Revisiting Austin radio

One of the things I’ve always liked about is listening to Austin radio while I’m in town. I remember discovering KGSR on my first visit in 2006, and there are always new surprises. Here’s what I blogged back then:

Great radio lives

at /107.1 in Austin. Entertainment Weekly called it “an only-in-Austin blend of alt-country, hippie jams, singer-songwriters, and lots of Willie Nelson, of course.” (Sorry, no link.) It doesn’t seem to have the non-stop funky personality of KPIG, but the music is in the same league. They don’t play anything I don’t like, or anything I’m very familiar with, which is an amazing combination.
Wow, they just played Hot Tuna, Willie Nelson (“Shotgun Willie”, an early one, from an album by the same name I’ve long since lost), Stevie Ray Vaughan (I have all his stuff, I thought, but this one wasn’t familiar to me), a new Bonnie Raitt. Creedence (“Midnight Special”). Now they’re playing a local artist; missed the name, but awfully good.
They’re not the biggest station in town: 39,000 watts at about 500 feet, from a tower 16 miles southeast of Austin, near Bastrop, the station’s actual city of license. But they put a city-grade signal over Austin. Does the job.
Says here they’re tied for #9 in all listeners 12+, but I’ll be they’re strong in demographics that matter to advertisers. Hope they are, anyway, so they live.

On this latest trip to Austin (I was there from Thursday to Monday, March 10-14), I was worried at first when I found KGSR missing on 107.1, replaced by a Spanish station. But I quickly discovered that KGSR had moved to 93.3, and a much bigger signal. (This wasn’t KGSR’s first move. It’s long history is explained in Wikipedia.) Other new and old radio finds were:

  • the variously eclectic (and very locally-focused) and , sharing time on 91.7, and on 88.7;
  • classical on 89.5;
  • alternative (101x) on 101.5;
  • landmark news/public/music on 90.5; and
  • old-fashioned “beautiful music” (aka “easy listening”) over on 91.3.

Back to KGSR. I didn’t hear them bragging, but what they have now is the biggest FM signal in town. (now KLZT) was 49,000 watts at 499 feet above average terrain. is 100,000 watts at 1927 feet above average terrain — only 73 feet below the legal maximum height of 2000 feet. With more than twice the power and nearly four times the height (both matter on FM), the coverage area is much bigger. Other stations in the market equal KGSR’s power, but none radiate from the same height. (There are coverage maps at both those last two links.)

Another fun find is that KUT kicks butt in the ratings. Check this out. KUT is tops in Austin in January with a 9.3 share of 12+ listening. Far as I know there are no other public stations in the country that come out #1 in the ratings, over and over, which KUT appears to be doing. KGSR is pretty far back, with a 2.3. KMFA gets a 2.4. KROX gets a 3.3. KNCT gets a 1.8. KOOP gets an 0.2. KAZI and KVRX are no-shows. KLZT, the Mexican music station that now radiates from KGSR’s old transmitter, gets a 5.3. It’s also cool to see five streams listed in the ratings, which is impressive just at the factual level.

What sent me to the ratings was this September 2009 piece in the Austin Post by , about KGSR’s move to 93.3. Writes Jim, “According to Arbitron, the #1 Radio station is KLBJ AM, broadcasting news and information, recently in the news for its decision to reinstate the Todd and Don Show.  The show had been cancelled earlier this year after Don Pryor used the slur “wetback” repeated for about an hour on the air with no management stepping in to stop it.  The station is still #1 with a 7.1 rating.  The #2 station is breezy KKMJ FM.”

Used to be Arbitron didn’t publish noncommercial numbers (and I’m guessing they didn’t when Jim wrote that piece), but now they do, at least through http://radio-info.com. If you’re reading this, Jim, go here: http://www.radio-info.com/markets/austin . Lots of interesting Austin radio story fodder in that list.

For most of my life all I knew about Austin radio was that KLBJ’s story was tied up with its former owner, Lady Bird Johnson, and her husband Lyndon Baines Johnson, the former President. Writes the KLBJ history page, “In December 1942, a buyer, armed with limited capital, a dream, a journalism degree from the University of Texas, and no broadcasting experience, became the new licensee – Lady Bird Johnson.” But there’s more to that story. Here’s Wikipedia:

In January-February 1943, Ladybird Johnson spent $17,500 of her inheritance to purchase ,[3] an Austin radio station that was in debt. She bought the radio station from a three-man partnership which included a future and a future , .

She served as President of the company, LBJ Holding Co., and her husband negotiated an agreement with the CBS radio network. Lady Bird decided to expand by buying a television station in 1952 despite Lyndon’s objections, reminding him that she could do as she wished with her inheritance.[6] The station, KTBC-TV/7 (then affiliated with CBS as well), would make the Johnsons millionaires as Austin’s monopoly VHF franchise.[27] Over the years, journalists have written about how Lyndon used his influence in the Senate to influence the Federal Communications Commission into granting the monopoly license, which was in Lady Bird’s name.[28][29]

Eventually, Johnson’s initial $41,000 investment turned into more than $150 million for the LBJ Holding Company.[30] Johnson remained involved with the company until she was in her 80s.[6] She was the first president’s wife to become a millionaire in her own right.[3]

That squares with my own recollection of the story, from  back when I was involved in broadcasting, in the 1970s.

KLBJ is on 590 on the AM dial, radiating 5000 watts by day and 1000 by night. The night signal is also directional, with dents (“nulls”) to the north and the southeast. From my window seat on the flight out to Houston, I spotted KLBJ’s four-tower transmitter , and got this series of pix, which I’ve posted at the Infrastructure collection on Flickr.

By day, KLBJ’s primary coverage area stretches from Waco to San Antonio, 90 miles in opposite directions. Secondary coverage includes Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Fringe coverage reaches across most of Texas and into Oklahoma to the north and Mexico to the south. And that’s with just 5000 watts, or 1/10th the legal limit. The reason is ground conductivity. Texas has some of the best in the country. (Here’s a station in Atlanta on the same channel with more than twice the power. And it basically covers North Georgia and that’s it.)

Here’s Jim McNabb on what has happened to KLBJ since he served as news director there 35 years ago: that it’s become another mostly-right-wing foghorn. (Here’s a schedule.) The same can be said about countless other news/talk stations, of course.

Back on FM, the most anomalous station I heard was also the most anachronistic: , out of in Killeen. Its format is “beautiful music,” or what we once called “.” This was the “mood music” often disparaged as “elevator music” or “music on hold” back in the decades. I didn’t miss it when it went away, but it did kinda give me the warm fuzzies to hear it again. Sadly, the station doesn’t stream, or you could sample it.

Anyway, I just wanted to dump my thoughts on Austin radio before moving on to other matters, also involving broadcasting.