KUT to the Quick

The Cactus Train Wreck

The bean counters at KUT in Austin managed to turn a situation with the Cactus Café from a potential face-saving good turn into just one more example of a ham-handed self-righteousness that’s come to characterize public relations at the Ewe of Tea in the last decade. A Facebook site (here) sporting 25,000 names (along with a “Fan Page” of an additional 9,000) chronicled the public relations farce that served only to illustrate the monumental hubris that the university — and the “public” radio station’s management — bring to the table. All in all, it’s a thinly veiled attempt to disguise the suits’ perception that they know better than you do what’s good for you.

The dénouement of this latest of public-relations disasters in mealy-mouthed double-dealing is dealt with in a blog post by Bob Kinney, a local writer/photographer, in a piece entitled “Matthew Munoz as new Cactus Cafe manager evokes a hearty ‘Who’s He?’” It describes the hiring of one Matthew Muñoz to manage the Cactus — an unknown not listed among the five “finalists” decreed by KUT from more than a hundred applicants for the job. Writing of Muñoz, Bob dissects the “veteran” tag attached to him and then relates this episode to the previous KUT PR fiasco regarding the shouldering aside of veteran KUT deejays:

Statesman music writer Patrick Caldwell wrote a perfunctory news story on the appointment of the unknown Matthew Munoz being named the new manager of the Café effective September 13. I am sure that Stewart Vanderwilt and Hawk Mendenhall — the top KUT Radio administrators who chose Munoz over Griff — smiled when they read the article since it parroted their talking points.

Both Caldwell’s article and the KUT Radio website describe Munoz as a “record industry veteran.”

But wait. Upon reading Munoz’ employment history, the former rock band drummer only began working in the record industry ten years ago. His work in Los Angeles was junior level and the Houston record company he represented recently in Austin has folded.

Munoz has absolutely no experience in booking artists in quality listening rooms like the Cactus Café — let alone the many Austin music bars ranging from the Continental Club, Antone’s and the Hole in the Wall to Emo’s, Ginny’s Little Longhorn, Threadgill’s, and Beerland. Ten years of below-top management experience in any profession does not add up to “veteran” status. Does it, Stewart?

It reminds local music fans of another time Vanderwilt used the word “veteran.” It happened when Vanderwilt brought David Brown to the KUT studios from California in early 2009. The Wall Street reporter for NPR, Brown had a regular spot on the weekday evening NPR newscast.

I recall that Brown’s wife was news director at KUT then and Brown’s move to Austin reunited the couple. Only trouble is that Brown was given the regular Thursday evening time slot that recently-retired Larry Monroe had for years. KUT staff complained that Brown was being paid way too much more than them. Monroe’s on-air hours were cut with Paul Ray’s a couple years ago and the 60-somethings lost their KUT health insurance as a result. John Aielli, KUT’s 40-year mainstay morning DJ, has had his on-air hours cut in half since Vanderwilt came to KUT in 2000. Despite mistreating these “veteran” DJs, KUT capitalizes on their iconic status and fan appreciation whenever profitable.

A recent letter to the editor in the Austin Chronicle noted that Brown and all other Vanderwilt Era KUT music program hosts have never broke the Top Ten of DJs in the Chronicle’s annual Best of Austin readers’ poll.

In his news release announcing Brown’s hiring and launching of his Texas Music Matters program on KUT, Vanderwilt described Brown as a “veteran journalist.”

A “veteran” of Wall Street chicanery — Yes.

But, Music . . . especially in Austin — No.

I see nothing but public relations, marketing and dealing with minor artists already signed to the company you work for in Munoz’ employment history. No senior management responsibilities. No supervision of folks who work for you. No experience in booking music clubs. Nothing but a promise to  somehow market the Cactus better. Can you see preferred stage-side seating for Cactus big donors coming soon?

What may have happened should have all folks thanking the ever-spunky Hayley Gillespie, co-founder of Student Friends of the Cactus Café on the UT campus.

Hayley has been in the forefront of opposition to UT’s very hidden maneuvers throughout 2010 to “repurpose” the Cactus Café and replace Luneburg who grew the music venue into a world-renowned listening room during the past 27 years. She filed numerous freedom of information requests during the spring and summer to expose the internal UT administrative machinations that brought shame to that world class university and, reportedly, harsh criticism from its pissed-off president, William Powers, about this unnecessary rupture of community relations.

The latest Gillespie legal action led to discovery of a truly swarmy history of emails between Cameron Smith, then assistant director of Texas Performing Arts (PAC — Bass Concert Hall etc) with UT administrators Hank Smith, Juan Gonzalez and Soncia Reagins-Lilly written days after the trio announced the “repurposing” of the Cactus Café.

Smith pitched himself to replace Griff and shamefully used students to further his goal. Paving the way for himself, Cameron Smith announced he would be leaving the PAC at the end of August — coincidentally about the time KUT would be announcing the new Cactus manager. Read the emails at — http://blogs.utexas.edu/sfotcc/2010/08/23/cactus-cafe-open-records/

The emotion attached to the Cactus affair can be seen far and wide in posts throughout the blogosphere. On this site, The Horn, in response to an article entitled “Has KUT all but fired Griff Luneberg?” commenters had much to say. Hank Alrich, prime mover at the late lamented Armadillo World Headquarters who pulled it back from the brink of bankruptcy, checked in with this:

On the one hand, no way should the Cactus have been losing money, if indeed that is what was happening. (Hard now to accept that as fact given the shyster garbage we’ve seen from the UT/KUT weasel pack.) On the other hand, having had some experience with venues in difficult times, I assert it would be reasonably easy to straighten out that part of it by working with Griff. If Cameron Smith were capable of running a venue he would never have settled for teaching some BS class about running venues. Has he ever in his life run one? At all? Welcome to an institution of lower learning.

Journalist Rob Patterson added this:

Let’s face it, folks. UT has no real regard for its educational mission and legacy. They also dissed John Lomax when he wanted to study folklore but at least later conceded that it was a valid field. Griff’s Cactus is at least as valuable as any folkloric holding at the Barker Center, and as an ear for genuine talent for the ages, he is as keen as Lomax. In short, a precious resource being kicked to the gutter. Way to go, UT!

The school also shits on its students and the community around it (The Cactus was one of the few places there this townie went regularly.) KUT has already been absorbed into the institution’s slimy yuppie Borg. Now they shall reduce the Cactus to the same level of mendacious mediocrity. It’s a truly fetid affair, all of it . . . but for Griff, a good man — maybe not always the easiest man, and I say this as someone who calls him a friend and has much the same foible — who is getting royally screwed.

UT claims of inadequacy of Cactus management are belied by the actual facts of the matter. Zachary Bidner noted on the Facebook fan page that the club has been voted the best acoustic venue in the Austin Music Awards from 2001 through 2009. Activist Ikeda Tomoko added the following:

Also, Billboard magazine named the Cactus as one of fifteen “solidly respected, savvy clubs” in the US “from which careers can be cut, that work with proven names and new faces.” The Cactus was a nominee for the Second Annual North American . . . Folk Alliance Awards (Small Folk Venue).

Matt Munoz’s remark about “the top five venue in Austin” (Austin Business Journal) reminds me of VP Gonzalez, who said that he wanted to make the Cactus “the hottest ticket in town.” It seems that Mr. Munoz has no understanding of the value of the music venue he’ll be managing.

This seems quite in keeping with the old joke repeated here time and again: What’s the difference between UT suits and yogurt? Yogurt has a live culture. Or, in the words of one wag commenter: “What integrity? What transparency? What honesty? What, me worry?”
It remains to be seen the long-term effect on the Cactus Café — or, more to the point, on its overlords, the KUT bean counters. The fall fundraiser is just around the corner, and the squandering of public goodwill in this affair and the previous PR disaster with station deejays may have some unintended cumulative consequence when KUT once again takes hat in hand to see if waning individual support continues its decline. For the nonce, it bears repeating that the ultimate responsibility for this train wreck lies in the hands of the dean of the UT School of Communications, Roderick Hart, who has looked on in benign acceptance at the machinations of KUT suits in a botched public relations debacle — in this, the self-styled Live Music Capital of the World.

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4 Responses

  1. As I had said Bob, a minor quibble at best. And certainly nothing to take away from the larger point that you made so well, the long history VanderHawk has of bringing in basically unknown personnel of dubious experience and then inflicting them on the Austin music scene. And, as was made obvious in our attempts at justice for the KUT staff & listeners over the past year, Stewart Vanderwilt obviously has UT Systems in his pocket.They are going to give him carte blanche to remove any vibrancy from campus-based music and replace it with corporate approved MOR pablum. But anytime there are motivated students there is hope, and Hayley Gillespie and her bunch give this old geezer just that.Thanks again for your thoughts. Hope to see more of you here!

  2. thanks for complimenting my post, Jim. Appreciate you pointing out David Brown took over the air time of the KUT Horizontes program and not Larry Monroe’s. Will correct my blog. Bob

  3. Oh SpellCheck! Why hast thou forsaken me….? In my previous post I referred to VanderHawk by the new moniker of “Duplicous Duo.” The correct spelling would be Duplicitous Duo of course. And you know, there’s nothing quite as humbling as making an error yourself whilst pointing out someone else’s. D’oh ! !

  4. Great post about the latest trainwreck brought on by the Duplicous Duo of Stewart Vanderwilt & Hawk Mendenhall. Methinks the Cactus’ troubles have just begun. But I truly, fervently hope, for all the ardent supporters and artists who love the venue, that I am wrong. Maybe Mr Munoz will show some so far unknown talent for doing a job that was already being done to perfection by Griff Luneberg.
    And, while it’s a minor quibble, I think there is an error in Bob Kinney’s mention of David Brown’s original assignment at KUT. To the best of my knowledge David Brown was never given Larry Monroe’s old Thursday night time slot (The Phil Music Show). That dubious honor went to Matt Reilly, where he is still running it into the ground today. David Brown was given a new show, Texas Music Matters, whose main slot is Fridays at noon. I believe that hour was taken away from the great Horizontes, the long-running Latin Jazz show. So either way David Brown was given a piece of someone else’s pie. But a great article by Mr Kinney either way!

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