John Aielli, the sweet and idiosyncratic narrator of morning commutes for generations of Austinites, has died. The longtime local radio host was 76.
“We are heartbroken to report that our beloved friend and colleague John Aielli passed away shortly before 8 a.m. this morning,” Austin stations KUT and KUTX said in a statement Sunday. “It was such a joy to work with him, and so important to what KUT and KUTX have become.”
In recent years, Aielli had suffered several health issues, including a heart attack in 2012 and a stroke in 2020. After the latter, Aielli retired from regular on-air duties at the station.
From 2012:Conversations with John Aielli of KUT
During his tenure with KUT and KUTX – more than half a century – the classically trained baritone and his show “Eklektikos” have ushered the city into a new day, with everything from classical to classic rock. A beloved Austin character, he was one of the public radio station’s top fundraisers, as well as a liaison force between listeners and community arts organizations. For years, he hosted the station’s beloved holiday tunes at the Capitol.
But it was Aielli’s indelible on-air personality that made him a local legend.
Former Statesman writer Joe Gross captured Aielli’s on-air style in a 2012 story: “They know he’s getting close to the mic; that he has a free spirit that can seemingly hang on to any subject 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, you’re going to hear that freshman side on KVRX; that you never quite know what he’s going to play or say at any given time.
Aielli was born in 1946 in Cincinnati. His parents were jazz musicians. Her father, an army man in World War II, and her mother, a telephone operator, met at a USO in Belton. “They used to sing and play together all the time,” Aielli said in 2012.
A move to Texas came when Aielli was 8 years old and he grew up in the Temple-Belton-Killeen area. He displayed a childhood talent as a concert pianist and singer, with a fondness for classical music that will stay with him. His first classical record was Mozart’s Requiem, bought in a grocery store.
Aielli said in 2012, “I really tried to demystify this whole classical music business. It has nothing to do with rich people’s music. I used to diligently wear overalls to classical concerts. ”
Although he got a piano scholarship for college, he had to find a job to cover the cost of room and board.
“I had no money, so I went back to the Killeen area and looked for a job,” Aielli said in 2012 of his transition to college. This led him to radio station KLEN, which immediately put him on the air.
“I thought it was going to be a janitorial job,” Aielli told the Statesman in 1993, “but no, he wanted me to talk on the radio.” He was 17 and worked for 30 cents an hour.
In 1966 Aielli moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. He would spend most of his working life as a fixture in the Forty Acres. He took a job at KUT as a part-time announcer for the classical music program.
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He earned a master’s degree in English. As he said, an acid trip on the eve of his entry into a doctoral program in the same discipline led him to a revival. He turned to music and pursued singing training at the age of 24. All this time he continues to work on public radio.
His six-hour KUT show “Eklektikos” originated in 1970, according to KUT. The name reflected the host’s broad musical sensibilities. He once described it as being designed for the listener who really listens.
At its peak, “Eklektikos” aired from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In 2013, the show switched from KUT to KUTX, the public radio station splitting news and music across two frequencies. Beginning in 2001, the show’s runtime began to decrease, eventually filling Austin’s car speakers from 9 a.m. to noon.
On her first day on the job as general manager of KUT and KUTX in 2019, Aielli hugged Debbie Hiott “like we’ve been friends for years,” she said.
“From my perspective, it made sense because he felt like a friend because I had been listening for years,” said Hiott, who was editor of the Statesman before joining the stations.
As he has done for generations of Austinians, Aielli introduced him to the city when she moved there in the 90s. With his curvy style, laid-back personality and “strange curiosity”, he seemed epitomize the vibe of the city, she said.
Aielli’s style had both fans and critics, and those probably fell somewhere in between. At one point, people might spot bumper stickers that read, “If you don’t tell your kids about John Aielli, who will?” A popular Twitter account, called ShitJohnAielliSays, dedicated its feed through 2021 to the host’s quips, musings and non-sequences.
One from 2020: “Now onto my favorite band. Well, except for several others. Another, from 2021: “I don’t know what your eating habits are, but I wish you luck with whatever you are into.”
“I’ve never read it, but I understand a lot of people find it funny,” Aielli told the Statesman of the Twitter account in 2012.
KUTX Music Director Rick McNulty has a distinct memory of when he first heard Aielli. It was 1995 and he was scouting in Austin. Scrolling through the radio dial, he landed on KUT, where he heard a new Oasis song, followed by a Beatles song, followed by a “really long song with bagpipes,” he said. he says.
“Then this calm, soothing voice came along and methodically chained together the reasons why these songs were played back to back,” McNulty said. “Then the voice continued to discuss the progress of his tomato garden for 10 minutes. So I fell in love with John Aielli and Austin really at the same time.
Thanks to his long tenure on the air, Aielli has become a celebrity in Austin. Former KUT reporter Joy Diaz arrived at the station in 2005 when its newsroom was still evolving, and Aielli’s “Eklektikos” was central to the NPR affiliate’s programming. When she identified in the community as a KUT reporter, people invariably wanted to talk about Aielli.
Employing the newsroom’s weekend office, Diaz often found herself alone at night in the cavernous old communications building. She was terrified by strange sounds floating in the hallways. When she confessed her fears to a colleague, she learned that it was simply Aielli. He liked the way the acoustics of the building highlighted his vocal exercises.
Later, Diaz and Aielli became close friends, bonding over a shared love for poetry and the textiles, silks and velvets they scored at thrift stores. Aielli liked the color and the way the glass reflected the light.
“When we moved into the new building, it was full of windows, so there were rainbows everywhere. We were always catching rainbows,” she said.
She was touched by the kindness he showed her two children, occasionally buying them thoughtful gifts during his frequent trips to the thrift store.
He loved sharing his original thrift store scores. He once bought program director Matt Reilly, whom he called “the straightest man he knew,” a breast-shaped cup.
“You have to drink from the nipple,” Reilly said.
Reilly came to the station in 2008. He came from a regimented commercial radio background.
“John was commanding a huge following and doing everything ‘the wrong way’. It was fascinating to watch,” Reilly said. “It was also fascinating to watch a succession of managers try to rein him in and have no success .”
Some got angry or stormed off when he was on the air. At one point, Jeff McCord hid the station’s copy of the “Titanic” soundtrack because Aielli was constantly playing it.
It never worked out, partly because Aielli stepped on his own drum, but also because audiences loved the free-spirited nature of the show, “the unpredictability of it,” Reilly said.
Part of Aielli’s legacy is “the many musicians he championed and loved. They loved him because he was so honest about how he loved sharing their music with people,” Reilly said.
When rock icon Robert Plant briefly moved to Austin, he fell in love with Aielli because his show was unique, Reilly said. On Sunday, KUTX DJ Jody Denberg posted a photo of Plant and Aielli at the station’s studio. Plant asked to meet Aielli, and the veteran DJ approached the legendary rocker and gently tugged his hair to see if it was real, Denberg wrote.
“He was definitely one of those people who thought differently and didn’t want to be pigeonholed,” Reilly 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 thoughts, classical music or Radiohead.
When Reilly took over Aielli, he gave her a long leash.
“I just thought we kind of had this magical person. Let’s just let him lead this. It won’t last forever, and let’s have fun while we can,” he said.
McNulty characterized Aielli as “Austin’s favorite weirdo uncle”.
“He’s the last of his kind,” McNulty said. “No one (could be) more eloquent on air and still be a hot mess in the booth. He never wore headphones, so he was completely unaware when he looked dead. It was one of the most endearing things about him. Each show was an adventure.
“He brought people together,” Diaz said. After his illness took him off the air, a network of friends and fans rallied together to ensure his needs were met.
“People really, really, really cared about him,” Diaz said. She was part of a group that pledged to bring food to Aielli. Ultimately, “he was nurtured by the community, spiritually and literally,” she said.
“He had a great, full, beautiful life, and a lot of people loved him,” Reilly said.
“It may seem futile to think of a radio show as a medium for art, but I consider what I do an art form,” Aielli told the Statesman in 1991. “It’s still ongoing, nothing is pre-planned. I almost never know what I’m going to start with until I walk through the door.”