Hard Times at KUT

Jim Radio of Austin Airwaves sent along this note about the fight over funding of public radio in general and KUT-Austin in particular. It came on the heels of Larry Monroe’s announcement that his free-form “Phil Music” show and “Blue Monday” will be returning to the air — on another station:

For a second day The Daily Texan has had a story regarding non-commercial radio. Tuesday’s story focused on the possible “zeroing out” of the CPB line item from the proposed federal budget.

Needless to say, NPR and CPB stations, long used to the relatively ease of access to six, and sometimes even seven, digits of federal funds each year, are flogging the case to “save” their stations.

“Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me . . . Big Bird, Right?!”
There are arguments to be made on both sides of this issue. As a longtime advocate for public broadcasting, I would like to see federal funds continue for the type of programming that is offered on the local NPR and PBS affiliates. I note there are far worse ways that our federal government spends our taxes dollars.

What the brief, student reporter-written story didn’t mention, among other things, is that two fairly well-known Texans, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Sam Rayburn, are widely considered responsible for the creation of the CPB.  A fact that public radio stations should remember is that it was LBJ who included “public radio” in the original Congressional bill. It was originally going to be entitled the “Corporation for Public Television.”

SaveKUTAustin Committee
I served as the “Designated Radio Nerd” for the SaveKUTAustin Committee that formed spontaneously in August 2009 after the  management at KUT — station manager Stewart Vanderwilt and program director Jody Evans — dumped the beloved “Phil Music” program hosted by veteran KUT DJ Larry Monroe in addition to other brutal cuts from his hours and those of fellow DJs Paul Ray and John Aielli. Hawk Mendenhall initially lamely claimed that they “had to for budgetary reasons.”  They replaced the overnight programming of Larry and Paul with “Undercurrents,” a syndicated show that only cost $3,000 a year, hoping to no avail to improve ratings — and pledges.

But at KUT, Money’s So Tight, We Have to Build Another Brand New Building!
K/UT is currently building a new state-of-the-art broadcast facility, the Belo Center for New Media, right across the street from their current building, the Big Rusty Cube. Estimated construction cost? KUT’s portion is reportedly $11 million. The whole building is said to cost $60 million.

That’s $60,000,000!

Even during the height of the community backlash against phiring Phil Music, KUT management would not release the specific budget figures. And still won’t, hiding behind its status as part of the University of Texas. Go figures. It was, however, learned that the top five of the KUT management scrum, pulled down a combined $500,000+ in salaries and benefits (Director Vanderwilt, $146,500; Assoc. Director Mendenhall, $112,500; Assist. Director Sylvia Ponce-Carson, $97,000; and LA imports, husband-and-wife team Sr. Producer David Brown, $84,000, and Mgr. Emily Donahue, $81,100). In contrast, the DJs are hourly employees.

To add insult to injury, reports suggest that the new building is to house an “audio vault,” a computerized system containing the songs that DJs must play from — the final blow to free-form radio at KUT.

So will KUT, one of the major players in public radio and thereby entitled to more “consideration” from the CPB, suffer from Congressional action to defund public radio? “Funding from the CPB makes up about 7 percent of KUT’s operating budget, or roughly $500,000 a year,” said KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt . . .” Correct me if my numbers are wrong, but that would put KUT’s budget at a staggering $7.1 million! I’m thinking that the reduction or loss of CPB funds for KUT would be as much of a “threat” as swiping the penny tray on the counter from the local Wal-Mart.

How much were they paying Phil Music?

So does Jim think a CPB emasculation is imminent? “The CPB will, sadly, either be gutted outright, with its entrails splattered across Sesame Street, or have its budget reduced by more than half.” And, “KUT’s overall budget for the year following the end of CPB funding will not decrease significantly.”

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