Broadcasting from Sun Radio, KUTX and KOOP, local DJs Nancy Holt, Susan Castle and Leah Manners keep Austin in tune with amazing music.
Story By Rachel Rascoe, Photos By Taylor Prinsen
Regardless of the genre, music can inspire, embolden and enthrall. But just because music has incredible power doesn’t mean it’s sure to arouse feelings in the listener. After all, as Duke Ellington said, “There are simply two kinds of music: good music and the other kind.” At their respective local stations—Sun Radio, KUTX and KOOP—Nancy Holt, Susan Castle and Leah Manners ensure Austinites are well-supplied with the good stuff. All expressing love for their noncommercial radio hubs with an emphasis on local artists, these three DJs keep our city tuned in and riding the local airwaves.
NANCY HOLT | RADIO 100.1 FM
Tune In: Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 7 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, Noon to 4 p.m.
Now based in Austin for more than three decades, Nancy Holt launched her career as a receptionist at Texas Monthly. Despite her proficiency at the front desk, a certain personal feature forced her into the sound booth.
“Everyone said, ‘You’ve got this wonderful voice. You need to get out of print media because it should be heard,’ ” Holt explains.
After Holt lent her vocal talents to an advertising agency, her lifelong goal of working in music led her to stints at various local stations throughout her radio life. For the past four years, she’s been a DJ for Austin station Sun Radio. The noncommercial radio network broadcasts American-rooted rock, blues, rhythm and blues, and authentic country to various Central Texas communities.
“Wherever you are, if hear a familiar song on the radio, it can just tug at your heartstrings and stop you in your tracks,” Holt says. “It’s just so fun to be a part of a station that plays a lot of good music. That’s harmony, no pun intended.”
The native Texan, one of six siblings, grew up surrounded by her father’s classic country records and her siblings’ love for pop and rock, “running the gamut from the Beatles to Kiss.” As a kid, Holt tracked the American Top 40 charts, announced weekly by host Casey Kasem.
“I’d get home from church on Sunday mornings, get a notebook and a pen and go lay by the radio,” Holt recalls. “I’d take notes like, ‘This song has gone up three spots.’ I was exposed to a lot of different music.”
In her early teens, the sound enthusiast fell in love with Austin’s music scene during visits with her older sister. After moving to the capital city, Holt frequented now-shuttered live-music locales like Club Foot and Liberty Lunch, where she saw an early performance by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Holt found her voice as a host at KGSR, where fellow featured DJ Susan Castle provided training. After a sad few years off-air working in administration for a major company, Holt landed at her home of Sun Radio. She loves the small noncorporate operation, noting calm readings replace “screaming commercials.”
Alongside her work on-air, Holt helps with marketing and administration duties at Sun Radio. The Austinite emphasizes station efforts to “foster and nurture relationships with the local artists” through airplay, various year-round events and Texas Radio Live concerts every Wednesday at Guero’s Taco Bar’s Oak Garden.
During their meetings to vote on music submissions, Holt’s co-workers can tell easily whether she’s in favor of a song.
“There’s a joke that if Nancy is over there dancing, that means the jury’s out,” Holt says. “Music makes me move, and that feeling makes me really seriously happy. I always say, ‘I feel like it’s coming through the speakers and taking me on a ride.’ ”
NANCY HOLT’S TOP THREE LOCAL ARTISTS
Shinyribs, Wild Child and Walker Lukens |“I love bands that encourage movement, dancing and audience love. That way, everyone’s happy to groove and rock out together!”
SUSAN CASTLE | KUTX 98.9 FM
Tune In: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon
Susan Castle doesn’t hold onto a lot of mementos from her many decades in radio, but she does cherish a framed page from Rolling Stone. During her tenure as music director at the legendary KGSR, the publication named the radio station one of 10 Stations That Don’t Suck, calling its output “art on the radio.”
“There’s an art to stringing together great songs in a thoughtful way that elevates or taps into a mood,” Castle says. “For most of us, music makes every occasion better, be you stuck in MoPac traffic during rush hour or listening at work on a foggy Monday morning. Radio, done right, can be that magical soundtrack.”
After almost 20 years at KGSR, Chicago-raised Castle now plays songs every weekday on KUTX, the sister station to local NPR affiliate KUT 90.5 FM that’s also known for airing more local music than any other Austin station. The DJ’s heartfelt, informative commentary connects a mix of local acts, on-point rising artists and familiar tunes.
Castle particularly enjoys drawing historical connections with up-and-coming acts, what she describes as “getting back to the roots of the stuff I play.” At 11:08 a.m. during each show, the Austinite pulls tracks submitted by listeners on Facebook for a particular theme. The segment, known as Ocho Loco, has included past prompts as jukebox favorites, songs by The Clash and lyrics about nudity.
“It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not in that little booth by myself,’ ” Castle says of listener interaction. “When you see how people feel about the station, it’s exactly how we feel about it. It’s like [KUTX] is DJing this party we’re all having together.”
While working for a music network in Illinois, a former co-worker invited Castle to help run a jazz station in Austin. Expecting tumbleweeds and horses, the music lover left a “monochrome-gray Chicago day” to find “green trees everywhere” in Austin.
That station became KGSR, which Castle helped establish as a hugely influential, locally rooted presence on the Austin airwaves and that’s known for producing long-running events like Blues on the Green. The station’s eclectic mix was inspired by landmark Chicago stations, the kind music director Castle grew up listening to.
“Austin was just waiting for a music station that reflected the city,” she shares. “We would play Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt, good stuff like Tom Petty, and then we would play the crazy stuff that was selling at Waterloo Records. This town was ripe for it.”
She fondly remembers a great interview with Burt Bacharach, as well as experiencing ’90s newbies like Nirvana and Alanis Morissette play at beloved venue Liberty Lunch.
After being laid off during major changes at KGSR, Castle was hired by KUT in 2009 to help launch sister music station KUTX by 2013. The DJ says she’s found “radio heaven” at the listener-supported station, through which she helps host KUTX Live at the Four Seasons during South By Southwest.
Of course, part of the appeal of her job comes in shining a light on up-and-coming performers. Castle loves discovering local acts “that can live in the same category as the greats” on her show.
“Successful radio stations capture the distinctive energy of their city and do it in an endlessly entertaining and informative and authentic way,” Castle says. “There are zillions of places to consume music these days, but when a radio station is lovingly curated to capture the spirit of its city, it becomes a cultural asset. So, why be a McDonald’s when you can be Hut’s or P. Terry’s or Sandy’s?”
SUSAN CASTLE’S TOP THREE LOCAL ARTISTS
Molly Burch “Raised in LA, she studied jazz vocal performance at the University of North Carolina in Asheville before relocating in Austin. [The city] seems to be a perfect fit for her enchanting vocals, catchy choruses and airy pop sound, buoyed by a semi-twangy guitar.”
Moving Panoramas “[This] Austin trio [is]led by the super talented Leslie Sisson, who rocked a cover of ‘9 to 5’ at KUTX’s Dolly Parton Birthday Bash in January that would have impressed Dolly herself. Her own songwriting skills are equally impressive, with memorable and dreamy rock songs.”
Carson McHone “Rolling Stone named the Austinite one of 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know and selected her 2019 album, Carousel, as one of the best country albums of the year, for good reason.”
LEAH MANNERS | KOOP 91.7 FM
Tune In: Hip Hop Hooray, Sunday, 2 to 3:30 p.m.
While managing her college radio station, Leah Manners created a hip-hop show to fill a gap in programming. After moving to Austin in 2007, she found a similar disparity on the local airwaves.
“Rap is such a diverse genre, but most of what was on mainstream radio was very demeaning to women,” Manners says. “I was like, ‘This isn’t really what rap is to me. If we don’t have a good rap show, I’m going to make one.’”
For the past 12 years, the DJ dubbed Miss Manners has curated “the best roots, golden-age, underground, conscious and world hip-hop” on volunteer-run community station KOOP. In Hip Hop Hooray’s hour-and-a-half slot, Manners focuses on positively presenting diverse voices.
By avoiding lyrics that disrespect women, as well as glorifications of wealth, violence or drug trade, the Austinite carefully picks what she calls “conscious rap.” She makes some exceptions when those themes are inherent to a song’s meaningful message. Each show’s playlist includes about a quarter local artists and one-third women rappers.
“Basically, it’s about elevating things in the culture that should shine more than they currently do,” Manners adds. “You rarely hear indigenous peoples’ raps or Palestinian raps on the radio. They don’t get enough attention, so let’s bring them up.”
In 2012, Manners and artist Adam Protextor launched Austin Mic Exchange. The weekly hip-hop open-mic event brought community emcees together at Spider House Ballroom for five years, temporarily expanding into Weird City Hip-Hop Festival.
Manners considers relationship building to be the defunct event’s biggest impact, listing off local groups like College of Hip Hop Knowledge, whose members connected through the festival. One artist even got an Austin Mic Exchange tattoo.
“There was this peak around 2014 where there would be like 150 people inside and 150 people outside,” Manners recalls of the treasured music incubator. “It was a magical moment, and I don’t think anything has replaced that part in Austin.”
Following past work as a development director at KOOP and an on-air host at KUT, Manners now works remotely for public-media support organization Greater Public. She also practices Krav Maga, doing fitness instruction in the mornings, and spends her Sundays prepping for her radio show by checking in with her own feelings. The result, an instinctive blend of classic hip-hop and modern genres like free jazz and futuristic rap, sometimes includes novelty-themed shows and special tributes.
“Often on-air, I’ll be like, ‘I felt real awkward today, so here are some awkward songs. Here’s some real minor key, five-eighths [time signature]rap,’ ” she says. “It’s become an organic development, with brand-new stuff that I found that week next to A Tribe Called Quest or Blackalicious.”
Manners sees her show as an opportunity to promote local acts, as well as to remind all listeners that our city does indeed have a vibrant hip-hop scene.
“Every year, people say Austin rap is ‘blowing up’ when there’s a new artist or a big scene that goes on,” reflects Manners on her radio show’s place in the Austin music ecosystem. “But fundamentally, Austin is still physically separated along race and genre lines. There are no clubs in Austin that play 100 percent hip-hop, and it’s the biggest musical genre in the entire world.”
LEAH MANNERS’ TOP THREE LOCAL ARTISTS
Third Root “This Central Texas (via Houston) super group produces thoughtful, politically charged hip-hop. In addition to a year-long pedagogically themed EP set from the band, one of the members, MexStep, just released a solo project called Resistir. It’s a triumph of message and medium.”
Anastasia “Recently named president of Crevival Entertainment and founder of her own nonprofit Cake, which seeks to empower women and girls in musical performance, Anastasia is both a businesswoman and masterful performer. With insightful lyrics, pristine delivery and a compelling onstage presence, she represents ATX in an amazing way.”
Krudas Cubensi “This duo emigrated from Cuba to Austin and forever changed the scene with their spitfire lyrics, profound political message and take-no-prisoners attitude in the war for social equality. There’s no better way to be in touch with the progressive movement than dancing to Afro-Latin-influenced beats.”