For people who have listened to KUT over the past thirty years, Bob Branson’s steady voice has been comfortingly familiar. We announced in September that Bob is retiring, and we wanted to drag him back into the studio one last time to hear about his three decades at this public radio station.
When did you start at KUT? What was it like?
When I started at KUT about 30 years ago, we did not have a news department. I don’t mean we did not have an award-winning news department. We had no local news.
The primary news that KUT did then was NPR. Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and a few programs during the day, so seeing KUT with this fantastic award-winning news department it has now, recognized nationwide, it has just been such a pleasure being associated with this place, even though I am not part of the news department. I was not gathering, editing, writing, reporting. Still, I can say I’m associated with this fantastic news department.
Before KUT, you had a career with the IRS working in communications?
I did, indeed. You make it sound almost like fun.
The IRS had public affairs people, essentially public relations, and the job was to communicate with the public, answer the questions of media, talk about where people could get help, answer questions when IRS was thought of having done something wrong, and we would explain what the law was and why the IRS did what it did.
It was not the most fun job in the world, but I’ve got to say it was one of the most challenging to represent an essentially hated government agency to the public.
How did that transition into working in public radio?
I had started off in radio. I’ve got a degree [from] enough years ago I think the thing was made of stone. But my degree is radio/TV/film, so I had started off in broadcasting.
University of Kentucky. I’m old enough that I wanted to be Edward R. Murrow. I wanted to be Walter Cronkite. I wanted to be a broadcast journalist.
What was your first role at KUT?
I was a volunteer reader. KUT used to have a Sunday morning magazine show [SoundSight], where volunteers from the community would come in and read newspaper and magazine articles, primarily for blind and reading-impaired listeners, and they had a couple of KUT-employed hosts who would transition between the articles.
I had missed being on radio enough that I became one of the volunteer readers, and just loved it. I was just hoping that they would call me every now and then so I would get to be back on radio.
Eventually, you were hosting a call-in show on KUT.
A couple of months after I became a volunteer reader, and I turned out to be one of their few volunteer readers who had actually had broadcast experience, one of the KUT co-hosts left. They asked me if I would become the regular co-host.
I said, “Okay, what a minute now. What I was willing to do for free in the hopes of getting just called every now and then, now you’re willing to give me a regular slot and some money, too? Where do I sign up quickly before you change your mind?”
It wasn’t long after that that the host for the weekly Wednesday night call-in program called “Access” left, and they asked if I would take that over.
By the way, John L. Hanson Jr. started that program and it was the first listener call-in show in Austin, Texas, and it was right here on KUT.
What kind of calls did you get during that show?
We would have a different subject each week. We might have a member of Congress on one week. We might have a member of the city council on to answer called in questions, and the next week, we might have a lighter subject, like how to grow wildflowers.
Kind of embarrassing, the number of callers for how to grow wildflowers just beat everything else. So many more people were interested in that than asking their member of Congress or city council member a question.
At what point did you become the local host for All Things Considered?
When I retired from the IRS, KUT said, “Okay, you’ve got some time now, and we would like a regular host for All Things Considered.”
Again, this was back before there was a news department and the regular host did not gather, write, edit. He or she just kind of held things together. But they did not have one voice that was the host Monday through Friday. They had different people running the control board.
When I became available, they said, “Would you come in and be the regular local host Monday through Friday for All Things Considered?”
I balked for several reasons, because I had just finished a 40-hour-a-week job, and I didn’t want the obligation of having to drag down for another five-day-a-week job.
And you were living in Bastrop.
I was living in Bastrop, so it was quite a drag distance. But after all my protesting, management hit me with the one argument I could not turn down.
They said, “All Things Considered is the second-most listened to radio show in Austin, so an awful lot of people would hear you.”
How could anybody with an ego turn that down?
You love being on the radio.
Branson: I love being on air. I’m 5 foot 3, and it makes me sound about 6 foot 4. I sound much taller on air.
Why are you retiring from KUT?
I had a health situation. I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is a bone marrow cancer. This cancer eats away at bone unless it is treated with all sorts of drugs and chemistry.
Mine is being treated, and at the moment mine is under control. It seems that I may have five or ten good years left.
And at age -- how old am I now? 76, which is just scaringly close to 80, I’m getting to the age where I want to spend more time RV-ing, because [my wife Fran and I] have a recreational vehicle.
We love to be on the road. We’ve dragged that thing to Alaska. We’ve dragged it up the Maritime coast of eastern Canada, all the way to Labrador. We’ve just done some great camping, and I just want to have more time to do that.
Plus, 30 years at one radio station, while I absolutely love having worked here, 30 years is long enough.
What are you going to miss most about being on KUT?
Unfortunately, the fact that it is ego-satisfying. There’s just something great about having somebody say, “Oh, you’re Bob Branson! I hear you on KUT.”
It still happens occasionally, and I’m always surprised when it does. But it feels so good, wanting to be recognized. Ego, pure ego-wise.
Second, to be associated with this radio station. I love having been associated with any NPR station, and particularly this one. This has got to be one of the best NPR-affiliated public radio stations in the country. The news department, I’m just so impressed with.
You’re not on the payroll anymore, Bob, you don’t need to say this stuff.
Oh, well here’s what I really think…. [smiles]