On his final Sunday morning show at KGSR-FM on Nov. 22, Jody Denberg remarked that in the 10 days since he announced his resignation from the station he co-founded in 1990, he's "felt like someone who's lucky enough to be alive at his own funeral."
The broadcaster/programmer has received hundreds of "thank you" e-mails from acts he's championed and listeners whose tastes he helped form in his 29 years on the Austin airwaves. The Monday after the stunning announcement, a teary-eyed Denberg and 60 of his family members and closest friends were serenaded at the station by Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin, a surprise "Concert For Jody" Denberg called "intense and amazing."
The voice — and face — of KGSR, Denberg's been praised for his encyclopedic knowledge of music and his well-prepared interviews. The tank-topped teddy bear also has been lauded for the $2 million over the past 13 years he's helped raise for the SIMS Foundation musicians assistance program through sales of KGSR's double-disc "Broadcasts" CDs. Volume 17, which came out Friday .
"It's definitely the end of an era," said singer Rosanne Cash, who plays the KGSR anniversary show Saturday . "Jody is a real music guy," she recently told the American Statesman. "The kind of guy who would play Miles Davis followed by George Jones and just blow your mind open." Denberg's last night on the air will be during the live broadcast of the anniversary show.
Looking back, Denberg has to admit that he's the luckiest fan on the face of the earth, having met and interviewed (and sometimes even jammed with) all his musical heroes, with the exception of his all-time favorite John Lennon. The Beatle was gunned down in New York City by a deranged fan in December 1980, just four months before a 21-year-old Denberg began his unanticipated radio career by hosting "Critic's Choice" Sunday nights on KLBJ-FM. In recent years, Denberg has become friends with Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, with whom he's done three interview discs on her late husband.
Everybody loves Jody, the anti-Simon Cowell, who has always been the embodiment of KGSR's "Where the music comes first" slogan. His unaffected voice has long been Austin music's best friend.
So why is he quitting his dream job with no real guarantee of getting it back? Times are tight in the media business and KGSR owner Emmis Communications has laid off several employees in the past year, including music director Susan Castle, Denberg's radio soulmate.
Denberg, who turned 50 in August, said he's simply burnt out and ready for his first extended break in almost 30 years. Although KGSR, which recently switched frequencies from 107.1 FM to 93.3 FM for a stronger signal , stumbled in the summer ratings, with an overall three share (about half of KUT's audience), Denberg said that had nothing to do with his leaving.
"They really wanted me to stay and have kept the door open for me to come back," Denberg said of KGSR's management. "But I don't even want to think about that now." He said he plans to not work at all for at least a year.
Denberg and his wife, attorney Barbara Koonce, have long talked about him taking some time off to recharge, Denberg said. But the epiphany came on the Friday night of the Austin City Limits Music Festival Oct. 2 . Denberg had hosted live on-air performances and interviews with six of his favorite acts, including Robyn Hitchcock, the Avett Brothers and Andrew Bird, and yet he felt he was just going through the motions. "Probably my best attribute is that my enthusiasm is authentic," he said, "but when I was walking home (to nearby Clarksville) that night, I felt like a fraud."
Later that month, Robin Shivers, a selfless supporter of the Austin music community, died in her sleep at age 53 of causes that have yet to be determined. "That really affected me," said Denberg, who was diagnosed with type 2 A diabetes 10 years ago. "When you're a workaholic you can't always find time for those doctors appointments."
When Denberg finished the latest edition of "Broadcasts" in early November and booked the anniversary show, the end of a yearly cycle, he walked into the office of his good friend and boss Scott Gillmore, the only station manager KGSR has ever had. "I'm through," Denberg said. "I'm resigning." He eventually signed a non-compete clause and received a severance package of an undisclosed amount.
About three years earlier, Denberg said he had a similar meeting with Gillmore to express his disenchantment with his job. At the time, Denberg was also program director, with duties that included going to sales and budget meetings and managing personnel. He wanted to concentrate on the music, so Gillmore created a new position — content manager. Denberg left with a base salary of $72,000 but sometimes made more with ratings-performance bonuses.
"The three things I love most about this job are, first, putting together the 'Broadcasts' CDs and raising money to help musicians," Denberg said. "Then I love doing interviews and, third, I love the Sunday morning show."
Denberg said he briefly considered keeping just the Sunday show, but then decided he needed a clean break. "I asked myself, 'Are you gonna do this or not?'" He's not burned out on music, he said, just the business of playing it.
Growing up in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, Denberg was a huge music fan, but he didn't aspire to be on the radio. His father died when he was 3 and when things didn't work out between his mother and stepfather, the family moved to El Paso when Denberg was in high school for a fresh start. As a journalism student at the University of Texas, Denberg wrote a column in the Daily Texan critical of KLBJ-FM's change from free-form to the "album-oriented" rock format. Impressed by his passion, KLBJ management offered Denberg a Sunday night slot called "Critic's Choice" where he could play whatever he wanted.
He eventually worked his way up to music director at KLBJ, then was wooed to the brand new KGSR, which was in the process of changing formats from smooth jazz to an Adult Alternative Album playlist pioneered by Boulder, Colo.'s KBCO. What program director Denberg added was an emphasis on local artists, so Joe Ely and Tish Hinojosa integrated with Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. As the format, which is also called Americana, gained stations across the country, programmers checked KGSR's song rotation for tips on what to add, giving such Austin acts as Slaid Cleaves, Hayes Carll, Kelly Willis and Eliza Gilkyson national exposure.
Although ratings have fluctuated, the station dubbed "K-Geezer" continues to attract sponsors because of the loyalty of its listeners. A walking talking Austin cliche buys CDs at Waterloo, dances at the Broken Spoke, gets ice cream from Amy's, preorders Sarah Bird novels and listens to KGSR.
"I'm just so proud of what we all did together," Denberg said of the original 1990 KGSR crew, which included Gillmore, promotions head "Big Jyl" Hershman-Ross and on-air talent Castle, Bryan Beck, Kevin Connor and Bobby Ray. "We had high hopes, but we did what we set out to do."
He said it hasn't been as fun to come to work lately, with Castle, let go in March, and Hershman-Ross, laid off in October 2008, not there.
But it was music that convinced Denberg he made the right decision a couple weeks ago. "I heard 'That Would Be Something' from the first Paul McCartney solo album somewhere, and I didn't go to the station's logs to see if we've played it recently or how many times." Denberg said.
"I just listened to it and realized how much I love that song."