A private look at public radio

Texas Public Radio's Joe Gwathmey helped found NPR. At 63, he's still looking for the next big idea.

When Joe Gwathmey tells stories, he often speaks with his eyes closed, as if he doesn't need to see, but needs only to imagine.

Imagine a teenage boy living in Brownwood, Texas in the late 1950s, whose voice changed at age 13 to a rich, round baritone that resonates like the lowing of cows, prompting his family and friends to say, "You'll become either a preacher or a radio announcer."

DJing sounded more enjoyable than preaching, so Gwathmey visited the local radio station, KBWD, and convinced the nighttime jock to hire him as an apprentice, which meant answering the phones and checking the temperature. It also meant breaking with family tradition.

"My dad was a farmer and for no good reason he let me go. It was his ambition that I would be his partner. But the drought of the 1950s changed his mind. We went out one day and we were plowing. One of the weekend guys had left the station and I got called to fill in. I went out to the field and told dad they wanted me, and he said, 'You'd better go.' I never got back on that tractor."

And so the boy from the Central Texas oat fields launched his career to become one of the founding fathers of National Public Radio, the first non-commercial network to offer innovative programming such as Fresh Air, Car Talk, and All Things Considered. After 16 years at NPR in Washington, D.C., he returned to his home state in 1988 and became the president and CEO of Texas Public Radio - KSTX and KPAC.

Gwathmey, who has wavy gray hair, is wearing brown slacks, an ocean-blue polo shirt, and no tie. He is 63; public radio, which has become shorthand for most stations on the left side of the dial, is 37. And like some people in their late '30s, public radio is at a crossroads. When the Public Radio Program Directors conference convenes in San Antonio next week, the hot topics bandied about in the halls and, of course, the bar, are bound to include attracting younger listeners, exploiting satellite radio and the Internet, and in essence, defining where public radio goes from here.

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From KSTX's offices on the eighth floor of a towering building on Datapoint Drive, Gwathmey gazes at the gauzy San Antonio skyline. In the late '60s, the future of non-commercial radio was hazy. As part of his Great Society, in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson created and passed legislation that formed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But as Gwathmey recalls, CPB wasn't at the top of Johnson's priority list. "A White House insider once told me that President Johnson said he would pass 100 pieces of legislation during his administration, so they made a list of priorities. Public broadcasting was number 100."

Gwathmey had radio industry connections from his time as a graduate student at the George Washington University, where he studied international communications. In 1969, he was elected to the CPB advisory group, which recommended that the CPB fund a national production center for radio programming that would be broadcast by non-commercial stations. CPB approved the idea, and the advisory group incorporated into the first board of directors of National Public Radio. At 26, he was one of the driving forces behind NPR's programming.

"We tried to listen to what stations thought they needed. And we looked for talent. Some things happened because talented people created something out of nothing. Others were researched and tested. Fresh Air had been on in Philadelphia for several years and had a track record. All Things Considered has more of a focus on what's happening in the news, without being driven by breaking news, than it did in the early days.

Car Talk was an exception to the rules. It had proven itself in Boston, but didn't fill any stated need. But it's great stuff and it comes naturally. It made us laugh.

"We had a wider vision that public radio engaged people. From the outset we would take arts as seriously as economics. And I still have that image of a listener who is curious not just about what George Bush and John Kerry said yesterday, but also about subjects we haven't covered. For our entertainment programs, we aim at a fairly high level of content and professionalism. The 'a-ha factor is very important. There have been times when I thought, 'God, I've heard enough about the Middle East.'"

In 1987, Gwathmey and his wife were itching to return to Texas, and he left NPR. KPAC, San Antonio and the Hill Country's classical station, needed a manager; KSTX, which had been assigned a frequency, needed someone to put it on the air.

"Nobody should have tried to operate under the conditions I found when I came here. The staff was compensated poorly. There was no operating capital. KPAC was going broke. But without KPAC, KSTX would not have made it on the air."

The two stations had different formats, yet by merging their management and tapping into KPAC's board of directors for their financial connections, the first joint fund drive in the fall of 1988 generated about $100,000 - more than twice the amount raised in 1987.

Sixteen years later, KPAC, with its classical format, and KSTX, a news and information station, have a combined budget of $2.3 million. Besides the NPR standbys that Gwathmey nurtured, KSTX has added programming staples such as This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International, Day to Day, and the weekly local jazz show River Walk: Live From the Landing.

One of public radio's challenges is to attract younger devotees. The median age of public radio listenership is about 47; half the number of listeners is older than 47, and half is younger. At this rate, in 20 years, the median age could be, well, deceased.

Two new programs, Pop Vulture, licensed through Prairie Home Productions, and Now Hear This, hosted by They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, feature interviews and performances by everyone from the Neptunes to the White Stripes to David Byrne. KSTX has yet to pick them up.

"It's pretty exciting to consider the potential for creating many streams of audio. Even if the audience is small, you could test ideas and develop talent."

-Joe Gwathney
"We have to create new programs and hire young people to produce programs. If I went back to early All Thing Considered's my impression of the world would be from the point of view that was clearly young, college- age. Most of the people producing programming were barely out of college. From my lofty perch of 63, it doesn't come naturally to know what people in their 20s find engaging."

Many younger listeners listen to the radio differently, sometimes not on the radio at all, but via the Internet where they can tune in to broadcast and web-only stations. Ironically, "wireless," the term used to promote the portability of the technology, is the same word inventor Guglielmo Marconi used in the 1900s to describe the new radio medium.

KSTX streams its signal on the web, but Gwathmey still listens to the radio through a traditional receiver. Yet he recognizes the Internet's potential not only to lure new, younger listeners, but to serve as a farm team to discover programming that is produced on independent websites such as prx.org and transom.org.

"If there's a way to make money on the Internet I haven't seen it yet, but I believe in adapting to technology as it evolves. I'm waiting to see how things sort out a bit; will the next technology of choice for radio be the Internet or satellite?

"I wish we could be more aggressive about audio on the Internet. It's pretty exciting to consider the potential for creating many streams of audio. Even if the audience is small, you could test ideas and develop talent."

"We need to not let ourselves get in a rut and I see signs of that. When I go to public radio meetings and listen to discussions, a lot of people in the system are pretty satisfied with public radio and aren't open to change."

The haze starts to break over the city's skyline as Gwathmey prepares to take Friday afternoon off.

"I've always had a populist streak. My early influences, family and teachers, indirectly said, 'It's your mission in life to communicate ideas, to do something constructive for other people.' I stumbled into communications to do that. I still find that an exciting purpose." •

By Lisa Sorg

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