Archive for August, 2010

The day the music died

What if there was a film and no one came?

It might have been the greatest movie ever made, but unless there was a way to present it, a venue to show it in, then its impact would be worth nothing. Art needs a home, and without this, it is all for naught. For the motion picture, it begins with the theatre.

So it is with all forms of art, be it painting, live drama, photography, or music – and it is here that the usual themes of this blog are abandoned… sort of.

KTRUYou see, Houston is in danger of losing yet another of its creative venues, and while some say that this is already a done deal, it is worth bringing up, simply because for far too long, this town has lost one institution after another.

I speak of the proposed sale of Rice radio station KTRU to the University of Houston, with plans to turn it into an NPR affiliate ­– and the subsequent death of the college radio format that has been in place for decades.

The events have already been well reported in a number of media outlets. Jeannie Kever of the Houston Chronicle covered it on August 17 – UH board considers plan to buy Rice radio station – along with a follow-up article – UH deal finding no fans at KTRU: Staff ‘totally opposed’ as sale of radio station moves forward. Likewise, Mark Brubaker at Houston Press covered the opening volleys as a growing effort is made to keep this from happening – We Want the Airwaves.

Because so much has already been noted on this, I will not go into the details, except to note the parallels here to far too many other similar local events, and how this is yet another example of Houston’s biggest problem: as much as it wants to be a great cultural city, it keeps destroying it’s own artistic culture.

This can be found in the architecture now absent in the city, from the Shamrock Hotel (torn down in 1986 and still mourned a quarter century later) to the many movie theatres that are now gone. Much of what I have written about is a direct result of their absence, and in many respects, they are just as important an art form as the arts they serve to exhibit. As each one has fallen, Houston’s importance as an architectural city and as proponent of the arts is diminished.

For me, KTRU would be a tragic loss, and one that I would miss. It has been one of the programmed buttons on my car radio for as long as I have listened to that station, beginning in the late 1970s. And like many Houstonians, part of my musical education has come from that station – music, I should add, that would not get airplay on any other radio station in town. KTRU has served as a springboard for many up-and-coming bands that need a venue to reach the public. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of all this is the station’s complete air of spontaneity – as I have found time and time again, I never know what to expect when I tune it. It is always different, always fresh, and always unexpected – and that is a benchmark for a learning experience. Likewise, the student body that operated the station over the years have crafted their own learning experience in the ways of media and communication.

On Friday afternoon, it was a top point of discussion on KTRU’s neighbor on the radio dial, Pacifica KPFT. While it makes perfect sense for KPFT to be a venue for discussion of how to help save KTRU, it says something about the nature of non-commercial radio and their common bonds. You would not hear anything like that on any of the majors.

Already, there is a growing movement to save KTRU, with options in which concerned Houstonians can play a part. Visit www.savektru.org for a complete list that includes links, petition drives, and who to contact.

There is also an article on Texas Watchdog that suggests the sale process did not conform to the open meetings act. That article can be found here: Generic agenda item for Regents meeting did not name KTRU radio station; descriptions must be specific under Open Meetings Act.

In may ways, this is the classic David vs. Goliath story, with the underdog going against a force way beyond his means. Sadly, Goliath wins most of the time, and each time that happens, Houston is the poorer for it.

Shame. Shame. Shame.


Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a writer and artist who lives in Houston with his wife and two children. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.