Even when hundreds of thousands of people flock to Austin for SXSW, the station is ready with a taco and some coffee to share some local vibes and great music.
For many waking up in the morning during the South by Southwest (SXSW or “South By” for those in the know) Music Festival in Austin, TX, they’ll wander the streets bleary-eyed after a night of life-changing music from local and global artists alike and be drawn in by the smells and inviting aura emanating from morning hangouts and shows hosted by local Triple A station, KUTX.
“We throw our own sort of hometown party from 7 AM to 11 AM most days,” highlights Debbie Hiott, general manager of KUTX and its partner news station, KUT. The station invites Austin locals for these events as a laid-back yet vibrant experience. “We get a chance to curate the South By experience, get some tacos and some coffee, and people get to enjoy a lot of the same bands that everyone is buzzing about,” says Hiott. This invitation to start each day with KUTX encapsulates the ethos of the station, an inclusive space where the community can revel in the essence of SXSW while still nestled in the comforting familiarity of Austin’s culture.
As the vibrant strains of music from SXSW reverberate through the bustling streets of Austin, KUTX faithfully stands as a resonant voice of the city’s thriving music scene. The renowned festival, over the years, has morphed from an Austin-focused “hometown party” of its own to more of a “visitor party,” according to Hiott. This transformation has cast KUTX in an essential role, curating a bridge between the local heartbeat and the global rhythm orchestrated by not only the wide-reaching musical acts, but also a vast amount of out of towners who pour into the city for a few weeks each year.
“We do [our parties] early, in part, because we want the people that are here in town and have to go to work and have their kids with them because the kids are off that week– it’s spring break and all of that– we want our hometown folks to have a little bit of fun with South By and that’s what that is,” Hiott shares.
SXSW, which returned in 2022 after a pause and uncertain future in 2020 and 2021, is a global phenomenon, drawing in thousands of bands to play official and, more often than not, unofficial showcases in every venue, alleyway, backyard, and any available nook and cranny the city has to offer. For KUTX, the week-long music festival part of SXSW is a chance to show some hospitality and mix that tourist crowd with their loyal, local audience. It’s a duty the station has taken as a point of pride for ten years, when the station spun off from KUT to become a music-only spot on the dial.
Reflecting on a collaborative venture in the same spirit, Hiott recounts an initiative during last year’s festival where SXSW invited KUTX to cultivate a more broadly family-oriented day at Auditorium Shores. The event, Rock the Shores, was built off the playbook of KUTX’s successful Rock the Park event series held yearly in both the fall and spring. Despite a sudden weather change necessitating a venue switch, the event was a hit with the families that attended and the station itself. “[SXSW] reached out to us […] to bring a little more of that Austin connection back. And that felt good,” Hiott reminisces. “We never want to compete. We want to compliment.”
It’s not just SXSW where KUTX has been finding ways to compliment the work of local entities. One such partnership is their work with KAZI, a community-owned station in Austin with a mission to “provide educational programming and information with special emphasis on media access for the African-American community.” Hiott sees the places where KUTX reach and KAZI’s mission overlaps. “We’re really trying to do a better job of some of those underserved areas,” Hiott explains, illuminating their hope to foster a more inclusive musical narrative that resonates with Austin’s diverse community. “We’ve been working with them on some things and we have tried to see if we can help build up what they’re doing too because it just sort of doubles the opportunity for some of those artists.”
Beyond these partnerships, KUTX has been pushing itself to always engage with their community beyond not just the festival days, but past Austin’s city limits. Echoing the broader vision of Public Radio Music Day 2023 – “Building Community Through Music, ” the station has been building out a new initiative, the Texas Music Experience, a 24/7 online station it curates and hosts. The novel venture, a play off of KUTX’s own tagline, “The Austin Music Experience” aims to magnify Texas’ musical narrative without overshadowing Austin’s unique melody. “We are looking a little more at Texas as a whole […] you can run Willie Nelson and Beyonce and Grupo Fantasma on the same station as the Texas music experience,” Hiott notes, underlining the endeavor’s resonance with Texas’ diverse musical tapestry.
Ever expanding growth and focus and how to balance it all is something both SXSW and KUTX consider. The station and Hiott remember to ground themselves in the community and its ethos. Hiott reflects, “We have this very, very, very local feel to it. And we’re just trying to make sure that as we try to reach more of a national audience, that we don’t lose that local feel.” This delicate balance between local engagement and broader outreach encapsulates KUTX’s harmonious approach in celebrating Austin’s musical heritage.
Through the lens of KUTX, the narrative of SXSW unfolds as a dialogue between the global and local, orchestrated with a heartfelt ode to Austin’s musical soul. The station’s endeavors echo the unwavering spirit of community, nurturing the local music ecosystem while engaging with the global rhythm of SXSW, reverberating a tune that’s quintessentially Austin.
Hiott’s reflections evoke a vivid imagery of Austin’s limitless musical landscape. “Austin music is without boundaries. I feel like Austin Music is Spotify before Spotify was here,” she says, further adding, “It’s not known for one type of music or another. It’s just known for the love of music.”