radio Development & Marketing Conference (this is a link) – public radio’s most “well-attended” conference – opens in San Diego today at the Hilton Bayside Hotel July 8–10, 2009. The PRDMC is attended by all formats in public radio (News/Jazz/Classical), including the steady growing Triple A format. With a total of 85 concurrent breakout sessions and 5 general sessions planned in fundraising/major giving, corporate underwriting, and new media marketing, the conference is energized this year with the potential offered by emerging new media platforms. The following Triple A stations are sending staff to the conference: WFUV New York, KCRW Santa Monica, WXPN Philadelphia, KERA Dallas (planning new AAA format on new sister station), WTMD Baltimore, KCMP/The Current Minneapolis, WYMS/Radio Milwaukee, and KUT Austin, among numerous others. As more non-commercial stations consider a move to the format to attract younger digital media-savvy demographics to the left side of the dial, Deborah Lein, DEI VP/COO and PRDMC coordinator told TripleARadio.com, “The Triple A stations have such a potential edge in the new media arena, they could be the new vanguard (in public radio).”

    The statement above is further proof that KUT management would prefer its older DJs disappear in their effort to attract a younger audience. I have it on good authority, however, that KUT’s age demographic is 35-64 and is unlikely to change.

  11. Anonymous says:

    This discussion continues on the July 28 blog roll for:
    Bad Boogie at Austin’s KUT : ‘We Built This City’
    http://theragblog.blogspot.com/2009/07/bad-boogie-at-austins-kut-we-built-this.html

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