KUT

Most first birthday parties involve a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s, but KUTX is celebrating a different way. Its anniversary benefit concert will take place Saturday night at Bass Concert Hall and will feature performances by Iron and Wine, Neko Case and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.  

KUT has been running continuously at UT since 1958, and has been a member of NPR since 1971. KUT used to focus on both news and music programming, but, early last year, it split into two separate stations: KUT for news and KUTX for music. 

In August 2012, UT approved KUT’s purchase of KXBT 98.9 FM, and the station was renamed KUTX and launched in January 2013. The split from KUT gave the new music-oriented station time to play more music instead of news programming, and gave station administrators more time to focus on event planning. KUTX music director Matt Reilly emphasized that the split has given the station a lot more freedom.

“If the president did a press conference, we’d have to stop and switch over,” Reilly said. “Not having to think about the news as much was really freeing.” 

While raising awareness for a new radio station was going to be a challenge, KUTX did well in its first year. Stewart Vanderwilt, general manager of KUT and KUTX, said the station drew more listeners than initially projected, but also admitted their expectations were probably too low since there was a lot of uncertainty at the time of the division. 

“It’s done about twice as well as we projected, but we didn’t know what to expect,” Vanderwilt said. 

Last year, the station held morning concerts at the Four Seasons and also sponsored larger concerts at Auditorium Shores. The event Reilly was most proud of was Map Jam, KUTX’s day-long traveling music festival that took place in East Austin and featured performances in unconventional locations — such as the back of a lumber mill. Reilly said the festival will be an annual event.

KUTX’s autonomy gave the station the chance to host more studio performances in its office inside the Belo Center for New Media. Over the last year, it had artists like Patti Smith, Robert Plant with Patty Griffin, Lyle Lovett and Ryan Bingham visit. Vanderwilt was enthusiastic about getting to focus more on these performances. 

“The amount of live music we have brings people together,” Vanderwilt said. “That was something that we strove for, but we didn’t know how substantial it would be.”

Reilly said KUTX still faces challenges, such as local competition, streaming services, awareness and other stations doing similar things. Vanderwilt sees these challenges more as daily obstacles to overcome. 

“The challenges are to continuously keep it fresh and seek ways to make it relevant and interesting,” Vanderwilt said. “That’s what we wake up and try to do every day.” 

Going forward for the next year and beyond, KUTX’s main focus will be on its events and face-to-face interactions with listeners. Reilly explained there would also be a larger emphasis placed on working with up-and-coming local acts. The station also expects to grow its video content through YouTube clips of its in-studio performances.  

“It’s a big opportunity for us to share the music experience more broadly,” Vanderwilt said. “I think you’ll see a continued and refined focus on video.”

On Jan. 2, 2013, Austin’s legendary music scene was finally given a voice. Dubbed “The Austin Music Experience,” KUTX 98.9 began broadcasting from the Belo Center for New Media on campus with high expectations. But the story of this new radio station really began last fall, when the UT System Board of Regents voted unanimously to purchase the 98.9 FM frequency and expand the reach of the University’s public radio station, KUT 90.5. Before then, KUT, which is Austin’s local NPR affiliate, had to split its programming between news and Austin-oriented music. With the launch of KUTX, KUT can now adopt an all-news format, which Austin needed badly as one of only two major market state capitals without a full-time news public radio station. And with the acquisition of the 98.9 frequency, KUTX can now provide a one-of-a-kind radio platform tailor-made for Austin’s one-of-a-kind music scene. 

But many people, including columnists writing for this newspaper, have criticized the University for investing in radio. Critics of the acquisition have argued that radio will be irrelevant within decades (and may already be irrelevant among college students). But Austin is a smart city, anchored by the presence of UT, and it has a uniquely committed relationship with public radio. NPR flourishes here; the University’s KUT consistently ranks in the top handful of public radio stations nationwide by per capita listenership, and NPR programming is especially relevant to the UT community. It is clear that KUT and KUTX are immensely valuable to the city and the students who go to school here, and the Regents’ decision to purchase the signal for the new station benefits all of us.

But what makes a radio station relevant? Last week, I had the chance to sit down with KUTX program director Matt Reilly to discuss the finer points of why we should care about the new station. According to Reilly, the music that KUTX plays on air is exactly what UT students want to hear. “If you look at college-aged kids, they’re probably listening to the Lumineers, or Mumford & Sons, or Alt-J,” he explained. “We’re playing all that stuff.”  But, to be valuable to UT students, the station must go beyond the music on the airwaves. College students have countless options besides radio to find the music they want. Reilly made it clear that the entire KUTX operation has UT students in mind — from booking and promoting events on campus at the Cactus Café to filling their day-to-day staff with student interns, UT students are essential to the station. “We want to engage with the students here, and just let them know that this is this cool clubhouse that’s here in the middle of campus that they can be a part of,” he told me. He often grabs students out of the building that KUTX shares with the College of Communication and brings them into the studio to get involved. 

Reilly’s arguments largely fail to quell concerns that radio won’t be relevant in the near future. Sure, the University’s public radio stations might matter now, but why should we invest in a medium that won’t matter in 20 or 30 years?  Stewart Vanderwilt, general manager for KUT, argues that such concerns miss the point. “Anyone who thinks that a specific platform is going to endure forever is foolish,” he admitted. “But the true value in what we do is not just the way it’s delivered, but what the content is.” Vanderwilt explained that KUT and KUTX are both committed to evolving and finding new ways to reach the public, but that both stations represent “The Austin Music Experience” in a way that no one else does. Both stations are providing a service for the Austin community that they couldn’t provide without the UT Regents’ investment in public radio.

There’s really only one way to understand how important UT’s public radio stations are: Listen. During our conversation, Vanderwilt challenged me to listen to one hour of KUT or KUTX programming per week and see how much of an impact it has on me. I am definitely taking the challenge, and every student at this University should too. 

Nikolaides is a government and Spanish junior from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Last month, the UT System Board of Regents accepted KUT’s proposed $6 million acquisition of KXBT, a radio station that currently plays oldies music. At first glance, the acquisition seems like a smart investment. It will expand content for NPR’s Austin station, KUT, allowing all of KUT’s music programming to be played on KXBT. No tuition money will be used, and students will supposedly benefit from more easily accessible internship opportunities. This interpretation, however, ignores the larger picture of what’s happening in media, which is that physical radio stations such as KUT may likely disappear in a matter of decades. This reality makes the $6 million purchase look a lot less appealing.

While KUT provides insightful and compelling news commentary, talk shows, and music programming, radio listenership has decreased among young people, and it will likely decrease even more in years to come.

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion.

Colin Sturrock, a Plan II junior and DJ of The Blues Specialty show on KVRX, defends the buyout. “The main clientele of radio are people like our parents. They’re still going to be around for the next 30 or 40 years,” he said. “If you’ve been listening to the radio all your life, you’re not just going to stop when you turn 70.”

UT Communications Professor Joseph Straubhaar is more ambivalent than Sturrock about radio’s future, but he doesn’t write the traditional radio model off entirely. Straubhaar says,“[With digital based content] they can stretch across the whole Internet. People over 30 still have to get used to that though.”

The problem with Sturrock’s defense is that his aging listeners will die in a couple of decades. The median age for NPR radio listeners is 55. Given average life expectancy, they have about 25 years left in them. Twenty-five years from now, the last thing UT students will need is experience in a field that will have become obsolete.

A more immediate threat to radio also exists. As of 2009, radio listeners were listening three fewer hours per week than they had in 2006. According to Inside Radio, as of 2007, radio numbers had declined to their lowest level since 1998. The steepest drop occurred in the teenage and young adult demographics, with listenership dropping by half between 2000 to 2010. These numbers aren’t surprising. With programs like Spotify, Tomahawk, Pandora, and iTunes that anticipate your musical preferences and allow you to pick your own music, something that tells you what to listen to regardless of your taste seems oppressive. KUT has its own set of statistics to justify the acquisition. In an interview with the Texan, Stewart Vanderwilt, director of KUT, cited an Arbitron RADAR data study, a quarterly set of radio listenership statistics, which found that “Radio consistently reaches 92 percent to 96 percent of virtually every demographic group.”

There are two problems with this finding: Reach doesn’t accurately measure the extent to which these audiences use radio, and RADAR statistics are only accurate for a brief moment in time. Using RADAR numbers to evaluate radio growth is akin to reviewing a movie based on a single frame of the film. What will happen to physical radio may not be apparent in the RADAR numbers, but the fact that radio listenership among young adults between 2000 and 2010 dropped by half paints a grim picture that doesn’t bode well for KUT’s future as a physical radio station.

Radio stations, especially ones that provide unique programming, probably won’t die, but the need for physical radio will be greatly diminished, leaving KUT with a worthless and unsellable asset.  It would be in the best interests of KUT, UT, and UT students to allocate money instead to more Internet-based radio alternatives. That’s where the future of radio is, and that’s where the future jobs are for students interested in radio.

Vanderwilt and KUT are doing a good job of preparing for this future through their expansion into digital services.

“We have a portfolio strategy to this,” Vanderwilt said. “Radio is one part of a multimedia strategy. The thing that gets artists into our studio is the live broadcast, but that live radio broadcast lives on in the YouTube video that was shot here.”

Consider the acquisition of KXBT. The station will be used exclusively for music programming. KUT often plays less well-known music. Shows like Austin Music Minute, Texas Music Matters and Song of the Day introduce listeners to lesser known acts. Listeners of these shows are also the most enthusiastic about discovering music on the Internet.

“I think that money could be a lot better spent on trying to develop a new Internet platform,” said Marvin Barksdale, entertainment consultant and founder of Hydroshare, a digital distribution company. “The data from the web is so much deeper than the data you can get through your radio. Data is so important in how we make our business decisions.”

Given that Internet-based advertising more effectively delivers advertising tailored to a listener’s tastes, and thereby it’s more valuable, the KBXT acquisition was a mistake because physical radio stations will be replaced by digital forms and digital listeners in a matter of decades.

Breland is a Plan II junior from Houston.

Jay Trachtenberg, afternoon music host at KUT, plays music on the air in the Belo Center for New Media studio Wednesday. Trachtenberg will be moving over to the new music station, 98.9 KUTX.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

On-campus radio station KUT may soon be able to boast two frequencies and say it has a station dedicated solely to news. Should someone want tunes, he or she had better change to KUT’s music channel.

The UT System submitted filings with the Federal Communications Commission, the government entity in charge of regulating radio and television, earlier this week to request permission to purchase Austin oldies station 98.9 KXBT. UT is expecting a final decision by late November.

Hawk Mendenhall, associate general manager for KUT-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate, said the new station will bring ample opportunity to the UT and greater Austin communities by expanding local coverage of both news and music content, providing more airtime for University academics to share their work and creating additional internship opportunities for students.

The UT System Board of Regents approved KUT’s $6 million purchase at its meeting last week. The purchase will be funded by $2 million in donations and a $4 million loan from UT to be repaid over the course of 10 years. If KUT falls more than four months behind on its payments, UT will sell the station’s license.

Mendenhall said the public will have the opportunity to voice opinions on the purchase, and the FCC will consider all information before making a final decision. He said he expects the purchase to be approved and completed by November.

“We think we have a very strong case on this,” he said.

KUT spokesperson Erin Geisler said she expects the number of available internships at the station to double to nearly 110 positions per year.

Mendenhall said the current KUT will switch from a combined music and news format to an all-news format by adding more localized content.

The new station will then adopt an all-music format by taking the music content currently being run on KUT and adding more localized coverage.

Mendenhall said every state capital in a major radio market other than Austin and Atlanta, Ga., has a full-time news radio station.

“Basically, there’s a lot going on in Texas,” he said. “It’s arguably the most important state capital in the country right now, so it deserves full-time coverage.”

Robert Ascott, UT chemical engineering graduate student and avid KUT-FM listener, said he is thrilled about the possible new station.

“If we claim to be the live music capital of world, having that expanded music coverage for Austin would be very good,” he said.

Ascott said he also likes the idea of being able to choose between KUT’s quality music and news coverage depending on what mood he is in.

“I enjoy their news, and I listen to it whenever I can,” he said. “At the same time, being able to switch off and listen to a broader music venue is likely going to be a plus to myself and the broader community.”

The KUT station recently moved into the newly constructed Belo Center for New Media.

Mendenhall said since KUT’s move to the new building last month, he has seen an increased desire for student involvement with the station because of its more prominent location. The station was formerly located in the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center.

“It’s great to be in a new building and have all this energy around,” he said. “It’s great to have a lot of students coming in and asking how they can help, how they can get involved. You know, people are really buzzing about the opportunity to be involved, particularly when they are walking right past it.”

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 228-192 to approve a bill last week that could make it harder for public radio stations to acquire funding for programming. Seven percent of University-operated radio station KUT’s budget comes from federal funding to buy programming from National Public Radio and other entities that produce radio content, said KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt. “What the bill does is that it severely restricts how local stations can use federal funds,” Vanderwilt said. The implications of the bill will be felt mostly at local community radio stations that rely heavily on federal grants to pay for national programming, Vanderwilt said. Programs at risk of being cut in local community stations could include “This American Life” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” he said. “KUT has no plans to drop or replace these programs,” Vanderwilt said. “Some stations, however, may be faced with having to do so.” Vanderwilt said 85 percent of KUT’s funding comes from community members and their support. “We will continue to reach out to our audience and ask them to be part of the funding model that keeps the station going,” he said. NPR released a statement saying the cuts would impact public radio stations across the country and weaken their ability to serve their audience. In a press release, NPR interim CEO Joyce Slocum said a society where entertainment is taking precedence over fact-based reporting, public radio stations are serving their audience with honest and critical analysis of issues. “It would be a tragedy for America to lose this national treasure,” Slocum said in the press release. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said in a speech last week that the bill directly attacks KUT and similar public radios across the country. He said 250,000 Texans rely on KUT’s in-depth news analysis of state and local politics. “The only bias of those who begin with ‘Morning Edition’ is a bias for truth,” Doggett said in the speech. “My constituents tune in to KUT because they want fact-based, not faux-based, Fox-based coverage.” Tyler Norris, chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas at UT, said the bill is a step in a positive direction because public radio stations should rely on private-sector funding rather than federal grants to purchase programming. Norris said many private radio music stations rely on consumer ratings and advertisement to fund their operations. “There shouldn’t be any government involvement in [funding] NPR or public television,” the government senior said. “It’s not government’s job to fund entertainment or information services.”

When it comes to radio pledge drives, KUT deserves a Ph.D. for schooling every other local radio station in town.

The National Public Radio affiliate and University-operated radio station, KUT 90.5, announced Wednesday morning that more than 7,500 individuals and local businesses pledged more than $1 million during the station’s annual spring pledge drive. This success comes on the heels of last month’s news that the U.S. House of Representatives approved cuts to NPR that could result in $500,000 in losses for KUT.

This spring, Austinites donated record-breaking amounts to public radio. KOOP Radio has earned more than $68,000 so far, and UT’s student-run KVRX exceeded expectations with $7,000 in total pledges.

Although pledge drives are not considered competition from station to station, KVRX’s pledge drive coordinator Katie Carson said she was shocked to hear KUT’s final results and congratulated them for their tremendous success.

The NPR affiliate owes some of its success to members of the KUT advisory board, which includes community leaders and professionals, who pooled their respective resources to create individual goals ranging from $2,500 to $25,000.

Among the advisory board members was UT McCombs School of Business lecturer Ben Bentzin, who has been a guest radio host on the Morning Edition show several times this season and discussed the importance of donating to public radio, no matter how big or small the pledge.

“KUT’s pledge drives have incrementally grown as its audience grows as well,” said KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt. “This success was driven by the loyalty of our listeners and their awareness of the federal funding concerns public radio is currently facing.”

According to KUT and College of Communication spokeswoman Erin Geisler, if the U.S. Senate passes the House-approved bill to cut all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the station could lose a significant amount of its budget.

“If passed, this [legislation] will have a huge impact on local stations, especially if those where [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] funding is roughly 40 percent of their overall budget,” Geisler said.

Federal funding for KUT amounts to about 7 percent, or $500,000, of the station’s total budget, and Vanderwilt has not put a backup plan into effect yet. NPR is facing leadership challenges after CEO Vivian Schiller resigned over a recent controversy regarding an administrator who was caught on camera blasting the Tea Party.

“Educational broadcasting has been supported by government grants for nearly four decades and will not be wiped out in one legislative session,” Vanderwilt said.