KUTX, not just for old people

Eric Nikolaides

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.