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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.