The Cactus Café and KUT Sound
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