The Story of KNBT-FM Radio

The history of Gruene Hall was documented in a two part series that concluded last month. Those that have followed the story know that things really came together when our local radio station, KNBT 92.1 FM, decided to change their format from mainstream country to Americana. Have you ever wondered how this change happened and why? Well, you’re in luck. A few weeks ago I sat down with Mattson Rainer, Program Director of KNBT, and got the full story on when, why and how it happened. “I moved here in 1993,” explained Mattson, “and we were playing mainstream country at the time. There were already several stations in San Antonio and Austin playing the same thing. Since you could pick up those stations here in town, I started thinking about shifting us to a more southern rock format. Maybe Marshall Tucker Band’s song “Can’t You See” would fit next to a Travis Tritt song.” Mattson knew they needed to do something different, something that might make KNBT stand out from all the other stations.

Gavin Magazine was a weekly publication and Mattson checked the country charts every week because that’s what they were playing. “One day in 1995, I flipped the page and there was this Americana chart,” he recalled. “When I looked at that chart, I saw Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and I thought, this could be something that might work here. When you are the 9th station on the dial in a small market playing the same music, it was tough getting the record companies to pay attention to you. They were focused on the bigger markets. I knew I wanted to be involved in the music business and I also wanted to have fun with it. I thought if we started the Americana thing, maybe we could get CD’s to give away, maybe get artists to stop by and do interviews.”

Another event took place that would further cement Mattson’s desire to change the format. “During this time, there weren’t many music venues in town, just Landa Station and Gruene Hall. So I went to Gruene Hall to see Robert Earl Keen. I recall everybody singing the words to his songs. I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead and with them it was more than just the music, it was the scene. You knew the words to the songs and the band had a connection with the fans.” He realized instantly that he could relate to this scene happening right before his eyes at Gruene Hall. Keen would start a song and the crowd would sing along to every word. “I thought to myself, these people love music, and I don’t know about ratings and charts, but I know they love this guy. This is exactly the way I was with my bands when I was growing up. So I thought, Keen plays here twice a year, I wonder if his fans might want to hear ‘The Road Goes On Forever’ more often than that. That experience at Gruene Hall gave me the confidence that there was an audience for this music.”

Mattson was a music lover first and a radio station guy second, so he never understood why the country stations weren’t playing Willie Nelson. “I just couldn’t understand it. That would be like a New York classic rock station not playing the Rolling Stones.” So Rainer started working on a playlist, one that included Nelson, Keen, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steve Earle. He contacted Gavin Magazine and got added as a reporting station. Almost immediately he started getting CD’s to give away on the air and Americana artists were willing to do interviews on the station. Rather than make the change instantly, he decided to start a show on Saturday nights and call it Crossroads Americana. It was where Americana met the other types of music. He picked the name because Crossroads Americana sounded better than Americana Crossroads. The new show was meant to test the water, to see if anyone would listen.

On Saturday night, March 15, 1996 to be exact, Crossroads Americana made its New Braunfels debut. There weren’t a lot of sponsors on Saturday night so it was the perfect timeslot to try out a new show. He started at 7pm and the first song he played was Change It by Stevie Ray Vaughan, then it was Buck Naked by Terry Allen, then Robert Earl and Guy Clark. After that he was off and running. About a week later, he received a letter from a local resident named Al Barlow. It was a long letter but basically it said, “If you keep playing this music, I’ll tell all my friends to listen.” In a very short time, classic country music started becoming more pop country. “In my opinion, pop country is just bad pop music with a fiddle,” explained Rainer. Soon he was adding Americana tunes to his afternoon shift on the air. Guy Clark songs were now being played next to Tim McGraw. As Mattson likes to say, “Mainstream country weeded itself out and the Americana music thrived.” Finally they had to ask themselves, who are we? The answer was, we’re an Americana station in New Braunfels, Texas.

His first three on-air interviews once he made the switch were Fred Eaglesmith, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson. It was then he knew the station had found its music. It was the team he wanted to play for. It felt good. On June 8, 1997 they did their first event at Gruene Hall. It was called the KNBT Birthday Bash to celebrate their one year anniversary of playing Americana music. A year later, they changed the name to the Americana Music Jam and started donating the proceeds to local charities. Finally, the new Texas acts had a place to play and a radio station that would play their music. Mattson summed it all up with a simple fact, “It was a very fortunate thing that the music I liked to play on KNBT was the same music that Pat Molak liked to book at Gruene Hall.”

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