Austin City Limits Radio: Deal with KGSR brings iconic brand to the airwaves

From television show to outdoor festival to music venue, and now to the radio dial: The iconic Austin City Limits brand is extending its reach once again, with Thursday’s announcement that longtime local station KGSR-FM is becoming Austin City Limits Radio.

The change, which takes effect at 5 p.m. Thursday with a satellite broadcast from Austin’s Arlyn Studios, will create a new format based primarily around the broad range of artists associated with the other Austin City Limits brand. Key KGSR staffers involved with the move said they expect roughly 50 percent of the station’s playlist content to be different with the ACL Radio designation.

Indiana-based Emmis Communications still owns KGSR and will keep those call letters. Emmis will license the Austin City Limits name from the television show, which launched in the mid-1970s. The program licensed its name to the Zilker Park music festival in 2002. When downtown concert venue the Moody Theater opened in 2011 and became the new site of the TV show’s tapings, a deal was made to call the venue ACL Live.

AUSTIN360 ARCHIVES: ACL Live becomes the new home of “Austin City Limits”

Adding radio to the mix was primarily the brainchild of KGSR on-air personality Andy Langer, who’s been with the station for 11 years. It started, he says, almost as a joke, when program director Emily Parker presented a list of potential adds to the station’s playlist that seemed beyond its usual AAA-format scope.

Leon Bridges played the first Austin City Limits Radio live studio session at KGSR’s Dell Music Lounge on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. KGSR is rebranding itself as Austin City Limits Radio. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“I said, ‘Great, what are we going to call the new station?’,” Langer recalled. “My knee-jerk reaction led me to something I should have thought of five or 10 years ago.”

Adding a radio element to the ACL brand indeed seems like a natural extension. Tom Gimbel, the general manager of the “Austin City Limits” TV show and the executive who approved the multi-year licensing deal after Langer approached him with the idea, noted that the station “will be the first ACL brand touchpoint that is on 24-7, 365 days a year.”

Like Langer, Gimbel seems almost surprised that the notion hadn’t arisen earlier. “As we look at it now, I think it does seem quite obvious,” he said. “Sometimes great ideas sit in front of you for years before someone points it out.”

The change “allows us to broaden our scope,” said Scott Gillmore, senior vice president and Austin market manager for Emmis, whose local radio properties also include KLBJ-FM, KLBJ-AM, 101X, Latino 102.7, Bob-FM and La Zeta. “Even though we had changed our music over time, people still had an image about what KGSR was that maybe went back a ways.”

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Gillmore was part of the team that launched KGSR in 1990 with original program director Jody Denberg, now a DJ on KUTX. Under Denberg, KGSR helped to pioneer the “adult album alternative” format that eventually became known in the industry as AAA radio. Gradual shifts over the years found the station leaning more toward Americana, or mainstream pop, or other subgenres.

“KGSR has gone through so many iterations trying to stay true to its roots but embracing the new Austin at the same time,” said program director Emily Parker, who’s been with the station since 2015, first as music director. “It’s this constant tug-of-war back and forth, playlist-wise. Now we won’t have that tug-of-war; we’ll be embracing new and old and everything in between.”

Asked for examples of what might carry over from the current KGSR format and the new ACL Radio vision, she suggested that “center-lane, big-brand heralds of AAA” such as Coldplay, Adele, Ed Sheeran and Mumford & Sons would remain. “But we’ll go to the left of that,” she said, with Texas legends such as Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Stevie Ray Vaughan, all of whom were KGSR staples in the 1990s. (Nelson’s traditional live-show opener “Whiskey River” will be the first song played on Thursday’s inaugural Austin City Limits Radio broadcast.)

“And we’ll widen on the other side for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Drake and others who have played the festival,” Parker added, making it clear that hip-hop — an increasingly prominent genre at ACL Fest in recent years — would be part of the mix.

While the station won’t be a marketing arm for the festival per se, Parker acknowledged the station likely would be putting some focus over the next month on acts playing the October event, citing St. Vincent and Metallica as potential examples.

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Another key indicator: When Fort Worth soul sensation Leon Bridges was in town last weekend for a two-night stand at ACL Live, he stopped in at KGSR’s Dell Music Lounge to tape a four-song segment with Langer for what will be the first-ever ACL Radio live session, set to air Saturday at noon. Bridges also paid a visit to KUTX’s Studio 1A last weekend, suggesting that the two stations might share more common ground as a result of this new development.

KGSR, which moved from its original 107.1 frequency to 93.3 about a decade ago, also is picking up another spot on the dial with the change. Starting Thursday, ACL Radio will be heard at 97.1 in addition to 93.3. On the internet, the station will stream live at acl-radio.com.

Langer, who also books the station’s wildly popular summertime Blues on the Green concert series in Zilker Park and puts together its annual “Broadcasts” benefit CD sold during the holidays, will add the title of Brand Marshal to his KGSR vitae. He believes a major advantage for the station will be the widely-recognized identity that Austin City Limits provides. “That identity is probably 90 percent of the battle to get somebody to actually listen,” he said.

Gimbel, who also recently worked out a deal with the University of Texas and concert promoter C3 Presents (which puts on ACL Fest) for a series of “Longhorn City Limits” concerts before UT football games this fall, says the KGSR partnership may also present other opportunities that haven’t yet been contemplated. Might KGSR broadcast some of ACL Fest live at some point? There’s no plan for that yet, in part because the licensing deal was arranged quite quickly, proceeding from concept to reality in just three or four months.

Gimbel credits KLRU director of communications April Burcham for coming up with a summary catch-phrase that has resonated with the Austin City Limits brand’s keepers. “She said, ‘We don’t just have a stool; now we have a table.’ It’s the fourth leg.”

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