One of the "bright spots" in Americana radio is the success of Austin's Sun Radio, an all-music non-commercial station that's broadcasting on no less than seven frequencies throughout central Texas. The station features many speciality shows and live events like radio stations used to do! Kevin Connor is the host of the morning drive show and "A Hill Country Saturday," and producer for several of the station's specialty shows.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and what other stations have you worked at?
Kevin Connor: I started at WLUR at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. Most of my professional career has been in Austin, TX, working my way up from part-time at an MOR station, overnights on easy listening, character actor on Top 40 morning shows, classic rock when it was new, and finally up to KGSR, a great AAA station that launched in 1990, where I did mornings for 16 years. Also, I did seven years of Saturdays on KUTX, I helped establish and program a music television station, and I developed and programmed an online station for SXSW. Supporting Austin music, "The Sound of Our Town," a phrase I ripped off from the Del Fuegos, has always been important to me.
Where do you work now?
I now work for Sun Radio in Austin, a AAA/Americana station voted Best Radio Station at the most recent Austin Music Awards. I host morning drive, Monday though Friday from 6 to 11. I produce several specialty shows, and I host a freeform, mostly Americana show called "A Hill Country Saturday" from 7 a.m. to noon every Saturday. For this exercise, let's focus on "A Hill Country Saturday."
How do you describe your show?
Americana, soul, and rock-and-roll.
How do you prepare for your shows?
I take a big stack of new releases on CD, favorite albums from my personal collection, and I make playlists using Apple Music and play them off my laptop into the board. You get all this music around you and then see where the songs (and the listeners) take you. I have friends who like to map out their whole show ahead of time, but where's the juice in that?
How much new releases, old stuff, and independent artists do you generally play?
I play a lot of new music, but it's important to complement it with great classic material. You can't hold many listeners by playing only new and unfamiliar artists. It's not like, "Eat your vegetables!" And isn't almost everybody an indie now?
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I grew up in Boston, loving James and Jackson and Bonnie and Tom Rush. Then I fell in with a bunch of Texans in college who turned me on to Willie and Townes and Guy and Willis Alan Ramsey. That lured me to Austin in '81. I've been here just about ever since.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
All the people I mentioned above, plus Bruce Springsteen, Bacharach/David, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Aaron Copland, Bill Withers, Joe Ely, Lake Street Dive ... everything! When I was a kid, I would check out Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman records from the library. I can't wait to hear what John Fullbright comes up with next.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I actually opened my Americana show on SXSW-FM like this (Read it kinda husky and dramatic): "Americana ... where folk, rock, country, blues, soul, and so many great sounds all come together."
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
To quote Paul Thorn, "Mediocrity is king." It's a tremendous challenge to try to present a quality product while competing with lowest-common-denominator generica in the PPM world. And even listener-supported non-comms like us have to be competitive in a growing market like Austin. Americana's future may not be best served on terrestrial radio, but I still love to hear a great song when I'm driving in my car. I love to listen to WUMB when I go home to Boston, and Jessie [Scott]'s doing great things at WMOT in Nashville.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Shinyribs is the best band from Austin. Check on the 'Ribs, you'll be glad you did. Jason Eady's self-titled album is brilliant. I love Sunny Sweeney's Trophy, particularly the four songs she wrote with Lori McKenna, my favorite songwriter. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real's new album is great, so is the new David Ramirez. And this woman we met up with at AmericanaFest from L.A., Chelsea Williams. Her new album Boomerang is excellent. There are some songs that have a sweet sound, but lyrically are rather dark, like the best Bob Schneider songs. And, boy, that girl can sing.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
There are so many, but one that always comes to mind is when Willie Nelson came down and played the entire Spirit album live on KGSR one night. There were actually more musicians in the studio than there were on that very spare album. We had a lot of fun that night. Also, being a part of the SXSW family of misfit toys since it started in 1987. I am proud of my friends for creating this insanely great thing. And being in the front row for Bruce Springsteen's salty SXSW keynote speech in 2012. It was hilarious and inspiring.
What projects are you working on next?
We are just trying to make Sun Radio be as good and sustainable as it can be. In addition to that, I am starting to work with some folks who want to really shore up the infrastructure of the Austin music industry. It needs it.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
The next great song is always inspiring. As for what keeps me going, listen to Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Rabbit."