R.I.P. Larry Monroe

 

 

BMG_monroe_3.jpg

LARRY MONROE

1942–2014

On Friday, January 17th, those who were tuned in to low-power FM station KDRP in Dripping Springs, Texas, were greeted with the sad news of the passing of radio legend and icon of Austin music Larry Monroe. Dripping Springs is a small community just southwest of Austin, and it is where Larry had spent the last few years of an amazing career in radio. How Larry ended up there—where he was, in his own words, having the time of his life—is something we have long written about here. In fact it was the very genesis of this site as far as the Austin aspect of public radio went. I’ll be writing more of that later, but today we just want to say some things about Larry, both as an on-air personality and as a person. And he was just amazing at both of those things.

Larry was originally from Hartford City, Indiana, and he got his first radio license at age 13 to broadcast on a 10-watt transmitter for his local high school. After high school he attended Ball State University, where he was classmates with David Letterman (they shared several classes in Radio and TV studies). Larry graduated in 1967 and moved on to stations in Ann Arbor and Detroit. While in Ann Arbor he played a part in the “Paul is dead” rumor after the release of the Abbey Road album. After many years up north he followed the advice of George Frayne, aka Commander Cody, and in 1977 moved to Austin with the goal of putting Austin music on the radio. And what a job he did!

After kicking around a bit in various ventures, he started with KUT-FM in March of 1981. He was to stay there until retirement in 2009. In 1981 KUT was a small radio station on the campus of the University of Texas. Its license was held by UT but it was not a student-run station. It was while at KUT that Larry developed what were to be his two signature shows, Blue Monday and The Phil Music Program. And both came about by happenstance, as so many wonderful things do. Blue Monday originated after Larry just happened to play an extended set of classic blues on an otherwise dead Monday evening. But following that listeners started calling in wanting to know more about the “Blue Monday” program that they had heard previously. With the eventual approval of the station manager, Blue Monday became a weekly staple, and in 2002 it received the Keeping the Blues Alive for Public Radio award from the Blues Foundation. It continued on the air at KUT until Larry’s retirement from UT systems in 2010, when he did a final show co-hosted by blues legend James Cotton.

The Phil Music Program had an even quirkier genesis, and one peculiar to Austin. In the ’80s KUT broadcast the Austin City Council meetings every Thursday night, and Larry was the person on duty on Thursdays in case the council either adjourned early or went into closed recess. When those things happened Larry would write “fill music” onto the station logs to document what was being done, and that was when Larry’s always-missing alter ego Phil Music was born.

The Austin City Council meetings were notoriously rambunctious, and Phil Music might be on for a few minutes or a few hours, depending on how things went. For those of us tuning in for music, hearing Larry’s voice instead of the mayor’s was a sign we were going to have fun on the airwaves, at least for a while. This gave Larry a chance to program as the “free form” master that he was, mixing classic folk and jazz with current Austin artists and a good dose of surreal Firesign Theater humor mixed in as well. It was radio madness, and Austin music fans took to it immediately. Eventually even the City Council joined in the fun, with any motion to adjourn being announced as the “Phil Music Motion” and voted on thusly.

When KUT stopped carrying the Council meetings, Larry was awarded the 8-11 time slot on Thursdays and a permanent format was set. The show would always have a theme and the show would always start with the “Phil Music excuse,” stating why Phil Music hadn’t shown up, leaving Larry to stand in. And the excuse was always a key to the theme. And those themes could be amazing: shows based on cars, elections, shopping. The possibilities were endless, and all from the ever-imaginative mind of the true host, Larry Monroe. His last theme was going to be about “bridges” after the Bridge-gate controversy currently sweeping New Jersey.

But it was the Phil Music Program that eventually brought about his disenchantment with management at KUT. In 2009 he was called into the station manager’s office a couple of hours before show time and was told that the show had been canceled and a newer, younger DJ was being given that time slot. Being the professional that he was, Larry accepted the loss of his show without public complaint, but his listeners had other ideas. There were emails and calls of protest, and when station management refused to even discuss the situation a protest group was formed with thousands of members. Battle lines were drawn. But through it all Larry maintained his public silence and refused to be brought into the conflict, at least as far as any public comments went. But despite the public outcry, station management stood their ground until the Thursday before the final Blue Monday when they gave him back the slot for one night to play the “lost” Phil Music episode. And with his retirement, both shows seemed to be fading into Austin lore.

But like all wise cats Larry had a few lives left, and in 2011 he was back on the air at KDRP. The savvy folks in Dripping Springs offered him his old time slots and programs back, no strings attached and with full artistic control. Larry jumped at the chance and a new phase of his long career began. He moved the times to 7-10 (he once told me it was to get the jump on his former employer’s shows). Blue Monday was back with its Fats Domino theme song, and Phil Music was back with its trademark excuses and themes. And shortly after that, KDRP also resurrected another of Larry’s favorites, Texas Music Live, now broadcast every Wednesday from Guero’s Taco Bar on South Congress in Austin, smack in the middle of the “SoCo” entertainment district, featuring a list of notables that is far too long to document here. In his last week here with us, he just barely made it to Guero’s by show time and mentioned to his co-host David Arnsberger that he wasn’t feeling well. And during the broadcast he actually sat down at one point, something Larry never did. It was a real warning signal to anyone who knew him, but none of us expected him to actually die; he was just too much a part of things. But that brings us back to that horrible Friday morning, and the on-air announcement of his death.

Larry is survived by a brother in Indiana, a daughter and two grandchildren, and any number of other relatives. But for those who were around him the past few years, you had no doubt who his soul mate was—Austin photographer Ave’ Bonar. The last time I saw Larry alive, he told me the story of how he and Ave’ got together, and not surprisingly it involved radio shows and Austin musicians, the other true loves of his life. I won’t go into that story now—it’s something I will keep as one last glimpse into a fascinating person, one who changed the world around him. Not in huge headline-making ways, though Larry did sometimes make headlines. But in the little things that only someone who is welcomed into your home the way a good DJ is. He was in our living rooms, in our cars, and in our lives for years. Austin won’t be the same without him, but it was changed by him. His dream of putting Austin music on the air was realized long ago, but Larry was just too damn busy having fun to sit on his laurels. So here’s to you, my friend. I wish it were all just some Phil Music excuse for why you’re not here. But we’ll all be standing in, remembering the voice of Austin music . . .

Rev Jim

Nine Volt Heart

retro-vintage-radio

Plastic silver nine volt heart
You click it on and let the music start
Nine Volt Heart,”Dave Alvin

The hot, dusty plains around Odessa, Texas, were never meant for human life. Actually, they were never meant for much life at all. There’s scarcely enough water to keep the scorpions and cactus alive, no game larger than a jackrabbit. Historians say that tribes of Native Americans used to pass through there; most agree they passed through very quickly indeed. As did most everyone else until the discovery of Black Gold at the bottom of that hellhole, and then the rush was on. My father was one of those who followed the money to Odessa, and there he settled to raise his family. He was a wonderful man who did his best to keep us entertained, but it was an uphill struggle in a town with no hills. And for a scrawny little kid with too much imagination, things were just brown and bleak for as far as I could see. That is,until I discovered magic in the air around me.

I believe my first encounter with that magic was in my parents’ car, the oddly glowing radio dial built right into the dash, surrounded by buttons and knobs. And if you turned the knobs in just the right way music would come out, or sometimes people talking. I was probably 4 or 5 at the time and totally fascinated. The local AM station was KOSA, and the station wasn’t far from our house. My father had pointed the building out to me, a plain little box with a red and white antennae jutting far into the West Texas sky. Having no concept of recorded music, I imagined that there must be a big stage in there somewhere and all of these performers were constantly shuffling back and forth off of it. And the DJ was probably like the ringmaster from the little circus that had passed through town, an officious guy in a funny suit who decided when it was time for elephants and when it was time for clowns. I remember hoping that my father would take me in there someday to see the spectacle. Surely the circus would pale in comparison.

I encountered the next version of that magic a couple of years later, after I had started school and was subject to the awesome knowledge of older kids—fourth-graders most likely. That’s when I saw my first transistor radio, which had the same magical properties as that first radio but without the car wrapped around it. This one was about the size of a paperback book, with its own little antenna to split the sky with. By then I knew what records were, and this had taken some of the magic out of things, but just how the darned thing worked was still a mystery to me. So I was totally amazed when an older kid spun the little dial and a whole different station came out of the speaker. And it was like the heavens had opened above me. Two radio stations? I had been going on the assumption that there was just the one! The fact that there were two brought a sort of epiphany on me. If there were two stations out there then how many more? And that’s when it started, my lifelong quest of twistin’ the dials, hoping to find just one more station that I hadn’t heard before.

Which wasn’t all that hard at first. As far as local geography went, there was nothing taller than a fireplug for  hundreds of miles, and for radio signals “line of sight” is golden. And there’s this wondrous thing called “skip,” where signals actually bounce off the upper atmosphere and come back down who knows where, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles. Talk about magic. . . . By the time I was in the sixth grade my father had given me a five (five!) band radio to play around with, and I just about twisted the knobs off that beauty. We lived some ten miles out of Odessa proper so reception was great, but I added to its range by attaching a copper wire to the radio’s antennae and stringing it around  my ceiling. That’s when I started picking up what might as well have been other worlds. There was a mega-station out of Chicago called WLS that played early rock-n-roll, and WWL, a truck-driving station out of New Orleans that played lots of Hank Williams with dedications from lonely housewifes to their trucker husbands out on the road.

I listened to KOMA out of Oklahoma City, where there was an apparently insane DJ called Charlie Tuna who came on after midnight. Some nights I got KLIF from Dallas and the Rod Roddy Show, a late-night talk show that may have preceded Larry King. And every now and then I’d run across one of the infamous Border Radio stations blasting in from Mexico, the domain of the infamous  Wolfman Jack. I never actually caught his show, but I remember the absolutely bizarre commercials they ran, hawking stuff that ranged from glow in the dark Jesuses to patent medicines to livestock. And for a kid sitting up late thru the West Texas night it was like the whole world was talking to me through that little copper wire circling my ceiling.

And these were just the ones that I had found on the AM band. I still had four other bands to go! Three of those were a disappointment, though; the shortwave bands were a bore so soon I was back listening to Charlie Tuna up in OK City. Until one night, pretty much on a whim, I got to poking around on the FM dial .This would have been late ’60s, early ’70s, and FM radio was being transformed, changed by rock music, and the new “free form” style of programming. Somehow, some way the one little FM station in Odessa had hired two early aficionados of free form, David Conway and Jerry Galloway, and now there was a whole new world on the FM dial. Listening to them I first heard the Grateful Dead, Spirit, Kris Kristofferson, the James Gang, and Mason Proffit. And my perception of radio shifted again, away from the wild personalities of Charlie Tuna, Rod Roddy, and the long-distance truckers. Instead I became more aware of the music that was being played rather than the goofy sound effects and self-promotions that filled the AM dial. After that FM became the first choice for my radio time, as it also shifted for others across the country.

Or it did until my father moved us to another oil field, this one far up on the frozen plains of northern Wyoming. No FM signals there at all, and during daylight hours I could only pick up the one AM station in our little town with its polkas and livestock prices. But after the sun went down things changed on the AM dial: The “skip” that had brought all those far-off channels to Odessa now brought them to Wyoming. And most powerful of all was an old friend, KOMA, blasting in from Oklahoma City. KOMA was a lifeline to teens all across the Midwest, high schoolers in a thousand little towns. It brought news from the larger music world, new bands, new albums, new movies. And it brought the tour schedules for the cover bands that traveled constantly across the plains, bringing live music to towns too small to be noticed by the name acts. Free-form FM may have been the big thing in the cities, but in places like Salina, Kansas, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Gillette, Wyoming, KOMA was the only game in town. And they played it very well indeed.

So the AM dial was again front and center in my radio world. I felt I had come full circle. I was back to nights of listening to far-off signals, back to my earliest dreams. And it made me think again of that little box of a station that I had first listened to as a child.

Before we left Odessa I had finally visited that station, now updated to be KOZA. It was when I was a young teenager and first stretching my wings. This was made easier by having an older friend who had his drivers license, plus an old pickup to bomb around in. Naturally we used to sneak into town late at night, cruise for girls, and look for ways to seem cool. One night after midnight I suggested dropping by the radio station to see if we could get in. I had spoken with the late-night DJ there on the phone a few times making requests, thought it at least worth a try. So we pulled into the deserted parking lot, went around back, and knocked on the door. To my surprise the DJ came and let us in, told us that as long as we kept quiet when the red light was on we could hang out for a while.

This was my first realization that being a DJ might not be all that glamorous. He seemed lonely and maybe spooked from being the only person in the darkened building. We sat around for an hour or so watching him cue up 45s and juggle the “carts” for the commercial spots, then we headed back towards home. I think my buddy was bored by the whole thing, but for me it was finally getting to see that ringmaster from my younger days. And I got to watch him decide when it was time for the elephants, when it was time for the clowns. And while there was no enormous stage with an endless stream of performers, I did finally get to see just where the radio magic came from. It came from lonely late night DJs working in darkened buildings, just trying to get ahead. It came from Charlie Tuna and Rod Roddy, and from wistful housewifes sending out their long-distance dedications. And it came from over-imaginative kids with wires dangling from their ceilings, twisting the knobs deep into the West Texas night.

But now I’m afraid that the magic’s been drained out of the airwaves. It’s been drained by Clear Channel homogenization, it’s been drained by the Internet. And it was drained by a technology that doesn’t require antennae far up in the West Texas sky. A five-band radio from your father is no match for a broadband DSL line from AT&T. And I doubt that there’s a first-grader in Odessa today being amazed by their first transistor radio. And just what would amaze a first-grader today? What would they think was magic? The world changes; it always has and it always will. But as the magic is drained from the world, what are we replacing it with? I can only hope that the answers are as obvious—and as wondrous—to kids today as that first radio was to me.

 —Rev Jim

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Tom Toles Cartoon

Over the edge of the ‘fiscal cliff’

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Worth a repeat…

Originally posted on Seniors for a Democratic Society:

Barbara Phillippi posted the following on our Facebook page, and it was subsequently picked up by the Being Liberal page, where it caused no small amount of commotion. For posterity, we’re posting it here as well…

You didn’t get mad when we spent over 800 billion (and counting) on said illegal war.

You didn’t get mad when Bush borrowed more money from foreign sources than the previous 42 Presidents combined.

You didn’t get mad when over 10 billion dollars in cash just disappeared in Iraq.

You didn’t get mad when Bush embraced trade and outsourcing policies that shipped 6 million American jobs out of the country.

You didn’t get mad when they didn’t catch Bin Laden.

You didn’t get mad when Bush rang up 10 trillion dollars in combined budget and current account deficits.

You didn’t get mad when you saw the horrible conditions at Walter Reed.

You didn’t…

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KUT’s $6 Million Cure for the Doldrums

Step Right Up!

KUT’s $6 Million Cure for the Doldrums

Julys in Austin, Texas, can be brutal. Triple-digit temps are the norm and rainfall is generally scarce. Plus, as they say, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity.” Which some wags change to, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the stupidity.” So to beat the summer doldrums and the humidity/stupidity, people come up with all kinds of cures and escapes, some wonderful, others not so much. Long sessions in chilly Barton Springs are on the wonderful side, long sessions of chilled Jaegermeister are not. And over at KUT radio the station managers always seems to come out with their own cure for the doldrums, whether their listeners like them or not.

For instance, back in July of 2009 they decided to beat the heat by doing an all-out assault on the old guard at the station—by announcing a major shakeup in programming, eliminating the long-running and popular “Phil Music Program”and condemning the only two nights of jazz programming in Austin to their HD radio channel, apparently never to be heard of again. Many listeners, this author included, hit the ceiling, and then hit the streets. Town hall-type meetings were held as well as benefit concerts and a write-in campaign to both station managers and to the Dean of Communications, Roderick Hart. None of it had any effect whatsoever. Dean Hart made it clear he would be backing station managers Stewart Vanderwilt and Hawk Mendenhall 100%, and the changes would remain in place no matter how many listeners complained. As a result some folks gave up and quit listening, but some of us kept chipping away.

Then fast forward a year. This time the big summer doldrums buster was the announcement that starting in August of 2010 KUT would take over operations at the Cactus Café, a nationally renowned music spot that is part of the UT Student Union. Longtime Cactus manager Griff Luneberg had been ousted and transferred to “other duties” within UT Systems, and KUT would be coming in to take over. You can see the announcement here,  a move that left many patrons unhappy. Some saw it as the end result of months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by KUT managers to establish a direct connection with a live venue to tie their playlists to. Before this takeover the Cactus was rarely mentioned on air, but since then the cross-promotions have seemed endless.

So it didn’t really come as too big a surprise when this summer KUT announced their newest doldrums cure; it was just the scope of it all that raised eyebrows. This year’s blockbuster is that Vanderwilt, Mendenhall & Company have now decided that what they really need is a whole new station to play with; having just the one is so-o-o ten years ago! The station in question is KXBT 98.9-FM, currently an oldies station. And, as per their usual modus operandi, KUT did not say anything about the proposed purchase to their listeners or members. There was nothing said on air and no mention of it on their website. I was first alerted to it by Kenya Lewis over at College Radio United. She sent along this announcement from Radio Insite, which I believe was the first public mention of the proposed sale. There was certainly no word of it on KUT’s website.The next mention of the proposal was on the morning of July 11, the day the UT Regents were to vote on it. But there was an unexpected twist: First Austin’s daily paper, the Austin American-Statesman, came out with an announcement saying that the proposal had been tabled, and then KUT’s first on-air mentions started, as small items on KUT’s news spots. Finally, later that afternoon, a blurb about the proposed buy and the tabling of the proposal was added to the KUT website, four short paragraphs with scant information but with the following quote from KUT management: “The chancellor said his office has received some questions about this proposal. We’ll work with him and the regents to answer those questions.” There was no elaboration on just what those questions might have been.

But, according to an excellent article in the following Sunday edition of the Statesman, the proposed acquisition will bring about major changes, splitting KUT’s programming between two frequencies. All music programming would be moved to the new 98.9 frequency and be broadcast as KUTX, leaving news and talk at the old 90.5. Considering that KUT currently claims to be about 50/50 music and news, that would leave about 12 hours of programming waiting to be filled on each frequency. Just what it will be filled with is anybody’s guess at this point. But I doubt that is the question that tabled the proposal.

Just what those questions actually were has not been divulged, but according to the Statesman the questions may have more to do with the future of radio listenership itself than anything to do with KUT alone. In fact, the major snag for the deal may be an unwillingness to invest more of UT’s money in what some see as a dying medium. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the future of terrestrial radio, much of it well thought out but debatable. And back in 2009 a survey of UT students found that a surprisingly high number of them were largely unaware of KUT’s existence, even though its studio is located on campus and its license held by the university.

So the idea of UT Systems providing a $6 million loan to expand terrestrial radio is something that would certainly bear some scrutiny. And if the Chancellor’s office has questions, then station members may well have some of their own. But while Mr.Vanderwilt may be used to answering questions from his bosses at UT, his history shows little interest in answering to station members. But this time management may actually have to deign to step down from their lofty dais and actually explain their intentions to their donors, however painful that may be. So I’d like to start with a list of my own—a Top Ten if you will. So here we go:

  1. According to the proposal, station management has been working with Public Radio Capital (PRC) in analyzing the deal, a deal in which PRC has a financial interest. PRC is well known for brokering the sale of college stations; they were involved in the sale of KTRU at Rice, WDUQ at Duquesne, and KUSF at the University of San Francisco to name a few. When you add in that the broker on the sellers side, Greg Guy, was also associated with the KUSF sale, the whole deal seems littered with people involved in the loss of college stations across the country. Was any thought given to using a more appropriate broker, one without the baggage and with no financial stake in the deal?
  2. In the same article it mentions that there will be a $250,000 fee paid to Public Media Company, the acquisition arm of Public Radio Capital. A $25,000 “option payment” has already been made. The source of that money is said to be “KUT local funds.” Will any money donated by members during pledge drives or the recent Million Dollars in a Week fundraiser in May be used for these fees?
  3. A few years ago KUT made a multimillion-dollar investment in acquiring and operating HD channels at KUT. Will there be any additional development of the HD channels if this purchase is approved, and just what type of programming will remain on the HD channels, if any?
  4. According to the proposal to the Trustees, aside from the money paid to PRC and its affiliate Public Media Company, the $6 million purchase would be paid by a loan from UT’s “Unexpected Plant Fund” at 4% for 20 years. KUT will then repay the loan from revenues generated by “sponsorship revenues and gifts.” Same question as #2 above: Will KUT members be paying for any of this through money generated during pledge drives, etc.?
  5. Multimillion-dollar deals such as this generally take months to get worked out before being submitted for approval. While discretion about pending deals is understandable, such a large expenditure would surely be of interest to members who have donated money to KUT. Has there been any public record of discussions on this matter?
  6. If the station is going to be split into two separate entities with one being all music, the other dedicated to news and talk, there will be many hours of additional programming time to be filled. And there will need to be decisions concerning local programming versus canned programming from other sources. Will station members be allowed a voice in those decisions?
  7. As an NPR affiliate, KUT currently has several hours of NPR programming in its schedule. Has NPR also been involved in the planning of this deal?
  8. Considering that the proposal has been tabled for the time being, will station managers be willing to open up a discussion with its members to see if this is something that its membership will actually support?
  9. The proposal mentions the Cactus Café fairly prominently. In fact, it states that the new KUTX will be “a high-profile platform for promoting and sharing content from the Cactus Café.” According to news reports before KUT stepped in, the Cactus had been losing money for years. What will the Cactus Café’s role be with this new KUT entity, and will monies be shared between the two?
  10. And finally, a venture of this magnitude would have to have been shepherded along by top management, and there would need to be some accountability if it falls apart. If this deal does not get approved, then who will bear the responsibility for that failure?

So that is my Top Ten for KUT management at this point. I am sure that they will be forthcoming with more information on this matter soon, just as I also believe that the sun will rise in the west tomorrow and that Santa Claus is indeed coming to town. So far in their tenure at KUT, Messrs. Vanderwilt and Mendenhall have proven fairly well bulletproof with their changes to the station. But this seems to be their grand vision for the very future of the station, a crowning achievement of sorts. I would seriously doubt that Stewart Vanderwilt would have ever placed this proposal on the Regents agenda if he had harbored any doubts of it getting approved. Since it has now been tabled indefinitely it would have to be seen as an embarrassment as well as a possible lack of confidence from the people holding the purse strings. If his grand vision gets turned down before it even gets started, just what will their fallback plan be? At this site we’ve been watching things over there for years. If the Regents punt on this and the deal falls through, it will be “KXBT? KXBT who?” going into the future. Or at least until next summer when the doldrums return and they are once again reaching out for that ever-elusive Miracle Cure. So stay tuned here, and in the meantime, Step Right Up!

—Rev Jim

Skinnin’ the Rubes

If you were to shake the ol’ Reverend’s family tree vigorously enough you’d be sure to have a few shady characters drop out of it, and at least a couple of outright con men. And some of their insights have been passed along through family lore. One of those is to be sure that you know just what your “mark” is looking to gain in any scheme; another is to be sure just how much you can skin out of them before they wise up and you have to skedaddle. Maybe my kin weren’t that good at it, as they tended to leave town in the middle of the night with no forwarding address. But for those who are slick enough you can generally milk a rube dry before he hollers.

With all that in mind I’ve been following the latest money-raising scheme over at KUT-FM this past month with great interest. The stated purpose of the “not-a-pledge-drive” was to raise funds to complete the much ballyhooed Public Media Studios, a $9.8 million 20,000 sq. ft. extravaganza that is needed to rescue station personnel from their basement dungeon. And I mean that seriously: The main complaint I heard during that week was that they don’t like being in the basement location where they’ve been for years and years. Apparently once they are sprung from that dungeon they will settle into that new two-story glass-walled studio facility, which is actually adjacent to the also new $54.7 million Belo Center for New Media. A link showing the whole shebang is here: http://communication.utexas.edu/support/new-building

Considering how many years all this has been in the planning it might be asked why in the world KUT feels the need to suddenly decide to start asking for money to complete such a grandiose project. But getting answers to that is problematic—the powers-that-be over at KUT don’t seem to be as easy with answers as they are with requests for money. And it leaves me to wonder if it might relate back to that first rule from my con men ancestors: Know what your mark wants to get out of the deal. In a published article that came out shortly before the pleas for money started (http://www.austin360.com/music/kut-fm-hopes-to-raise-1-million-for-2328805.html), station manager Stewart Vanderwilt alluded to wanting something more than just blueprints and pretty drawings to show the public.

“You always want to go into the public phase with as much accomplished as possible,” he states. But what he doesn’t state is just why a public phase is even needed. Is it really feasible to imagine that the Belo Center project would ever have gone forward without all the needed finances in place? I think it would have been an interesting meeting to have sat in on when it was suggested that they just start building and then hope they would get enough pledge dollars to complete it. High-level financiers aren’t really known for their laughter, but I can only imagine the guffaws coming from that room.

So why the need to do the not-a-fundraiser? I would say the answer is, why not? After all, there’s never enough money for an enterprise such as KUT, and if you have an occasion that might even remotely justify it then you just go for it. And what do the marks—errr . . . listeners—get out of pledging money to a project that is obviously already well-funded? I think it depends most on the amount of money being pledged. For those pledging relatively small amounts, say $100 or less, I would say the answer is that they really buy into the spiel that their donations are actually necessary to make good things possible. I think it’s part of all our better natures to help those that we believe are truly in need. And the on-air pleas for money are very effective, and deliberately stated to reach people on the personal level that makes a person think they are actually helping someone in need. The fact that even a minor bit of research shows the fallacy of that is immaterial when you have a DJ that you enjoy listening to every day pleading with you to please send some money then the first response is to do so. Members like that used to be the backbone of KUT, as well as at other public stations across the country. But with the new rules for “enhanced underwriting” and third-party fundraising, they are probably a minor part of an operation such as KUT now. I’d be very interested to know just how much of the million dollars-plus that was raised that week came from pledges of $100 or less, but KUT will not release information such as that. It might wake too many people up . . .

The next group would be those who pledged $500 or more. Those people were breathlessly told that they would get their names added to a wall in the new studios, a thrill that somehow escapes me. But that’s what this level of marks/listeners gets out of their money—an ego boost. And I would suppose that if you are the sort of person who dreams of having your name up in lights somewhere then maybe this is the next best thing. And I suppose that at this level the whole tax-deduction aspect would come into play. But I would still think there must be some bigger “bang for your buck” out there somewhere. But, again, it’s all in knowing what your mark is looking to get.

And then there’s that ever-mysterious upper-level type of donors, those I would never classify as marks. These are the folks who have bought their way into one of the “Leadership Circles.” There are a number of different levels there—starting at $1,200 and going up to the Vanguard Circle (that one will cost you a minimum of $25,000). I would think at that sort of altitude that mere ego boosts never come into play. If you have that kind of bucks to throw around then your ego is probably getting boosted every time you look in the mirror. Which is probably pretty often. . . . That kind of money gets you some actual clout, plus you get to play with the big boys. Big boys being station managers and the others in your circle, where you get to look down at all those in the lesser circles below you. And you also get in on the action, because this is where a big slice of the money donated that week came from.

I listened to a lot of that fundraising, and pretty much every day there would be a “matching funds challenge” of some sort of another. I know that on at least two days there were matching funds of $90k or more. And on the Friday finale there was one of $100k+. Those funds alone would add up to a big part of the total reached. And since those matching challenges always seem to magically get met, who’s to say how much more is actually donated from the Leadership Circle. Again,KUT won’t divulge those figures; better for you not to know.

So at the end of the week, the total posted on the KUT website was a cool $1,175,198, surpassing both the printed goal of $1 million and the goal stated on-air of “just under” a million. And all in just a five-day span, pretty impressive all around. Or as Kenya Lewis at College Radio United remarked to me: “$1 million in 5 days? Must be nice to be an NPR affiliate!” But I doubt that the NPR affiliation had much to do with it. It was mainly just a matter of keeping the two rules of the con in mind.

But it is the college-radio aspect that really makes this whole spectacle so ironic. KUT’s license is held by UT Systems, but they are the very antithesis of an actual college radio station. In essence they are a commercial station operating under a public radio license. But there is an actual student-run station on campus at UT Austin—tiny little KVRX. And the same week that the not-a-pledge drive was going on an interesting article came out about KVRX, and college radio in general, in the Austin Chronicle, Austin’s alternative weekly. A link to that story is here: http://www.austinchronicle.com/music/2012-05-11/whats-the-frequency-kenneth/.

In that story author Luke Winkie laments the decline of college radio, citing such instances as KTRU at Rice, KUSF at University of San Francisco, and WRVU at Vanderbilt, as well as the proposed sale of KVRX’s transmitter earlier this year. So far that has gone nowhere, and since their license is shared with another station, UT would have trouble selling the actual license. But KVRX is definitely having money issues: The article lists them having expenses so far in 2012 of $131,522, which is about half of what KUT was raising each day of their fundraiser the same week. Can you imagine how it would be if the radio fans who donated so much to this bloated construction project had just tuned up the dial to 91.7 and donated the same money there, even for just one day? Or if KUT management would for just one moment turn their eyes across campus to where KVRX is sitting and find a way of using their incredible fundraising ability to assist this training grounds for future radio talent? But I wouldn’t hold your breath while waiting. I seriously doubt any of the students down that way are in the Leadership Circles, and that’s where KUT’s attention is focused.

So now KUT has raised its million bucks in five days, and very conveniently their next actual fundraiser isn’t until next fall. Plenty of time for everyone to recover from whatever economic impact their generosity might have brought about, no matter which level. That’s very important, and it brings us back around to that second rule from my shady relatives—the one where you have to keep in mind just how much you can skin out of a particular rube before they get wise to your scam and start hollering. I’ve been watching KUT work this type of bit for several years now, and I keep expecting the basic members to look around and see just how they are being used. This particular week would have been the perfect time for that. Common sense should tell you that multimillion-dollar construction projects are not dependent on last-minute listener donations to move forward. But KUT knows their game so well by now that they really don’t bother to cover that up. They know too well what their marks want to get out of the deal, and they know just how far to push. I could only wish that my distant relatives could have done so well. Then I might have been born into a Leadership Circle!

—Rev Jim

R.I.P.

Featured in the Bonus Tracks Disc available with the Martin Scorsese’s Living in The Material World Deluxe Edition

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