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A New Home for KUT

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General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt realizes two exciting milestones for Austin’s public radio station.

By Meng Qi, Photo by Rudy Arocha

The exterior of KUT’s new sustainably built studio is lined with so much glass that it almost dares passersby to peek in. Luckily, that’s exactly the way Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT’s general manager and director, wanted it.

You can’t separate KUT’s success from the community in which we operate,” Vanderwilt says. “We’ve always felt that with our community. We were looking for the opportunity not just to have a nicer place to work, but we wanted something that reflected that relationship with the community. [We wanted] to make what we do completely transparent, to demonstrate it from the inside out and to bring people directly in to the experience.”

Many of the interior walls are glass as well. As a result, even before visitors enter, they can catch glimpses of on-air talent at work and maybe even recognize a musician or two giving a live performance. But KUT’s focus on community engagement doesn’t stop at its façade. The public will be able to attend in-studio performances and community discussions in Studio 1A, which boasts an impressive set of features, like a floating floor that sits on eight inches of foam to resist outside reverberations.

A screen can also come down over its glass walls so the shows can be projected for an outdoor audience on the adjacent performance lawn. Performers will also be given the royal treatment in the new Robin Ratliff Shivers Artist Green Room, named after the Austin philanthropist who made visionary strides in providing health care for uninsured musicians. Vanderwilt’s vision for KUT’s new space started about a week after he joined the station on Valentine’s Day a little more than 12 years ago.

Surprisingly, Vanderwilt came to the radio industry through a slightly circuitous path. Vanderwilt’s first career aspiration was to be a professional downhill skier. His second choice was in political science and law, and his experience there is positive proof that great opportunities can come out of setbacks.

“I couldn’t keep up with the reading necessary to be a political-science major,” Vanderwilt says. “I actually dropped out of college for a while after that and I got a job at a radio station. That basically changed my complete career path, and I’m thrilled for it.”

On the other hand, perhaps Vanderwilt’s political-science background contributes to his excellent grasp of what makes Texas a newsworthy state. This was part of the motivation for KUT’s expansion in to its second station, KUTX. Projected to go live Jan. 1, 2013, KUTX will be dedicated to music, while KUT will air solely news and informational programming.

“On the news side, we’re arguably the most important state capital in the country,” Vanderwilt says. “Texas has 39 electoral votes, we have the longest foreign border and we’re a center for energy and environmental issues. We’re the No. 1 producer of green energy in the U.S., and we’re the seventh-largest carbon emitter in the world. There’s so much that happens in Texas that influences the nation and the world, and to have a radio news service will be very, very powerful.”

The impact of KUT’s news reporting team was recognized on a national level with its third Edward R. Murrow Award for continuing coverage of the 2011 Texas drought. Other winners included news teams from the New York Times and the Boston Globe, propelling KUT “in to very good company,” Vanderwilt says.

In past years, KUT received this national award for a series about rural Texas doctors’ perspectives on recent health-care reform and the end of the NASA spaceshuttle program. KUT’s music programming will get a boost as well when it shifts entirely to KUTX on 98.9 FM.

“The new music station is going to be all about identifying the Austin music experience as it’s happening today, connecting that experience to the past and moving people forward with it,” Vanderwilt says. “It’ll happen in both obvious and subtle ways. We’ll have a Cactus Café live show, and we’ll make a point to identify artists who are Austin-based. Our definition of the Austin music experience is music that’s made here and music that’s played here. It’s the combination of those two that makes this such a vibrant music city.”

Vanderwilt credits KUT’s listeners for the station’s ability to grow and expand in to these new opportunities.

“It was completely private dollars that built the new studio,” Vanderwilt says. “Our listeners helped us raise almost $10 million to create this building. On an ongoing basis, the community provides about $7 million for ongoing support of KUT’s operations. Listener and community support is a function of how many listen to us and how important the service is to their individual lives. Part of our expansion hope is ultimately to reach more people and more deeply engage with their lives.”

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