Sunday, September 21, 2008

Austin City Limits

In 1973, Karen and I left the cozy environment of Oklahoma State University, where I’d been teaching broadcast news courses and serving as News Director for KOSU, the public radio station licensed to the university.

Our destination was Austin, Texas, about which we knew…….nothing. It was the capitol city, and the University of Texas was located there. Beyond that, I suspect we might have perceived that “Hook ‘em Horns” was an obscene gesture. I was reminded of our stint in Austin when I read about my friend Terry Lickona winning the Lifetime Achievement Award last week in Nashville at the Americana Music Association awards gathering.

My official job title in Austin was Director of News and Public Affairs for the University of Texas Communications Center; in broadcasting parlance, I was the News Director for KLRN-TV and KUT-FM. In those days, KLRN was licensed to the Southwest Texas Public Broadcasting Council and served both San Antonio and Austin from a transmitter near New Braunfels. Although KLRN had studios in San Antonio, the station was headquartered in Austin. Within months after my arrival, KLRN-TV and KUT-FM moved from the old Chemistry building at UT to a brand spankin’ new facility on Guadalupe Street, shown at left some 30 years after I was there, but apparently still holding up fairly well.

Our leader in those days was Bob Schenkkan, whose early contributions to public television are pretty well documented. Bob did a lot of traveling in the 1970s, and I seldom saw or visited with him. Day-to-day operations were left to Station Manager Harvey Herbst, with whom I got along just fine. Harvey was not a favorite with many at KLRN/KUT, but I always found him fair and supportive.

Perhaps in another posting I can share stories about the many colorful and talented people I came to know in Austin, including Cactus Pryor, Cyndi Allen, Larry White, Tom Dvorak, Dick Rizzo, Bink Williams, Bob Buckalew, Bruce Scafe, and Charles Akins, among others. This posting focuses upon the Austin environment – particularly the sounds that were captured as a part of Austin City Limits.

First, Karen and I were taken by the beauty of the Austin area. The lakes and nearby “Hill Country” afforded two Nebraska kids an opportunity to see aspects of the Lone Star state of which we were unaware. Great restaurants were plentiful. Zilker Park was gorgeous. And then there’s the music.

Karen and I occasionally joined friends in weekend forays to downtown Austin to take in the live performances of a wide array of musicians. To this day, I don’t recall the names of the places or artists, but I do remember that Austin was rich with a diversity of talented country musicians.

Paul Bosner, Bruce Scafe, and Billy Arhos were the KLRN colleagues who had an big itch for producing a live country and western music program. And they made it happen.

While I was responsible for producing and anchoring a nightly 30-minute news and public affairs program in one of our fourth floor studios, Austin City Limits was produced in one of the two massive 6th floor studios. The other 6th floor studio was reserved for production of a children’s bi-lingual program called Carrascolendas, which had been the recipient of major federal grants obtained under the leadership of Ida Barrera.

One of my most vivid recollections of Austin City Limits had to do with riding the elevators after musicians had just gone up to their studio. I always thought that the sweet aroma left behind in the elevator was a new blend of pipe tobacco; I think one of the news staff suggested that perhaps I’d never smelled quafts of marijuana. I couldn’t be absolutely certain, of course, but the story would be consistent with what I knew about many of the musicians. While I know that Paul, Billy and others had high hopes for Austin City Limits, few of us felt it would achieve the success that had been enjoyed by Carrascolendas. Little did we know that it would become a staple performance broadcast for PBS and retain a strong following around the nation three decades after it was launched!

By late 1974, we were expanding our News and Public Affairs staff, and I hired a “walk-on” candidate from New York named Terry Lickona. I thought he could help us breathe life into the rather stagnant public affairs programming on KUT-FM. Terry was a thoughtful, low-key, but thorough producer with an excellent on-air radio presence. He did a fine job. But I was surprised a few months later when he approached me about moving into television. There were some sticky personnel issues that made him uncomfortable, and he wanted out of radio. We made the switch, and Terry became a regular part of our Newsroom Nine evening television broadcast.

In the mid-1970s, we decided to examine key current issues through a different format. It was a live courtroom-style television program based upon an old WGBH Boston series called The Advocates. Local Austin Judge Mary Pearl Williams was moderator. Our first program – and I don’t remember others – was a real challenge. One of our “advocates” was the fiery Mayor of Austin, Jeff Friedman. Minutes before the program was to go live, Friedman contested the ground rules for the program and threatened to walk out. Terry interceded. My recollection is that – with the help of Mary Pearl Williams – the program was saved.

Within two years after Karen and I left Austin, Terry became a part of the Austin City Limits staff, and eventually took over as Producer, a role he has held ever since. ACL holds something of a record in American television as the longest-running musical performance program series, and Terry Lickona has produced over 800 of those programs.

Terry and I have crossed paths a few times over the years. In the late 1990s, I invited him to Jackson, Mississippi for a visit. I was Executive Director for the statewide public broadcasting network and was interested in our producing a pilot performance program on the Blues, which had its birth in the Mississippi delta. Terry had the experience with ACL and could have given this initiative a real boost. My enthusiasm for the project was not shared by some of my senior managers, so the project never got launched. I still think we missed a real opportunity, and I regret that I didn’t push harder to make it happen.

I’ve enjoyed watching Terry Lickona’s career blossom. During the few years I worked with Terry in Austin, I gained a real appreciation for his professionalism, and I’ve been not at all surprised by his success. Congratulations, Terry, on the Lifetime Achievement Award with the AMA. Well done!

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