Eklektikos host John Aielli, who flew close to his pants, has died at the age of 76

Austin radio icon John Ailey, whose bold, improvisational style has delighted and captivated listeners for more than 50 years, died Sunday at the age of 76.

“It has been a pleasure working with him, and he has been so important to what the stations have become,” KUT/X General Manager Debbie Hewitt said in a letter to employees.

Read a remembrance of KUTX

“John was an Austin treasure and was an indelible part of the lives of so many here in Austin,” KUTX Program Director Matt Riley said in a statement. “His unique view of the world made being with John a joy. Our lives are less interesting with him.”

Ailey’s death silences one of the truly unique voices in American broadcasting.

life in music

From the start, Aielli seemed destined for a life in music. His father was a pianist and his mother sang in a jazz band.

Black and white photo of a man sitting at a microphone in a studio, smiling and looking at the camera

Aielli, seen here in 1972, wanted to “dilute the austerity and elitism of classical music” by mixing it with other genres.

He was born in Cincinnati in 1946, but the family moved to Killeen, near his mother’s family, when he was eight. There, Eli sang in his school choir and studied piano. At the age of 17, he was awarded a piano scholarship to the University of Austin. But it only covered his tuition fees, so he put off studies and worked for a few years as an announcer at Killeen radio station KLEN to save money. This is how John Ailey became the man who… The city of Killeen alerted the assassination of JFK.

Upon arriving at UT in 1966, Aielli leveraged his radio background for a job at KUT, then an eight-year-old public station known as “The Longhorn Radio Network”. It was a 20-year-old student who rotated the music to the side.

Aielli loved the classics, but his musical curiosity was irrepressible. He began to add different genres to the rotation: popular and world music – whatever amazed him.

Decades later, he He said He hoped that mixing different genres of music would introduce more people to classical and “soften the strict elitism of classical music”.

For the same reason, he went through a phase He wears overalls for classical music performances.

Eklektikos . was born

By 1970, Aielli’s show was named Eklektikos in honor of its mix of musical genres and interviews. It was this formula (or the lack of one) that lasted for over 50 years.

Away from playing music, Ellie He has interviewed countless musicians, writers, and artists.

His long, tortuous conversations with the guests (and without them) became a trademark of the series. In the early days though, it was probably necessarily tolerated.

“When I got to KUT, John was working six hours a day,” says Jeff McCord, now a music editor and host at KUTX. “In those days we used to run in [music library] and find CDs to play and play again. I’m tired of doing that. If a person is at all interesting, he will talk to them for a long time.”

Black and white photo of a person standing between shelves and racks of CDs.

Aielli, who dreamed of one day becoming a singer, says he became a DJ “by default”.

Aielli himself described his job as “facilitatorA person who connects his audience with the cultural life of Austin. And as his following grew, so did his role in that cultural life.

Radio host by default

While he was often in the audience at plays and concerts, Aielli had musical ambitions of his own. During the 1970s, he trained as a vocalist and gave annual concerts. In the staircase of former KUT studios, his agonizing acoustic scales reverberated every day above the floors of the building. His singing on holiday singing in the Texas Capitol has become a tradition cherished by generations of Austenites.

A person on stage crouches and holds a microphone for someone on the floor to sing.

Aielli holds a microphone for a young singer during a Sing-Along vacation at the state capitol in 2017.

For decades, he dreamed of moving to New York to pursue a singing career. But by the time he was confident enough in his skills in the early ’80s, He saidHe felt too old to start a new career.

He said that giving up on that dream was probably one of his best decisions.

“I ended up by default doing something I really, really like,” he said. Daily Texan. “I’ll be in the music world playing the records and talking to the musicians. I couldn’t be happier than that.”

“Not afraid at all”

The truth is, it wasn’t the music and the guests that made Eklektikos a decade-long phenomenon. The show was about Aielli himself. He did things you don’t hear on the radio. He could have an author talk about a new book, but decide that they should discuss gardening instead. He would break into the middle of a song to comment on. It allowed dead air to dominate for long periods of time.

McCord said Ailey broke “every broadcasting rule that exists.” He refused to wear headphones (one of the reasons for that dead air) and did not prepare for interviews. McCord said that led to moments that were either laugh-inducing or embarrassing, depending on the listener, like the time Aielli somehow mixed up Bono and Sonny Bono.

“[Aielli broke] Every broadcast base is there.”

Jeff McCord, KUTX music editor and host

John was never bothered.

“He was just not afraid at all.” McCord said. “When Titanic The movie came out, it won’t stop playing that sound. He would often play a song three or four times in a row if he really liked it. You know who does that on the radio? no one.”

“In the end we just had to hide the CD,” he said.

Aielli had a stream of consciousness style of presentation. He would freely associate words and themes to decide what to play or talk about, and he might feel improvised and chaotic. But chaos was an integral part of the magic he created.

“If there is no dead air, it means that you must be prepared in advance for everything,” Aielli once told his hometown newspaper, The Keelen Daily Herald. “I like to fly next to my pants.”

destined to be an icon

For many people, discovering Eklektikos was an eerie welcome in a city with an exotic reputation, a rite of passage that has influenced generations.

“What I love most about Austin is friendliness,” Aielli once said. “There are good people here, and that spreads to people who come here.”

Those close to him felt this kindness as well as strangeness.

“He can be very generous,” said Jay Trachtenberg, a friend and longtime colleague of Aielli.

At the radio station, Aielli was bringing thrift store finds and locally grown tomatoes to share with co-workers. He kept chocolates on his desk to pass on and was quick with a compliment to anyone trying a new outfit or hairstyle.

Black and white photo of a person sitting at a desk looking at a computer screen and another person with arms behind their head in a chair looking at the camera.

Jay Trachtenberg (left) says he sometimes quarrels with Ellie like an odd couple.

But, just like being on the air, it can also be frustrating.

“John lives in his own world, and sometimes he’s not even aware of what’s going on around him,” Trachtenberg said. “Sometimes we go to entertain our co-workers. We will be like the odd couple arguing.”

The station is full of stories about Aielli, like the time a worker walked into Studio 1A at night to find him standing on his head in complete darkness, Trachtenberg recalls. “Then John was upset because he interrupted!”


Aielli lived alone, but loved to be around people. He would often share his friends’ stories on his show. In his spare time, he would spend hours at his regular table in Cherrywood Coffeehouse, reading a book or talking with strangers.

Trachtenberg said he was a “really nice guy”.

The work of some innovators may seem less pioneering with age. Over time, what made them special becomes commonplace. But the opposite was true for Aielli. As broadcast conventions became less free – what McCord calls “more compact” – Eklektikos seemed more outlandish in comparison to a city that prides itself on the exotic, Aielli was destined to be an icon.

“I got lucky,” Ailey once said of the vicissitudes of fate that brought him half a century on radio. But, of course, we did, too.

There used to be a bumper sticker you’d see around town that summed up Aielli’s friendly, complex relationship with his fans. He said, “If you don’t teach your children about John Ailey, who will?”

Answer: Thousands of his fans and friends. Without it, the radio would not be the same.

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