…with NPR Austin’s John Aielli
Words by Jess Hagemann Photos by Eric Morales
Despite working in public radio for 54 years now, KUTX personality John Aielli never intended for radio to become a lifelong career. He first wanted to be a pianist, and later, a vocal artist.
In 1963, Aielli received a scholarship to study piano at UT-Austin that covered tuition and fees but not his room and board. Coming as he did from a family with little money, Aielli deferred higher education for a year after graduating high school to find a job and save up some cash. Temple radio station KLEN offered Aielli a job on the spot. For .30 cents/hour, Aielli worked up to 96 hours/week—a wage that was considered “not bad” in those days. The following year, Aielli enrolled at Temple Junior College but continued to work at KLEN. He was able to scale his hours back once the minimum wage rose to $1.00/hour.
Two years later, Aielli transferred to UT-Austin. He immediately found work with KUT (before the station split into KUT for news and KUTX for music), who valued his previous radio experience. Even so, Aielli still believed his time in the radio industry would be temporary. Upon graduating from UT, he started taking voice lessons and dreamed of moving to New York City. Although Aielli was giving annual recitals in Austin, they weren’t always as well-attended as he hoped. In New York, he thought, people valued the cultural arts, including music, more highly. It took Aielli fifteen years of studying voice before he felt confident enough in his skills; all the while he continued to work in radio. At the end of that period, he realized he was in his mid-to-late thirties, and “too old to be going to New York to start a career.” He accepted that radio was his calling in life, and that as he’d “enjoyed every bit of it,” it was a good life to boot.
To John Aielli, talking on-air is its own kind of vocal performance. Every day, he walks the fine line between being “completely honest” with his listeners while avoiding any political commentary that might alienate those of dissimilar persuasions. “If I do make an offhand [political] reference,” Aielli says, “it must be cloaked under so many layers, because … people read into what they hear what they want to hear.” So he tends to stick to topics of universal importance, like gas prices, a great sale on pork loin, or the weather. “I just try to be normal and inviting. … [Listeners] want to hear an intelligent source that’s informative and entertaining, and I try to provide those things when I’m speaking on the air.” Of course, Aiell’s daily two-hour show accounts for only half of his duties at KUTX. The rest of his time he spends scouring the news to see what’s going on in Austin, who’s coming to town, and who he might want to interview for his next segment.
Aielli has lived in the same house in the Cherrywood neighborhood since 1984. You can often find him working from nearby Cherrywood Coffeehouse. He loves the spicy rooibos tea there; it pairs well with a great book. When not at the station, Aielli adores reading, a late discovery that amuses him now since he “hated” reading for English class. “I used to believe that if you start something, you have to finish it,” says Aielli, and that included slogging his way through “awful” books. A health scare in 2016 “changed everything,” however, and now he cautions that “there’s not all that much time in life, and you shouldn’t waste what time you have on a book you don’t want to be reading.” Instead, he enjoys always “learning something new,” and affirms that every day is an opportunity for “fun, so much fun.”
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