Welcome to the new Houston talk radio scene

June 28, 2011

Media & Culture

So, it’s just been just over a month since KUHF, Houston’s largest public radio station, split into two: KUHF, featuring round-the-clock news and public affairs programming, and KUHA, a fulltime classical music station. Here are a few thoughts on the changes to the Houston radioscape.

I’ll admit, when the news broke last summer that the University of Houston (which owns and holds the license to KUHF) planned to purchase Rice University’s venerable student-run station KTRU, I had strong reservations. I’d listened with fascination to the always offbeat programming at KTRU for many years. I always found it interesting that the young DJs there could play a selection that was utterly captivating, immediately followed by something completely infuriating.

And there were a number of programs — particularly my favorites, “Blues in Hi-Fi” and “Treasures of the ’60” — that were essential listening on the pervasively commercial Houston radio scene , especially during long southeast Texas commutes.

So it was extremely disappointing to see KTRU leave the FM analog radio dial, even if was moving to the HD2 slot of KPFT, Houston’s noncommercial Pacifica station. I’m glad it’s there, and I do own a HD radio at home, but it’s not the same as listening to “Blues in Hi-Fi” while driving through Houston’s industrial landscape.

But back to KUHF. I’d listened to the station a little while growing up in Houston. But I didn’t become a real fan of public radio until the early 1990s, when I was living in San Diego during and after serving in the Navy.

Now, Southern California is known for being a bastion of liberalism. But there’s also a strongly conservative bent there, especially in a military town like San Diego. And so it was also around that time that I caught on to right-wing AM radio, especially a relatively new guy on the scene, Rush Limbaugh. One of Rush’s frequent guest hosts, in fact, is Roger Hedgecock, a former San Diego mayor who has a show there.

I listened to a lot of Rush and company there, not because I particularly agreed with their views, but because I’m kind of a political junkie. But when I happened on KPBS, San Diego’s public radio station, I knew I’d found my radio home. Unlike the often screeching and pandering you hear on AM talk radio (in between pitches for gold and freeze-dried emergency food), KPBS and NPR offered real journalism and real discussion of the issues.

When I came back to Houston in the mid-90s, I latched on to KUHF, which after a long, convoluted history in the ’80s (I won’t recount it here) had a mixed format of NPR news programming and classical music. I enjoy classical music (I can remember Houston’s late, lamented station KLEF), but I missed stalwart talk programs like “Talk of the Nation” and “Fresh Air.”

KPFT, of course, has a lot of excellent news and commentary programming, and is an essential part of the Houston area’s marketplace of ideas.  But people who think NPR is a socialist front obviously haven’t heard a lot of Pacifica.

Now, with the switch, those progams and more like them are back on my regular radio menu. As a journalist, I spend a lot of time in my car, and to routinely hear Terry Gross conduct one of her engrossing “Fresh Air” interviews again is like … well, a breath of fresh air.

So, I’m enjoying the new programming for the most part. The one thing that’s missing is a strong local community affairs program, something like a local “Talk of the Nation.” I mentioned this last week to a KUHF employee I know. She said that’s in the works. [UPDATE:  In March 2013 (not quite two years after I wrote this post), KUHF announced it was finally starting a full comunity affairs/talk program. The program, called “Houston Matters” and hosted by Craig Cohen, had a “soft opening” on the station’s digital channel in April. Houston media blogger Mike McGuff first reported the news.]

Yesterday, on a lark, I switched over to the AM band again. Another of Rush’s frequent guest hosts was on, and he was yelling about something at full volume. I couldn’t take it, and quickly switched back.

UPDATE:  In August 2015, Houston Public Media, the parent organization for both news station KUHF and classical music station KUHA (which uses the frequency formerly used by KTRU) announced that it would be selling the KUHA license and analog transmitter and switching to an all-digital format.

CORRECTION:  This post originally referred to KUHA, the new Houston classical radio station, as KUHC. KUHC was the how the new station, which took the place of KTRU, was referred to when the sale was first disclosed.

RELATED:  Negotiations may keep KTRU on the air on KPFT HD and  So long, KTRU and “Blues in Hi Fi”

Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and energy and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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One Comment on “Welcome to the new Houston talk radio scene”

  1. Robert Nagle Says:

    I have been pleasantly surprised at some of the nighttime offerings at KUHF talk station. (The world, Deutsche Welle). You are right on about the need for local programming — although KPFT does a good amount of that. KPFT does a great job considering, but I don’t enjoy the radio call in format — especially for the rant kind of shows. It has to be tightly controlled to work. I do enjoy KPFT’s Monitor — which is a locally produced show about global themes. Frankly though, student-run radio doesn’t do a particularly good job on doing local news or commentary– but they’re students; what can you expect? I often find that agenda-driven shows (Ecology, gay, education, vegan, etc) often provide expansive coverage of their pet issue.. I often greatly enjoy those kinds of shows. I’m hopeful that UH can do a local news show, but am not optimistic.


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