Since debuting five years ago, 91.7 FM KKXT has been one of the city's most contentious radio stations. For in-the-know music snobs, the station wasn't "indie" enough. For middle-of-the-road music listeners, KXT was playing too much weird shit. But then we all remembered what our garbage commercial radio alternatives were, and appreciated KXT for its quirky, if imperfect, selection of rock, indie and local music.
Gradually, the station started to get better, due in large part to the hiring of program manager Mark Abuzzahab. Abuzzahab is a veteran of this type of radio, having worked at Austin's KSGR and a ClearChannel station in Boulder, Colorado. When Abuzzahab was hired in 2011, he viewed the criticism of KXT as an encouraging sign of the station's success. In an interview with former Observer music editor Pete Freedman, Abuzzahab said "I think the best sign there is the fact that people feel so much ownership over it."
In fact, Abuzzahab was pretty sure that KXT was going to be successful in Dallas. Alongside the impassioned support of local listeners, Dallas has a remarkably strong local music scene, even though it doesn't get the fanfare that live music in Austin does. Abuzzahab attributes that fact primarily to geography. "There are just as many great bands in Dallas as there are in Austin, but they're spread out," says Abuzzahab. "There's great bands in Denton, Fort Worth, Dallas. It's just not one cohesive area like it is in Austin."
After five years, Abuzzahab has accepted that there's always going to be criticism, but that people should be quick to remember the point of public radio. "KXT does a better job serving a wide variety of people than it would just serving one particular segment," he says. "That's the mission of public radio." He also points out that many of the artists that get KXT airtime wouldn't have a home on any other Dallas radio station.
He also doesn't believe that Dallas is deeply committed to genre-focused music stations. "When I talk to people at shows and ask them what kind of music they like, they don't say that they like rock music or jazz, they name four or five artists," he says. "I don't think music genres are as important as media people think they are. The reason formats exist is because of music charts, and the industry is moving away from that. Charts and record companies are less important now than they used to be."
But the station doesn't simply measure its success in the number of listeners. Abuzzahab is more focused on bringing local talent to a broader audience. "KXT is a non-commercial radio station, so we're much more concerned with our mission than our audience numbers," he says. "I think the best way to gauge the success of KXT is to look at the musicians who have benefited from the airplay and exposure. We hear it all the time from local musicians: In being played on KXT, they can move on to bigger and better things."
Which has certainly been the case for local artists like Sarah Jaffe and Air Review, specifically the latter. After significant KXT support of "America's Son," the band's first single, Air Review has gone on to open for acts like Grimes and Portugal. the Man, along with mentions in Paste Magazine and NPR's All Songs Considered. There are times, too, when they prove ahead of the game: KXT was playing Lorde's "Royals" months before it became a breakout hit.
But that also doesn't mean that plenty of commercially successful bands don't get plenty of airtime on KXT, something that Abuzzahab doesn't see any problem with, especially when the station is likely playing a band's deep cuts. "It's tough to qualify what those songs are," he says. For example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are frequently played, but you're much more likely to hear "Taste of Pain" than "Californication."
"People grew up listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and their earlier stuff is totally different than what they're doing now," Abuzzahab explains. "That happens to a lot of artists. Look at Robert Plant; he's doing a bluegrass thing now."
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When it comes to improving KXT in the future, Abuzzahab and the rest of the station's tightly knit staff plan to just keep on keepin' on. As program director, he hopes to expand the station's commitment to local music and engage listeners by presenting more challenging programming, both of which are demanded by the station's most important stakeholders: the members. When KXT's financial supporters write in to the station, they most often request more local tunes. "The people who like KXT like the fact that they hear things they don't necessarily like, but they know that we'll broaden their horizons."
Tonight, KXT celebrates their five year anniversary with performances from Brandi Carlisle, Tennis and Somebody's Darling at Grand Prairie's Verizon Theatre. Every year, these anniversary celebrations keep getting bigger, something that should be encouraging to all supporters of local music. Whether or not you agree with every Dave Matthews Band and Red Hot Chili Peppers song that KXT plays, they're still very near the only Dallas radio station that is helping up-and-coming bands succeed. And with Abuzzahab at the helm, things can only continue to get better.
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