Bayou City

KPFT Shows It's Not Going Down Without a Fight

KPFT's Montrose studios seen in 2016
KPFT's Montrose studios seen in 2016 Patrick Feller via Flickr
This summer, whether they were aware of it or not, Houstonians have come closer than ever to losing one of the most precious cultural resources they have — 90.1 FM, (slightly) better known as KPFT.

They probably weren’t. KPFT’s audience share is so small it typically doesn’t register on most ratings surveys for the Houston-Galveston market, the nation’s sixth largest. In this one, measured last month, KPFT trailed one station’s HD-2 channel and another’s Internet stream, never mind its over-the-air competitors.

That’s the thing, though. KPFT doesn’t really have competitors, not in the traditional sense. Musically, the station is an island of originality in a corporate-dominated landscape of pre-programmed playlists and follow-the-herd thinking. Its programming consists of music that has long since been abandoned by commercial radio or was never all that commercial to begin with. That, naturally, is what makes the station so messy — and vital.

Rather than advertising or universities, which help underwrite its closest public-radio rivals in Houston, KPFT’s income comes almost entirely from its tiny listener base. Even then, many of them give reluctantly; the number of on-air pledge drives always seems to be creeping upward.

Some might argue there has never been a dull moment at KPFT since a member of the Ku Klux Klan fire-bombed the station less than six months after it signed on in March 1970; in fact, that was its second bombing. The station is one of five across the country owned by the Pacifica Foundation, which, historically, is notorious for behind-the-scenes politicking and poor financial oversight. Indeed, one of the most prominent links on the Pacifica website right now is a job posting for KPFT General Manager.

That’s because the station has had a rough few months, even by its standards.

The most recent round of drama began when award-winning DJ Roark Smith, host of arguably KPFT’s flagship weekday program, the free-form but Americana-leaning Wide Open Spaces, left last fall. Then longtime general manager Duane Bradley retired in March. Last month, according to the Houston Chronicle, Houston police were called to KPFT’s Montrose studios to referee a melee between existing staffers and supporters of three former employees who had been abruptly terminated, including Bradley’s replacement.

And yet KPFT continues to defy expectations, and even reason and logic, by simply staying on the air. This morning it will roll out a revamped schedule that markedly increases the amount of music KPFT airs during the day. Smith and Wide Open Spaces return to weekday mornings, moving up an hour earlier to 9 a.m.-noon, while the noon-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. slots will be filled with a variety of music shows, some new, some just moved from elsewhere on the schedule. (See for details.)

“KPFT's music programs have been among the best-supported shows in terms of listenership and donations,” says acting general manager Larry Winters, better known as the “your friend and mine” longtime host of Saturday-afternoon singer-songwriter showcase Spare Change.

“By bringing listeners consistent music programming during selected dayparts, we're hoping to help solidify and grow our audience,” Winters adds. “Of course, news and public affairs remain an essential part of the programming mix, which is reflected by the move of KPFT's local news to a prime morning drive-time slot after Pacifica's Democracy Now, as well as our other strong public-affairs shows in mid-afternoons and evenings.”

The station’s music-heavy weekend lineup will remain unchanged, he says.

Something else that bears mentioning about KPFT is what an unsurpassed resource for local-music history it is. Besides the individual DJs, many of whom have hosted their shows for years, the station’s archival material is staggering. In recent pledge drives, high-dollar incentive gifts have included a tape of KPFT’s 15th-anniversary show, a “songwriter’s pull” that drew Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, K.T. Oslin, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and others to Houston’s old downtown Music Hall. Another is several hours’ worth of the 1985 Juneteenth Blues Festival in Miller Outdoor Theatre, featuring, among many others, Albert Collins, Clifton Chenier, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Clyde Copeland. Those are just two examples. As KPFT’s airstaff is not shy about pointing out when trying to get the phones to ring, this is stuff that might otherwise be gathering dust in a storage closet somewhere.

Besides all that, signaling that more airtime for music could be good for KPFT’s perpetually troubled bottom line doesn’t just sound an encouraging note for local music fans, it sends a subtle message to radio programmers across the city that listeners will still respond to thoughtful programming that treats them as people and not merely statistics in a market-research demographic. Shocking.

Contrast KPFT’s new strategy with the fortunes of ClearChannel Media’s radio division, which was rebranded iHeartMedia several years ago and whose local stations include Sunny 99.1, 94.5 The Buzz and 93.7 The Beat. That company has been criticized for years for its rigid playlists, heavy use of automation and perceived censorship, as in the numerous songs that were stricken from the airwaves in the wake of 9/11. Now things have deteriorated to the point where last month Variety reported that, following a disappointing first quarter of 2017, widespread layoffs are expected and bankruptcy could be a real possibility.

Obviously, comparing KPFT and iHeartMedia sounds like a stereotypical apples-and-oranges scenario except that, for now, it’s still possible to skip between spots on Houston’s FM dial and sample the difference. And KPFT’s influence far outpaces its audience share, at least within Houston’s music community; on many shows, live on-air performances are the rule rather than the exception. With a few notable exceptions like 94.5’s Texas Buzz or hip-hop rivals 93.7 The Beat and 97.9 The Box, KPFT represents the best shot many Houston acts have of ever getting on the air, either live or recorded.

That is what Houston would be losing should KPFT ever go belly-up. This morning, its expanded musical programming is just the first step in what the station and its supporters hope is a path to not only greater financial stability, but a bigger stake in Houston’s cultural arena. It’s not like KPFT is really trying to challenge a station like The Buzz or The Box; it’s just counting that there are enough like-minded folks in this city of some 2.3 million souls to help keep the lights on.

In those terms it doesn’t sound so unrealistic, but whether that gamble will pay off largely rests on the listeners. Which even means the people reading this article; thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, you don't necessarily even need to live in Houston. If you support what the station is doing (or if it just sounds like you might), tell a friend. Maybe cough up a few bucks. Let’s hope they’re right, because the rest of what’s out there on Houston's airwaves right now certainly isn’t scoring many points for creativity.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray