R.I.P. Larry Monroe

 

 

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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

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

DvG2: KDRP Takes on Clear Channel

It’s springtime in the Texas Hill Country. Bluebonnets are blooming and new-borne critters are rustling through the underbrush. Over in Austin, the South by Southwest festivities are drawing down and the students are coming back from Spring Break. But out in the little community of Dripping Springs, a battle is brewing, a battle over the airwaves themselves.

And it truly does look like a David vs Goliath rematch—a small nonprofit radio station taking on one of the true giants in broadcasting, Clear Channel Communications. According to its website, Clear Channel today reaches over 110 million listeners on over 850 stations nationwide, five of those being in the Austin area itself. They also syndicate 90 programs and services to more than 5,000 station affiliations, as well as owning and operating more that 140 stations in Australia and New Zealand. All in all, last year they boasted of nearly 6 billion dollars in revenue. So with numbers like that the San Antonio-based corporation seems the very epitome of a giant, and as with most giants it’s used to getting its way.

And, for better or worse, KDRP fits into the role of the over-matched underdog all too well. On their website the Mission Statement says, in part:

 The Principle Broadcasting Foundation will primarily offer community, family and spiritual educational programming, community events such as High School Sporting Events from the various surrounding areas will often be broadcast in addition to public awareness programs regarding community issues. Also offered will be music programming, Public Service Announcements, News and Feature Programs that are responsive to the needs and interest of the local community.

And it is the music programming that is drawing a wider audience to the station, mainly due to some savvy decisions by General Manager Ryan Schuh and Operations Manager Denver O’Neal. Last year they added two radio legends to their on-air talent pool—Sammy Allred and Larry Monroe. Both had long careers on larger stations in Austin but had parted ways with their former employers. KDRP realized that both still had loyal followings and returned them to the airwaves last year, Sammy in a familiar early-morning slot and Larry back on in the evenings. And recently the station announced its newest show and host—“290 Radio,” hosted by singer/songwriter Paula Nelson. With its signal reaching through the Hill Country, maybe proud papa Willie can tune her in whenever he’s in town. Or he can always pick it up streaming worldwide.

So, to look at these two entities from afar, it would be hard to imagine that they would ever come into conflict; their goals are just too disparate. Clear Channel is obviously out for maximum profit and clout in the broadcasting world, and KDRP is a nonprofit low-power station set up to broadcast small town community events and Texas-flavored music. Their two paths should never cross. But a battle is in fact brewing and now KDRP is lawyering up.

And the basis for that battle has been building for some time now, going back at least until June of 2011. Much of that was covered at the time, both by our site, here, and by Austin NBC affiliate KXAN reporter Jim Swift, here. In a nutshell, the problem is one that gets down to the very heart of any broadcaster, the sanctity of their signal. Starting in June 2011 KDRP began hearing reports from listeners about strange content coming in, something besides the small-town chat shows and church news they were expecting. Instead it was sports talk radio, along with ads for what many considered unsuitable products—such as adult-oriented businesses and breast augmentation clinics. With these ads sometimes coming in during actual church sermons, it was pretty disturbing for any parishioners tuning in from home.

Most of the background on just how that came to be was covered in depth in the previous articles, but in brief, it turns out that local station KVET, a Clear Channel affliate, had secured antennae space on a tower actually owned by a major religious broadcaster, Educational Media Foundation. And then through some fairly intricate moves between the giants, the EMF tower was moved closer to KDRP’s tower, resulting in two stations now broadcasting on the 103.1 frequency with only 15 miles separating their towers. Now anyone trying to listen to KDRP on their assigned frequency may well get KVET instead. Or, even more frustrating, they will get “drift” between the two and basically keep switching back and forth unexpectedly.

Of course, there is a government agency specifically set up to prevent and handle such disputes, the Federal Communications Commission. But, as with many national agencies, the rules and regulations there can best be described as byzantine. And there is always the suspicion that politics and financial clout is what carries the day at FCC, something that wouldn’t bode well for a tiny entity such as KDRP. Things certainly haven’t gotten off to an auspicious start with the agency. According to a letter recently published on the KDRP website, they first contacted the FCC and the owners of KVET about the alleged interference and were instructed to obtain letters of concern from the public. Those letters were then sent to the FCC, who ordered KVET to investigate. In reply, KVET argued that the letters were mainly written by KDRP underwriters, volunteers, sponsors and other fans and therefore were not legitimate complaints. That seems to be a pretty specious argument, and as the KDRP letter goes on to state :

Apparently the FCC will only accept complaints from passive listeners or complete strangers to KDRP. If so, this raises a question: How would anyone know they are receiving interference to the 103.1 signal if they are not already a fan of KDRP?

How indeed. . . . If the actual listeners being affected are not considered valid complainants, then it is hard to see how any station anywhere could ever make a case for signal interference. Casual or first-time listeners would have no idea that anything was wrong, or know who to file a complaint with if they did. Seems like a bit of pretzel logic, and since KVET refuses to acknowledge the interference or return phone calls, things seem to be heading for litigation.

Of course the FCC could well step in and actually do something to enforce their own guidelines—the guidelines on signal interference are pretty clear. But federal agencies are notoriously slow weighing in on local matters, or at  least they usually are. And that’s where this story takes an unexpected twist. This whole issue first came about when Clear Channel was able to move that transmission tower closer to Austin from another location, and that requires an OK from the FCC. And the usual processing time for such a ruling is generally six to nine months. In this case the FCC expedited the process and approved it in just eight days. This is being viewed by many as a sign that Clear Channel has the inside track at the FCC, and with all of their money and political connections the suspicion doesn’t seem far-fetched.

So now the little station in Dripping Springs is preparing to do battle as the David against the Goliath of Clear Channel, and they’re doing their best to get the word out. As an opening salvo they held a “Free the Airwaves” benefit concert in Austin the same weekend as the SXSW Music Festival. People came to the beautiful oak garden at Hill’s Cafe for a lengthy show that featured such acts as the above-mentioned Paula Nelson as well as Clay McClinton, George Devore and a surprise visit from Waylon Jenning’s son, Shooter, who performed a spirited set. There was also a silent auction and speeches from station personnel and from the attorney who is going to be heading the legal maneuvers to return KDRP’s signal back to its rightful owners and listeners.

There are a lot of changes going on in the radio world right now, and it’s difficult to determine just where this will all end. The FCC is already working on frequency allotments for further LP-FM stations such as KDRP, and there is always concern there about market saturation and diversity with conglomerates such as Clear Channel. As those new frequencies get assigned and the new generation of small stations come on line, there will doubtless be further conflicts between small community stations and the media giants. So perhaps the bellwether for the future may be the fate of this tiny little station out in the Hill Country. The David taking on the Goliath on his own turf, right there at the FCC. As of now it’s impossible to say how David will do in “DvG2,” or how long it might take to resolve. But for the listeners out in the Hill Country tuning in to 103.1, the only mystery for them lies in just what they might hear.

 —Rev Jim

 

 

Engineer-Speak for “Dud”

This post, “Radio’s digital dilemma: broadcasting in the 21st century,” on the University of Illinois website, pretty much says it all — Big Money (and NPR) muscled compliant FCC into a system designed to make a few people rich and thwart competition, ends up being trash:

The interaction of policy and technological development in the era of “convergence” is messy and fraught with contradictions. The best expression of this condition is found in the story behind the development and proliferation of digital audio broadcasting (DAB). Radio is the last of the traditional mass media to navigate the convergence phenomenon; convergence itself has an inherently disruptive effect on traditional media forms. However, in the case of radio, this disruption is mostly self-induced through the cultivation of communications policies which thwart innovation. A dramaturgical analysis of digital radio’s technological and policy development reveals that the industry’s preferred mode of navigating the convergence phenomenon is not designed to provide the medium with a realistically useful path into a 21st century convergent media environment. Instead, the diffusion of “HD Radio” is a blocking mechanism proffered to impede new competition in the terrestrial radio space. HD Radio has several critical shortfalls: it causes interference and degradation to existing analog radio signals; does not have the capability to actually advance the utility of radio beyond extant quality/performance metrics; and is a wholly proprietary technology from transmission to reception. Despite substantive evidence in the record clearly warning of HD Radio’s fundamental detriments, the dominant actors in the policy dialogue were able to quell these concerns by dint of their economic might and through intensive backstage discourse directly with the Federal Communications Commission. Since its official proliferation in 2002, HD Radio’s growth has stagnated; some early-adopter stations are actually abandoning the protocol and receiver penetration is abysmal. As a result, the future of HD Radio is quite uncertain. Domestically, the entire process of HD Radio’s regulatory approval can be seen as a capstone in the history of communications regulation which favors neoliberal ideology over empirical engineering data and a vocal public interest. However, the apparent failure of digital radio is not confined to the United States: the dilemma of DAB’s adoptive weakness is a global and technologically agnostic phenomenon. Perhaps this says something about the inherent necessity of digitizing radio, and invites significant confusion over the future identity of “radio” as we know it today. If DAB were to fail, the outcome would invite entirely new ways of thinking about the future of broadcasting in a convergent media environment.

Love Stinks

I’ve had the blues,
The reds and the pinks
One thing for sure
Love stinks !

—J Geils Band

It’s Valentine’s Day again, that wonderful super sweet holiday designed just for the lover in all of us .The one day of the year dedicated to that most special of all emotions, the one thing that keeps the whole wide world a-turnin’. Yes we’re talking about love. Love, the most elevated and high minded of all emotions, the one sure fire dividing line between us and those lowly animals who will never know the thrill of just sharing space with that one incredible being who lights up your life, opens up your heart and lets the light of the cosmos shine down upon you.

And if you believe all of that then you either haven’t hit puberty yet or you are the most gullible person that Hallmark Cards has ever seen coming down the pike. Love’s a bitch, and a dirty back-stabbing one at that. Pat Benatar once sang that “Love is a Battlefield,”  but that assumes a chance of actually winning somehow. Love isn’t a battlefield, it’s a myth. A rumor, not to be believed. Sure, you hear of people finding their one true love, but you also hear of people being taken up in flying saucers. And I put about the same amount of faith in each. Back in high school I read the book Love Story. The author said that love meant never having to say that you’re sorry. Mainly I was sorry that I had wasted my time reading such a load of crap. If you never want to say you’re sorry then I’d recommend a massive bank account, not true love.

Of course one could say that I’m somewhat cynical. . . . But if so then I’m hardly the only one. Have you ever looked into the content of love songs? For every “Unchained Melody” there are at least two “Heart of Stone”s. For example, a few Valentines ago I was suffering from a major case of lust (not love, sorry) and set out to put together a mix tape of “Love” songs for someone. And I soon discovered it was damn near impossible to put together 20 songs about love without a good percent of them being about the down side of it all. The side that rips the beating heart out of your chest just so you can feel the pain, the part where that bottle of sleeping pills looks more and more delicious by the minute. I finally did get that tape put together and sent it off to the object of my desires and . . . two days later she was back with her ex and I haven’t heard from her since. So maybe the love songs did have an impact, but hardly the one I intended. And that’s love in a nutshell. Just as soon as you believe in it, you can count on it twisting and turning and becoming the one thing you fear the most — love gone away. And that leads to the other love songs, the ones designed to help you deal with the reality, not with the myth.

So a few years ago I was really happy to discover a celebration of those dark, disturbing songs, the ones that outnumber the sappy ones, the ones that would win any election due to sheer numbers  alone. And it’s on February 15th, the day all the sweetness comes crashing down. I was first turned onto this dark celebration by KUT-FM Eklektikos host John Aielli. He dedicates his post-Valentines show every year to love’s bad side, and he starts off every year with the incredible “Love Stinks” by the J Geils Band, maybe the best stinkin’ love song of all. I say maybe the best because once you start digging into them the list is amazingly long, and it just keeps growing. Apparently one of the top growth industries every year is that of heartbreak and disillusionment; new entries just keep coming in. So John’s celebration of the bad side of love always stays fresh, there’s never any shortage of material.

But this year I’ve been worrying if another shortage might hit the Love Stinks celebration — that being a shortage of show host. John Aielli has been hospitalized twice in the past 30 days or so, heart issues of a whole different stripe. The first occurrence was an actual heart attack the night of January 4th, and he was hospitalized and was off the air for a couple of weeks while recovering. He returned for a few days but then on January 30th he had another episode while preparing for his show and was hospitalized again, thankfully returning on February 6th. We here at the site are big fans of John and wish him a full and speedy recovery, as his contributions to the arts here in Austin are immeasurable. John has been with KUT for over 40 years, and his ability to roll with the punches is almost as astounding. I can’t even count how many changes in management he has seen. I’ve always figured that John would weather the current regime as well, and here’s hoping he does. I don’t want to rehash our problems with current management in this piece. I think instead I will just say how happy I am that John is still on the air, and that we hope for more shows like these. I don’t know what Valentines Day would be like for me now without John. Not the stupid Hallmark Holiday on the 14th of course, but that wonderful return to cynical reality the next day. Love Stinks indeed . . .

To salute John this year I’ve put together a top 10 list of my own favorite stinking love songs, with of course “Love Stinks” at the top. But other than that they are in no particular order. So take a look, maybe put your own list together. And then keep them in mind when you’re eyeing that new sweetie, the one you know you could always love all of your life. And then remind yourself that these songs didn’t write themselves — think of them as those warning signs you see around high-voltage wires. Or those labels on pill bottles . . .  Then wise up and remember

LOVE STINKS ! ! !

Here are Rev Jim’s stinking love songs. I hope to hear them time & again forever.

  1. Love Stinks   J. Geils Band
  2. Heart of Stone   Rolling Stones
  3. Heartbreak Hotel   Elvis Presley
  4. Alison   Elvis Costello
  5. It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way   Willie Nelson
  6. Empty Handed Heart   Warren Zevon
  7. Love Has No Pride   Bonnie Raitt
  8. Thin Line Between Love and Hate   The Pretenders
  9. Roses in the Fire   Rosanne Cash
  10. Why D’ya Do It   Marianne Faithful

—Rev Jim  February 2012

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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