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Fundraising, Whitewashing and the Ghost of a Legend

http://chattersley.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/rs-86-doug-sahm.jpg?w=219&h=300On 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” (http://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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