Eklektikos host John Aielli, who flew by the seat of his pants, dies at 76

Austin radio icon John Aielli, whose fearless, improvisational approach thrilled and polarized listeners for more than 50 years, died Sunday at age 76.

“He was such a joy to work with and so important to what the stations have become,” KUT/X General Manager Debbie Hiott said in a message to staff.

“John was an Austin treasure and was an indelible part of so many lives here in Austin,” said KUTX program director Matt Reilly. “His unique perspective on the world has made being with John a joy. Our lives are less interesting with him gone.”

Aielli’s passing silences one of the truly unique voices of American broadcasting.

A life in music

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

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

Aielli, seen here in 1972, wanted to “soften the austere, elitist 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 8 years old. There, Aielli sang in her school choir and studied piano. At 17, he obtained a piano scholarship at UT Austin. But that only covered tuition, so he postponed school and worked as a host at Killeen KLEN radio station for a few years to save money. This is how John Aielli became the man who alerted the town of Killeen to JFK’s assassination.

Arriving at UT in 1966, Aielli turned his broadcasting experience into a job at KUT, then an eight-year-old public station known as “The Longhorn Radio Network”. He was a 20-year-old student who made music on the side.

Aielli loved classical, but his musical curiosity was irrepressible. He started adding different genres to the rotation: folk, world music – whatever he liked.

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

For the same reason, he went through a phase of wearing overalls to classical music performances.

Eklektikos was born

In 1970, Aielli’s show was named Eklektikos in honor of his wild mix of musical genres and interviews. It was this formula (or lack thereof) that lasted over 50 years.

Beyond music, Aielli has interviewed countless musicians, writers and artists.

His long, meandering interviews with guests (and without them) have become a hallmark of the show. At first, however, it may have been supported by necessity.

“When I came to KUT, John was working six hours a day,” says Jeff McCord, now music editor and host at KUTX. “At that time, we were running in the [music library] and find CDs to play and run back. And you’re tired of doing that. If a person was the least bit interesting, he would talk to her for a long time.

A black and white photo of a person posing between bookshelves and shelves of CDs.

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

Aielli himself has described his job as that of a “facilitator”, someone who connects his audience to Austin’s cultural life. And, as its audience grew, so did its role in that cultural life.

Default radio host

While he was often in the audience at plays and concerts, Aielli had his own musical ambitions. In the 1970s, he trained as a singer and gave annual recitals. In the stairwell of the former KUT studios, her haunting vocal ranges echoed daily through the floors of the building. His Holiday Sing-Along at the Texas Capitol has become a tradition cherished by generations of Austinites.

A person on a stage bends down and holds a microphone so that someone on the ground can sing.

Aielli holds a microphone in front of a young singer during the Holiday Sing-Along 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 with his skills in his early 80s, he said, he felt too old to start a new career.

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

“I found myself by default doing something that I really, really love,” he said. The Texas Daily. “I can be in the music business playing records and talking to musicians. I can’t be happier than that.”

“Absolutely Fearless”

The truth is, the music and the guests weren’t what made Eklektikos the phenomenon that spanned a decade. The show was about Aielli himself. He did things you don’t hear on the radio. He might have an author to talk about a new book, but decide they should talk about gardening instead. He would burst in mid-song to comment on it. He let dead air take over for long periods of time.

Aielli broke “every broadcast rule there is,” McCord said. He refused to wear headphones (one of the reasons for this dead look) and did not prepare for interviews. This led to moments that made the listener laugh or cringe, McCord said, like the time Aielli “kinda confused Bono with Sonny Bono.”

“[Aielli broke] all the broadcast rules that exist.”

Jeff McCord, music editor and host of KUTX

This never fazed John.

“He was absolutely not afraid.” McCord said. “When the Titanic movie came out, he kept playing that soundtrack. He would quite often play a song three or four times in a row if he really liked it. You know who does that on the radio? Nobody.”

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

Aielli had a presentation style based on stream of consciousness. He loosely associated words and themes to determine what to play or talk about, and it could feel improvised and chaotic. But the chaos was part and parcel of the magic he created.

“If there is no dead air, it means you have to be prepared for everything in advance,” Aielli told his local newspaper, the Killeen Daily Herald. “I like to fly by the seat of my pants.”

Destined to be an icon

For many people, discovering Eklektikos was a strange welcome to a city renowned for its strangeness, a rite of passage that has touched generations.

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

Those close to him felt this kindness at the same time as the strangeness.

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

At the radio station, Aielli would bring thrift store finds and tomatoes from the garden to share with his colleagues. He kept chocolates at his desk to pass around and was quick to compliment anyone who tried on a new outfit or hairstyle.

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

Jay Trachtenberg (left) says sometimes he and Aielli bickered like a weird couple.

But, like his on-air presence, he could also be frustrating.

“John lives in his own world and sometimes he’s not aware of what’s going on around him,” Trachtenberg said. “Sometimes we went there to the great amusement of our colleagues. We would be like the strange couple bickering.

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

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Aielli lived alone, but liked to be around people. He often shared stories of his friends on his show. In his free time, he spent hours at his usual table at the Cherrywood Coffeehouse, reading a book or chatting with strangers.

He was “a really lovely guy,” Trachtenberg said.

The work of some innovators may seem less revolutionary with age. Over time, what made them special becomes mundane. But the opposite was true for Aielli. As broadcast conventions became less and less free — what McCord calls “tighter” — Eklektikos seemed stranger in comparison. In a city that prides itself on weirdness, Aielli was destined to be an icon.

“I was lucky,” Aielli once said of the twists of fate that led him to spend half a century on the radio. But, of course, so are we.

There was once a sticker you saw around town that summed up Aielli’s loving and complicated relationship with his audience. He said, “If you don’t teach your kids about John Aielli, who will?”

The answer is: thousands of his fans and friends. Without him, radio will never be the same.

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