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Amid all the ethnic musical programs that hide in the corners of Houston's radio dial is one curio: a show devoted to America's biggest and nearly oldest immigrant group, the Germans.
Sandwiched between Vietnamese news programs, The Musical Trot with Liselotte, hosted by German native Liselotte Babin, is good old-fashioned hip-to-be-square programming. It's on KTEK/1110 AM every Sunday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Originally the show was broadcast on KPFT/90.1 FM, where Babin still holds the record as the longest-running host. The program fell victim to KPFT's "The Sound of Texas" revolution, but Babin trudged onward to the lesser-known KTEK. Yet the ebullient host has bigger things to worry her than being banished to AM radio: To hear to her talk, she is less concerned about her recent glaucoma operation, from which she made a full recovery, and more bothered by the idea of finding a replacement for her program. She plans to give it up by 2002, which will mark the 30th anniversary of Musical Trot's debut. There just aren't many German music fanatics in Houston willing to work as hard as she has. When Babin finally signs off for good, it just might be the last time the German language is heard over the local airwaves.
More than a polka show, the Trot offers Babin's humor, poetry and off-the-cuff advice ("You should go to the bathroom and practice your yodeling"), all delivered in both German and Prussian-accented English. "Radio is companionship," says onetime KPFT manager Barry Forbes, "and Liselotte provides that." Former Pacifica bigwig Jean Palmquist believes the show is addictive. "A lot of people find her charming on the air," Palmquist once said. "[Babin] has a personal sense of the audience, and you get attached to her."
And she's on a mission: to educate and entertain. She plays what she describes as "peppy" music, whether it's from next door or across the globe. Her show, of course, relies heavily on music from German-speaking lands, but it also may include English and American standards and Lithuanian and Slavic musics. Babin gets a special kick from talking in depth about the Germanic material she plays, which, aside from polka, includes yodels, folk songs and even a couple of Johann Strauss waltzes; she likes listeners to know that there's more to her nation's sound than just oom-pah-pah. Going for the novelty angle, Babin also plays German versions of famous American songs, ranging from folk tunes like "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to relatively contemporary pop hits like Blondie's "Heart of Glass."
Babin hails from East Prussia, a historically German region that passed into Lithuanian (and thus Soviet) control after World War II. At the war's end, a young Babin and her mother made a desperate wintertime escape to the West, just ahead of a vengeful Red Army. Breaking out was difficult in the biting cold, but the frigid conditions helped, as the women fled across a frozen lake. After their getaway, the two walked 115 miles to catch a westbound refugee train, staffed oddly enough by Russian fighters.
Eventually Babin and her mother made it to the Bavarian town of Regensburg, thus avoiding a lifetime behind the iron curtain. Eight years later at a Regensburg New Year's dance, Babin met her future husband, Bob Babin, a Port Arthur-born engineer who was then an army medical technician. In 1955 the two wed and came to Texas, settling first in Vidor and later in Houston.
Babin was resourceful. After mastering written English, she supplemented the couple's income by working as an importer, freelance writer and poet. Her poetry, which she modestly describes as "pedestrian," nevertheless brought her a laurel or two. One came in 1959 via Don McNeill, host of ABC Radio's nationally syndicated Breakfast Club program. The DJ read a 75-line poem of Babin's on the air. McNeill had never before read a poem longer than four lines.
Babin continued to write throughout the 1960s; she got into radio, as the cliché goes, by accident. A relatively new German program had begun airing on KPFT in 1970. Babin tuned in one day to discover the show had ended. She called to complain, and the station manager asked if she would like to take it over. "Of course I laughed," recalls Babin, "but after talking it over with my family, I said, "Why not?' "
She wasn't a technical wiz, having no previous radio experience, but she did know what she wanted to hear on the radio. On March 4, 1972, with a hearty "Guten Morgen, dear friends," Babin began her 25-year-plus career on Houston's airwaves.
Not alone, as it happens. Bob Babin has been by her side since day one. He has worked his way up from chauffeur to FCC-licensed radio engineer, a role he still holds.
Bob Babin's a good helper, she says. He's helped with writer's block and has shared the publishing duties on the bimonthly newspaper, Deutsche Welt USA ("German World"), that Babin launched in 1979. The paper lasted 15 years, and Babin earned a medal from the president of Germany.
Babin's musical tastes and personality are ideal accompaniments to a Sunday afternoon. Even though the music she loves goes best with a certain malted beverage, it's great for other jejune Sunday pastimes. One listener called in recently and said, "We are frying bananas this morning, and this is just the music we needed to hear."