Since KOOP First Went On the Air, Charlie Martin Has Been Here

Posted on: January 24, 2023
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Charlie is a former programmer who currently handles the station’s bookkeeping and data management. We spoke on January 18.

Michael A. Brown: What was KOOP like in the early years?
Charlie Martin: In November of ‘94, I found an announcement in the Austin Chronicle that a cooperative radio station was about to launch and was looking for more DJs. Excited about the possibility of sharing my knowledge of Austin music, I showed up just in time to submit my show idea and go through training, and The Austin Music Tour hit the airwaves in December in KOOP’s first week of broadcast.

The energy in those startup days was quite incredible – mostly young, passionate souls, with quite a few graduates of UT’s student radio community and activists from Austin’s Hispanic community among them. Under the stewardship of General Manager Jenny Wong, the station was bursting with possibilities and ideas forged in boisterous brainstorming sessions. And on KOOP’s first broadcast day, dozens of us were packed tightly into KOOP’s first studio in anticipation and celebration. Rod Moag went on mic with his smooth and friendly voice welcoming Austin to the party. Ken McKenzie was perched high in the back ceremoniously puffing on a sacred peace pipe to bring an auspicious start to KOOP’s unveiling.

MAB: What have been some of your most memorable experiences at KOOP?
CM: More Austin weirdness forgotten than remembered, but I’ll touch on a couple. English musician Arthur Brown had lived in town many years, and on a return visit, I managed to wrangle him over to KOOP. We were in a borrowed studio at the time, after a devastating fire at KOOP’s own location. In light of that, we thought it was deliciously wicked to have him record a promo for the station, introducing himself, as he did in his international hit “Fire” from 1968, as the God of Hellfire (“and I bring you … fire”, as the song said).

Then there was the time I contacted musician Powell St. John in the San Francisco Bay area, knowing that he was coming to Austin for Roky Erickson’s Ice Cream Social, and he kindly accepted my invitation to KOOP. I was keen to get more of his story out to the KOOP audience, as I had come to look upon him as a key figure at the nexus of major movements in American popular music: the New Folk movement of the early ‘60s (which revered old masters like Texans Lead Belly and Mance Lipscomb) and the psychedelic and blues rock movement of the late ‘60s, which included the 13th Floor Elevators, the Austin band which coined the term “psychedelic rock,” and Mother Earth, the band St. John formed in San Francisco with the amazing vocalist Tracy Nelson. In the early part of that decade, St. John was prominent in the Threadgill’s music scene in Austin, where he was recorded on harmonica backing Mance Lipscomb, and where he led his own acoustic folk and blues trio, The Waller Creek Boys, which included a singer and autoharp player named Janis Joplin. What tickled me the most from our KOOP interview was when I pulled out an old CD that included a couple of early recordings of Janis Joplin singing acoustic folk and blues recorded in an Orange, Texas bar. But on hearing the first few licks on the opening harmonica, St. John knew immediately that he was hearing himself with the Waller Creek Boys at Threadgill’s.

MAB: Talk about the shows you have produced and / or hosted.
CM: The Austin Music Tour featured musicians who lived in, or had lived in, the Austin area. They included performers who achieved fame after leaving Austin (like Janis Joplin), those who moved to Austin after achieving success elsewhere (like Arthur Brown), and of course, those who developed and thrived right here in so many genres. Showing off the diversity of styles performed by local talent was a prime goal, so my very first show included sitar and Japanese Imperial Court music, and I often devoted one-hour segments to specific themes, like French tunes or Latin American folk music. A highlight was a live in-studio roundtable with Austin composers of video game music.

After a few months hosting the Austin Music Tour, I conceived what was essentially the same show, but to be produced by a collective. The new show name was Around the Town Sounds. Over the years there have been more than 30 members of the collective, including musician Mike Buck and American Statesman music journalist Deborah Sengupta. Many went on to host their own shows on KOOP and elsewhere. Around the Town Sounds continues, helmed in recent years by Lorrie Darlin’, Eric Hungate, and Rob Carter.

MAB: What are the key factors that help a new programmer establish their show and then keep it going?
CM: I think in large part it’s because they are pre-selected by our Programming Committee. The committee does such a good job of filtering through the show submissions they receive, that you can be pretty sure that by the time a show gets on the air, that show will be successful. I know of very few shows over 28 years that got started but quickly failed. Beyond that, would-be programmers should familiarize themselves with what’s already on the air so they can try to find a niche that’s not already being covered, and then produce a really superb demo. And be diligent about the training and apprenticeships so that you’re ready with skills before you get on the air with your own show.

MAB: Nowadays, you’re the guy who handles the station’s data and money. Please bring us up-to-date on both of those.
CM: I would say that the move to online systems was very handy when Covid came along and sent us all home … I was still able to do my work remotely. Covid also didn’t faze our loyal members, who continued their support throughout. Donations from our listener members continue to be the biggest source of financial support for KOOP.

MAB: In your view, what are the biggest reasons for KOOP’s longevity and our standing in the Austin community?
CM: Twenty-eight years ago, we got off on a good foot with lots of support from the local press.
And there has always been a certain honesty and purity of intention that comes through to our listeners. People can hear the enthusiasm of our hosts and they can recognize the work that our programmers put into their shows. Listeners realize that we work hard to do great radio and develop expertise in what we present. Music programmers love the music they share, and the News and Public Affairs programmers are passionate about the views and topics they cover. This is why our listeners support KOOP, and this support is why we’re still broadcasting.

If you’re by KOOP on Tuesdays or Thursdays, say hi to Charlie and thank him for helping keep KOOP vibrant.

Interview by Michael A. Brown