Fundraising, Whitewashing, and the Ghost of a Legend

On Thursday, November 18, 1999, the world lost one of its most unique and wonderful characters. Whether you called him Sir Doug, The Texas Tornado, or maybe even Wayne Douglas, there was only one Douglas Wayne Sahm. A musical prodigy, he made his first radio appearance at age five and recorded his first record at eleven. He was an absolute whirlwind of energy, and he was Texas through and through. Back in the Seventies, he was one of the artists who drew me here from the oilfields of Wyoming. His album Groovers Paradise was an homage to Austin, from its Kerry Awn artwork to songs like Beautiful Texas Sunshine, no one could listen to it and ignore the urge to come to Austin. Not that anyone resisted much — Doug was like a high-energy beacon drawing in the musically curious. And he was not an unknown starving artist. In those days, he was one of the few Austin artists to have had any real national exposure. He had hit records with the Sir Douglas Quintet, solo albums, and rave reviews from Rolling Stone. Bob Dylan was a major fan. And he played all genres — country, Tejano, blues, rock-n-roll. Doug could play it all with an authenticity that no one else could match, due in large part to his upbringing in San Antonio, a real melting pot of musical styles. He was widely respected by his peers and truly loved by his fans. So when he died suddenly at age 58 while on the road in Taos, the whole town felt as though it had been gut-punched. You could almost feel his energy draining away.

As the word spread that night, an impromptu group of mourners gathered, and its meeting place was public radio station KUT-FM. Since it was a Thursday night, the scheduled program was Phil Music. Its creator and longtime host was Larry Monroe. The people gathering that night ranged from fellow DJs to journalists to Doug’s fellow musicians and collaborators. I was not in the studio that night. I was at home tuned in. But what transpired over the next few hours was what public radio always aspires to be but very rarely attains. It touched the heart of the community it served and brought us all together in a moving tribute to a friend’s passing. I went to bed that night with echoes of Doug’s songs in my head.

But of course the next morning, the world moved on, as it always does. Austin eventually moved on as well, growing fast and going through many changes as it did. And changes came to KUT as well, many of them not expected or appreciated by those who felt they had helped grow the station to its national stature. In 2000, there was a change in station management. Phil Corriveau, the station manager in charge at the time of Doug’s passing, was let go, replaced by Stewart Vanderwilt, a radio professional whose last job had been at WBST in Muncie, Indiana, where his performance had mixed reviews. Almost immediately, rumors started that programs such as Phil Music were under scrutiny to be axed. Mr. Vanderwilt gave public assurances that it was not so, that he felt such programs were part of KUT’s appeal to its listeners, as indeed they were. But changes were made, slowly at first, then at a faster pace. One of the first shows to be cut was Teresa Ferguson’s Femme FM, then the all-night shows bit the dust. On the day shift, John Aielli’s Eklektikos was cut from six to four hours, and he was placed on the same newly designated song-rotation schedule as the other music programs. By the middle of the decade, the station was down to two DJs doing four 8-11 pm shows during the week — Larry Monroe with Blue Monday and Phil Music on Mondays and Thursdays and Paul Ray with Paul Ray’s Jazz on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Then, on Thursday, July 2, 2010, the hammer came down. Jody Evans, the program director newly appointed from Vermont, called both men in separately and announced their shows were being discontinued. Paul Ray was on his first day of vacation at the time. Larry Monroe was given a four-hour notice that the long-running Phil Music had been axed — their meeting was at 4 pm and he had been scheduled to broadcast the popular program that night at 8:00 — pretty cold treatment for a dedicated DJ who had contributed so much to the station for so long. Both men also lost their 11 pm-to-3 am programs (replaced with a national canned show, Undercurrents) as well as their health insurance, since they were no longer working 20 hours per week.

No advance notice was given to the public, and no input was ever solicited. In one fell swoop, the old guard was gone, and three evening time slots were given to newcomer Matt Reilly.

Then, of course, came months of meetings and protests. Austin luminaries such as former Mayor Lee Cooke and former councilman Daryl Slusher joined in, as well a huge contingent of Austin musicians and loyal listeners. Benefit concerts were held, and there were meetings with station managers and UT officials, all of which went nowhere, with station managers refusing to compromise and the UT president refusing to intervene. After that, Larry Monroe continued on with his one show, the award-winning Blue Monday, until August 30, 2010, when he officially retired from KUT.

Since that time, the station has been completely under the control of Stewart Vanderwilt and Hawk Mendenhall, and it runs on their guidelines — no more free-form programming, no more hour-long sets of music. Any visitors to the station must now be cleared by management in advance, and there is no deviation allowed from the formatted song rotation. And since they are doing so with the blessing of UT regents and have been able to meet their fundraising goals, I long ago resigned myself to the loss of the station that I once enjoyed so much.

Then on the morning of September 30, 2011, when I listened to the KUT fall fundraiser, I heard mention of the night Doug Sahm died as well as the tribute show that followed, and the memories of that night came flooding back, a perfect example of how great the station used to be. The DJ who brought up the subject was the new Friday Eklektikos host, Jody Denberg. Mr. Denberg was one of those who went down to KUT that sad night in 1999. At that time, he was with commercial station KGSR. So Mr. Denberg is well aware of just what the situation was at KUT and at least should be aware of how different things are now at the station. But his pitch that morning was to use a transcendent night from long ago as a reason to pledge money to the station now, completely ignoring all of the changes that have happened since that time. He made no mention of Larry Monroe or of Phil Music. To hear him tell the story you would think there had been no changes whatsoever at KUT. And for the new listeners whom KUT is trying to lure with such pitches, there is no difference. All they’ve ever heard is the homogenized, tightly formatted middle-of-the-road programming that Mr. Vanderwilt probably had in mind from his first day on the job back in 2000.

Apparently, station personnel are now going to start trying to whitewash the past, to create a revisionist history in which there never was any free-form programming, no drop-in guests, no freedom of expression for the on-air personalities. As I stated above, I long ago gave up trying to bring the old ways back — Stewart Vanderwilt has won. But I think it is a Pyrrhic victory at best. The new ratings came out recently and show that KUT has dropped from number 1 to number 5 to number 9 and now has slipped into the 10th position among the Top Ten stations in Austin. So maybe the revisionist history is being created to cover up what has been lost, to eliminate any great moments from the past.

And what will happen the next time Austin loses one of its musical icons? I can’t imagine anyone showing up on a Thursday night to gather for Music With Matt Reilly, even if such gatherings were still allowed. I think the best we could expect from KUT would be some eventual high-gloss hour-long fluff piece from the velvet-voiced David Brown on Texas Music Matters. But anything that would actually have a personal impact at the time? Simply not allowed . . . But that is only at KUT, the old voice for the Austin music scene.

Today, that sense of musical community has moved down the dial a bit, over to a low-power FM station in Dripping Springs — KDRP. And over there we find old friends from the old Austin music scene, including broadcasting and performing legend Sammy Allred. And, of course, KDRP is the new home of Larry Monroe, complete with both Blue Monday and Phil Music back on their original nights Monday and Thursday, from 7-10 pm. Station manager Ryan Schuh has promised Larry complete artistic control over his shows. Drop-in guests? No problem! Hours-long tributes to a single artist? Absolutely! And he has put his money where his mouth is. Larry Monroe has already done several long tributes, including to Pinetop Perkins and Calvin Russell. See our article on those “Passing Tributes” (https://keeppublicradiopublic.com/2011/04/11/passing-tributes/). The vision shown by the people at KDRP is exactly what may save radio as an art form as well as make KDRP the focal point whenever the community needs to come together.

Doug Sahm has always cast a long shadow over this town, and I’d say that his spirit still does. We now have Doug Sahm Hill in South Austin, and the annual celebration of his life at Antone’s is one of the greatest gatherings of Austin musicians at any time. His ghost was definitely with me while I wrote this. I’ve been listening to a recording of that night from almost twelve years ago and marvel again at Doug, Larry, Margaret Moser, Ernie Durawa, and all the others who went to the studio then. As for Jody Denberg, I hope that when he next thinks of that night that he will remember how Doug’s spirit brought everyone down to Larry’s program, not just to a station, and that he will leave the fundraising and the whitewashing out of such memories and give everyone who brought healing to the community their due. From the people in the studio that night to those listening at home, I think we did Doug proud. Lets not change that now.

—Rev Jim

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TROLLS GONE WILD

by savewrvuradio

TROLL IN CHIEF CARROLL LORDS OVER ‘NEW’ WRVU

Chris Carroll, Please Go Away.

As noted earlier, Carroll and the Vanderbilt Student Communications (VSC) — wholly deprived of representatives of WRVU —continues to have an overbearing role over what is now, in name only, a student run organization.  Carroll has made it a career at Vanderbilt to wrest control of basic responsibilities out of student hands and, now, continues unabated, with a new string shameful deeds as the neutered new Vanderbilt student-run radio station starts its ‘reboot’ semester.  The latest Carroll dictate is making sure that DJs, who rightly aired grievances with the recent deplorable actions of the VSC, and its dishonest handling of the proposed sale of WRVU over the past year,  be subjected to an unprecedented VSC ‘screening’ process.  Troll in chief, Chris Carroll, unsurprisingly is rejecting applications of djs who have not proved sufficiently submissive through the recent Carroll-led attempts at poaching WRVU away from the students to largely pay Carroll and VSC ‘adult’ salary bloat.

A letter the editor from one such victim, a 10+ year WRVU DJ and current Vanderbilt Staff Member as well as the host of a long-running highly popular show wrote the following:

VSC REVOKES VU STAFF MEMBER’S DJ PRIVILEGES

[…]

[…] my application to do a show this fall was rejected by Student Media Adviser Chris Carroll (acting alone). When I discussed this with him, I was told he thought I’d be ‘toxic’ at WRVU because I had often stated publicly that an online-only WRVU would be a poor substitute for an FM station and thus the sale was a bad idea. He claimed I would badmouth the station and poison student morale. (I’m an alumnus and a VU staff member. Before turning in show applications, we’d been told that VU-affiliated non-students’ applications would merely be ‘reviewed’ by VSC and did not need ‘approval.’)

I said that when I decided to do a show again, I determined to do what I could to improve WRVU in its new form. Why would I sign up if I wanted to sabotage WRVU? I promised not to ‘editorialize’ while working, and suggested that at the first questionable syllable they could can me. I pointed out that no WRVU staffer had expressed resentment of my comments — we’d been on the same side. None of this made a difference. I think Carroll just doesn’t want me to have any chance to state my opinions publicly. This seems a clear example of censorship by prior restraint.

It was also clear that Carroll was retaliating against me for opposing VSC.  He claimed that giving me a show would be like
inviting someone to your house for dinner after he had insulted you.

[…]

Carroll said that he would rather run automation, which currently fills much of the schedule, than give a show to someone whom he sees as a potential troublemaker. This was not the will of the station staff. General Manager Robert Ackley enthusiastically invited my continued participation and that of the two other rejectees (for whom I do not speak here, by the way). […]

I believe Student Media Adviser Carroll is imposing his will on the station for reasons of censorship and retaliation (against me in this case). I feel I’ve been wronged, but I write also because I think Carroll is behaving unethically to disempower opposition to the license sale — which by the way is not yet complete — and establish greater control over WRVU. Once again VSC makes clear that the interests of WRVU and its student staff are not a priority.

Does this mean students shouldn’t support WRVU? Of course not. It’s more important now than ever. WRVU is still a golden opportunity for students and a part of Nashville culture, whether on the airwaves or not. Keep your eye out for ways to show your support, and become a DJ yourself — it’s your right as a student, and fun as hell.  This is a crucial moment and you can be a part of it.

Read full letter HERE.

Note that this letter to the editor is posted on InsideVandy also under Carroll’s purview and unsurprisingly, readers have found it difficult to get their responses to show in the comments section. Hmmmmmmmm.

The real shocker is that this Troll overlord is operating unfettered, at the obvious expense of the students, with full complicity with the Vanderbilt administration, who ostensibly should be functioning on behalf of the students and keeping a check on these ‘adult’ trolls gone wild.

ARE THERE BIGGER FORCES AT PLAY?!?

A great in-depth report on the PRC, strip-miner of college radio, can be found HERE in the invaluable blog Keeping the Public in Public Radio. In the article, WRVU’s case is highlighted as being the latest in a string of ‘serial killings’.

A must read: Public Radio Capital: Money From the Sky.

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