The Houston station combines its commitment to Texas Southern University with a forward looking community mission to find new talent, not just in music, but in the broadcasting world.
In the heart of Houston, stationed within the campus of Texas Southern University (TSU), sits KTSU, a public radio station with a rich history spanning over five decades. One of its newest ventures is The Vibe, a 24/7 stream focused on hip-hop, R&B, and contemporary soul, a mix that makes up the recently coined and quickly expanding Urban Alternative genre. Expanding beyond the mixed format KTSU, The Vibe’s mission is focused on being “committed to thoughtful programming, community outreach, and breaking fresh, local and national artists.” A station with a rich connection to a historic university, KTSU has embarked on the initiative also to encourage younger listeners and provide a platform for a spectrum of artists, particularly those resonating with their student population and community eager for emerging music. “When we looked at the overall landscape of public media [and] we said we definitely had to create something that really bridged the gap and brought in the younger generation into public media,” shares General Manager Ernest Walker. “I think with launching the Urban Alternative station […] we are bringing the experience to them and educating them at the same time.”
KTSU is strategically positioned to engage and educate a vibrant student body along with the broader community. “A light bulb went off and said, ‘Hey, we got to embrace and create something for them,’” Walker notes, reflecting on the epiphany that spurred action behind. “So why wouldn’t we be embracing some of that music and bringing in that young audience to it.”
Central to KTSU’s mission is also the nurturing and training of aspiring broadcast journalists and musicians. “We have another station that’s called KTSU2, which is our student station where they get hands-on training,” Walker shared about their commitment to the student population. “We can push them out there in the world and they can go do more.” Walker, reflecting on the alignment with TSU, notes, “I mean that’s part of our focus as being on the campus, Texas Southern University. We have a lot of students that are interested in this field. So for us, it’s just alignment is perfect, right?” He reminisces about a recent trip to the Monterey Jazz Festival where they brought along over 25 students to interview legendary artists like Herbie Hancock. “It really opens their eyes to see other ways than just being on air and other ways to be a part of this industry. And we try to explore all of those so they can connect to what their interests really are.”
KTSU’s narrative is deeply intertwined with its roots to the university, but notably that it is a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). This affiliation amplifies its dedication to addressing the unique needs and aspirations of the Black community, which resonate through its myriad community-centric programs and initiatives.
One such initiative that stands out is KTSU’s leadership in the “Save a Life” campaign, a collaborative venture encompassing 14 public radio stations licensed to HBCUs aimed at disseminating crucial information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine to their communities. KTSU provided financial support, guidance, and resources to the affiliated stations, through a grant provided by The Corporation For Public Broadcasting (CPB), paving the way for local production of educational public service announcements and digital content. ”It was around what type of messaging could we push out collectively that really resonated with our communities, and we did do a lot of things and gave out masks to our communities and things of that time,” Walker remarks of the experience, especially of how it was a program using the collective voice of HBCU stations. “That was the first time I think we really came together as HBCUs collectively to do something around that and with the Urban Alternative stations.”
The collective power from its student population to the broader HBCU network amplifies the mission of KTSU. “One of our main focuses is that community impact and engagement,” Walker emphasizes of their holistic approach. “It is great to play music and we have our public affairs shows, but it’s the work behind it as being active in the community.” Walker is proud and eager to emphasize that idea of IMPACT, broadening it out further as an acronym: Innovative, Motivated, Persistent/Passionate, Accountability, Consistency/Communication, and Teamwork. The “T” also connects it all at a higher level for him, explaining the question is always, “How do we transform our communities and everything that we continue to do to transform lives. If we keep that at the forefront, then we’re doing what we’re supposed to do as a public community radio station.”
As an artform that’s always built both community and music together, KTSU celebrates its place in Houston’s hip hop community. “One of the things that we’re very proud of in Houston and at KTSU is also being the very first station in Houston that ever played artists like The Geto Boys and a lot of those artists because there was no hip hop station in the market that nobody would play,” Walker adds, exploring the legacy of pioneering show Kidz Jamm. “A lot of those artists come back and said, ‘If it wasn’t for KTSU, I probably wouldn’t be a Bun B, I probably wouldn’t be Scarface because y’all opened your doors and least gave us a chance.’” It’s, in fact, a personal experience for Walker, who was part of a family band in his youth, The Walker Brothers. “KTSU was the very first station that ever played our record and gave us an opportunity.”
With a mission deeply entrenched in community engagement and projects as diverse as The Vibe or Save a Life, KTSU has steadily evolved to foster a bridge between generations, aiming to usher younger audiences into the sphere of public media while preserving the valued musical traditions cherished by its established listenership. It’s a mission that showcases the richness of experiences behind Public Radio Music Day 2023 and its motto – Building Community Through Music. KTSU, with its blend of community engagement, educational endeavors, and a platform for emerging artists, epitomizes more than just a radio station; it stands as a catalyst for change, a community hub, and a bridge connecting generations through the universal language of music, thereby nurturing a more informed, interconnected, and vibrant community.