When it comes to radio, the hours after midnight have traditionally been reserved for the strange someone ranting about the end times or UFOs, or maybe just a DJ who knows that the few listeners at that hour are the kind who want something a little more offbeat than what the midday personalities offer.
KUT program director/associate manager/jack-of-all-trades Hawk Mendenhall sees the late hour as an opportunity to highlight content that just doesn't fit anywhere else, such the musings of "Humble Farmer" Robert Skoglund (the "Garrison Keillor of Maine"), an hourlong story about the lives of New Orleans blues musicians or a look at Bill Murray's love for poetry.
These and stories like them make up "O'Dark 30," KUT's weekly potpourri of independent radio that airs midnight to 3 a.m. Sundays. The show, which celebrates a year on the air at the end of this month, is a labor of love for Mendenhall, who hosts and selects most of the content. Usually, he wears a more managerial hat, taking a lot of heat when listeners don't agree with his decisions — such as when some KUT faithful cried foul as the station cut the hours of Paul Ray and Larry Monroe and hired Matt Munoz to manage the Cactus Cafe.
"O'Dark 30" averages about 1,500 listeners, while the station's shows in that time slot on other nights typically draw only 200 or 300. The appeal of the show, Mendenhall says, is the strength of the stories. "It's the element of surprise, it's the element of something different." And, though it bears some resemblance to syndicated national shows such as "This American Life," "O'Dark 30," with its loose format and breadth of content, is something very different.
It's a Thursday morning, and Mendenhall sits alone inside the recording booth of one of KUT's studios, located in the windowless depths of Communications Building B at the University of Texas, which also houses KLRU. Producers Rebecca McInroy, Mike Lee and David Alvarez are seated on the other side of the glass. They are recording the introduction for an upcoming show. Mendenhall writes his own lines for the show, sometimes late the night before. Compared with his demeanor during pledge drives and other times he is onair, the Mendenhall of "O'Dark 30" is a trickster.
"We are now rolling," Alvarez says.
"All dressed up like Erik Estrada, but nowhere to go? You're just like KUT's 'O'Dark 30,'" Mendenhall says into the microphone.
"What does that mean?" Alvarez asks.
"It works for me," Lee says.
"I like it," McInroy laughs. They move on (Alvarez explains later that his co-workers joke that he looks like the "CHiPs" actor).
This absurd humor colors nearly everything Mendenhall says on the program, which he refers to on air as "the big big show in the wee wee hours." In the course of the taping, he also takes a good-natured (enough) shot at me: "It's a special night here at KUT Austin and KUT.org as we have an actual semi-credible newspaper reporter here sitting in while we weave audio magic out of seaweed, coconut oil, blackbird feathers and old baseballs."
"Right from the get-go we decided it would be a little bit goofy, from a standpoint of me being the host," Mendenhall says. Because of the late-night time slot, they can get away with more, and they take advantage. "It's really gotten to be a little bit odd and strange, which generates a lot of response from listeners."
He's been surprised at the response. "Every time we have an event, people come up and talk about the show, more than anything else."
Mendenhall's comic shtick is packaging for a more substantive product: independently produced radio segments for which there isn't a lot of space on radio. Stories range from the very short and funny — the first piece aired on "O'Dark 30" was Jonathan Goldstein's four-minute Batman-meets-Mary Poppins tale "The Penguin Goes a Courtin'" — to much longer, more serious journalism. There is also some locally produced content, including a piece by Lisa Sandberg titled "Out of Huntsville," which examines the lives of prisoners released from the Huntsville penitentiary. The show has also aired some content by Austin writers who have pitched their own stories.
Mendenhall says that "O'Dark 30" is geared toward people who like to actively listen to radio. "You can't half listen. If you're going to listen to 'O'Dark 30' you're someone who likes storytelling," he says. "I think there's a certain nostalgia for the idea of having somebody tell you a story."
This combination of goofy and serious is central to Mendenhall's vision for the station, where he will mark 10 years in January. Mendenhall believes this style is consistent with what KUT's listeners want to hear. "They don't mind a little bit of quirk, which is why John Aielli has been so successful for so long," he says.
Mendenhall came to KUT after working various radio jobs (at both commercial and public stations) in Utah. When he started at the station, listeners' level of enthusiasm for KUT caught him off guard.
"I've been surprised at how really, really vocal people are here when they like something or when they don't like something," he says. Though some changes he's been involved with, including cutting the hours of certain on-air personalities, have drawn the ire of listeners, Mendenhall insists that most of the changes, including growing the news department and developing more music programming, have proven successful.
"A week doesn't go by without some telling me how I've ruined the station," he says. "I have to look at it from a greater perspective than one listener or 10 listeners. There are 250,000 of them. We will never please all of them."
Days off are rare for Mendenhall, who is often at the station before 7 a.m. "O'Dark 30" helps him stay sane, or perhaps vent a little insanity.
"'O'Dark 30' is the most fun part of my job," he says. "I get a real kick out of doing it. It's like doing real radio instead of going to meetings and all of the other things you have to do."
Taking off and growing
Mendenhall was originally inspired to create "O'Dark 30" by radio producer Jay Allison, who produced a similar story-based program in Massachusetts (he is also responsible for NPR's "This I Believe" series, among other things). In 2008, when Mendenhall and McInroy worked together assembling clips for KUT's 50th anniversary retrospective, he decided to act on the idea. "It was just a lot of fun, putting these clips together, and she said 'We should do that. Let's create something like that.'"
The name came from Mendenhall's father, who owned a grocery store in San Diego. "He would have to go to work at 6 o'clock in the morning and he would always ask me if I wanted to go to work with him during the summer. I was 10 or 12 years old and would always say yes, of course, because it was fun to run around in the store when nobody was there, all adventuresome. He would always say, 'Well you're going to have to get up at o'dark 30 if you're going to go into work with me.'"
For content, Mendenhall contacted Public Radio Exchange, a nonprofit marketplace for independent radio content (KUT was a founding member about seven years ago). Independent producers post their stories to PRX, which in turn makes the stories available for use by stations. When a producer's work is aired on "O'Dark 30" or elsewhere, PRX pays royalties, which usually don't amount to much (50 cents per minute), but the producer does get exposure.
"Having an opportunity to have their piece on the air somewhere gives them a better chance of getting funding for another project," Mendenhall says.
John Barth, managing director for PRX, shares Mendenhall's playlist for "O'Dark 30" with other radio producers (you can view the list at prx.org/playlists).
"Hawk is a guy who is really respected as a programmer in public radio and for him to select a piece, it's a very strong endorsement, " Barth says. "He's a tastemaker and I'm trying to get other programmers to follow his lead. If Hawk likes it, it's got to be really good."
Barth says that usually, public radio producers turn to PRX for just a few hours of programming; Mendenhall uses about 150 hours per year.
Despite its late time slot, there seems to be enough people in Austin who do enjoy storytelling.
KUT Director and General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt says that even if the show isn't reaching a large audience, the fact that it exists helps solidify KUT's reputation as a forward-thinking station. "Much of the audience hasn't heard a full 'O'Dark 30' episode, but knows that there's something creative taking place on our airwaves," he says.
With a year under its belt, Mendenhall plans to continue with the show, possibly with more local content and an expanded online presence as KUT relaunches its website at the beginning of next year (the show is currently available online, but in a clunky streaming format).
Planning hasn't played much of a role when it comes to "O'Dark 30," though. "We didn't think this out fully. Now that I'm into it and I have to write it every week, I am kind of stunned," Mendenhall says. "I think we're all kind of stunned that we're still doing this."