written by Katherine Tanney, January 2007
Imagine it is January 1967 in Austin, Texas, population 250,000. It has been 14 long months since the city’s prize-winning classical music station disappeared, replaced by popular music. For several weeks, the newspaper has been trumpeting the imminent arrival of a substitute station but so far technical problems have kept the newcomer from making its debut.
Now it’s Sunday, January 29, and KMFA is set to sign-on at last. That afternoon, Dan Love, General Manager of KHFI-TV, owned by the same corporation that halted classical music on the radio, accompanies his wife to Sacred Heart church in northeast Austin. It’s an ordinary service; nothing memorable to report--until 1 p.m., that is. Then without warning, music begins to pour inexplicably from the church’s speakers, interrupting the sermon and taking the congregants by surprise. (Apparently, wireless microphones in 1967 depended on unused radio frequencies.) Is that-- Love listens closely--the “William Tell” overture?
Nockey WilletAt that moment, in a tiny office on the tenth floor of a building downtown, a man named Leonard Masters is at KMFA’s controls. He has just set the needle on a recording that listeners are sure to associate with “The Lone Ranger.” It is not, perhaps, the music he would have chosen as the station’s Program Director, but Chief Engineer Nockey Willett wants to pay tribute to the “father of radio,” Lee DeForest, who played the “William Tell” overture during a historic 1907 transmission. And without Nockey KMFA wouldn’t be on the radio that day or any other day in 1967. He alone had the technical expertise, the passion for radio, and for classical music to get the station built—in his spare time and without pay.
* * *
Blink. It’s present-day Austin. The city's population has swelled to more than 800,000. The crowded FM dial now competes with hundreds of satellite radio stations, as well as portable personal music devices and online radio broadcasts from all over the world. And yet, in restaurants, shops, and offices all over town the sound of KMFA’s music and announcers can be heard, proving that classical music goes with everything, whether you’re cooking, driving, studying, or scrubbing a kitchen floor.
In 2007, KMFA turned 40, a rare achievement for any radio station, and an especially proud one for an operation that has, from the beginning, relied on its listeners to keep going. Thank you, Austin and Central Texas! Here is the story of KMFA as told by some of its earliest staffers, board members, and fans, as well as the voices of the station today.
It is impossible to talk about the birth of KMFA without mentioning the death of classical music programming on its forerunner, KHFI-FM. According to John Kingsberry, corporate president at the time, the decision was purely financial. “There’s no question a lot of national awards were won,” he told the American-Statesman. “We’ve got a wall full of them, but you can’t eat them.”
Bob ThurmondBob Thurmond has been a KMFA member from the very beginning and still remembers KHFI. “I listened to them everyday, all the time, until one day I turned on the station and it was pop. Well, I was not happy.” An acoustics consultant, Thurmond was acquainted with Dale Jones, the cofounder of KHFI in 1956, who was still its engineer. Jones told him, “It’s all over but don’t worry. We’re trying to organize a new station which will be listener supported and not subject to market variations.”
“We” referred to Jones and his friend, N.W. “Nockey” Willet, who was the assistant director in charge of engineering for Radio-TV at the University of Texas, and also KUT-FM’s chief engineer. The two men began talking to other broadcasting professionals in town—the radio community in 1965 was a small tribe—and before long, plans were underway to return classical music to the air waves with Jones as KMFA’s general manager and Willet its chief engineer.
Funding, Then and Now
What happened next depends on who you talk to, but one thing everyone can agree upon is that two very attractive young women, housewives named Jane and Jackie, took it upon themselves to go out and raise the initial money.
Jacquelyn Small Jackie is author and therapist Jacquelyn Small. In 1966 she was Jackie Gee, wife of United States 5th Circuit Court Judge, Thomas Gee. Her best friend, Jane Leonard, was married to the executive director of the Texas Republican Party. Both women missed classical KHFI and approached their friend Rod Kennedy about the matter. (Kennedy had owned and operated KHFI before its purchase by Kingsberry’s group; after that, he stayed on as Vice President.
Kennedy recalled, “[Jane and Jackie] said, ‘We want to keep Leonard with a salary so he doesn’t go away and we want to build a station for him.’ And I said, ‘Well let me call Nockey.’” When it was understood that the new station would be noncommercial and would require a chunk of capital to become a reality, the ladies went into action.
“The original idea was that we were just going to send out a large mailing and attempt to get a whole lot of listeners who would be willing to pay us ten dollars apiece to get the station going,” Jackie explained. “Well, I’m a realist and I knew from the very beginning just how difficult that was going to be. And so I got my friend Jane to go with me to visit businessmen and women around the city to see if any of them would be willing to be founders for $1000 apiece.”
“Jane was blonde and Jackie was brunette,” remembers Custis Wright, widow of legendary UT professor and eventual longtime KMFA Board chairman, Charles Alan Wright (1967-1990). “They were beautiful fundraisers. They would go and they would just stalk people and they were so good looking they got lots of money that way.” (The Wrights were friends of Jackie and Tom Gee; Charlie, as he liked to be called, held informal business meetings with the two women at his home during the many months they worked on finding money for KMFA.)
Jackie added, laughing, “I believe it was the man at Superior Dairies who said, ‘Are you aware you’ve just come in here and asked me for a thousand dollars?’ But he gave it to me.”
“[They] were not to be refused,” said Kennedy. “Very eager, very aggressive young women who got a hold of the businessmen of this town and got the station paid for and on the air.”
Mayo King, manager of Rauscher- Pierce Securities, began accompanying the two women on their calls after pledging his $1000 to the station. His standing as a community leader boosted their credibility and led to more and more businesses—25 in all by the time they were through—signing on as cash donors to KMFA.
Jackie continued, “We made the promise that these founders would be mentioned three times a day over the air for the lifetime of the station. We tried to pick just one business in each category so they wouldn’t feel that they were competing with each other. Like, if we got a bank we didn’t try to find another bank.”
(As a side note, Jackie should be credited with coming up with the call letters K-M-F-A with her friends Kennedy and UT’s Radio-TV President, Bob Schenkkan. When the trio received the disappointing news that their first choice, K-M-O-A, was taken, Classical Music Of Austin became Classical Music For Austin.)
Donations also came in the form of equipment, office space, advertising, and more. For example, KHFI-AM-FM-TV turned its classical record library over to KMFA, as well as giving the new station space on its tower for an antenna and space in its building for a transmitter. According to Willet, they even offered to provide the power to operate the transmitter.
Dale Jones And that’s how the station got on the air. It was truly a community effort. Nockey and his wife stayed up nights putting together the application for an FCC license; Dale Jones formed a nonprofit corporation under the name Capitol Broadcasting, Incorporated; and a Board of Trustees was named, its members comprising all tJanuary 2, 2013e, and expertise to the station without compensation. Additional big donors, so-called “Charter Members” at $500 each, were rounded up and a first year budget was set. But once it was up and operating, from 1 p.m. until midnight seven days a week, fledgling KMFA needed members more than anything else.
Actually, the word “member” was rarely if ever used in the beginning. KMFA was “listener supported,” a “community radio station” that solicited donations and offered, as thanks, subscriptions to its monthly program guide, which was called “Music for Austin.” A one-year subscription required a donation of at least $10. The program guide included paid advertisements, another important form of income for the station. The problem was selling enough subscriptions to ensure KMFA’s second year of existence.
Jeff Kodosky, cofounder of National Instruments, whose family foundation underwrites KMFA’s nationally syndicated program, “Classical Guitar Alive,” began listening to the station in 1970 when he and his wife moved to Austin so he could study physics. “I was a poor graduate student and so I couldn’t even afford membership for the first couple of years.” (In 1971 the station saw the need for a student rate and cut its subscription price accordingly to five dollars.)
Rod KennedyCreative ways of raising money were tried. During the handful of years, beginning in 1967, that Kennedy was its official development consultant, KMFA experimented with large benefits such as the self-explanatory “Rock for Bach” and the station’s fifth anniversary concert fundraiser, which was notable for showcasing, on one bill: band leader Les Elgart, banjo picker Earl Scruggs, hornist Bobby Hackett, and the “KMFA Stage Orchestra,” led by a Hollywood conductor/composer. Though the reviews were positive, the cost of producing these events at the Municipal Auditorium put little extra in the bank for KMFA.
Kenneth ByrdIn 1970, operations manager and future general manager, Kenneth Byrd (1971-1973 as GM) made headlines with his 17-hour telephone request marathon fundraiser. It was the first time KMFA broadcast through the night and it was meant to entice listeners with such a possibility. About $1000 in pledges came in. (Keep in mind that a pledge didn’t mean money in those days. Credit card numbers were not taken over the phone as they are today. Callers left their names and addresses and were later solicited by mail for their checks.)
Countless events benefiting KMFA have been held throughout its forty-year history, including performances by Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Dick, Austin Ballet Theater, and the Gilbert & Sullivan Society. But perhaps the most popular fundraiser was the annual “Musical Garage Sale,” dreamed up in 1982 by the Friends of KMFA, a group of devoted volunteers.
“We would put out an open invitation to our listeners to bring in any unwanted music related items,” explained former program director, Scott Dawes (1990-1996), “from LPs or CDs to harmonicas, music stands, and sheet music. You name it, people brought it in. They were enormously successful, financially, for the station.”
But the question of funding remained a critical one throughout KMFA’s first decade and never more so than during the summer of 1974 when, due to “neglect and mistakes of omission,” according to the American-Statesman, the station came perilously close to going out of business.
“Leonard [Masters] came on the air abruptly and said that they had just learned they had a financial crisis and didn’t even have enough money to meet the payroll at the end of the week,” Bob Thurmond recalled. “Well, the response was phenomenal. People would walk in, drop a twenty-dollar bill on the desk and walk out--frequently.”
In just 10 days, the station managed to raise $16,000 and avert the worst once more. (The American-Statesman article noted that daily announcements of KMFA’s poor financial condition, followed by appeals for help, had been a staple of the station, occurring about every six months since its debut.) Such was, and still is, the pact between KMFA’s listeners and their source for high quality, commercial-free classical music.
Charles Alan Wright Luckily for the station, it had another early weapon against failure. His name was Charles Alan Wright. A brilliant lawyer and legal scholar who argued several important cases before the United States Supreme Court and advised Richard Nixon’s defense team during the Watergate scandal, Wright was, according to KMFA Board member Nancy Scanlan (1978-present), “majordomo” at each and every Board meeting.
“He was always a bit formidable, a bit formal,” Scanlan said. “He was a fascinating man who apparently didn’t sleep very much and got so much done. If we were short on money he called a few people or made a donation himself.”
Wright’s other enduring legacy at KMFA was his practice of holding Board meetings at Tarry House, a private club, where they are still held today. Scanlan remarked, “I’ve never been on a Board before or since where the meeting is in the late afternoon and it includes cocktails. And Charles Alan Wright paid for our cocktails.” (It is not known precisely when this practice began, only that it was in place by the time Scanlan joined the Board in 1978.)
Many who knew him noted Wright’s love of letter writing, a form of communication he much preferred to wasting time on the telephone. In a letter to his children dated April 30, 1973 (provided by his widow), Wright explained how he managed to raise two-thirds of the money needed to purchase a microwave relay unit for KMFA.
I have tried unsuccessfully to get money from federally financed programs and from foundations, he wrote. The members of the Board feel it so important we get this equipment that they have been proposing that we borrow the money and pay it off over some long term. I have been against this. KMFA has never been in debt and I think it would be dangerous for us to go into debt.
Wright’s solution? He wrote to a wealthy person here in town that has been generous to us in the past, but he didn’t mention any specific amount.
I was unhappy when I saw in today’s mail a letter from her. Such a quick response seemed likely to be no, he continued. But to Wright’s delight, the woman and her husband offered to donate $4000 if the station could raise the other two. He concluded the paragraph, That ought to be child’s play.
Frank Bash Part of KMFA’s money problems were connected to its on-air fundraising drives, which were poorly coordinated. Longtime Board member and former director of UT’s McDonald Observatory, Frank Bash, explained, “It used to be, in the ’70s, membership drives would go on for two months and there was just a little mention every once in a while that the membership drive was on. It was painful.”
With the hiring of general manager Jeff Krys (1996-2005), Bash said the drives became shorter and more focused, looking much as they do today. The station currently conducts two eight-day membership drives per year, in fall and spring, with a targeted three-day birthday drive at the end of January. Under the leadership of Jeff Krys and Program Director Randy Harriman other milestones were reached as well, such as the production of award-winning programs, transmitter power increased, and the broadcast day expanded to 24 hours.
Asked how he feels about “pitching” on the air, early morning announcer Jeffrey Blair said, “At first and for a very long time I really despised it, because I felt like we were going out with a sign and a tin cup and panhandling on a corner. After a while I got to realize that this is the way we do business. We don’t sell advertising. This is what we do, and we either do it successfully or we don’t.”
Better management, greater attention to market research, and Austin’s phenomenal population growth eventually led KMFA to more effective membership drives and firm financial footing, which today derives primarily from the support of its more than 6000 members. And there’s a brand new source of funding on the way.
In 2006, General Manager Jack Allen (2005 - 2008) was the impetus for the station’s first-ever award of a Community Service Grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“There had been a spirit of independence with this station for so long,” Allen said, referring to the station’s nonrelationship to federal or state funding. “And that’s cool, but President Lyndon Johnson, back in the middle ’60s as part of his vision for a “Great Society” signed into law the CPB and set aside taxpayer monies to support and strengthen the public service of stations just like KMFA, and to not go after those monies I felt was poor stewardship on our part.”
(No records exist, but statements to the media by previous stakeholders and by Charles Alan Wright indicate that in its early days KMFA tried for but did not qualify to receive CPB money due to its small size and non-minority status. The station also appealed to the City Council for assistance in 1972 and, in what turned out to be a flawed and controversial decision; the Council denied the station’s request.)
After staff members spent months putting together the application and working with a Washington D.C. lawyer, auspiciously named Melody Virtue, KMFA was one of 11 stations to receive CPB funding.
“In perpetuity, as long as we remain in compliance, KMFA will receive a minimum of $117,000 a year, which represents over 10% of our budget,” Allen continued. “It’s an organization-changing gift.”
The Sound of KMFA
Nancy Scanlan Classical music lovers have an affinity with the music that can often be traced to an original “Aha” moment. For example, Scanlan’s grandmother took her to see Rigoletto when she was 23 and that’s when she “got it.”
“The next year,” Scanlan said, “I heard Joan Sutherland and I remember thinking my mouth was so dry and I realized it was wide open, like, just stunned.”
Dawes went as a second grader to hear the Austin Symphony Orchestra. “I saw these ladies and gentlemen seated in chairs with violins and so forth. And then a big timpani roll opened the concert and they played the Star Spangled Banner for full orchestra, and I was mesmerized.”
Kennedy remembers doing somersaults to Debussy at five; Kodosky’s opera epiphany occurred in Munich, Germany where business associates gave him front row seats for Aida. Announcer Dianne Donovan’s earliest affair with the music was as a child, dancing around the living room to Ravel’s Bolero. It is the love of this music and the power of such moments that make KMFA so vital to its listeners, many of whom are particular about how it should be presented.
Sara Hessel Sara Hessel became KMFA’s first music director in 2005. Hessel, who has a degree in Musicology, began as a fill-in announcer in 2001. She still announces and she also hosts and produces Ancient Voices.
“Basically, I do the programming from 6 am to 8 pm weekdays, and a little less on the weekends.” She also acquires new CDs, maintains relations with the record labels and manages the database. We insist that KMFA always sound different each day, always interesting. I dig in that library, trying to find just that perfect mix. People want to know what they can expect when they tune into KMFA. The tapestry of sound always needs to be fresh and interesting.”
John EddinsJohn Eddins, who managed the station from 1976 to 1996, had a similar goal. “Our theory was that we wanted the station to sound as if you were sitting in your living room playing records for your friends. You know, ‘Here’s something I really enjoy. Listen to this.’ We were trying to make that kind of bond between the listeners and the station.”
That is, when he wasn’t grappling with problems like the needle blowing off an LP or an ambulance tearing through downtown Austin during a recording session. The air conditioning in the Perry Brooks building at Eighth and Brazos, KMFA’s original donated home, went off at 5 p.m., which is when Eddins cranked open the windows and things got “interesting.”
What you don’t hear on the station is breaking news. Only a few times in the station’s history have outside events been deemed significant enough to slice into the dependable respite and peaceful oasis that KMFA represents for its listeners. Exceptions to the rule were: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the deaths of Israeli Prime Minister, Israel Yitzhak Rabin and Lady Diana, and the events of September 11, 2001. Allen is all for “Casual yet very brief mentions of timely local and national events,” which keep the listener connected to the world. “A sense of localism is what sets KMFA apart from competitors like satellite radio,” he added. “But we want to be careful not to shatter KMFA’s reputation for being an island of serenity.”
“There’s so much chaos in the outer world,” said Small, whose specialization is music therapy. “Music has the ability to carve new neural pathways through the brain right where memory and emotion converge. And it can actually heal you sometimes.” Though she loves many kinds of music, Small especially appreciates the “quietness or solidity that comes from classical music.”
Leonard Masters The station’s first and most illustrious announcer was Leonard Masters (1967-1994), who was also program director until 1990. Very tall, very bald, and very overweight, his voice was well known to Austin listeners from his nine years on KHFI. What most people didn’t know about Masters was that he never spoke to them live if he could possibly avoid it.
“He was very nervous when he was on the air,” said one of Leonard’s closest friends, original KMFA board secretary Emil Szafir. “He taped most of his announcements so he could go over them if he flubbed them, so his announcements were all very smooth.”
Scanlan remembers his style being “a little austere. It seemed to fit with the music. I always felt like he was my teacher. He explained just enough and he knew everything.”
Thurmond was “enthralled” by Masters’s “deep, resonant voice, perfect diction, and excellent pronunciation. He was obviously British and obviously very knowledgeable, and it wasn’t until several years later that I discovered he wasn’t British at all. He was from Pampa, Texas.”
A former doctoral student in political science at the University of Texas, Masters found his calling in radio through a friendship with Dale Jones, who sold him records at a store on the drag and who later hired him to keep the books and program classical music at Jones’s fledgling electronics store-cum-Austin’s first FM radio station, High Fidelity, Inc. (The call letters KHFI reflect that store’s name.)
“I can remember his voice and articulation very clearly,” said Kodosky, speaking of Masters. “It was a little bit quirky, shall we say, but ultimately very enjoyable.” Kodosky then tried an impersonation, as did many of the people interviewed for this story, adding, “His pronunciation [of some words] was a little bit hilarious.”
“I had a terrible voice,” Masters told writer Patrick Taggert in 1974, in the American-Statesman. “I discovered it in 1946, when I was 18. I was horrified and decided something had to be done. I worked at a radio station in Odessa during the summers and practiced there on a wire recorder. It took me years to get the diction I wanted, and I went through hell, taking criticism for being affected.”
Emil SzafirSzafir was not a fan of what came to be known as “the Masters voice.” “I felt that his orotund style of announcing was off-putting. He seemed to me to be a very successful imitation of [NBC classical music announcer] Milton Cross. We didn’t discuss it because it quickly became apparent that neither one of us was going to influence the other.”
For every detractor there were dozens of adoring fans. An online post devoted to Masters, dated 1997 and found on an opera discussion board, is representative: "He NEVER made any mistakes in pronunciation, and was always composed and authoritative as he gave the names of the work, composer, and performers. The great thing about Mr. Masters was his voice. This man was an institution, and had more authority on the air than anyone I've ever heard. I remember many happy nights in high school, listening."
“Leonard set just the right tone for the station at that time,” said Allen. “It is a bit dated in terms of a style now… A guy like Leonard would’ve been very uncomfortable with me trying to get him to look directly at the listener and say, ‘I hope you enjoyed that.’” But Allen added, “Leonard cared deeply about the music, which led him to be perfectionistic about the pronunciations. He did very well at a time when there weren’t many resources for coaching or growth as an announcer.”
According to Eddins, Masters relied on individuals at UT who taught foreign languages to help him with difficult pronunciations. A note: when Eddins started as a part time “announcer” in 1969, the job didn’t involve any speaking. He had to match up announcement tapes prerecorded by Masters with the records to be played. Years later, when Eddins became station manager, one of the most contentious issues was getting “the great pronouncer” to allow other voices on the air. Dawes, who began announcing part time in 1982, started each shift by listening to pronunciation tapes left by Masters to guide others through that day’s play list.
Custis Wright “Leonard was wonderful,” said Custis Wright, recalling one of Masters’s visits to the opera. “A woman had sung and Leonard was very correct. Instead of standing up and saying Bravo, he said Brava to have the right inflection for the feminine.”
Exactitude was so important to Masters, and his knowledge of the music so extensive that he occasionally said to Dawes something like, “I don’t want to play this one because the conductor’s made some edits. It’s four minutes shorter than it ought to be.”
He was a very private man, with little known about his personal life. Kennedy, who worked with Masters for years after buying KHFI, was the only one who seemed to know that Leonard had been briefly married. “He married a young girl. It wasn’t a very successful marriage, but that’s the only other thing that I know he was interested in, other than going to the symphony and the opera. His life was that radio station.”
Kennedy was speaking of KHFI, but at KMFA Masters met Marguerite Agnes Grissom, a St. Edward’s University professor of Music Appreciation, a singer and organist at St. Mary’s Cathedral, a private piano and voice teacher, and an early KMFA volunteer who happened to be blind. In one 2005 obituary for Grissom, Masters was listed as her “special friend” and “soul mate.” Dawes, who succeeded Masters as program director, remarked that “Leonard spent a lot of time with his dear friend Marguerite, either working or listening to music.” The work the two did together involved Masters dictating the monthly program guide in its entirety (from handwritten notes legible only to him) as Grissom typed.
“For Marguerite, music was her everything, and Sir Georg Solti [the famous Chicago Symphony conductor] was her first love,” remembered Allen, who chatted with Grissom on the phone everyday during her last year of life. “But Leonard was a close second.”
In remembering Masters, Kennedy made sure to add that, “He probably had the greatest influence on my cultural outlook and insight of any individual that I have known in my life. And he was a good man. Totally dedicated to being right” — here Kennedy laughed —“and making it obvious on the air. But he loved the composers and their work and the audience.”
Dawes agreed completely. “Being around Leonard was an educational experience everyday. I’ve never been around anybody else who loved what he or she did more than Leonard.”
Masters died of complications from diabetes in 1996. According to former board chairman, Frank Bash, the station supported him when he could no longer work. “We felt an obligation,” said Bash.
* * *
Rich Upton Of KMFA’s announcers, Rich Upton (1989-2011) had the longest tenure. When asked about the KMFA style of announcing, he said, “You know, a lot of people admire Leonard Masters, but we kind of made a deliberate effort to get away from [that] method of delivery. I think the more you sound like a real person the more real people want to listen. On the other hand, we’re not going to sound like Wolf Man Jack here. It’s just not appropriate to the music.”
Dianne Donovan Canadian-born Dianne Donovan was invited to become a full-time announcer in 2003. Like Upton, who is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Donovan is a musician who sings jazz at various clubs around Austin. She said her favorite thing about announcing for KMFA, where she also hosts and produces “Classical Austin,” is the music.
“I like connecting with listeners. Just about every day of the week there’s a new piece that I get to play and I like the sense that others are also discovering along this path.” She also enjoys doing research about the composers and pieces of music she’ll be announcing. “I try to read up about every piece and then in the hour I might have information about two so there’s not too much talking.”
Jeffrey Blair, who begins his announcing shift at 6 am each weekday in addition to being KMFA’s production manager and the producer of “Choral Classics” and “Piano Masterpieces,” says he couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag. “But I can take microphones and a mixing board and make an average performance sound like [audio] gold. So that’s my instrument of choice: a mixing board.” Blair, who was hired in 2000, was the producer behind KMFA’s very first live simulcast in 2004, from Bates Recital hall, of a UT Symphony Orchestra performance.
When asked if it’s ever hard to manufacture his characteristic cheerfulness, Blair explained, “There are times when it’s getting toward the deadline when I’ve got to get a program done and I’ve got all these other things that are demanding my attention and I’m absolutely at my wit’s end, and finally I just close the door and I listen to some of the music… And I’ll start talking about the music and the more that I talk about it, the more that I think about it, the more that I enjoy it. And that comes through.”
It certainly does, according to listeners like Kodosky. “I travel a bit around the country and haven’t found another station that can compare to KMFA. They either just play the most popular movements of the most popular pieces or they have some advertising. But even the best that I’ve heard, their announcers don’t compare to the caliber of announcers that we have here at KMFA.”
In 1999, the station began broadcasting 24 hours a day. About six months after he arrived in 2003, Allen made the decision to switch the overnight service from WFMT’s prerecorded feed out of Chicago to Minnesota Public Radio’s nationally syndicated, live classical-music service.
Tom Morris Behind the sound of KMFA there have always been guardian angels such as engineering consultant Thomas Morris (1971-present), who can list just about every upgrade to the station’s broadcasting capability ever made. In his 36 years assisting the station in one way or another, originally for a nominal honorarium—“You don’t do this sort of thing for the money. I love classical music,” he says--he has twice climbed hundreds of feet up the tower, left his warm bed to fix technical problems, and added quite a few lines to his face just to make sure the station is still on the air. Before him, the go-to techies were Nockey Willett and Dale Jones, friends with whom Morris worked. All of them have seen the station grow from a 1300-watt, 11 hour-a-day toddler that could barely transmit its signal to the perimeter of downtown Austin to what it is today: a 24-hour, 40,000-watt long distance runner able to make it all the way to Fort Hood.
The Listeners of KMFA
Is there such a thing as “the typical classical music lover,” and if so, is KMFA’s longevity due to a greater percentage of them in Central Texas?
In the station’s first decade, data showed that its donors were better educated and had higher incomes than average. One of its problems getting by was the fact that there just weren’t enough of them.
Scott Dawes Later, when Dawes came to KMFA, the prevailing theory was, “we had two very defined audiences out there: the somewhat older crowd, as one might expect, and then a lot of students that liked to use the radio station when they were studying. But as far as the kind of people that would walk in here to hand us a check as a donation for their memberships, we had people walk in in three-piece suits and people walk in in coveralls. They came from all walks of life, it seemed to me.”
When asked why KMFA has survived, Eddins said, “We had a lot of discussions about that—Board level, staff level, talking with listeners and such. The thing that seems to stand out is that Austin has the exact right mix to make this work. We have a formidable institution of higher learning here, so we have a high level of professionalism, both in education and in other areas, [such as] a tech industry, which normally sort of favors classical music.”
Upton sees a similar “combination of the fact that Austin is very arts-inclined and entertainment-inclined, and over the years there have been a lot of high-end businesses that have come in here and a lot of wealthy people who are able to support a number of nonprofit organizations. I think people like the fact that we’re noncommercial.”
Hessel mused, “Maybe this couldn’t happen anywhere except Austin.”
“It says something about our community here,” Kodosky remarked. “Maybe it’s of above average intelligence. Maybe it’s a reflection of the people who come to UT to go to the Butler School of Music, say, and then want to stay in Austin. They appreciate a fine station like KMFA.”
There has been a steady increase in memberships in recent years. In 2006 alone, the increase was more than 10% — good trends, according to currwent General Manager, Joan Kobayashi, who compiles and pays close attention to listener feedback. Some of her favorite donor remarks are:
--“I’m in Beijing, China at the moment and, to put it mildly, enjoy the streaming broadcast online.”
-- “I love classical music and KMFA is the best classical music station I've
ever heard. I've traveled all over the world and no other station compares. I only wish I could give more!”
-- “Through the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, I had been working as a volunteer with the refugees who ended up in Austin. When not there or at my own job, especially the first ten days, I listened to CNN, unable not to. But periodically, I would turn to 89.5. I don't know if the music was especially selected or it just represents the station as a whole, but after listening for a while, I would feel refreshed in spirit and better able to do whatever I needed to do and think and feel. Thank you for sustaining this beautiful music and giving us listeners time to regain a sense of normalcy, even for short durations, which was sorely needed during the events occurring and the stark realities brought before us.”
The Future of KMFA
In 1979, after twelve years at the Perry Brooks building downtown (10 of them rent-free, thanks to KMFA founder Max Brooks), the station leased offices at the Steen building at 30th and Lamar, where it now occupies the entire ground floor.
“We needed a place where people could easily access us,” said Eddins. “People were always wanting to come by and drop off a contribution or talk with an announcer and it was very difficult because of parking. There was really no room for expansion.”
Attorney Henry Gates Steen, whose practice is still located in the building, was friends with KMFA Board treasurer Frank Gibson. Thanks to their connection, Steen offered space at a reduced rate and allowed a tower to be placed on top of the building.
In terms of its programming, the station introduced “Wind Sounds” to its popular group of locally produced programs in May 2007. Inspired by classical music of all periods recorded by wind, band and brass ensembles, the show is produced by long-term KMFA volunteer Doug Shands, with hostRich Upton. Other locally produced shows include Sara Hessel's Ancient Voices, Dianne Donovan's Classical Austin, Jeffrey Blair's Choral Classics, Dan Welcher’s “Knowing the Score,” Kathryn Mishell’s “Into the Light,” and Brian Satterwhite’s “Film Score Focus.”
KMFA’s plans to put the entire music library, currently CDs, on a hard-drive with a backup drive at the transmitter site in case of fire or other emergency at the station. Sara Hessel explained, “The overall sound will be so much cleaner and consistent. The quality of KMFA’s sound will improve dramatically.”
No doubt KMFA has come a long way since 1967, but it has stayed remarkably faithful to its original mission.
Malcolm Cooper “We are not what you call a fat organization,” remarked longstanding Board member, Malcolm Cooper, who makes his living as a financial consultant. “We’re doing extremely well right now and I think that’s because we have a very talented staff; the whole group is amazingly enthusiastic about what they’re doing.”
Could Classical 89.5 be just hitting its stride at 40? Coming into its prime? Frank Bash has no doubt. “A story ought to be written about KMFA someday, how funny little Austin, Texas has one of the world’s best classical music radio stations. I mean, how did that happen?”
© Capitol Broadcasting, Inc. 2007