From his studio above El Milagro, Jeff Heyen streams Texas music to listeners around the world on TABC Radio. Photo by Phil Houseal
by Phil Houseal
Last week I discovered Pickup Truck, Texas.
It’s a place you won’t find on any map, has no sound ordinance, and you can’t go there.
But it does come to you. It’s a two-hour Internet radio show unpretentiously performed by Maggie Montgomery (“we’re kinda laid back”) and unexpectedly produced by Jeff Heyen (“I didn’t plan on becoming a radio station owner”).
The Internet can make every writer an author, every seller a retailer, and every DJ a programmer. Heyen, who had experience working on terrestrial radio, decided to start up his own online broadcast rather modestly–inside his RV.
“It was right here in the Hill Country RV Park next to the police station,” he said of his very first broadcast location. “We didn’t have a kitchen table, because I had the radio equipment covering the table, benches, and counters. It was the only spot in the RV to do it.”
That was three years ago. He is now more comfortably ensconced upstairs at El Milagro on Main Street. There, he welcomes a daily stream of musicians, talkers, and lookers-on who are harnessing the accessibility of the Internet to get their content out to an eager audience on shows such as Pickup Truck, Texas.
What is that audience–which tunes in from such outposts as Australia, the Philippines, Italy, and Kerrville–seeking?
“It’s Hill Country music; it’s Texas music,” said Montgomery, who named her show after the song she wrote–“Pickup Truck, Texas”–that appeared on Gary P. Nunn’s greatest hits album. “Fredericksburg has become such a mecca for live music. We want people when they hear ‘Fredericksburg’ to think, let’s go hear live music.”
Heyen has the same mission, but from the other side of the microphone.
“One of the neat things is young people who don’t get any chance to get on the air, I put them on the radio,” he said. “I like doing that for local musicians and our venues. I’m doing my best to help keep this music scene alive.”
His mission almost experienced musicus interruptus in September. It seems the licensing companies don’t appreciate Internet radio stations sending out recordings without compensating them. Whichever side you take in that discussion, the bottom line is the bottom line. As TABC Radio’s daily listenership started growing beyond several thousand, the streaming company wanted more money.
“On September first they sent me a message to either switch to our streaming company or we’re not covering your license anymore,” he said. So he had to come up with $1700 “cash money” in 30 days. That’s when he found out who his true friends were.
“Local listeners and venue owners donated when they heard about it,” he said. “Chris Zielinski of Silver Creek called me and said, how much do you need? I told him and he said, come over and the check will be waiting.”
The whole money thing is not a driver for Heyen. When I asked him how he got paid, there was a moment of silence. Then he said, “I go out and work other jobs.”
When I observed that might not be a very sound business model, he didn’t disagree.
“But it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I would love it if it ever made money, then I could quit trimming trees and carpentry. I started it as a fun little hobby, but it grew so quickly as people started listening.”
He doesn’t solicit sponsors or even run ads. Yet he is on the stream 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. He fills that airtime with recorded Texas music, daily live shows hosted by local musicians, and input from pretty much anyone who drops in.
“Yes, we have an open door policy,” he said. “While a live show is on, we want people to come up and walk in. You can sit and listen, get something to drink downstairs, order some food. We can bring more chairs in, and anybody who wants to we’ll put ‘em on the air.”
Meanwhile, back in Pickup Truck, Texas, Montgomery picks a little, talks a little, and spins her philosophy. She is not opposed to picking up sponsors, but that is not her focus.
“My mission is to help local musicians, to promote and showcase them,” she said. “These people are top notch talent and we don’t want them to move to Nashville or New York to try and make it.”
She laughed, then added, “Until NPR wants to pick us up, we’re doing the best we can, hanging in there, and having a lot of fun.”