Stewart Vanderwilt

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.”

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.

The University-operated radio station, KUT, could lose a half a million dollars in federal funding if a proposed spending cuts bill passes the Senate.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill Saturday that would cut $60 billion from the federal budget. If the Senate passes the bill, the government would eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would result in an estimated $531 million in savings.

The corporation funds public television and radio stations, including National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service.

Funding from the corporation makes up about 7 percent of KUT’s operating budget, or roughly $500,000 a year, said KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt.

“It would have a profound impact on the station if federal funding to KUT was cut,” he said. “It would be very difficult for the station [to] continue to run the way it currently does.”

KUT uses federal funds to purchase programs from NPR such as “Morning Edition” and “Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!”’ and to hire and pay local reporters and producers who contribute to the station, Vanderwilt said.

“Without those funds we would either have to find ways to replace the money or reduce those costs in a substantial way,” he said.

Vanderwilt said since the station is just learning about the potential cuts, they are still in discussion about what action to take, but hoping for strong community support.

“We are going to inform the community about this potential threat and we hope people will make their interests known,” he said. “If they feel that continued funding is important, we hope they will let their representatives know.”
KUT intern Mario Carrillo said public broadcasting shouldn’t be on the chopping block for funding because it is a unique facet of news reporting.

“I think cuts are a horrible idea because public broadcasting is a great medium,” he said. “I think it’s one of the best mediums we have for storytelling and it’s very different and unique from print or broadcast.”

Carrillo said cutting funds would limit the station’s ability to cover the city as best they can.

Jessica Hamilton, a journalism senior and KUT news copy editor, said any cuts would be disheartening, but those affecting student workers take away from the learning experience.

“The purpose of student workers here is to get hands-on experience and to get your feet wet,” she said. “So if it comes down to it and budget cuts affect student hiring, it would limit and hurt the experience that we have.”
Hamilton said although public broadcasting is in line for budget cuts, she doesn’t feel targeted.

“I don’t think they are attacking us, because it’s all across the board,” she said. “It’s hard times for everyone, and I’m not surprised.”

Friends of Robert F. Schenkkan, founder of Austin public radio station, KUT, and TV station, KLRU, remember him as kind and determined. He died on Wednesday at 93 from dementia complications.

Clinical professor of journalism Wanda Cash said Schenkkan, who worked as a radio-television-film professor at UT for more than two decades, was an advocate of independent journalism and set the standards for public broadcasting today.

He advocated for the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which led to congressional funding for broadcasting, said Cash, who was a friend of Schenkkan’s.

“The College of Communication owes so much to Bob Schenkkan,” she said. “He was a wonderful professor; he was a force to be reckoned with back then.”

KUT station director Stewart Vanderwilt said Schenkkan contributed to public broadcasting.
“There was a time shortly after the modern context of public broadcasting had been created that the Nixon administration set out to close it down,” Vanderwilt said. “Bob was able to lead public broadcasting though that period, and [it] came out the other side a much stronger service.”

Vanderwilt said he doesn’t know where KUT or public broadcasting would be without
Schenkkan.

“He got the license, helped find the first transmitter and he literally led the effort to put it on the air,” he said. “He helped it become as self-sustaining as possible.”

Schenkkan had a dream that KUT would offer a professional service with an educational purpose, Vanderwilt said.

“He wanted KUT to be a place to learn,” he said. “I’d say he put us on the path that KUT is continuing to grow from.”

Vanderwilt said he is disappointed he did not know Schenkkan longer.

“He was exceedingly gracious, and I think what could be overlooked in that is that he had a very strong resolve in anything that he was committed to and believed in,” Vanderwilt said.

The College of Communication is scheduled to hold memorial services for Schenkkan on March 6 at 2 p.m.