All That Jazz
Former KTSU Latin jazz DJ Juan Flores was waiting for his flight to board at George Bush Intercontinental Airport when a stranger approached him.
"Hey, whatever happened to Juan Flores?" the man asked, noting the Texas Southern University radio station insignia on Flores's jacket. "His show was great. I don't get why he's not on the air anymore."
Flores wonders the same thing himself.
Aside from the Sunday gospel programming, Flores's Jazz Latino show was arguably the most loved on "The Choice" FM 90.9. But in February 2010, KTSU Assistant General Manager Donna Franklin told Flores that his services weren't needed anymore "because [TSU President John Rudley] did not like Latin jazz," says Flores.
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What followed, Flores explains, was a huge public uproar that included sponsors pulling money out of KTSU. Later, he was asked back by school officials because presumably Rudley's wishes had been lost in translation. Flores returned to the station, but later left for good.
He's not alone in his disgruntlement. Another former KTSU DJ, Chris Tucker, compared the current operations of the historic jazz station to a "concentration camp."
Several current and former employees allege that general manager Franklin and TSU president Rudley have ruined KTSU by usurping cutting-edge jazz, soul and blues for smooth jazz, a music that's normally associated with a dentist's office (and a genre that gave Kenny G his footing) and not a left-side-of-the-dial operation that will turn 40 years old in June.
In fact, the Franklin and Rudley reign has inspired an anonymously led uprising called the Concerned Legends of KTSU. The group has published and distributed six manifesto-style e-mails alleging a long list of injustices at "The Black Jewel" of American radio. Throughout KTSU's 39-year history, the station has been a measure of success for one of the nation's largest historically black institutions, which, amid other ups and downs, nearly lost its accreditation in 2007 following a spending scandal by its then-president.
The group's complaints are both large and petty, accusing the station of all sorts of mismanagement as well as misrepresentations to its listening audience — which at one time included jazz lovers throughout the Houston area.
Critics say the station's high-powered equipment has been jeopardized by a lack of maintenance. KTSU is putting new student DJs on the air without adequate training and often bumping veteran jocks from prime-time shifts to accomplish this, they charge.
And in what they say is a nasty bit of subterfuge, Juan Flores's replacement has been misrepresented as a Hispanic DJ when he's actually an African-American.
Problems at TSU and its radio station are nothing new, according to KTSU's former music director Aaron Cohen. But Cohen, who says that he was forced out in 2006 after a shoving match with a volunteer, believes that Franklin and Rudley have accelerated the dysfunction that he says was first put in place by longtime Operations Manager Charles Hudson and General Manager George Thomas.
As a longtime KTSU jock, Kyle Scott Jackson played 1920s- to 1980s-era jazz, or, in his words, "Music that formed the station to begin with." Shortly after Franklin was hired in October 2008, Jackson ditched the gig that he had held for 13 years.
"I left because I saw the wave of change coming to the station, such as the programming and the attitudes. I see what has developed since I left and there's only a smattering of traditional and straight-ahead jazz," says Jackson, who went on to establish the nonprofit Jazz Walk of Fame.
Station employees weren't the only ones who left.
A current KTSU employee, who spoke to Houston Press on condition of anonymity (we'll call him Albert), says listeners have left en masse since Franklin started at KTSU three years ago. In 2004, Arbitron figures show that the station had 244,700 listeners. By 2011, the Arbitron number had dropped to an all-time low 85,000 audience members. Says Albert: "We've been down before — once we had to buy a new transmitter and we lost some listeners that way — but we've never been that low."
Count Rick Mitchell, a Houston Chronicle music critic from 1989 to 1999, among the lost. When the West Coast transplant arrived in Houston in the late 1980s, he discovered KTSU kings Vince Kannady and Steve Crain. After Kannady and Crain left the planet at a young age, Mitchell kept the dial glued to 90.9 FM as then music directors Cohen and Jeff Kelley kept the torch — and the musical selections — burning. Nowadays, Mitchell rarely tunes in to KTSU's current incarnation. "I haven't listened in probably six months," he admits.
At the center of this latest storm is assistant general manager Franklin, a full-figured, lithe-voiced DJ who herself runs a smooth-jazz program called Jazz by Design that airs every Monday through Thursday afternoon.
During the initial stages of reporting for this story, Franklin explained to the Press that she was unaware of any internal strife at the station and that she was simply doing her job. She has since refused to answer our questions. KTSU general manager Thomas and operations manager Hudson did not respond to our inquiries and a request to speak with Rudley through TSU's media relations department was not granted.
Meanwhile, KTSU's recently fired engineer Dave Biondi is worried about the station from a nuts-and-bolts perspective.
Though the cash-strapped university has spent countless amounts upgrading its facility from analog to digital, it hasn't applied the same amount of attention to maintaining that equipment, Biondi said.
A particular low point was reached last summer when lightning or a voltage overload knocked out the digital transmitter and the backup analog unit exploded when Biondi tried to bring it back on line — it hadn't been repaired in two years. No one outside of the Loop heard anything from KTSU for the five days it took to get things fixed.
KTSU DJs Chris Tucker and Steve Crain once spent hours at the station, programming cuts by Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. After the jazz tunes, the funkiest bass line this side of The Headhunters's Paul Jackson leaps out of a standard blues progression, signaling the start of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Ain't That a Bitch."
Watson, Cobb, Jacquet and Vincent were all either born in Houston and/or made a lot of music here. According to the Concerned Legends of KTSU, you can't talk about American jazz — or blues or gospel or hip hop — without stirring Houston, Texas and KTSU into the conversation.
According to Tucker, spending every spare hour laying down soul dusties and straight-ahead jazz tracks was how things went down at KTSU for more than 35 years. The Houston-born entertainer worked at the station from 1990 to 1998; Crain, who always signed off by saying, "I love you, Houston. Don't hurt nobody," died in 1997 after suffering a heart attack.
It's much different today, according to Tucker, who says that he's not a member of the Concerned Legends but that many of his friends are KTSU employees. "The quality of the music has really declined greatly and the employees are under siege," says Tucker. "[Franklin] runs that place like it's a concentration camp."
KTSU became a Federal Communications Commission-approved station on June 23, 1972, and fully operational in January 1973. The 18,000-square-foot facility, located on the Third Ward campus at 3100 Cleburne Street, is licensed to the TSU Board of Regents and controlled by TSU's School of Communications. KTSU is 40 percent funded by the university; listeners who sign up for annual pledge- and donation-based memberships supply the remaining 60 percent.
From the beginning, thanks to DJs like Myron Anderson, The Original Sinbad and Dr. Freddie Brown, the station distinguished itself for playing traditional jazz while mixing in gospel, blues and soul. The Concerned Legends say it's this formula — and not smooth jazz — that attracted listeners to the station's "Jazz in All Its Colors."
Albert admits that college radio's modern struggles to remain afloat — which Rice University experienced firsthand in April with the sale of its FM frequency to the University of Houston — may be contributing to KTSU's ratings slump. (Full disclosure: The author of this story currently volunteers for Rice's ktru.org and its HD2 station.) However, the Concerned Legends and KTSU employees say it's not KTSU's business model that's the main problem. It's Franklin and Rudley.
"When [Franklin] first came in, she took programs off the air and fired people that had been here 15 to 20 years and working for free. Anybody who didn't kiss her ass were the ones that had to go," says Albert, who says that he's a member of the Concerned Legends. "She replaced them with people who have no knowledge of public radio, any other radio or even radio at their house. They sound like clowns trying to imitate a real radio person."
"In my estimation, the problem really stems from the top, and by that I mean [president Rudley], who doesn't have a grasp on broadcasting and what he wants to do with the radio station," adds former KTSU engineer Biondi.
The Concerned Legends also contend that Franklin's position was never made available to the public. According to a page on the TSU Web site, the university is required to advertise job openings for seven days.
"Everybody knows the job wasn't posted online," says a KTSU employee we'll call Donald. "It was a hire from within the president's office. To this day, there hasn't been a formal introduction for her as the assistant general manager. The interim just dropped off one day."
The Concerned Legends believe that Rudley, who became TSU's president in February 2008, targeted Franklin from the start. Before replacing Priscilla Slade — who was fired in June 2006 and indicted on four felony counts for allegedly misusing more than $500,000 of the school's money for personal expenses (a plea agreement had her paying a lesser fine and she was placed on ten years deferred adjudication) — Rudley had served as interim system chancellor and interim president at the University of Houston.
Franklin, who previously worked at CBS radio affiliates KODA "Sunny" FM 99.1 and KHJZ "The Wave" FM 95.7, says that she's doing what has been asked of her. According to documents acquired by the Press through an open records request, Franklin's starting annual salary as a development executive/jazz announcer was $43,634. When she was promoted to interim assistant general manager in July 2010, her annual earnings increased to $52,360.
"[Smooth jazz] was the void that they wanted filled when 'The Wave' flipped formats [to 'Hot 95.7']," says Franklin, who began her broadcasting career in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1993. "KTSU wanted that audience, so therefore they hired me. It was a huge audience."
Eva Pickens, director of media and public relations at Texas Southern University, told the Press that KTSU General Manager Thomas and TSU School of Communications Dean Dr. James Ward (who did not respond to our e-mails and phone calls) are in charge of KTSU employee hires and not Rudley.
The Concerned Legends aren't buying Pickens's claim, and summarize their feelings on the matter by quoting lyrics from Johnny Watson's landmark tune: "Ain't that a bitch? / Somebody's doing something slick / Yeah they are / Got me wonderin' / Which is which / Ain't that a bitch?"
A week after Juan Flores's duties were terminated at KTSU, school officials, citing an unintentional scrambling of Rudley's message, allowed him to return. "They told me that the president hadn't said, 'Remove him,' he had said, 'Move him,' which didn't make any sense because initially he supposedly didn't like Latin jazz," states Flores, who says that he accepted KTSU's redo because "I'm pretty much a radio junkie."
But his second go-round was nothing like the first. He was constantly called to staff meetings, which he couldn't always make because of his full-time job with the postal service.
When Flores returned from a vacation, KTSU staff had changed his Saturday-night shift from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. to 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Flores's post office job conflicted with the new time slot, so he quit the station. "It was a perfect out for them," explains Flores, who Tucker says was "one of the best jocks in the station's history."
Former KTSU music director Cohen, who has relocated to Atlanta, where he's the program director at Clark Atlanta University's WCLK-FM 91.9, says he still gets calls from people complaining about KTSU management.
"A lot of the struggles were because of the people that ran the place — Charles Hudson, George Thomas," says Cohen by phone from Atlanta. "I love where I'm at now. It's real radio here. I wish KTSU was on that path. I have a lot of love for the station, but I don't know what they think they're doing."
From Cohen's point of view: "It seems that the people currently in charge are trying to eliminate the history" of the station that helped launch the career of DJs like Shelley Wade.
For the past decade, Houston native Wade has been an on-air personality for one of New York City's most listened-to Top 40 stations, WHTZ 100.3 FM, a.k.a. "Z100." She remembers KTSU as the spot where she fell in love with radio so much that she decided to make disc jockeying a lifelong gig.
"I was allowed to play anything I wanted," says Wade, who worked at KTSU from 1991 to 1992. "I always thought that was really refreshing, especially looking back, because everything is so regimented these days in commercial radio."
Wade and Tucker explain that any passionate volunteer who pined for radio time could learn everything about the business from an established personality in exchange for a cup of coffee or a Frenchy's run. Now, radio station employee Albert says that rogue student DJs often bump veteran jocks from choice drive-time shifts, even though they're essentially receiving zero training from Franklin and the staff.
The student will program the music while Franklin is in her office, Albert says. Then she comes back in time to announce the songs that have been played, he says.
About the Flores saga, Albert explains that after the Latin jazz DJ departed for the second time, KTSU listeners were pissed all over again. As a result, Franklin crumbled to public pressure and put Latin jazz back on the air. "This time," Albert says, "she got some somebody named Carlos to pose as a Hispanic to do Latin jazz."
According to the program schedule on the KTSU Web site, Carlos Anderson hosts the Muy Caliente show every Wednesday morning from 2 to 5 a.m. The Concerned Legends say that Carlos is Wayman Carlos Anderson, an African-American.
Albert says, "C'mon, now. How long you think that's going to be a secret?"
Last year, Franklin allowed an intern to take home an armful of albums from KTSU's private library, which includes expensive and out-of-print treasures that the station's music junkies have compiled for nearly four decades, Albert said.
According to Albert, allowing records and CDs to leave the building is just about the worst thing that can happen to a radio station. He says that when the person in charge of the library confronted Franklin, she snapped at him and said that she had made an "executive decision" to let the intern take whatever he wanted.
"That blew me away. I think she heard that term somewhere and she decided that it was a good time to use it," says Albert, who was also privy to an episode in which Franklin went on and on about wanting to be a Nielsen-friendly radio station. (Nielsen ratings measure television viewers, not radio listeners.)
Though KTSU listeners probably aren't familiar with Dave Biondi's name, they've most likely heard the former engineer at one time or another as the voice of the station's legal ID. "I literally built the facility from the ground up," says Biondi, who put in 32 years at "The Choice."
This past summer, after the digital transmitter went off line and the backup analog transmitter blew up, Biondi says that President Rudley figured KTSU was completely off of the air because he lives outside of the area. (Biondi adds that the station should have gone digital years ago, but couldn't due to the delay of grant money.)
"We literally had the factory send a representative down and he spent three days here and he couldn't fix it. That's how severe the problem was," says Biondi. "Well, the president did not understand that when you get into the sophistication of the digital transmitter, you just don't go and buy a new transistor and solder it in.
"[Rudley] is a very impatient person and unreasonable in his lack of trying to understand the root of a problem. I know there are a lot of unhappy people on that campus in every department that are fearful for their jobs because he likes to manage by intimidation."
Biondi said that following the operational debacles, KTSU started playing games with him.
For years, he wanted the locks to the equipment room door changed because strangers were accessing the facility...and not to marvel at the leading-edge equipment.
"I would walk through the door, which was often unlocked, to do maintenance on the transmitter and there would be a smell of marijuana everywhere," says Biondi. "They would use that building to do their toking."
After the transmitter malfunctioned the first of two times, the locks were finally changed, but nobody would give Biondi a new key. He essentially couldn't do his job, which has been contracted out to an IT guy who lives in Cleveland, Texas. Biondi thinks that the station continues to run on shaky auxiliary power.
"It's probably operating at 15 to 20 percent of its capacity," says Biondi.
In November, the Press learned that Franklin, a week after terminating Biondi, relinquished her hiring and firing duties to concentrate on programming.
"Because she's been into it with multiple on-air personalities and other staff members, how most everyone has looked at the decision is that it's a call to save her job," says Donald, who still thinks about quitting every day.
Meanwhile, KTSU refugee Flores — who says he was never paid during his 12-year stint with the station, even though he witnessed Franklin-hired DJs receiving a stipend — has been negotiating with Pacifica Radio Network's KPFT-FM 90.1 to revive his Latin jazz show.
"There's been a lot of great music that has come out and nobody is playing it. That's what really bugs me," says Flores.
From a listener's standpoint, music historian, visual artist and Third Ward ambassador Tierney Malone explains that KTSU has been vital to his musical development. He remembers when DJs would connect the station and its music with the community and vice versa.
One time, recalls Malone, he invited Crain over to his place and played a Cassandra Wilson album that Malone had recently discovered. An impressed Crain, hearing it for the first time, thought others would dig it, too. The next time Crain was on the air, KTSU listeners heard Wilson attacking a jazz standard.
That rapport is long gone, says Malone. Instead, the artist hears KTSU jocks playing R&B songs by Gladys Knight on a straight-ahead jazz show.
"The DJs they have on there now, oh my God, they're horrible and have no idea how to blend or keep a groove going," says Malone. "It's like listening to clanging pots."
Despite KTSU's depleted support, Malone thinks that a lot of folks, him included, would go nuts if the station permanently went away. "If KTSU went off the air, people would go over to the university and burn [the campus] down," says Malone.
However, it's not enough for him to want to listen to KTSU, save for every once in a while when he's driving his truck. Otherwise, he's tuned into the University of Houston's KUHF-FM 88.7 or some other radio frequency.
KTSU was at its best when it was pushing ahead.
BY JOHN NOVA LOMAX
Twenty-six years ago I was a white kid growing up in my grandparents' house in what is now called the Museum District and attending Strake Jesuit. Having grown up in a family with a long history in blues and zydeco, I was immersed in those venerable styles of music, and though I had then lately been flirting with punk and new wave, those genres were starting to leave me cold. So, too, did the R&B of that era, outside of big names like Prince and Michael Jackson. I was ready for something new, a music to call my own, a fresh music that spoke to me.
KTSU delivered it. Long before there was the Box, long before corporate hip-hop ruled Houston airwaves up and down the dial, there was Kidz Jamm on KTSU, the Car Wash Mix on Saturday afternoons. It was my musical salvation, one of the only things about then-modern music that I related to.
Each Saturday would find me rigging up my receiver and my Sony cassette deck to capture the show on tape. Those recordings would get me through the week: Whodini, the Boogie Boys, Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane. Once I captured the epic seven-minute, 12-inch version of LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells" on tape, I played it until it came unspooled. While even then some other stations might give a spin or two to clunky rap-rock fusions like Aerosmith and Run-DMC's remake of "Walk This Way," Kidz Jamm was spinning the real goods from King of Rock: "My Adidas," "You Talk Too Much" and the title track.
And long before white radio picked up on the dumbest singles from the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill and played them to death, Kidz Jamm was playing the most adventurous one: "Hold It Now. " What's more, it was doing it so early on in the game I don't think anyone south of Jersey knew yet that the Beasties were white. I certainly did not.
This was the baby-blue facet of KTSU's "Jazz in All Its Colors" slogan: the newest, most adventurous music in America's crib, and it was soon to sweep the whole world before it. KTSU was doing what it was supposed to do as a cutting-edge black-run radio station — reflecting the music that its student body and those who soon would be enrolled there all loved and pushing the music forward. There's nothing like it on its airwaves now. That KTSU now seems content to pickle itself in the brine of the classics, rich as that brine may be, is a real shame.
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