It is extremely strange to hear John Aielli swear.
"I sing every (expletive) day," he says as we sit in an unused, pleasantly soundproof production space in KUT's gorgeous new studio space on the University of Texas campus. We are, of course, talking about Aielli's favorite subject in the world: singing. Still, swearing from John Aielli?
Most fans of Aielli's show "Eklektikos," airing 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday on KUT, know he loves singing.
They know he gets close to the mic; that he has a free-ranging mind that can seemingly latch onto any topic and talk about it for 15, 30, 60, 90 seconds at a time; that he loves discussing his rain gauge; that he fears dead air less than anyone else you're going to hear this side of a freshman on KVRX; that you never completely know what he is going to play or say at any given time.
They are the folks who, after Aielli's heart attack in January, filled up the comments section on the Statesman website with "Have been starting the day listening to your program for over 20 years," and "John gives me hope that there is a place for true characters in the business world," and "I might not have moved to Austin, had it not been for John's show."
These are the sort of folks who make Aielli a fundraising powerhouse around membership drives, raising the most money of locally produced shows.
"He connects with our listeners in a unique manner that not many can replicate," says KUT associate general manager Hawk Mendenhall.
"He also connects with community arts organizations hosting anyone from the Austin Classical Guitar Society, to a Harry Ransom Center exhibit curator, to the Austin Swing Syndicate on the air.
"He's respectful, asks engaging questions and expresses a genuine interest in his arts and cultural guests."
Then there are the other people, the people who dislike his show, find him a figure of fun or are obsessed with the man.
There are the bumper stickers: "If You Don't Talk to Your Kids about John Aielli, Who Will?" There's the Facebook page of the same name that seems to be divided into people who like him and people who do not.
Then there is the Twitter feed (Stuff)John AielliSays (), which collects some of his bon mots, comments and utter non-sequiturs. To wit, here are a few recent ones:
"I can't figure out what's wrong with my aunt. She just won't get a new hearing aid. She's, quote, ‘deaf,' but I think she's bluffin'." (Sept. 6)
"It can be the stuff in your garage, or your front porch — I don't have a garage." (Aug. 23)
"When you see hot-pink hair, you know it's not natural." (June 12)
"Coca Cola used to be green. You know, ‘Green Lantern' wasn't that bad of a movie." (May 28)
And my personal favorite of recent days: "We'll have more words for you about things going on sometime later this morning." (Aug. 27)
You get the idea. "I never read it, but I understand many people find it amusing," Aielli says of the account.
To crudely paraphrase Lester Bangs, Austinites may never disagree on anything quite the way we disagree about John Aielli.
"He is very comfortable with people not liking everything he does," says Paige Maguire, who used to do web design for KUT. "I think the key to his appeal and the key to people not liking him are the exact same thing. He is just operating in his own world."
Indeed, it is hard to think of another local radio personality that anyone has truly strong opinions about, let alone one that will actually cause arguments.
But to sit down with him is to totally get it, to have the conversation ping-pong all over the place, be it from his undying love of Chris Isaak's voice ("That man is one of the best singers I have ever heard in any medium. His support it is exactly the way it should be. He sang for three solid hours and you can't do that if you're not using your voice correctly") to clothing ("Unless I am on stage, you won't ever catch me in a suit, I tell you that. This is Austin, Texas, for God's sake, it's hot all the time! ... (indicating my pearl snap shirt) you are dressed Austin-regular.") to rain (indicating the giant window onto Guadalupe Street from the new studio), "I have been doing radio for 40 years and this is the first time I have a window. Now I can see when it rains!") to his incredibly popular holiday sing-a-long at the Capitol ("I sing ‘O Holy Night'... Yes, I can hit the high note! ... and ‘Ave Maria,' absolutely, the kids have to have ‘Rudolph' and ‘Frosty'...").
There's not much ping-pong on public radio anymore.
Aielli was born in 1946 in Cincinnati and moved to Texas when he was 8. He grew up in a musical family; his parents met in a USO in Belton. His father was in the Army for World War II, his mother was a telephone operator. "They used to sing and play together all the time," Aielli says.
But not classical music. That was John's thing, proving himself a terrific piano player and singer. And he was not above turning his family toward his tastes.
"When I found out my younger brother Michael could sing, I got him to sing in a high school production of (the children's Christmas opera) ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors.' He was a perfect Amahl! I was 17 and had gone from a tenor to a bass, so I was Balthazar."
When it came time for college, Aielli applied to several schools for piano, for which he had scholarship offers. He came to UT, not realizing that their deal didn't pay for room and board.
"I didn't have any money, so I went back to the Killeen area and looked for a job," Aielli says. He wandered into radio station KLEN and they put him on the microphone the very next day.
"I was 17 years old, talking on the radio for about 30 cents an hour," Aielli says, "We would put on different voices for different shows," going Southern-hick for country and high-falutin' for classical.
Aielli came to UT in 1966 to study English. He had largely given up on his own musical dreams, working at KUT as a sideline.
"A few years later, right as I was going to enter the English Ph.D. program," he says. "I took this long acid trip, woke up and thought, ‘This is not what I want to do.'"
So at the age of 24 he went back to school for voice, increasingly aware that an actual career in singing was unlikely, and stayed at KUT. Besides, he was an art song singer — "Shubert, Shuman, Beethoven, Debussy, Handel, Bach," he rattles off — and there is not much of a market for that. So he stayed at the station, always working on his voice, always refining it.
"I think of it as a lifelong challenge to figure out how the voice works in this physical form," Aielli says, gesturing to his body (he has been a yoga devotee for decades). "I think it is astounding the way it works. I sing every (expletive) day."
This is jarring because you know Aielli only as this kind of refined guy on the radio whose support of fine arts is unwavering and whose radio show tends to swing higher brow than low.
This is a mistake on your part and mine.
"I really have tried to demystify this whole business of classical music," Aielli says. "It has nothing to do with rich people's music. I used to diligently wear overalls to classical concerts."
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Aielli's KUT show became known as "Eklektikos," a six-hour blowout.
"I started really thinking about the name and I started to pick from a lot of different traditions and countries, do longer interviews, mix in folk music."
This is the "Eklektikos" many Austinites grew up loving, and many are nostalgic for that longer, freer-form program.
Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office, swears that Aielli's chat with Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro was one of the greatest interviews he's ever heard. "Both guys were just at the top of their game and it was just brilliant," he says
An interview with P.D. James stands out for Aielli, as she is one of his favorite authors.
"Being a mystery writer, I had assumed she started with the plot," Aielli says. "Nope. She starts with the characters and starts moving them around and has no idea what the plot is going to be. I thought that was amazing."
In 2001, " Eklektikos" went from six hours to five, then to four in early 2002 and eventually to three. Some members of the public felt this was indicative of a delocalization of KUT.
But he cannot imagine doing a six-hour show now. "Thinking back, I have no idea how I did it," he says. "What I have now is just about right."
These days, "Eklektikos" is not the purely free-form show it used to be. He has five playlist songs to play each hour and various announcements, but the show is still very much all Aielli, all the time.
As for his January heart attack, Aielli says he never got the wave of depression associated with cardiac ailments.
"It really knocks you down and leaves you very weak," he says, "and ever since, I have not really been able to clear my throat properly, but I never got depressed." (It always comes back to the voice.)
Soon Aielli, along with the rest of the music programming on KUT, will move over to KUTX as KUT transforms into an all news-and-information station. Presumably, he will roll with this as well. He always has and he's always done it on the fly.
"I've never scripted anything," he says. "I just get the idea and tell it."
Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926