Thursday, May 20, 2010

This is a Big Deal

The Cactus Café and KUT Sound

Like Austin

The Cactus Café now is a KUT FM venue just as “Austin City Limits” belongs to KLRU-TV. Lots of people are recognizing what radio station really sounds like Austin—KUT FM.

A furor over that claim began after the first of the year when KGSR FM dropped the “Sounds like Austin” and “Where the music comes first” catch-phrases and started trying to lure a wider audience with a different kind of play list. All of this came, of course, after music director Susan Castle was shown the door, and program director Jody Denberg hung it up. The “I want the Old KGSR Back” Facebook page is still getting new posts from people ranting.

KGSR program director Chris Edge then defended his station and its direction: “We are the most Austin Centric station there is,” Edge says. “Nobody else plays the music that we do.” Edge challenges listeners to name another station that plays the following artist in regular rotation: Spoon, Lyle Lovett, Iron + Wine, Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham, and Bob Schneider to name a few.”

Jeff McCord, music director at KUT FM, contradicted Edge’s analysis. “KUT features every one of these artists very frequently (and many, many more Austin artists that KGSR does not play), and we played all of them long before KGSR ever did (or in the case of Lyle and Willie, before they were even on air). Though I’m glad they are now supporting these artists, KGSR was quite late to the party with Spoon, Ryan Bingham and Iron & Wine,” McCord said.

It should be pointed out that KUT is not just a music station. It has many audiences because of its news and other “block programming”. It is an umbrella for everything from “All Things Considered” to “Folkways.”

“KUT can be different things to different people,” McCord said. “It is difficult for a news and music station to coexist. But over the years, we have worked to strengthen our KUT sound on both the news and music side, and establish a musical identity by emphasizing original unique programming that could only emerge from one place – Austin.

“We spent a lot of time earlier in the last decade thinking about this, polling our listeners – and we came up with an ‘identity statement’: “KUT plays music that matters to Austin – music that is hand-picked for qualities of substance and integrity – music that is as innovative, authentic, and passionate as the city itself.” We try to live by this,” McCord said.

“Over time, we have learned what our listeners are responding to, and this has meant less in terms of ‘specialty shows’, though there are still several very successful ones on air – Twine Time, our world music programming, Blue Monday – and more of what we consider to be our KUT sound, what you refer to as an ‘umbrella’ identity – eclectic, original, homegrown programming with a strong Austin emphasis,” McCord said.

Listeners are noticing, judging from recent posts on the “I want the Old KGSR Back” Facebook page just since the first of May, 2010:

“KUT used to be too alternative for me. Now, it sounds just right. The new KGSR blows most of the time. Very sad.”

“To hear the old KGSR listen to KUT Folkways on Saturday and then for the old Folkways listen to KUT Sunday Folkways.”

“Tonight I was at a music show where the artist (who shall remain nameless) talked about great radio stations "like KUT." It was noticeable that he did not mention KGSR. I clapped and cheered. KGSR has gotten even worse lately. Even my daughter mentioned how much it has changed and sounds like so many other stations.”

Now, with KUT’s alliance with the UT Student Union to keep the doors open and the music flowing from the Cactus Café, the station has deepened its roots in the Austin music scene.

Several years ago in my master’s paper I wrote the obvious: For a terrestrial, traditional radio station to be successful in the digital age, it must by hyper-local. Even at that time while Jody Denberg was still at KGSR, the play list was expanding, including more country/western music to attract a wider audience. The station languished at #14 in the Austin market.

The digital age now offers new possibilities. “There may be a need for a new method of [audience] measurement, because the Internet seems to be dictating a different meaning for the term ‘local’,” I wrote. “Local in the digital age is attached to ethos rather than place. Like-minded listeners/users/consumers of programming are carving out their own niches, cultures, and virtual spaces through the Internet. The listeners now have agency as a part of what is coming to be known as the ‘active audience’.”

The Cactus Café gives KUT that chance. Just like “Austin City Limits” long ago went nationwide, KUT can too via the Internet. Further, the new Belo Center for New Media now under construction on The University of Texas at Austin campus includes an intimate studio and an outdoor venue for live performances that can be broadcast or transmitted to a wider audience beyond Austin’s city limits.

KUT FM sounds like Austin.

© Jim McNabb, 2010


Citizen Advocate said...

Well said, Jim. KUT is sounding great and with the Cactus Cafe as a venue KUT will expand its positive impact Austin music.

Anonymous said...

With a colossal national debt that is threatening the very existence of this country, we can ill afford to have taxpayer funded radio stations. All government subsidies of KUT should end. If it can't survive in the free market - it doesn't deserve to be on the air.

Anonymous said...

The old KGSR played too many slow, depressing songs.
It had become a real downer. I never understood why Castle and Denberg didn't feature more rock and upbeat cuts. There are plenty of great local bands and Texas based artists that got little airplay because the station was in a depressed folk music rut.

Years ago before the ratings slide, KGSR sounded much different and played more uptempo music, while still staying true to a pro-local, alternative philosophy.

Anonymous said...

As a former member of the KGSR air staff, it's my opinion that Jody Denberg lost his real, true passion for programming KGSR music years before he stepped down. His battles with the corporate management contributed in part to his burnout. I also believe that the many distractions, i.e. interviews with music celebs, prep for his daily airshift,drew his attention away from the music. I also agree with Anonymous that he was stuck in the "folk music" mode, and that kept him from adding artists like Iron + Wine to the rotation. (Why no adds until The Shepherd's Dog? Sounds like Austin to me...) Chris Edge didn't have a clue about the KGSR format when he first showed up (from Indianapolis!) and he still doesn't get it. He obviously doesn't listen to KUT. If he did, he wouldn't make the outrageous claim that KGSR is "the most Austin-centric station there is." It's clueless, out-of-touch programming like Edge's, and that of former PD Lynn Barstow-who had no clue about KGSR programming either-that has killed KGSR, the station that at one time was recognized by Rolling Stone as one of the 10 radio stations in the U.S. that "don't suck." Ladies & gentlemen, KGSR NOW S-U-C-K-S! And I've heard many people repeat this sentiment. KUT rules the Austin radio roost. God bless Bryan Beck for hanging in there, and Loris Lowe for finding her way to KGSR after getting shafted at KLBJ-FM. Kudos also to the dedicated part-timers who've hung in there after pay cuts and voice tracking became the norm. Yes, ladies & gentlemen, all of those jocks on the weekend record their shifts in advance, as if you couldn't tell. (I can live w/out Andy Langer and his ego, which is why he gets no props.) Maybe someone will take a shot at coming up with an Austin-centric commercial radio station that will give us one-time KGSR lovers another option on the dial. (Just not so much singer-songwriter stuff this time around, okay?) In the meantime, KUT is fitting the bill nicely. And we get great, in-depth news reporting--which I believe justifies the taxpayer subsidies--and programs like RadioLab & This American Life. Give me a station with the old "Format Shmormat" philosophy and I'll switch back-and-forth between it and KUT. For now, I rarely stray from KUT, and when I do it's to see if the programming at KGSR has changed. It hasn't, it probably won't, and the station will eventually just morph into some bad mild rock/adult contemporary hybrid with the occasional TX/Austin artist. It's definitely well on it's way...

The Hypervigilant Observer said...

Amen! the former staffer's comments about the current state of music at KGSR.
On the other hand, I just outright hate KUT's Folkways on Saturday and Sundays! A waste of Kevin Conner's talents.
I vote for...more Jeff McCord.
Also, time for Aielli in the AM to retire...or to move to a digital channel!

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late to this thread, but I spent a couple weeks in Austin over the holidays after having been gone for about a year - holy cow, what a difference a year made. I did not recognize kgsr - they could be any Boston rock station (where I am now): generic and boring. What a shame to move away from a central TX rotation of fine artists to what? Read their daily play list - Depeche Mode? GMAB!

The Hypervigilant Observer said...

I never thought I'd say this...but I have actually come to enjoy the radio station called "Bob."
It's my first choice since KGSR continues to beat a small playlist to death.
"Bob" at least varies its music selections.
Still haven't warmed-up to Matt Riley at KUT or even Susan Castle in the PM.
Please, more Jeff McCord! He at least recognizes Latin and world music.
But IMO calling a radio station "Bob" is still... an inane concept.

NewsMcNabb said...

I sample. I sample, but I don't stay long when the commercial breaks go on forever. So, I land on KUT if I'm listening to terrestrial radio.

Satellite radio spoils me. Interestingly, I find that the satellite radio play list is too short, or they don't monitor how often a song is played, or they don't turn it over often enough, or, yeah, it's recorded.

Just like KRMH before it KGSR and it's ethos is gone, and I pretty sure that it's gone forever.

This stuff is cyclical, however. Somebody WILL bring a local, eclectic sound back to Austin's airways some day.