Pubcasters cater to many of Austin's sundry tribes
Originally published in Current, Oct. 18, 1999
In almost 25 years, Austin City Limits has thoroughly propagated the city’s country-cool image. Pictured: the Dixie Chicks, last season. (Photo: Scott Newton.)
By Diana Claitor
AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Austin sits smack dab in the middle of Texas, bubbling like a pot of chili on a too-hot fire, fueled by silicon chips, warm winters, music, and newcomers pouring in from the rest of the country.
"In Austin, you don’t have the ‘undue influence’ of other large metropolitan areas," says Kate Dearborn of the NPR series Latino USA. "Austin is isolated and is so far south." Close to Mexico and far from Washington is the way cantankerous locals describe it. Half of Austinites now live standard American suburban lives, but the city’s favorite adjective for itself is still "unique."
While this state capital’s basic ingredients are still politics and university students, its moderate-size population contains an immoderately diverse selection of self-assertive public broadcasting constituencies. They consume a banquet of programming, ranging from the spicy caldo of Latino USA and the down-home casserole of Austin City Limits to the smooth sorbet of Classical Guitar Alive!
"One thing I found is that public broadcasting in Austin cuts through all levels of society," says Maria Martin, executive producer and creator of Latino USA. "It’s not just a highbrow medium here. You see that in Austin City Limits--a kind of musical program that reflects what’s going on in the clubs and streets."
You also see it in the fact that this small city--in the heart of a huge state not known for progressivism--is also home of WINGS, the Women’s International News Gathering Service, as well as progressive KOOP radio. Then there’s the new pirate station Free Radio Austin, a 40-watt wonder, which operates illegally only 15 minutes from the six-story complex that houses the public radio and television studios of KUT Radio and KLRU-TV.
A market researcher could isolate a rich diversity of psychodemographic sectors--Lyle-Lovers, Conjunto-cravers, Educated Elite, Aging Hipoisie, the Politically Pushy, Leading-Edge Students, Low-riding Hip-hoppers and Central City Activists, and more--a mix that is changing continuously. Austin’s population has doubled to more than a million inhabitants in only 20 years, with an influx of Techno-geeks and more than 250 computer companies.
And the Hispanic community--politically aware, articulate and largely English-speaking--is now a quarter of the population and growing. Mexico is close (a four-hour drive is defined as "close" in Texas), and the magnetic effect of the University of Texas has gradually drawn many Latinos from elsewhere, including South America, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Latino threads in the fabric
Austin was chosen for the home of Latino USA partially for that reason, says Vidal Guzman, now station relations senior manager at Public Radio International. In the early days of Latino USA, which was launched in 1993, Guzman was its production/marketing manager.
"Austin just made a lot of sense--it already had a large Hispanic population and we had the backing of the university," says Guzman. The University of Texas and the Center for Mexican American Studies co-produce the series in partnership with KUT-FM.
Another reason the series fits Austin is that the Eggheads, the old Hipoisie and the Politically Pushy--many of whom were part of the ‘60s and ‘70s influx--are curious about what’s going on in worlds other than theirs. The new executive director of the series, Kate Dearborn, believes that Latino USA helps answer that curiosity and raises awareness of Latino culture. Raising awareness, says Maria Martin, is what inspired her and others to create Latino USA in the first place.
Martin, recently on leave for a Kiplinger fellowship in public affairs reporting, came to Austin after a decade of producing and reporting for NPR and other outlets, including, coincidentally, the Austin-based WINGS. During those years, Martin had developed the conviction that it was essential to produce radio that expressed the Hispanic viewpoint.
"It’s always been my contention, and others’ as well, that Latinos are part of the fabric of this country, and that’s what we’ve tried to reflect in these programs," she says. Martin also said it was crucial to give Hispanic-Americans a foothold in radio and proudly cites the Latino USA reporters who’ve gone on to careers around the nation, such as Mandalit del Barco, now reporting for NPR in Los Angeles.
"It is a very successful program--we’ve won 15 awards in only five years--but in terms of funding, it’s still shaky," says Martin, stating an all-too familiar fact to producers in all parts of public radio and television. "We’re losing the CPB money [in mid-2000], and that is a big concern for us."
"It would be a shame to lose Latino USA,"says Guzman. "It is unique." That word again.
The established alternative
KUT radio faces some of the same challenges that Latino USA is looking at. Noted for its high Arbitrons, the station relies especially on the support of legions of Educated Elite, Activists and Aging Hipoisie, who all seem to have a favorite local show. At the same time, KUT is the only public station in town that carries NPR programming.
"KUT is a great station, but I feel sorry for them," says Jeff Krys at nearby KMFA, an all-classical station. "A lot of newcomers I meet complain that KUT ‘doesn’t do the national shows I’m used to.’"
That’s because much of the programming is local and dear to the hearts of those who came here in the ‘70s when many of these programs started.
"KUT was all there was, back then we all came here," says Jay Trachtenberg, air staff manager and <I>Jazz, Etc.<I> producer. "We came here because it was a hip, alternative place to live."
While KUT broadcasts All Things Considered and Morning Edition (though only until 8 a.m., many complain) as well as a few other national favorites like Car Talk, most of its programming consists of local shows of jazz, blues, rock and roll, world music and a sprinkling of classical. Eklektikos, which is on a whopping 29 hours a week, has gained a loyal following with its titillating, sometimes jarring mix of all those types of music, interviews of local and touring artists of all kinds, and the commentary of its host, John Aielli.
Aielli has no small expertise in musical forms and history, along with his trademark passions, peeves and wacky sense of humor, and his Eklektikos is beloved by many. Still, some longtime residents opine, along with newcoming Techno-geeks, that his immense block of time might also be trimmed so that Austinites could hear more national programming like The Diane Rehm Show or Talk of the Nation.
Outside observer Joe Gwathmey, who manages Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, says KUT’s staff "is in tune with their audience."
"Its audience ranks high in listeners and whatever they’re doing, it’s appealing enough to generate substantial fundraising," says Gwathmey.
KUT’s acting General Manager, John L. Hanson, Jr., thinks the station’s stable on-air staff is its main strength. "We have had almost no turnover of the on-air staff in 15 or 20 years," says Hanson. "It’s their relationship with the audience and that’s more than just the music--it’s their insights into the artists and how the artists fit into the Austin culture." The veteran producer of In Black America, Hansen is standing in as g.m. after the brief stay and abrupt departure of Phil Corriveau, formerly of KXPR of Sacramento.
A few blocks away, KMFA General Manager Jeff Krys still thinks his big competitor is in a quandary, but believes KUT, with the right leadership, will eventually work out a successful blend of local and national programming.
As head of community station KMFA, Krys says he is very aware of the likes and dislikes of his audience of dedicated classicists--a well-rounded group of the Educated Elite and Aging Hipoisie.
"We connect with the local constituencies by broadcasting the Austin Symphony and the Austin Lyric Opera," says Krys. In addition to its regular classical programming, the station broadcasts a new music program, Knowing the Score; Film Score Focus; and Tony Morris’s Classical Guitar Alive! which is the only nationally syndicated guitar program on radio.
Morris hears listeners appreciate his interviews with guitarists, and like the guests he can bring in from the local community of musicians and the touring artists attracted by UT’s renowned classical music program.
"Since the show was syndicated in ‘97, people have even flown in for the interviews," said Morris. "Sony flew in Slava Grigoryan, for example."
Always looking for new ways to please that demanding audience, KMFA recently completed a live performance studio, acquiring the ability to record and broadcast live small ensembles and solo artists.
On the hip end of the dial
While it doesn’t produce shows for a national market, community radio station KAZI radio brings house music, oldies and alternative programming to the Low-riding Hip-hoppers and Central City Activists, as well as a large cross-section of the African-American community. KAZI is especially important to those wanting news from an alternative viewpoint, since it brings in Pacifica News Service and the San Francisco-produced Street Soldiers.
Even though KAZI is often called the voice of the black community, General Manager Steve Savage says the station has a wider range of listeners than that--and a tremendous support system.
"We have 80 volunteers--and I mean nobody is holding a gun to their heads—they’re one important reason why we’ve survived for 17 years," says Savage in rapid-fire radio speak.
Longstanding music shows like Rootical Rasta Revelations and Lady J’s Down Home Blues reach Austin via KAZI, along with talk shows such as Frank Garrett’s Wake Up Call and even the wordy broadcasts of the Austin City Council.
A little further up the dial is 91.7, the frequency also known as a battleground. After a long competition between the University of Texas and two upstarts--a student group from the university and the original KOOP cooperative headed by the zealous Jim Ellinger--the FCC threw up its hands and split the frequency between the latter two. Thus, since 1993-94, the wildly eclectic KOOP broadcasts during the day, while at night, the college deejays on KVRX give Austin a taste of college radio, with plenty of echo chambers and attitude.
The enthusiastic but often inexperienced student programmers at KVRX ("None of the Hits, All of the Time") label themselves transcendentalist anarcho-romantics who play the music nobody else will play. In that vein, they require each hour of broadcast to contain: (a) five items from the "new bin" of the latest in everything from folk to trance; (b) five different genres of music; and (c) at least two Texas artists in any genre. Just in case you weren’t listening, they repeatedly warn you of the fact they are allowed, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., to broadcast indecent programming.
KOOP programmers are an even wilder bunch, however, with their array of Celtic, Caribbean and Lounge music from the great American past. Prominent Spanish-language programming playing a wide range of Tejano and Norteño music is aimed at the Conjunto-lovers, but KOOP also grabs the attention of Central City Activists and Low-riding Hip-hoppers with issue-oriented programs such as Queer Waves (gay and lesbians, and Cop Watch (police violence and the community).
What could have been called the "KOOP coup" resulted in Jim Ellinger and others being kicked off the air last year. The accusations of racism, homophobia, and board-election fraud grew so heated that, at one point, an engineer removed equipment he had donated, and KOOP went off the air. Lawsuits have been filed, but KOOP continues with its new board and a new general manager Marcelo Tafoya.
Frustrated at KOOP, rebels helped start illegal microradio station Free Radio Austin.
Some of the disenchanted and/or banned programmers have joined with some other individuals to form Free Radio Austin. One of the founding members and programmers who goes by the on-air name Reckless says the "40-watt, 40-feet-high" station is there to give voice to the underrepresented.
"Anybody can get a show. It’s about free speech and citizen access," Reckless says. Free Radio Austin’s six-month history was dramatically interrupted June 2 by an FCC "bust" at its previous location, resulting in the confiscation of its transmitter. Its new transmitter reaches an interestingly mixed "niche" of Leading-edge Students, Central City Activists, Techno-geeks and the African-American and Hispanic working class neighborhoods of that part of town.
WINGS--the Women’s International News Gathering Service--fills a considerably larger niche with its programs that are aired on community and college stations across the U.S. and the globe, from Figi to Calgary. Co-founder and producer Frieda Werden started putting out the half-hour programs in 1986 (soon after leaving an editorial position at Current).
Werden’s beat ranges from the sweatshops of Saipan to lesbian/gay politics in South Africa and new marriage laws in the U.S. WINGS provides information that is overlooked or glossed over in the major media outlets. "Women are so left out of U.S. media, which is, of course, dominant around the the world," says Werden.
While the stories are gathered from international sources, Werden does most of the work from her bungalow in homey South Austin, with the smell of the neighbors’ barbeque drifting in the door.
The vibes felt 'round the world
The "longest-running popular music program" broadcast from the vast KLRU-TV studios have given the world the image of a picturesque city peopled by rock music lovers and fans of country cool and folk.
"Austin City Limits has created millions of impressions all over the world," says the show’s longtime producer Terry Lickona. "There is a positive vibe created by a music show. If we had produced a crime-on-the-streets show, there would be a big difference."
ACL, about to enter its 25th year on PBS in early 2000, has had a crucial impact on the development of KLRU (and its second, mostly instructional cable channel KLRU-TOO). In its 200-market national arena, the series reaches out to a healthy cross section much as it does locally. By showcasing musical artists from diverse genres, ACL brings together not only the Lyle-lovers and Conjunto-cravers but many of the others making up the Austin melting pot, with the possible exception of the most elite of the classical lovers and the lowest-riding Hip-hoppers.
As KLRU celebrates it success with Austin City Limits, the station is in a state of transition. One of the most important changes is the retirement of Bill Arhos, longtime president and dominant personality, who started out with the station in 1961, (although he’ll continue as an ad hoc member of the board). Often cited as the quintessential "good old Texas boy" within the PBS community, with his cowboy boots, giant belt-buckle and fully laid-back style, Arhos says KLRU is supported by an "idealistic and erudite community." He’s proud of the good numbers the station gets in terms of membership and audience shares. Arhos has a cautionary tone when he talks about the future. "They should try to ‘fix the leaky faucets’ and improve what we have, not get rid of things."
Coinciding with the departure of Arhos as president and general manager last year, the station split the two jobs. After KLRU hired Mary Beth Rogers as president, she named public TV veteran John McCarroll as g.m. Rogers, former chief of staff of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and author of a new biography of Barbara Jordan, came aboard with great fundraising abilities and a cornucopia of valuable contacts but no background in public broadcasting. Rogers, while imagining an expanded role for the station, credits Arhos for visionary thinking in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
"You have to look at Austin City Limits and what they did for the Austin music scene, and no small part of that was creating the idea of a music haven. That made a really strong link between the station and community," says Rogers.
While she may be new to public broadcasting, Rogers is ready with new ideas to forge more of those links in the future. While the station now produces the low-key Austin at Issue, an hour-long, prime-time public affairs program, Central Texas Gardeners and Texas Education Report, Rogers envisions programs that will attract viewers who may have escaped the net of public broadcasters in the past.
"We are producing a pilot for a show (Idea City) on creative people and their... impact on their fields," says Rogers enthusiastically. Another proposed series of programs would involve the community of independent filmmakers here, including Paul Stekler, producer of a forthcoming PBS doc on George Wallace.
"We’re also developing a good working relationship with the documentary filmmaker Hector Galán," says Rogers. "Some things are already coming to fruition."
That is fairly fast action for a public TV station which has been happily serving up the comfort food of <I>ACL<I> for a couple of decades, but Rogers seems to see more complexity and needs within the audience.
"We’re a town of readers and writers and activists," says Rogers. "This is a very involved community. And we how have new, younger people with greater disposable wealth, so we also have ideas on (local) programming that would appeal to this group, on the local scene."
Austin filmmaker Hector Galan (seated) interviews for his forthcoming documentary, "Children of Las Colonias," about the poverty growing along the border.
A conducive atmosphere
Producer Hector Galán says new ideas and new leadership at KLRU are welcome. Galán was early acquainted with Austin, working on the children’s show Carrascolendas more than 20 years ago before going on to making nationally-known documentaries. He returned to make Austin home base in 1984, partially because it is close to his hometown of San Angelo, but also because of the city’s --you guessed it—"unique" atmosphere.
"Austin is not as up-tight as most other places in Texas, or in the U.S. ..." says Galán. "The whole atmosphere is conducive to what I do. The lines aren’t so stiffly drawn, especially for Hispanics." Even so, Galán is not hesitant to criticize the good old days at KLRU.
"With the management change at KLRU they seem more aggressive in vision and program development," says Galán. "Bill Arhos never extended a hand to me...then they were ignoring anybody who was an outsider. Hands would be extended at Dallas and San Antonio and L.A., but not here. And that’s why I’m happy about what is happening locally with Mary Beth Rogers."
Galán’s recent work as a producer includes two segments of the PBS series, The Border, which aired nationally last month. He is currently editing an hour-long documentary special funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, "Children of Las Colonias," about endemic rural poverty along the Texas-Mexico border. At the same time, he is working on "Accordion Dreams," a documentary on the impact of the European button accordion on Texas and Mexican music.
While Galán’s level of success has moved him onto national and international stages, he emphasizes the crucial role the local station plays for an emerging independent producer. "It’s up to all of us, and not only individual producers, to hold the PBS stations accountable locally," he says.
The point is well taken as PBS and NPR struggle to preserve their strengths while they compete in a tough media environment. It may be sometimes forgotten that public broadcasting was a system designed for minorities, "to give a voice to the underrepresented," as the underground programmer Reckless puts it. If that ideal is held to, and if Austin’s past is any indicator, the new millennium will hear a multitude of voices from groups unknown today in the small city with the large attitudes.
The writer, Diana Claitor, edits for Wexford Publishing, writes freelance and teaches writing. A resident of Austin for 25 of the last 30 years, she left three times (once to work at PBS), but she kept coming back.
Web page posted Nov. 2, 1999
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