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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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!