KUT and the President, words matter

[An open letter to the Regents at the University of Texas, and the KUT Board]

I was a big supporter of NPR when I lived in New York, not only was WNYC informative, it was educational. When I moved to Austin, before I even got here, I paid to join two organizations, Austin Triathletes, and KUT. Both have been a disappointment.

After two years of membership of KUT, despite numerous written requests from KUT and especially new station general manager Stewart Vanderwilt, the seemingly endless bi-annual membership drives, this year I figured I wouldn’t just pay, I’d make a conscious decision about membership. A couple of close friends had raised their concerns about KUT membership with me, despite as far as I’m aware, having never discussed it with them before.

A quick perusal of the Internet, letters in the Austin Statesman, The Chronicle, etc. reveals I’m not alone in being uncomfortable with the recent changes at KUT.

Tonights coverage of the Presidents speech summed it up for me though. At 7:18, some 15-minutes into live coverage, KUT cut away to “commercial endorsement” from a number of commercial organizations, fronted by none other than Station General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt. Ok, so maybe the first incident was an accident, some pre-programmed error. Then around 7:29, the same thing.

Stewart, words matter, the fact you ran commercials over two key sections of the Presidents speech is not only disrespectful, it illustrates for me all thats wrong at KUT. And let’s remember, I’m not a US Citizen, wasn’t born in the US, yet I still can’t understand how this happended.

19 Comments so far

  1. citizenadvocate (unregistered) on December 1st, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

    If you don’t like something you hear on KUT, by all means, speak out and be heard! But, let’s get realistic. The only KUT programming changes I have read about are programs that seem to have been broadly unappealing in the first place. Quick, without looking it up (like I just had to), take the following quiz: before programming changes Paul Ray was on a) Friday night; b) Thursday night; c) both? I am sure we have different friends, but my friends didn’t pass this quiz.

    Not for nothing, but, “new station general manager Stewart Vanderwilt” has led KUT for ten years according to http://txtell.lib.utexas.edu/stories/media/k0002-2.html.

    Austin is a vibrant growing city with a lot of offer. We are lucky to have in KUT a station that is growing with Austin and is unafraid to make changes that increase the relevance and impact of public radio.

    I’m just saying…

  2. Loyal Opposition (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2009 @ 7:36 am

    Increase the relevance and impact? Surely you jest. You must mean “increase the income,” for that’s what the changes strive to do. Or at least hope to do, to pay for all the exorbitant expenditures during the Vanderwilt years. You can have your Iron and Wine, Wilco, and Pearl Jam — in fact, on a whole bunch of other stations. Give us our radio station back.

  3. Hawk Mendenhall (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    No one feels worse about what happened last night than I do, I assure you. The program in which we were covering the President’s address, The World, is automated each evening and because of a programming error, last night’s automation overrode last night’s live broadcast at 7:19 and 7:29:30. We try very hard to do a good job and failed miserably last night thanks to a combination of human error and the technology that usually helps us.
    My sincere apologies to all. It is certainly not KUT’s policy to ever interrupt Presidential addresses for any announcements.
    Hawk Mendenhall

  4. triman on December 2nd, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    Hawk, thanks, I had assumed it was some sort of automated programming error, bad form even so. I assume you’ll update processes to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

    @citizenadvocate I don’t listen to KUT for music, there are plenty of other stations both local and commercial for that purpose, to the best of my knowledge I’ve never listened to Paul’s show and so I wasn’t using this as another way to push that agenda. Thanks for you comments though.

  5. ben (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    The emphasis on corporate support hurts all aspects of the station. The news coverage is constantly interupted by commercials. The music programming is now homogenous to attract more corporate sponsors. It’s all just a erosion of the station’s values.

  6. justin (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    I too have been sorely disappointed by KUT as I was a regular listener to the NPR affiliate in San Francisco. My biggest complaint is that it plays music at all, really. There’s a ton of music I’m not interested in on the radio, and I’d like to have one station that I could listen for reasonable discussion.

    Oh well, I’ve found that I can get my fix by streaming pretty much any other NPR station in the country on my iPhone so KUT’s poor programming doesn’t impact me so directly anymore.

  7. laura (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    You know – before jumping down KUTs throat maybe we should have assumed they are human and it was a mistake. Sometimes I feel like friendly Austin is turning into a bunch of picky as hell complain about everything act like we always know better than anybody else pains in the butt!!! I heard the interuptions last night and was a bit miffed but I always assumed it was a mistake!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. triman on December 2nd, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    Laura, if you’ll forgive me, you are missing the point. I didn’t jump down their throat, I said that the mistakes made tonight summed up for me.

    The point was that under current management, it would appear that commercial concerns have taken over, even to the point of using automated technology to play “important” commercials at set times, even during the Presidents address. When the first mistake was made, there was either no one listening, or at least if they was, no one capable of stopping the second automated commercial interruption.

    That’s not what I suspect most people thought the memberships fees were going to, automated commercial playing machines and little or no local attendance. It’s the local perspective that seems to run through much of the criticism.

  9. citizenadvocate (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    Sorry triman, but Laura is right. As a KUT member I don’t see any benefit to spending my membership dollars to pay a live person to run four station IDs and sponsorship acknowledgments during “The World.” Mistakes happen, whether you have an automated system or a live person.

    You called Vanderwilt the “new station general manager Stewart Vanderwilt” even though he has apparently been with the station for ten years. You are a live person, not an automated blogging machine, and mistakes still happen.

    Laura is right. You are jumping down KUT’s throat for making a mistake. And for what? So we can pay someone to press a button four times an hour during an international news program? Where exactly does that get us as listeners?

  10. triman on December 3rd, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    @citezenadvocate – yes, mea culpa, when I checked on http://50.kut.org/history/ I read 2007, even though it said 2000. Mistakes happen. I’ve corrected it.

    However, I think your reply draws a clear line in the sand in terms of our different expectations from our local NPR station and especially in this case from a radio station whose broadcast license is owned by the University of Texas, rather than a commercial organization required to turn a profit.

    I wouldn’t have taken time to write this if the automated programming error had occurred at 3am in the morning during a rebroadcast of the Presidents message. In this case we are talking about 7-7:35pm, I assume a waining but still important listening hour.

    You, it seems are happy for the programming to be unmanned at that time, and for pre-programmed content to be broadcast without context. Forget the mistake, thats not the point. Given that, my opinion is that it’s a short skip and a jump from all the existing KUT syndication of NPR, APM, and other programming to completely automate and generate all content for the station, 24-hours per day.

    It would be easy for example to add NEWS8 News coverage, automatically fed in and broadcast, along with the NEWS8 weather. It wouldn’t be a stretch to ask BOB FM, to provide an automated music broadcast that plays in key slots and features popular Texas music, all this intermixed with a few well placed station ID’s and commercial endorsements.

    I’m sure you could argue that this would be a great teaching vehicle for interns and others involved in KUT, as this is the way that most other radio stations are going; it could be argued that this is also a lowest cost, best value solution for listeners, since they get the NPR and APM content, local news and weather, as well as music.

    But, and that was my point, is that the station that Austin expects KUT to be? Not me. I can get much of the content I want from the Internet, much of it pre-programmed as well. I have Internet radio from the US, as well as the BBC steaming in my car, and playing over the sound system in the car and at home. That wasn’t what I expected from KUT… and the mistake just focussed my mind on where I thought the problems were, and why I hadn’t just re-joined this year…

  11. citizenadvocate (unregistered) on December 4th, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    So what kind of a station would you like for KUT to be? Other than what we have discussed above, live people rather than automation, I don’t really know whether I agree or disagree. If you were Stewart Vanderwilt or Hawk, what would you change about what KUT is broadcasting for us today?

  12. Disbelieving (unregistered) on December 4th, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    The kind of station whose management doesn’t treat longtime employees — who, by the by, made the station what it is — like shit, forcing them into retirement. Presto, no health benefits, damaged retirement. Is this your kind of Austin?

  13. gary etie (unregistered) on December 8th, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    @ citizenadvocate – The KUT we knew is long gone.

    And you’re absolutely correct, the whittling away of creative, quality music programs by true, dedicated radio men and women, started in 2000, when current management arrived from their previously, not-so-successful radio job, and, somehow, took over a very successful public radio station.

    This particular Public Radio station was relatively flush with money, due to the confluence of uniquely good radio, the Austin economy, and an attuned Austin listening audience that, well off or not so, somehow found a way to afford to put it’s money behind those radio personalities, the music they played, the programs they created, the sonic atmosphere they gave to this town.

    Unfortunately, this year, it was time for a major shake-up, so KUT’s management turned a serious corner, and countered what would surely be a major problem with an extremely costly, purposefully deceitful PR campaign simultaneously unleashed on the Austin listenership. Anyone paying attention heard this PR spin shift into high gear during the recent fund drive, and if you listened closely, you will have noticed the heavy reliance on what KUT >b>was, in the past, in order to get your money now, before you really notice the switch.

    At least some of the musicians that were drafted to do those spots should be demanding they be taken off the air, and KUT should be ashamed of itself. The radio station those artist were asked to attest to doesn’t exist anymore. Good timing, though, to whoever dreamed up that little scheme,, and the timing, in some dark corner of their mind.

    It’s sad, really. It didn’t have to happen this way. Greed and power mongering took precedence over artistic creativity. The current attempts to breathlessly replicate the education inherent in those former programs sound like what someone could put together after a 5 minute Google Search and a single Wikipedia reading. KUT has become a parody of it’s former self, and abandoned both a large, dedicated, local listenership, and a worldwide audience, by becoming recognizably mediocre. Damn!

  14. KUT Advocate (unregistered) on December 9th, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    “My biggest complaint is that it plays music at all, really.”

    Justin, public radio should reflect and be a part of it’s community. Austin is a music town, so it’s public radio has always had a strong emphasis on music. I’m glad you moved here after finding Austin to have more opportunities than San Fran. But it is ironic that you move here and upon arriving want Austin to change and have less music. I don’t hold grudges against Californians, but I can see how a lot of Austinites get annoyed when they move here and expect things to change to Californian standards. Have some respect for Austin traditions, it’s what made Austin so attractive that you moved here. Unfortunately, our station management, even though being here for 10 years, have never found respect for Austin’s heritage either.

    I’m glad you found that NPR programs can easily be streamed via the web. Austinites don’t need KUT to get NPR programs. As you mention, KUT is irrelevant when it comes to being a source for NPR news, since NPR news is easily streamed on the web. KUT has to remain relevant be providing quality local programming not found elsewhere. Music is the only thing making KUT relevant.

  15. KUT Advocate (unregistered) on December 9th, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    “The only KUT programming changes I have read about are programs that seem to have been broadly unappealing in the first place”

    Citizen Advocate, you later claim to be a KUT member, but you act like you aren’t aware of the changes? Here’s one big thing that changed: KUT removed all local music programming after midnight. The removed night programming was the exact same format and song playlist as heard during daytime hours. It is wrong to call this programming “broadly unappealing” when it has so much proven success and support during the day. Now instead of a local radio station at night, we have a taped California show of generic music not up to KUT’s standards. Like the NPR news, we don’t need KUT to get this taped music program, it is easily streamed elsewhere on the web.

  16. KUT Advocate (unregistered) on December 9th, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    “And for what? So we can pay someone to press a button four times an hour during an international news program?”
    Citizen Advocate (or should we say KUT Management Advocate?), this is wrong to say there is not always a person on duty at KUT. The same human that turned ON the satellite feed of the President’s speech also turned OFF the automation of regularly scheduled program The World. This same human should have turned off the automated commercials when turning off The World, and turning on the President’s speech. This mistake is an example of the decrease in quality after KUT management has systematically reduced quality employees.

    Laura, yes it was a mistake, but it is fair game for criticism. Hawk and the other management there all pay themselves big six figure salaries. They view themselves important enough to deserve taking six figures of the public’s donation money each year, so the public wants to see high quality in their job performance in return.

  17. KUT Advocate (unregistered) on December 9th, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    Here’s how KUT playing commericials over the President illustrates all that is wrong with KUT:

    1) Commercials and ratings (so they can charge more for commercials) have the highest priority at KUT.
    2) The human error was caused by management’s reduction of quality employees.
    3) The error shows the disconnect between management’s high salary and their lower quality generic output.

    Citizen Advocate, you ask “what kind of a station would you like for KUT to be?”

    1) A station that doesn’t put ratings and commercials as it’s main priority
    2) A station that retains quality employees instead of getting rid of them to save money.
    3) A station that focuses on quality local programming instead of generic taped music shows and NPR news found on the web.

  18. Andy (unregistered) on December 12th, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Will you people get over yourselves? One of the biggest screwups at KUT, technically speaking, is John Aeilli, who’s constantly pressing the wrong buttons, creating dead air, mispronouncing songs and artists, forgetting to turn on mikes for guests, cutting off songs in mid-play … I’ve heard him make every mistake possible, repeatedly, and he’s been on the air for how many years? You’re all like conspiracy theorists – everyone at KUT is out to get you, I’m sure!

  19. Sandy (unregistered) on December 17th, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Andy, you are right that Aeilli makes mistakes. Yet Austin listeners strongly support Aielli, while they loudly boo the Vanderwilt management team. I bet that contradiction drives you nuts! You see, Austin supports those who support music, even if they are imperfect.

    Get over ourselves? KUT is us. We are KUT. KUT belongs to the public. It’s not the private property of KUT management. We won’t get over KUT.

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