John Ailey, the gentle and distinguished narrator of the morning voyages of the Austenites, has died for generations. The local radio host was a long time ago 76.
“We are saddened to inform you that our beloved friend and colleague John Ailey passed away shortly before 8 a.m.,” Austin stations KUT and KUTX said in a statement on Sunday. “It has been a pleasure working with him, and he has been so important to what KUT and KUTX have become.”
In recent years, Aielli has suffered several health setbacks, including a heart attack in 2012 and a stroke in 2020. After the latter, Aielli stepped back from his regular air duties at the station.
During his tenure with KUT and KUTX – more than half a century – his classically trained baritone and show “Eklektikos” eased the city into a new day, with everything from classic rock to classic rock. A beloved figure in Austin, he was a major fundraiser for the public radio station, as well as a connecting force between listeners and community arts organizations. For years, he hosted the station’s beloved vacation at the Capitol.
But it was Aielli’s indelible personality on air that made him the stuff of local legend.
Former Statesman writer Joe Gross captured Aielli’s style on air in a 2012 story: “They know he’s close to the mic. He has a free mind who can seemingly grab 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’ll hear that side of a new student on KVRX; that you never quite know what he’s ever going to play or say.”
Ailey was born in 1946 in Cincinnati. His parents were jazz musicians. He met his father, a man in the army during World War II, and his mother, a telephone operator, at the USO in Belton. “They used to sing and play together all the time,” Ailey said in 2012.
The move to Texas came when Aielli was eight years old, and grew up in the Temple-Belton-Killeen area. He showed his childhood talent as a pianist and singer, with a penchant for classical music that would stay with him. His first classic record was Mozart’s Requiem, which was bought at a grocery store.
“I really tried to demystify this whole work of classical music,” Aielli said in 2012. “It has nothing to do with the music of the rich. I used to wear hard work clothes to classical concerts.”
Although he got a piano scholarship for college, he had to get a job to cover room and board costs.
“I didn’t have any money, so I went back to the Killeen area and looked for a job,” Ailey said in 2012 of his college transition. This led him to KLEN radio station, which immediately broadcast it on the air.
“I thought it would be a janitor’s job, but no, he wanted me to talk on the radio,” Ailey told the statesman in 1993. He was 17 years old and working 30 cents an hour.
In 1966, Aielli moved to Austin to study at the University of Texas. He would spend most of his career as a boater on forty acres. He took a job at KUT as a part-time announcer of a classical music program.
He earned a master’s degree in English. As he said, an acid journey on the cusp of entering a doctoral program in the same discipline led him to an awakening. He brought his gears back to music and continued his education in audio at 24 o’clock. All the while, he continued to work at the public radio station.
KUT’s six-hour channel “Eklektikos” was born in 1970, according to KUT. The name reflects the broad musical sensibilities of the host. He once described it as designed for the listener who really listens.
At its peak, the show “Eklektikos” ran from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In 2013, the show moved from KUT to KUTX, where the public radio station split news and music across two frequencies. Beginning in 2001, the show’s showtime began to slip, eventually filling the Austin’s car speakers from 9 a.m. to noon.
On her first day as a general manager at KUT and KUTX in 2019, Aielli hugged Debbie Hiott “as if we’ve been friends for years,” she said.
“In my view, it made sense because it felt like a friend because I had been listening to him for years,” said Hewitt, who was executive editor of Statesman magazine before joining the stations.
As he has done for generations of Austinites, Ailey introduced her to town when she moved in in the ’90s. With his curvy style, laid-back personality and “weird curiosity,” she said, he seemed to embody the city’s atmosphere.
Aielli’s style had both fans and critics, and those who might have fallen for it somewhere. At some point, people may notice labels on little posters that read, “If you don’t talk to your kids about John Ely, who will?” A popular Twitter account, called ShitJohnAielliSays, dedicated its feed to 2021 to the host’s wit, musings, and off-chain.
One from 2020: “Now, on our favorite band. Well, except for several others.” Another, from 2021: “I don’t know what your eating habits are, but I wish you luck in whatever you indulge in.”
“I’ve never read it, but I understand that a lot of people find it amusing,” Ailey told Stateman of the Twitter account in 2012.
KUTX Music Director Rick McNulty has a fond memory of the first time he heard of Aielli. It was 1995, and he was exploring Austin. After checking the radio dial, he arrived at KUT, where he heard a new song by Oasis, followed by a Beatles song, followed by “a very long song with bagpipes,” he said.
“Then came that calm, quiet voice and it systematically correlated with the reasons why these songs were being played back and forth,” McNulty said. The voice then continued discussing the progress of his tomato garden for 10 minutes. So I fell really in love with John Ailey and Austin at the same time.”
During his long stint on the air, Ailey became an Austin celebrity. Former KUT reporter Joy Diaz arrived at the station in 2005 as the newsroom was still developing, and Aielli’s Eklektikos program was at the heart of NPR affiliate programming. When she introduced herself in the community as a KUT reporter, people always wanted to talk about Aielli.
Diaz worked in the newsroom’s weekend office, often finding herself alone at night in the cavernous old communications building. She was terrified by the strange sounds floating in the corridors. When she confessed her fears to a classmate, she knew it was just Aielli. He loved the way the building’s acoustics enhanced his vocal exercises.
Later, Diaz and Ellie became good friends, bonding over a shared love of poetry, textiles, and silks and velvets that they scored while shopping thrift. Aielli loved the color and the way the glass reflects light.
“When we moved into the new building, the building was full of windows, and there were rainbows everywhere. We were always catching rainbows,” she said.
I was so moved by the kindness he showed to her two children that he would occasionally buy them lovely gifts on his frequent trips to the thrift store.
He loved sharing the results of his quirky thrift store. Program director Matt Riley, who referred to him as “the straightest guy he knows,” once bought a breast-shaped cup.
“You have to drink from the nipple,” Riley said.
Riley arrived at the station in 2008. He came from an organized commercial radio background.
“John was ordering a big audience and doing it all ‘the wrong way.’” Riley said “It was great to watch.” “It was also great to watch a series of directors try to rein him in without any success.”
Some may feel exasperated or impulsive when he is on the air. At one point, Jeff McCord hid the station version of the track for “Titanic” because Aielli played it constantly.
It never really worked, in part because Aielli walked his own drum, but also because the audience loved the show’s free-spirited, “unpredictable” nature, Riley said.
Part of Aielli’s legacy is “the many musicians he has championed and loved. They loved him because he was so honest about how much he enjoyed sharing their music with people,” Riley said.
Riley said that when rock icon Robert Plant briefly moved to Austin, he fell in love with Aielli because his show was unique. On Sunday, KUTX DJ Jody Denberg posted a photo of Plant and Aielli in the station’s studio. Blunt asked to meet Aielli, and the veteran DJ came to the legendary rock band and gently pulled his hair to see if it was real, Denenberg wrote.
“He was definitely one of those people who thought differently and didn’t want to be labeled,” Riley said. He didn’t want to be put in a box. He didn’t want a day job. He didn’t want to wear a suit and tie. You know, he didn’t want to sit at a desk. He just wanted to share things with people, whether it was his ideas or his classical music or Radiohead. “.
When Riley took over Aielli, he gave him a long leash.
“I just thought we kind of have this magical person. Let’s just let him turn this on. This won’t last forever, and let’s have fun with it as long as we can,” he said.
McNulty described Aielli as “Austen’s favorite weird uncle”.
“It’s the last of its kind,” McNulty said. “No one (could) be more eloquent on air and still have a mess in the booth. He never wore headphones, so he happily didn’t know when he had dead air. That was one of the most endearing things about him. Every show was like Adventure “.
“It brought people together,” Diaz said. After his illness took him off the air, a network of friends and fans rallied to make sure his needs were met.
“People were really interested in him,” Diaz said. She was part of a group that signed up to bring food to Aielli. Ultimately, she said, “He was fed by society, completely spiritual and literal.”
“He had a big, plump, wonderful life, and a lot of people loved him,” Riley said.
Ayeley told the statesman in 1991, “It may seem absurd to regard radio programs as a vehicle for art, but I consider what I do to be an art form. It is always in progress, and nothing is pre-planned. I know what to begin with until I walk in the door.”
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