For a decade, KUTX has been making waves on the airwaves.
By Jenny Hoff, Photos courtesy of KUTX 98.9
If KUTX radio were cast in a rom-com from the 1980s, they would be the quirky, unassuming friend whose record collection included an array of eclectic artists way too cool to be mainstream. The friend who knew where the best underground shows were and was usually on a first-name basis with the band members. The one everyone flocked to for the music that’s really on the cutting edge.
KUTX celebrates its 10th anniversary on air this year. Dubbed “The Austin Music Experience,” the station launched on Jan. 2, 2013 (playing Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” at its first airing) after public radio station KUT 90.5 became a full-time news and information service and shifted its music to the new KUTX 98.9 FM. KUT’s sister station operates out of the Dealey Center for New Media building on the University of Texas campus.
It’s impossible not to be reminded of the days when vinyl records reigned supreme as soon as you step into the KUT/KUTX office and studio space. A neon yellow see-through staircase dominates a room that is filled with cubicles, each one plastered with varied music artists’ paraphernalia. While you’ll see a few bands you recognize, like The Smashing Pumpkins and Grateful Dead, the cubicle walls are also adorned with lesser known, more beguiling artists, with names like Primo the Alien, Chief Cleopatra and Flora and Fawna.
It’s an eclecticism that weekday morning drive-time host Taylor Wallace-Riegel has always valued. “I like having a platform to support artists, to talk to people and connect with people,” she says. “I grew up in a small town but quickly got the reputation for being that ‘music person.’ My mom is big into ’80s pop; my dad is a big metal head. My uncle is a huge hip hop nerd. I always had that agency to listen to what I wanted. I was that 15-year-old with over 100 CDs.”
Wallace-Reigel interned at KUT as a college student and has essentially worked there ever since—transitioning from burning CDs into a digital format to becoming one of the bevy of female on-air hosts that dominate the airwaves during the week.
Having three back-to-back female DJs in the station’s lineup is yet one more thing that sets KUTX apart from commercial radio stations. Wallace-Reigel says it’s also what helps them find and elevate more highly talented female musicians that may not get noticed in a station whose team is male-dominated.
“I think it comes down to individual preference,” she says. “We have women of all generations here to speak to what people are listening to.”
Women like Jacquie Fuller, who believes KUTX’s progressive approach to radio is making waves on the airwaves. As a former on-air host in Minneapolis, she finally got a chance to return to her home state of Texas as an assistant program director at KUTX (“It took me three tries to get a job here”), and brought with her an idea she had been trying for years to get her Minnesota station to implement. Almost as soon as she arrived, she suggested KUTX celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8) by having only female music hosts on-air playing music by female-identifying artists. Program Director Matt Reilly immediately agreed. While the spirit of celebrating women remains, the format has changed slightly in the last couple of years. KUTX decided women should take International Women’s Day off as a holiday, so it’s now the male hosts playing all female-led music.
“I just like thinking of these artists as artists, but in the context of radio I think it is important to show the audience that the way it’s always been done is totally unnecessary,” says Fuller. “You’re not going to lose a lot of listeners because you’re playing a lot of women.”
Fuller goes on to clarify that while the International Women’s Day programming is an opportunity to give a special shoutout to female artists, it actually isn’t that different from their every day lineup, which already includes many female artists as well as artists from all walks of life, representing different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations.
“We don’t just break the rules for one day; we break the rules every day,” says Fuller.
After Wallace-Reigel’s morning show, the next on-air host, Susan Castle, takes over the airwaves. When her show ends, it’s Laurie Gallardo, who has been named Best Radio Personality six years in a row by The Austin Chronicle Music Poll (and shortly after this interview won her seventh and was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame). KUTX’s podcast Pause/Play, born in 2020, when concerts came to a halt and the effect of the pandemic on Austin’s music scene was headline news, is also hosted by two women: Miles Bloxson and Elizabeth McQueen. Late Friday night host of The Groove Temple, DJ Shani, plays deep house music and promises that “when people tune in, they’ll experience a sound zone between the mid-neck and the mid-thigh.” As someone living with multiple sclerosis, she credits music with having aided in her healing process.
With KUTX holding the distinction of “Best Radio Station” at The Austin Chronicle Music Awards *eight times, both Wallace-Reigel and Fuller hope the female-forward example KUTX has set will eventually influence the commercial radio industry as well, giving more women a chance to command the airwaves and in turn, more artists of more diverse backgrounds to get their big break.
Fuller recalls her interview for KUTX and being asked how she thought people defined Austin music. “White guys with guitars singing about the lonesome road was the first thing that came to mind,” she says. “But I was very direct about what I wanted to do. I wanted to bust that myth. There is so much more than that, not just today, but also historically.”
When asked about which Austin musicians she’s most excited about right now, she says at least three-quarters of them would be R&B. “What I hope is that when people think of Austin music, they will think of Victory Grill [a historic music venue in Austin that has hosted famous African-American acts for 75 years]and hip hop, just as much as white guys playing guitar.”
As Wallace-Reigel sets up her small anchor desk in a corner of Studio 1A, the magical part of the building where featured musicians will play on-air before a small live audience, the band Redbud chats with KUTX’s multimedia crew as they test the shot for the cameras.
The band members, who would make Dazed and Confused casting directors swoon with delight, can’t wipe the smiles off their faces as they set up to play their unique sound, headed by female singer/songwriter Katie Claghorn. Decked out in ’80s-style clothing and hairstyles—which has become less nostalgic and more current trend—they play their first song, producing a distinct, transportative sound, noticeably different from the billboard hits that dominate the commercial airwaves. With a calm, buttery voice (which Claghorn immediately notes must be a prerequisite to work at KUTX), Wallace-Reigel interviews the artist between songs as Deidre Gott, assistant program director of Live Music Content, sits back to enjoy the show now that the pre-production work is complete.
“I feel super lucky to have found a spot where I can professionally champion the Austin music scene,” says Gott after the recording. “That was always a side hustle. To get paid to do this and be taken seriously is awesome.”
Gott’s job would be a dream for any music enthusiast. She gets paid to go to shows around town and scout for local talent that KUTX can feature in their live music recordings in Studio 1A and at events like the Rock the Park Concert Series. Having spent more than a decade in commercial radio, first at KISS FM and then 101X, Gott especially appreciates the freedom and flexibility public radio offers due to its funding model. Rather than having to attract advertiser dollars, more than half of KUT and KUTX’s funding comes from donations from its 30,000 members. Members that don’t need to only hear songs they already know to enjoy a music program. Members that trust the music aficionados running KUTX to choose artists they will delight in discovering.
“I love radio because I love music,” says Gott. “In commercial radio, it wasn’t about the music. It was more about being a personality. I’m not a personality; I’m just a music fan. KUTX is cool because everybody here is a music nerd. It’s a magical place.”
Gott’s enthusiasm for discovering local Austin musicians with unique styles is partly due to the restricted music choices she herself had as a kid. Born in a small rural town in Missouri, Gott was raised strictly on classical music with Broadway tunes being the one reprieve from Bach and Beethoven. (Her brother now plays bassoon for the St. Louis Symphony.) She got her first taste of alternative music when she moved to Austin in her early 20s and attended an Octopus Project show at the Church of the Friendly Ghost. She’s never looked back.
Although KUTX prides itself on finding new sounds, the team members don’t make it a mandate to eschew more mainstream artists. Fuller believes in sandwiching new sounds between old, familiar favorites. Wallace-Reigel admits to having a soft spot for the Backstreet Boys. Gott is an avid Dolly Parton fan, having performed at Dollywood when she was still an aspiring Broadway star.
“I like Dolly’s earlier music the best,” she explains. “Her older songs are more poppy, which is my vibe.”
She’s even orchestrated three Dolly Parton birthday bash concerts, featuring Dolly impersonator drag queens and local musicians singing old Dolly songs, as a fundraiser for ARCH, the downtown shelter that sits amongst some of Austin’s best music venues.
“In the spirit of Dolly philanthropy, I wanted to help our own unhoused community,” Gott says.
Serving the community is also a mission of KUTX as a whole. KUTX Live, which takes place at Scholz Garten March 15 through 18, will feature a lineup of local artists who will play every morning for four days to benefit the Central Texas Food Bank. The $10 entrance fee includes bottomless coffee.
The Rock the Park music series Mueller Lake Park offers free music for the whole family once a month starting March 23 and lasting through June.
In celebration of the station’s 10th birthday, Mayor Adler proclaimed Jan. 2, 2023, “KUTX 98.9, The Austin Music Experience Day,” to recognize a decade of championing the Austin music scene.
For the women of KUTX, championing the Austin music scene means using their platforms every day as a way to advocate, elevate and celebrate the true diversity of the city’s artists.
“Sometimes when the world feels like it’s on fire, I realize we all have our lanes,” says Fuller. “My lane is music; my lane is public radio. When I come to work I’m going to do what I can to have women artists, artists of color, any artist who has been historically disenfranchised, represented here. That’s my way of contributing.”
*As of Sunday, Feb. 26, KUTX has won the Best Radio Station award for the ninth time.
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