This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Terry Lickona, executive producer, “Austin City Limits.”
“Austin City Limits" is only about the music, and nothing else.
The program has steadfastly — for 37 years — stuck with its intimate concert setting, and straightforward production style and has been running longer than any national music show on the air.
It is the only television show in American history to be awarded the National Medal of the Arts by the President of the United States (George W. Bush) in 2003.
When it started in 1974, "Austin City Limits" featured an abundance of local artists because the show, in fact, was inspired by Austin’s rich music scene, and the musical mavericks living there.
In the ‘70s, Austin was the spiritual home of “outlaw country music.” Willie Nelson had returned to his native Texas from Nashville; Jerry Jeff Walker had moved into the Hill Country; and Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers had recast themselves as Tex-Mex renegades following their glory rock days with Sir Douglas Quintet.
Also around town were Commander Cody, Michael Murphey (then without his middle name Martin), and Kinky Friedman and his Texas Jewboys.
As Austin’s scene cooled down, "Austin City Limits" turned increasingly toward Nashville and to roots artists from everywhere. The result was that the program over time achieved a rarified roots balance that boasts a roster that includes: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams, Dixie Chicks, Son Volt, Emmylou Harris, Buck Owens, B.B. King, Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Leonard Cohen, Ray Charles, and Dwight Yoakam.
In November, “Austin City Limits” long-time fan Lyle Lovett taped the final episode of the show in KLRU-TV’s Studio 6A in the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center at the University of Texas.
Beginning with its 37th season, “Austin City Limits” has moved production to the new state-of-the-art music venue, Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater in downtown Austin, adjacent to the new W Hotel.
A Feb. 26th (2011) show by Steve Miller served as the first official “Austin City Limits” taping with Widespread Panic, Flogging Molly, Mumford & Sons and Adele following.
The $40 million facility, developed by Stratus Properties, is basically a 2,750-capacity studio with custom sound, helmed by Nashville's Steven Durr Designs that has soundproof doors that seal off the main hall. A remote-controlled camera glides beneath the mezzanine level, while there is a backstage recording studio, and an in-house video editing room.
The theatre is connected to the $260 million W Hotel. The Block 21 complex boasts restaurants and private bar areas, including one stocked to the ceiling with vinyl records. Bands can navigate from their tour bus to hotel rooms and down to the stage without ever stepping outside.
While KLRU-TV has licensed the “Austin City Limits” name to the new venue, they decided to protect the brand by retaining one of the show’s principal trademarks: the wood-and-cardboard skyline that has for so long fooled viewers into thinking the show was taped outside.
A newly commissioned skyline set, reflecting the high rises and condos that have sprung up as part of Austin’s downtown growth, was unveiled just before the Steve Miller taping.
For “Austin City Music” tapings, venue capacity is being scaled back from 2,750 to 800. "Austin City Limits" schedules its own separate shows (KLRU-TV has use of the hall 45 days a year), but sometimes the same act will do both a concert and a taped show on different days. Concert tickets are sold. Tickets for the television tapings are free.
Terry Lickona, executive director of “Austin City Music” has an office in the building along with Colleen Fischer who is booking the venue separately.
KLRU-TV, the Austin PBS station which owns Austin City Music,” contracts Lickona’s company LickonaVision to provide the services of most of the show’s key personnel, including its three producers, the director, audio director, lighting director and photographer.
This month (March, 2011) Tom Gimbel joined the staff as GM for “Austin City Limits.”
The Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater got a formal and glitzy two-night (Feb. 13 & 14) christening by Willie Nelson with a 35-piece orchestra. The name of Austin’s favorite music legend is not on this new building but a signpost on the corner reads Willie Nelson Boulevard, and a bronze likeness of him will be erected soon at the foot of the stairs leading into the concert hall.
Having produced "Austin City Limits" for the past three decades (and as its executive producer since 2009), Lickona has certainly guided the show with considerable vision while helping to establish Austin as one of America’s foremost music centers.
In 2008, Lickona received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Assn. at a ceremony at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
After coming out onstage to a standing ovation, Lickona thanked the then 800-plus artists who had graced the “Austin City Limits” stage.
"What do they all have in common?" he asked after naming a couple dozen artists. "Integrity — their integrity and talent have been the hallmarks of the show."
There’s been little tinkering with “Austin City Limits” over the years.
The show is a way for artists to showcase their music in an unadulterated form without being limited to one song at the end of a late night show or being sandwiched between obnoxious commercials throughout the program.
We like to keep it simple, and concentrate on the music. We’ve added a camera or two. We’ve changed the lighting so it’s not the white lights it used to be. We’ve added a little theatrical touch, but without tampering with the key formula or the philosophy of the show, which is to be a showcase for original music. To present it in the most unadulterated form possible without the usual gimmicks — like rapid-fire cutting, which is the way most music is presented (on TV), or by adding a lot of fancy lighting effects or what have you.
Another music show might cut back-and-forth 10 times between the singer and guitar player. We will linger a little longer while he is singing an intense verse or lyric or linger as an instrumentalist is still immersed in their music. That’s what draws the audience, and the real music fans, to the music.
Music industry wisdom is that music performances don’t work on television.
Well, there are a lot of different elements (in the medium). Just the fact that we have survived for 36—going on 37—years now has given us this credibility that you just can’t take for granted. I think we are thriving more now than ever before. It would be almost impossible to start a show like ours today on any channel.
You’d never get such talent to do it.
There’s that. So we have that credibility with the talent to begin with. I think that we can practically get anybody for the show these days. Then we’ve got the credibility with the audience who will tune in whether they have heard of Esperanza Spalding or not. They will tune in just because they assume that if the artist is on “Austin City Limits” that it is probably something worth listening to. If somebody doesn’t like Esperanza Spalding, they will tune in next week, or the week after to see if there is someone else who is more their music.
[On Feb. 7, 2010 Esperanza Spalding became the most searched person, and second most searched item on Google as a result of her appearance the previous evening on “Austin City Limits.” A year later, at the 53rd Grammy Awards on Feb. 13th at The Staples Center in Los Angeles, Spalding won the Best New Artist award.]
Everybody on the show still gets AFM scale?
Everybody still gets scale. We’ve increased it a little bit. I think that Willie (Nelson) got about $200 when he did the pilot show in 1974. Now the scale is all the way up to $500 (for leader). The sidemen get about $300. It’s based on the amount of rehearsing, and recording the show. Needless to say nobody does the show for the money.
Do the performers own rights to their appearances on “Austin City Limits” for use on DVDs or CDs?
The only rights, from the beginning, are from PBS broadcast. We have the rights to broadcast the show a limited amount of times on PBS. We have no other commercial rights. The artist has no commercial rights. But we are always open to negotiating things that are mutually beneficial. We have to go back and clear the rights to release anything commercially.
Why do so many top caliber artists do the show?
Number one, it’s the credibility that the show has. I think that Eddie Vedder made one of the most profound statements about the show, and what it means to those artists who have done the show in recent years. He said that we have built this monument to music, and he felt that, as an artist coming to perform here, that he gets to add one more brick to that monument, which over time gets bigger and more important in terms of the legacy the show has. That was a generous thing for him to say.
The show tends to bring out the best performances by artists.
When they get here and get up on that stage—first of all, they are happy to be here. Then they feel the energy in the room. The audience is always over-the-top excited about being at the show, and it’s awesome. The fact that we do the show in Austin has a lot to do with the show’s success, and with the genuineness of the show. It’s not your typical TV taping where people are coming to see a TV show. They are there because they are music fans, and they love whoever happens to be onstage at that time.
Lyle Lovett used to attend shows.
That’s how I first got to know Lyle. He would come to the tapings. When Lyle finally got to his first program, we took an old shot from a previous “Austin City Limits” with Lyle sitting in the audience, and inserted it into his program. So at the end of one of his songs, we cut to the audience, and there was Lyle. There aren’t too many people who look like Lyle.
[The final taping in the 36-year run of “Austin City Limits” at Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus was by Lyle Lovett. He was the right choice for the historic booking. It marked his 12th appearance on “Austin City Limits,” tying Willie Nelson for the most ever. Lovett used to attend every taping of “Austin City Limits” that he could, waiting in the standby line at times. Featuring some of his favorite singer/songwriters, including Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, B.W. Stevenson, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash and so forth, the program showcased the kind of musicians that Lovett was striving to be.]
You attracted Garth Brooks for the show’s 25th anniversary that aired in 2000.
Garth flew everybody (to Austin) in private jets which he paid for himself. When Dave Matthews did the show last year, he did the same thing with his band. They flew in on private jets in the middle of a tour when they had a couple of days open.
[Garth Brooks as well as his alter ego, Chris Gaines, performed on the entire program of “Austin City Limits” on Feb. 5, 2000. Brooks first appeared on the show a decade earlier. Lickona had booked him without knowing too much about him.]
Even the media reclusive Van Morrison performed on the show in 2006.
(His former manager) Mary Martin was the one that finally got Van Morrison to come and do our show. Van was a piece of work. He came and did our show and it was the first time that he has allowed anyone to “film” his entire performance since he did the Montreux Jazz Festival two decades earlier. Mary laid the groundwork (for the booking) and it took him about 20 years to do it.
Van Morrison is one of the few artists who have done your show whom you have never met on the day of the show.
His band came in, sound-checked and rehearsed. His road crew was very friendly. But Van wouldn’t come to the studio until 10 minutes before show time. I told his tour manager that I would love to be there when the car pulled up so I could welcome him personally, and escort him upstairs. He said, “Nothing personal Terry, but if I were you, I wouldn’t bother because he’s so rude he’ll probably say something mean or walk right by you.” So I decided to stay out of his way. Once he got onstage, he put on a great show. Afterwards, he left the stage and went out into the dark.
Leonard Cohen has spoken highly of playing “Austin City Limits” in 1993.
That is still one of my all-time favorite shows that we’ve ever done. It says a lot for 36 years of shows. We taped Leonard twice. The first time (in 1988), he and the band had just played in L.A. the night before. They flew into Austin on the red-eye. They all showed up wearing the same clothes that they wore the night before and they were all bleary-eyed when they walked into the studio.
It was the first time that I had met Leonard. In introducing myself to him, I asked him if there was anything we could do to make them feel more comfortable. Without missing a beat, he said, “You know a bottle of good tequila would be very appreciated.” We sent somebody out for a bottle of tequila which quickly disappeared. He seemed much more relaxed after that.
I am very hopeful and excited about the possibility that we might do a new show with Leonard later this year. He’s been in the studio, and he’s got a record coming, and apparently he will be out doing some shows in the Fall. If he wants to showcase his new songs on “Austin City Limit” what could be better than that?
The 2009 show with Allen Toussaint is one of my favorites.
He is such a class act. We gave him the entire hour show because it would be an injustice to cut him back to a half hour. He told some of the most beautiful stories about how it was like growing up, and going out to visit relatives in the countryside outside of New Orleans.
Bruce Springsteen has been an elusive guest?
He’s the number one name on my list. I have certainly made offers. I have tried every angle that I could think of. I have never met Bruce but I have got to believe that he is not only familiar with the show but that he watches it because it’s the type of music that he would enjoy, and there’s the diversity of music that he would appreciate. I thought the perfect time for him to do the show was when he was on that acoustic tour (the “Devils & Dust Tour” in 2005) but I couldn’t even get (Springsteen’s manager) Jon Landau to return my call.
How about Sir Paul McCartney?
Funny that you should mention that because I am really hopeful that he will do the show sometime in the near future. McCartney has never played a show in Austin. As much as he has toured, especially in the last few years, he has never played here. We hope that Sir Paul will find his way to Austin to play the show that people are just dying to see and, while he’s in the neighborhood, he will come and grace our stage. I am trying to make that one happen.
Who drove the campaign for this new building? Who said, “We really have to get a new home?”
It was the management of the PBS station KLRU which started “Austin City Limits” and owns all of the rights. About 15 years ago, we began having internal conversations about looking for a new facility. We looked at a bunch of places. We looked at an old bakery which had been abandoned, and we looked at an old abandoned power plant that the city of Austin used to operate. We also considered building something from scratch but, frankly, we couldn’t’ afford that type of expense.
As we were looking around about town, we were approached by the largest commercial developer in Austin, Stratus Properties, which was bidding on the rights to develop an entire square block of downtown Austin—prime real estate which the city of Austin owned.
So, the city of Austin was weighing the various bids from developers and trying to decide who to award the contracts to.
Obviously, the city fathers were closely scrutinizing what the plans would be for that space.
Stratus, to their credit, had a brilliant idea. They wanted to build a downtown hotel, which Austin was badly in need of, and they also wanted to build a new home for “Austin City Limits.” Now, this is literally right behind the Austin City Hall, across the street. The city immediately fell in love with the whole idea of having an icon like “Austin City Limits” in the middle of downtown, right across the street on a city-owned property as part of this new development which would benefit a non-profit organization, namely the public television station, but also would operate as a for profit music venue, and enhance Austin’s reputation as a live musical capitol of the world.
So it was a win-win-win situation for everybody. The developer offered to build this at no cost to us. They would also give us exclusive rights to use the venue for 45 days out of the year. On top of that, they would give us a percentage of tickets sold for every concert that takes place in the venue.
The cost of the project was $300 million.
That’s the cost for entire the block, including the 37-story W hotel and condominium. Our piece, for just the venue part, cost about $40 million.
“Austin City Limits” certainly needed to move from KLRU-TV’s Studio 6A at the University of Texas.
The show was always in Studio 6A. It was just a typical TV studio, a “black box” as they call them. It wasn’t designed for live TV production, or for a live audience. So we had problems trying to accommodate that. Frankly, we put up with it for 36 years, but then when we had a better opportunity come along, we thought it was worth investigating.
One big drawback at Studio 6A was its capacity. But that wasn’t always the case.
When we started “Austin City Limits” we had an audience of 800 to 900 people in the studio. Everything was fine for the first eight years. Then one night we were doing a taping with Kris Kristofferson, and the lights went out. There was a power blackout that affected half of the campus, including the studio. We discovered, much to our chagrin, that we had no emergency lighting in that room. It was like being in a cave in pitch black with 800 of your best friends. That got the fire marshal’s attention as you might imagine. They cut our capacity from 800 to 500. Then, after the big fire in Rhode island (in 2003 at a Great White show at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island where 96 people died), every fire marshal in the country took notice of that.
They re-inspected our space and felt that they hadn’t cut us back quite enough. So they lopped off another few hundred (seats). Eventually, our capacity shrunk to 300. We could feel the difference in the energy level in the room with only 300 people there. And, by the time you factored in our obligations as a PBS station, dependent on underwriting money and trade outs for hotels for this and that, we had only 100 or so tickets dedicated to those types of people. It didn’t leave that much room for the public (to attain tickets).
The seating for the new venue is 2,750, but you’ll only use 800 seats for the television show?
Exactly. What I tell people who say that it is not going to be intimate, or it’s not going to be the same (as Studio 6A) is that we are getting back to the way the show used to be when we started with about 800 people in the same intimate space.
The footprint of our new venue is exactly the same as the original, 10,000 square feet which surprises, if not shocks, most people. The difference is that it operates as a venue and has three levels to accommodate 2,700 people.
When we are taping, we are going to drape off the upper balcony. It will virtually disappear so you won’t even know that it’s there. We will basically go with just the floor, and a small mezzanine area to accommodate 800 people. We will have our bleachers set up and our wood stage that’s close to the floor. It helps to enforce that intimate connection between the performer and the fan.
The furthest seat in the venue is 75 feet away from centre stage?
That’s right. The last row in the upper balcony is 75 feet from the star position onstage. You have to see it for yourself, and experience a show in there to understand a space that can accommodate almost 3,000 people can feel that intimate.
Was having a new version of the classic backdrop a priority for the new theatre?
Well, we built a new backdrop because the old one was from 1980 and Austin has changed quite a bit since then. We wanted it to be realistic but we also wanted the UT Tower and the Capitol Dome to pop out from the skyline like they have, being the iconic landmarks that they are. We just unveiled our new skyline a few weeks ago (for the first taping with Steve Miller) and it looks great.
[The new backdrop is familiar, but different. It shows Austin from the same perspective as the former backdrop at the University of Texas studio, but is updated to show the current skyline. It highlights with back-lighting the University of Texas tower and the Texas State Capitol.]
How will you and house booker Colleen Fischer work out each of your wish lists for the venue?
That’s the biggest challenge in this new arrangement. In the past, we had our own little studio which we could book on a day’s notice. So now we are sharing a space with a venue, of course, and we have to be cognizant of the fact that Colleen is booking shows weeks and months out—or, at least, putting holds on dates.
I need a little more lead-time than I am used to having in the past. So far, we haven’t had any issues. I’ve got quite a few dates on the calendar up to August, in fact.
My worst call would be that I get a call saying that Paul McCartney would love to tape “Austin City Limits” but the only possible date that he can do it is Aug. 24th or whatever, and I look at the calendar and Colleen has a concert booked with tickets already out on sale. Then we’d have to put our heads together and figure out what to do. It might also happen with a lesser act, of course.
[ACL Live booker Colleen Fischer previously booked the Houston music venues of Rockefeller Hall and Verizon Wireless Theater.]
The Willie Nelson performances at the venue on Feb. 13th and 14th must have been like a homecoming.
We had originally hoped that Willie would play later in the month of February, but he decided he wanted to play his show on Valentine’s Day and added a second show the night before on Feb. 13. So the very first time that Willie played our new venue, given his long history with our show going back to the original pilot, I had to miss it. I was in L.A. (for the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, which took take place at Staples Center, in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2011.]
As co-chair of the television committee of the Recording Academy, you are heavily involved with the Grammy telecast. You have also been chairman of the board of the Recording Academy, of course.
Neil (Portnow) and I co-chair the television committee for the show. I’ve become good friends with (the Grammy show producers) Ken Erlich and John Cossette over the years. I’ve really come to love lot of the work that I do (with the Recording Academy) on a lot of levels, including helping to start the Texas chapter in Austin, but also working on the TV show.
I love the contrast, if you can imagine, between spending a few weeks a year working on the Grammy Awards show with Neil and Ken—the budget they have for that show would keep “Austin City Limits” going for five years—with the tremendous pressure around the bookings, and the artist egos that go into that show. Then, I get back to Austin to do our little music show for PBS where we pay people $500, and they love to come and do it. There are never any issues, certainly not like they have at the Grammys. I’ve always enjoyed contrast like that. But, I also look forward to getting on a plane and coming home.
You began working on “Austin City Limits” during its third season?
I did. I came in as an assistant to the producers during the third year, having no background whatsoever in television. My background was in radio for seven years in upstate New York.
What brought you to Austin in 1974?
It was music that brought me to Austin. I was becoming more and more eclectic in my musical tastes. In the middle of playing the latest Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan record I would slip in a Willie Nelson or Bob Wills record.
That was the year of Willie’s famous 4th of July picnic.
Yes. He had his first picnic (a one-day event) in 1973. I had a call one night from a listener (at WEOK-FM in Poughkeepsie where I was a DJing) who went to the University of Texas, and he said that I had to go down to Austin to check out this amazing music scene. I was friends with a number of musicians, and there was a good friend of mine that had a band in Poughkeepsie, and we decided to get in my car and drive to Austin, and go to Willie’s 4th of July picnic in 1974. It was a three day affair in the middle of a motor speedway outside of Austin. It was a great event. I never made it to Woodstock, but I went to Willie’s picnic (that year) and it could have been like the Texas version of Woodstock.
[Willie Nelson’s 4th of July annual picnic began in 1973, and was inspired by a country music festival that took place outdoors on a ranch near Dripping Springs in 1972. Nelson, one of the performers, and some of his friends, decided to organize a one-day event for July 4, 1973 at the same ranch in Dripping Springs. Musicians in addition to Nelson included Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings, and Tom T. Hall.
In 1974 the picnic was a three-day festival that took place outdoors at the Texas World Speedway in College Station. Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett, Leon Russell, Michael Martin Murphey, and Jerry Jeff Walker were among the lineup of musicians that attended.]
You had a great time over those three days, and decided to stay in Austin?
My friend and I made a pact that we’d move here later that year. He was going to move here with his band, and I was going to come down here and get a job in radio. So that’s what we did. I was 26. I was getting restless at that point. I had lived in Poughkeepsie most of my life, except for college. I didn’t want to stay at this radio station forever. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to break into New York and major markets up there. I hated the cold weather. So I figured, what did I have to lose? It seemed like Austin would be a cool place to live and, from there, I might go some place out elsewhere. I just thought it’d be worth checking out.
Did you get a job in radio right off?
It took me about three months. I didn’t apply until I came to town. I just thought I’d make the rounds and someone would hire me. I ended up at KUT, the NPR (National Public Radio) station which happened to be in the same building as KRLU, the PBS (TV) station. I went to work at KUT’s news department, which was shared with KRLU. I covered the city council meetings, and I did an interview show, and I did this and that. But they were just starting up this new music program (“Austin City Limits”) on the other side of the building and, given my love for music, I was just drawn to it like a magnet. I approached the original producers and asked if I could volunteer to help out and, maybe, learn a bit about television.
Who were the original production teams for the show?
It was Bill Arhos, (as executive producer) who was the program director (of KRLU-TV) at the time; the original producer was Paul Bosner; and the original director was Bruce Scafe. It was the three of them that came up with the idea, and who got Willie to come in and do the original pilot. It was taped in October of ’74, a month before I came to town. So I missed out on the original pilot, but I soon talked my way into this position as unpaid assistant to the producers. I was just fascinated by the whole thing. I had never stepped foot into a television studio before then.
What was your job?
I was literally the assistant to the producers, helping them log shows and do paperwork, and helping them on taping days with whatever they needed to have done.
You ended up as producer of the show?
A funny thing happened. One year after I began working as an assistant, the original Paul and Bruce left the show. In fact, they left Austin. Bill basically went back to being a full time program director (of KRLU-TV). He had a full-time job as the program director. I was left as the only person who understood how the production came together.
And so you were left in charge?
Exactly. They were about to hire someone from L.A. or from New York to come in and pick up the reins. I walked into the general manager’s office and said, “You could hire someone from L.A. or New York that doesn’t know anything about Austin or about the music here or about the TV show and they would be more expensive than if you hired me.” He bought that (argument). I look back and, then, being a kid in my 20s, I wonder, what was I thinking? Why would they hire me? Well, they did. I talked my way into the job, and they thought I could pull it off. They gave me a year’s probation, more or less, to do it.
Suddenly you are the negotiating talent for the show all on your own.
The first year I became producer was with (bluesman) Lightnin' Hopkins. I think it was the only time that he’d done television. He came in from Houston to do the show. It was an amazing show and he died just a few years later (in 1982). We had to pay Lightnin' in cash before the show, even though it was a few hundred dollars because he wouldn’t play or at least it wouldn’t be a very good show, his manager said. Lightnin' got paid in cash, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s (whiskey) in advance. It was on a Sunday afternoon which was the first (his management) had told us about this policy. Of course, the banks were closed. So we had to take up a collection from among the crew to pay Lightnin' Hopkins. We managed to scrape it together, and he was a happy man. He played his ass off.
You used to go to Nashville to recruit talent for the show.
And to L.A., but more often into Nashville, back when the show had a more country slant to it. Nobody was that familiar with the show with the exception of a handful of people who got it right away.
Did “Austin City Limits” air nationally on PBS right from the start?
It did. The original show with Willie Nelson was broadcast nationally. Not on every station, but on a good number of them.
For years it was hard to find the show on a PBS affiliate’s schedule.
We used to be part of what they used to call the program collective at PBS, where stations would pay a certain amount of money for the rights to broadcast each PBS program, depending on its market size etc. It got to the point back in the ‘90s when a lot of stations dropped “Austin City Limits” because they couldn’t afford to pay the fee. If they had to choose between “Masterpiece Theatre” or “Austin City Limits” or one of the other iconic PSB series, they’d drop us. Our program never got the ratings that some of the other prime time series on PBS did. No music program does. No surprise there.
“Austin City Limits” wouldn’t be regarded as a mass appeal show by most PBS station managers.
Exactly. If we had Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, the program director at the PBS station in New York, Boston or Chicago would still go, “That’s not our kind of programming. People in Boston don’t watch this sort of thing.” Of course, they are wrong. There is a huge audience for country music, everywhere.
I think that it was more a matter of money in the end, however. The reason I say that is that we made a crucial decision in the ‘90s that we were no longer going to charge individual PBS stations a fee for the right to carry “Austin City Limits"—that we were going to bite the bullet and raise the funding to pay the full production costs of the show (ourselves) and offer it for free.
How did that work out?
Our carriage went from something like 60 something percent (of the available PBS stations) to 90 percent almost within the year. Granted in New York and Boston they would still carry it at 1:00 in the morning, but at least they carried it. They put it on the schedule because it was free. That (growth) made a huge difference in the show’s success at that point and gave us the ability to grow and expand into other directions.
You are from Poughkeepsie, New York?
Yeah. Our family goes back a couple of generations. They were Irish immigrants back in 1800s who originally moved to New York City and then moved upstate. Both my grandfathers worked on the railroad.
Where did you go to university?
I went to Albany State. I majored in political science. My ambition was to join the foreign service and become a world traveling ambassador of sorts. Just see the world. I was really into politics, and current events. I was interested in all of that before I was interested in music.
That was a divisive period in America with Richard Nixon in the White House, and protests against the Vietnam war.
That is what quickly turned me off to the idea of joining the foreign service or going into politics. In fact, during that summer of the strikes on the college campuses, I was a few hours away from getting my master’s degree in political sciences. It was the year (1970) that all of the colleges (500 in all) shut down in the spring. I never went back (to college). I never completed my masters in political science.
America was so politicized then.
My brother was a teaching assistant at the college at Albany State when I, and another group of students, marched into his classroom to disrupt his class, which was what we were doing at the time. When I got my induction notice to report for duty to go off to Vietnam, I refused to take the oath. I was prepared to go to Canada, if that’s what the consequences were. I might have become a Canadian citizen if I hadn’t flunked my final physical at the induction centre. I had a heart murmur which really hasn’t bothered me much. But I was a scrawny, skinny little kid and I think they looked at me and figured that I would last about two days in Vietnam. So they decided to send me home.
You began working in radio. Did you want to be another Cousin Brucie?
Actually, Scott Muni. When I was 16, maybe, I wanted to be Cousin Brucie—but by the time I was in my 20s I was addicted to WNEW with Jonathan Schwartz and Alison Steele. I used to work at WEOK, an AM radio station in Poughkeepsie. It was an AM easy listening station. Then they decided to start an FM station, but they didn’t know what to do with it. Three of us there decided to talk the management into experimenting with FM rock. That was WEOK-FM, later to become WPDH which still exists (as a mainstream rock station). It was sort of like a free-form progressive FM station with hardly any commercials because nobody would advertise. To make it even stranger during the daytime, it simulcasts the AM’s easy listening format. But here’s the thing, it was a daytime-only AM station that went off at sunset. In the wintertime, it would go off at 4:30, and then we would switch the FM format over to rock and go late into the night.
You went from John Davidson into the Grateful Dead?
Oh yeah. I would start off my show with Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They let us play anything that we wanted to play. Those were the glory days. The management at this easy-listening station didn’t have a clue about rock music so we could play anything. We’d play the entire version of "In-A-Gadded-Da-Vida" (by Iron Butterfly). That was great, especially those eight hour shifts. I would go on at six o’clock on a Saturday night, and sound off at 2:00 in the morning. I was in my early to mid-20s. It was amazing that they gave me as much freedom as they did. I was starting to do live (performance) stuff in the studio at night with just a couple of microphones.
You almost got fired several times.
On top of doing my FM rock show, I used to do a one hour daily talk show called “Talk Back” in the middle of the afternoon on the AM station. It was basically to give me enough hours to have a full time job. The FM thing was limited to the night time and the weekends, and I filled in for other people on vacation. I was a jack of all trades. I even filled in on the Sunday morning gospel show if the guy was too drunk to come into work.
What got you in trouble?
People would call in and ask me for my opinion on just about everything. This was when there was all of the talk about Nixon and Watergate. I made an off-hand comment that there were probably sufficient grounds for Nixon to be impeached. That was not very popular among the sponsors or the management of the radio station. I came as close as I could to being let go, but they liked me. I was a good kid. So they figured I had just made a mistake.
Another time I talked about abortion and birth control, where after shortly afterwards I was visited by the local bishop of the Catholic church. I was a Catholic boy, grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and I was told that I shouldn’t be disrespectful of Mother Church. At that point I said, “I don’t really want to do this talk show anymore.” I just decided that I didn’t need any more of this. I would rather just play the latest Janis Joplin or Cream.
What size of music library do you have?
I would say it’s vast. I’m more an analog guy. It’s as eclectic as you might suspect. I have a turntable that I still use in my living room. I’ve stacks of CDs all over my living room, and there are towers of CDs surrounding me in my office. I’m not a big MP3 guy. The degradation of the sound quality really disturbs me; that we have come this far only to produce shitty sounding music that most kids don’t notice (the difference).
You have certainly remained a passionate music fan.
Well, I am. I started in this job when I was 28, and I’m 63 now. I still feel like I did then. I don’t really feel any older. I’m in good health, knock on wood. But I still like to get out there and hit the streets. A couple of weeks ago, I went to see this one guy in Austin who kick-drums while he’s playing guitar and singing. Then from there we went to Emo’s to see the Suicide Pistols. Then we went to the dance club next door. Then I was wondering, “What the hell am I doing here at 3 A.M. when there’s nobody here that is even close to half my age?" But I still genuinely like music. I would like to do “Austin City Limits” first electronica show with the right artists—like we did our first hip hop show with K’Naan and Mos Def last year.
For over three decades, you have had a ringside seat watching American music.
I know, and I’ve gotten to meet these people from Ray Charles and Johnny Cash to the newest indie rockers who are excited to do our show, and who are still passionate about their music. I almost feel timeless or that we are in a time warp of some sort. We’re still doing this show pretty much the way we did it in the beginning. It’s in high-definition now so it looks better than ever, but the concept hasn’t changed. There is still that passion for the music that I have, that the artist has, and the fans have. That all comes together on our stage, now and then. That’s the beauty of it. I just hope that we continue that.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.”
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