KTRU sustains its sound from a distance with new remote programming
After recently celebrating the restoration of its original call sign letters last fall, KTRU has entered yet another new chapter in its vibrant history: completely remote operations. Rather than surrendering the airwaves to Robo — the station’s “robot” automated system which plays prerecorded music and announcements on loop — the DJs of Rice Radio have found a way to preserve the human touch that makes KTRU a destination for eclectic music lovers across Houston and beyond.
Beginning in early March, KTRU’s fate was increasingly up in the air as the university’s policies were constantly changing in response to the rapidly escalating COVID-19 pandemic. In a March 6 internal email, former Station Manager Kaarthika Thakker announced precautionary measures that would be implemented at the station, including more frequent sanitization of soundboard equipment and appropriate social distancing measures. KTRU felt its first major blow caused by COVID-19 when its annual Outdoor Show, which was scheduled for April 26, was effectively canceled by Rice’s March 8 announcement that all on campus events with over 100 people were prohibited. These gathering restrictions have since tightened, shrinking to 25 people on March 12 and then to 10 in accordance with federal guidelines on March 17.
While in drastically dwindling numbers, DJs were still able to go on air until March 18 when Kelley Lash, director of Student Media, informed KTRU that the Rice Memorial Center would be shut down entirely that evening and all access to the station would be prohibited until further notice. According to KTRU Chief Operator Andy MacAllister, the last live DJ put on Robo at 7 p.m. that Wednesday evening and turned out the lights. To this day and for the foreseeable future, the station will remain dark.
MacAllister is one of extremely few professional personnel who can gain access to the RMC, and still only on an emergency basis. After spending three years doing in-person maintenance on a complex system of devices, MacAllister now relies on remote access to 25 online devices, from PCs to transmitters. Recalling when he would receive analog mixtapes from his friends to play on the air of his own ultra-low-power FM station at Austin College, MacAllister put it simply: “Times have changed.” Since being exposed to KTRU in the early 1970s, MacAllister has watched the station grow for over five decades and is determined to keep the historic station active even during an unprecedented time like today. “This is not just a job to me, but more of a passion,” MacAllister said.
While Robo is an invaluable tool for keeping KTRU on the air when live DJs can’t be, MacAllister wanted to reinstill as many DJ personalities and music preferences as possible back into the airwaves by starting the DJ Daily Show. He compiled a spreadsheet of Robo’s 46,000 files and shared it with DJs via email and Slack, encouraging DJs to create a one-hour playlist from the available music and send it back to him.
“With that playlist in hand,” MacAllister said, “I could take a particular hour, like 9 p.m., and reprogram it to be the music of a particular DJ, hopefully with some short files of their own voice announcements. That hour could then easily be cloned to 1 p.m. the next day for those that missed the first airing.”
Community DJ Justin Bogert was among the first to submit personal playlists after MacAllister announced the experiment in late March.
“Having KTRU on air, especially with DJs being able to remotely curate the DJ Daily Show, provides a sense of stability in these tumultuous times,” Bogert said.
For DJs like Bogert and Kim Raptis, a staff member at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies who contributed a playlist in early April, the process of creating a playlist from thousands of Robo files is comfortingly similar to the experience of being in the station, where the collection of music is so enormous, band names and track titles play a significant part in attracting DJs to new music.
“The heart of KTRU is the unique music selected by DJs with a variety of tastes and musical preferences,” Raptis said. “I like to play upbeat songs with positive lyrics especially at this time.”
Community DJ Robert Way was very intentional in creating his playlist, arranging a sequence of songs with a particular ebb and flow and making sure to include at least one Houston-based band. Due to spending years making mix CDs with his friends, Way is familiar with the process of constructing musical journeys that strike a certain tone; for his contribution to the DJ Daily Show, Way struck a balance between relevance and relief.
“As I selected the songs’ sequence and the first show started to fall into place, I was tempted to focus only on songs that are relevant to what we’re living today with the coronavirus pandemic,” Way said. “The first song of the show was ‘City Looks Pretty,’ by Courtney Barnett. It starts with the line: ‘The city looks pretty when you've been indoors,’ which reminded me of self-isolation and staying home. However, I then decided to find a balance instead — so as to not make the show too overbearing. I was happy with the end result, which was a show that was both relevant to the pandemic, but built around great songs that I love.”
In the face of such dramatic shifts in operation, the KTRU community has proven strong and resilient, according to student DJ Izzy Samperio, a Hanszen College junior, whose personal playlist went live on the DJ Daily Show in late March.
“I’m so deeply appreciative of the KTRU community,” she said. “A lot of my close friends are involved with KTRU, and I think KTRU exists in a really beautiful place of togetherness and creative connection. What I admire most is how active KTRU has remained: there has definitely been a coming together and adapting.”
Both Samperio and Way made a point of commending MacAllister for his work in developing the DJ Daily Show as the primary means through which KTRU can keep its DJs and listeners connected.
“A special THANK YOU (in caps) goes out to Andy MacAllister, who has made it very easy for station DJs to submit our playlists and does a lot of work to get them on the air,” Way said. “I’m very proud to be a part of KTRU, and hope that the radio station being on the air can help someone, somehow even if it’s in a very small way.”
Harrison Lorenzen, KTRU’s new station manager for the upcoming school year, agrees that the KTRU community is coming together in unique ways. Since taking over the role from Thakker at such a tumultuous time, Lorenzen admits feeling anxious about maintaining people’s interest in the station. However, he ultimately remains confident and enthusiastic about the initiative shown by the community of DJs to keep KTRU alive.
“I feel that KTRU has a duty to serve the community, both near and far,” says Lorenzen, a Will Rice College junior. “We have countless alumni that listen to KTRU from afar, along with listeners that keep their radios on at home all day in Houston. Since people are isolated in their houses, we want to provide them the same great, eclectic content they love from KTRU to stay entertained. We hope that we can retain listeners and keep them engaged with us over the next few months until we can fully return to normal operations.”
Despite the uncertain future, Lorenzen says KTRU is planning its “Welcome Back Day” concert for the beginning of the fall semester, which he hopes will be an opportunity to reunite the campus after the community’s prolonged isolation. Until campus is open again, KTRU will continue relying on its community of DJs to sustain the station with the sounds they love. Even while adjusting to unprecedented circumstances, Rice Radio will continue doing what it’s done from the start: bringing listeners together for the love of music, even when we’re miles apart.
The DJ Daily Show airs every day at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 9 p.m.. To listen, tune into KTRU 96.1 FM or stream it online at ktru.org/listen.
Disclaimer: Katelyn Landry is a student DJ and Outdoor Show organizer at KTRU.
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