Know Your Local Media: KUHF's Paul Pendergraft on Engines of Our Ingenuity, Talking Pigs and Steely Dan

If you pay attention to local radio, you know Paul Pendergraft, but despite his receiving numerous accolades including an Edward R. Murrow award and appearing virtually every day on the radio in Houston for over 20 years, you might miss him. Pendergraft is an affable, soft-voiced senior producer for KUHF, producing, among other things, the brilliant long-running series Engines of Our Ingenuity.

He's worked the news desk for numerous stations in Houston and has been a reporter, news director and producer at KUHF for more than 15 years. If you haven't heard him, you're missing out on a fantastic journalist and a genuinely interesting guy. Pendergraft was nice enough to answer our questions, which gave him the chance to mention talk radio, the first Rockets' championship and Steely Dan, a band that has curiously appeared on Hair Balls on several occasions recently.

We aren't complaining.

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Since the acquisition of KTRU and KUHF becoming an NPR station, how has that freed you and the people there in terms of stories, reporting and the like? Do you have more freedom now? Yes. KUHF (88.7) now broadcasts well-known and highly regarded NPR and BBC News programs throughout the day. That allows KUHF News to expand its role with additional local newscasts and feature reporting. Serving this community is KUHF's core mission, and local and national news coverage is something our listeners and supporters expect.

You oversee Engines of Our Ingenuity, which is a fascinating series. What is that like? Working with Dr. John Lienhard is an honor...truly a professional privilege. He's a brilliant engineer and an academic. He has the heart of an artist and a photographic sense of history. For more than 25 years, Dr. Lienhard has volunteered his time to research, write and voice more than 2,800 episodes. In that time, he's explored topics ranging from the earliest human inventions to the latest technologies. He still has a childlike enthusiasm with every new episode. Engines of Our Ingenuity is an iconic KUHF program and it's a joy to be a part of the daily broadcast. And, my inner nerd loves learning cool things every day.

You've been in radio in Houston for many years. What are the most significant changes you've seen? Consolidation is a significant change. Most of the commercial radio stations in Houston are owned by a handful of media corporations. That has resulted in what some have called "cookie-cutter" programming. Local ownership is rare. When you find it, the station tends to sound different.

Another significant change is the amount of local radio news in Houston. Twenty years ago, many of the Houston stations produced local newscasts and several of those actually sent reporters in the field to cover a story. Today, KUHF is often the only Houston radio station represented at a news event. Over the last decade, most of the growth in local news has occurred in public radio. KUHF News has more than doubled its size in the last few years.

Technology has certainly changed for radio reporters. When I started, reporters had no cell phones. When filing a story from the field, we had to find a pay phone. We'd unscrew the mouthpiece of the handset and connect our recorder to the internal wiring of the phone. That's how we'd send any recorded audio back to the station. Now a reporter carries a smart phone. It's a one-stop shop. It records audio, video (if needed), a photograph...and can send it all anywhere. However, a quality radio report still requires good writing and solid presentation.

You worked for KTRH for a number of years. Has it been disappointing to see them go from a straight news station to conservative talk? Change is a constant in radio. Long before I worked at KTRH, I worked at KFRD-FM in Rosenberg. For many years, the format was country music with local news at the top of the hour. One day, the owner came in and told everyone to clean out their desks by 3, because we were switching to Spanish language at 5. We were also told we could apply for a job if we could speak Spanish.

It's been almost 20 years since I was a news reporter and anchor at KTRH. Since then, the changes reflect the larger evolution in commercial radio. It's less expensive to air syndicated programming or hire a talk-show host, a call-screener and a producer than it is to staff a news department. Full-time news coverage is expensive and many of the commercial talk stations across the country have opted for the less expensive format. The Houston market is most certainly large enough to accommodate a wide variety of talk formats, targeting an array of interests, political or otherwise.

Given our experience, you must have at least one story of a really weird story you had to cover. When the Houston Rockets won their first NBA Championship in 1994, I was one of the many reporters covering the Victory Parade in downtown Houston. The streets were packed with screaming fans and onlookers. In the crowd, I saw an older man holding a leash tied to a pot-bellied pig wearing a tiny Rockets jersey, clip-on earrings and lipstick. I looked at the pig...then the man on the other end of the leash. He said, "Her name is Petunia and she'll answer a question if you have one." Well, I needed a story, so I "interviewed" Petunia. After each question, she squealed as pigs do. It was a two-minute "conversation" that was silly, weird and turned out to be pretty interesting radio. Later that year, the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters recognized the report with an award. Go figure.

Bonus: Why does everything -- the voices, the background noise, etc. - SOUND so damn good on NPR? Ha! Thanks for noticing. Of course we celebrate proper grammar, good writing and old-school journalism, but the delivery of all that matters, too. It starts with hiring good people. On a couple of occasions, we've had a voice coach work with us. Our reporters are schooled on how to best record in the field with a variety of microphones. Our studios are equipped with great gear, including digital audio software that allows us to fine-tune our work. And it doesn't hurt that we're on FM. Didn't Steely Dan sing "...there's no static at all?"

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