Every Sunday when J. Paul Slavens arrives at KERA headquarters in Dallas, the facility is largely dormant. He walks upstairs and through a dark hallway into a studio, where he turns on the lights and readies the soundboard. This particular evening, rain is backing up traffic on highways outside; the studio, however, provides a serene reprieve.
Slavens puts on headphones and loosens his vocal cords with a few animated yells before leaning into the microphone.
"Sunday night," he says, "time for The Paul Slavens Show."
Slavens is a storied character in North Texas. For years, he's been a familiar voice to those who tune into KXT-FM (91.7) in the weekend's waning hours. His show, which runs 8 to 10 p.m., hit the airwaves in 2009, and before that he held the same time slot on KERA-FM (90.1) as the voice behind 90.1 at Night.
Locals also know Slavens from his numerous bands, most notably jazz-rock group Ten Hands, which rose to popularity during Deep Ellum's live music heyday in the 1990s. For more than a decade, he's hosted a weekly gig at various venues (currently Dan's Silver Leaf in Denton) where he makes up songs on the spot based on topics suggested by the audience.
Slavens is so interwoven with the music community in D-FW, you'd think he's lived here all his life. But Slavens' story begins amid the corn and soybean fields in the Midwest, near where the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers meet.
Farm road to Denton
J. Paul Slavens was born on May 20, 1962, in Sioux City, Iowa, the son of a large-animal-veterinarian father and an artist mother. Wondering about his first name? He doesn't have one.
"My dad is J. Phil and my son is J. August," Slavens says. It's now a tradition, though he admits he's not sure how it began.
The farm in Nebraska where Slavens and his four siblings grew up was "like a movie," he says, with expansive pastures, a lush garden and big red barn. Some members of his family still live there.
Music was always important in the Slavens household. Even before he was old enough to play, his mother had a piano teacher come to their home on Saturdays. Each kid rotated between watching cartoons and taking a turn at the ivories. When Slavens' older sister stopped taking lessons, his mother contemplated canceling them altogether. But at 9 years old, Slavens wouldn't have it; he wanted his chance at musical greatness.
"I wanted to be a great composer," he says, like Chopin or Beethoven.
Slavens' passion for music would carry him through high school, where he joined the choir and band, and Morningside College in Sioux City, where he earned a degree in piano performance. While in college, he was also the piano accompanist to the school's trombone ensemble, which in 1983 traveled to North Texas State University (now UNT) in Denton for a convention. Slavens almost immediately fell in love.
"I saw Denton and heard some kids playing jazz and saw everything that was going on," he says. "I was like, 'Man, I gotta go there!'"
A year later, Slavens packed his Nissan pickup and headed south. He never looked back.
Onto the airwaves
Radio has been a fixture throughout Slavens' life. Growing up, he listened to classical stations and ones with show tunes. Broadcasts out of Chicago infiltrated the Midwest with soul music, and '70s pop dominated the dial.
So when Slavens joined a comedy troupe called Four Day Weekend in Fort Worth -- this was after Ten Hands had run its course -- he created a show that embodied the spirit of radio. The Texclectic Radio Hour and a Half was a stage production modeled after a radio show, which Slavens then hoped to edit into a segment for KERA.
The Texclectic Radio Hour and a Half never got picked up, but its creator did. In 2004, Slavens was hired to produce his own music show on Sunday nights, which he fondly calls "the worst slot in radio." Even after moving to KXT in 2009, Slavens competes with prime time football games, awards shows and HBO premieres. But he wouldn't have it any other way.
The Paul Slavens Show has cultivated a devout group of followers because the DJ crowd-sources most of the music by accepting suggestions on his blog. That makes for two hours of diverse jams with which Slavens hopes to derail fans' preconceived notions about what they like.
"A lot of other shows are trying to please a demographic all the time," he says. "What I want is a wider demographic and people who are willing to sit through something that they don't necessarily understand or like. It opens up the ears, it opens up the mind."
Throughout his years in radio, Slavens has watched the medium evolve to include streaming and satellite formats. He's seen AM and FM adapt.
While he doesn't make much of changes to bigger stations like the now-defunct Edge and KVIL -- "You shouldn't be surprised what the bottom line on a commercial radio station is," he says -- Slavens hopes radio's next evolution gets back to serving communities where the signals are based.
In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, which made more frequencies available for low-power FM radio stations. In Fort Worth, "The Pirate" KFTW (97.5) plays strictly music and programming from D-FW on its low-power FM frequency. Several other stations are in development locally, including KKAD-FM (95.7) in Dallas and KUZU-FM (92.9) in Denton, which will reach only a couple of miles beyond where they're located.
Slavens is on the board of directors for KUZU and says the goal is to make the station a reflection of Denton -- anyone who lives in the city can have a show. He hopes "DIY radio" becomes the next movement because it upholds a longstanding tradition of bringing communities together.
"The fact that physically and scientifically, you can pick up a radio and transmit it without wires to a whole bunch of people and give them a consistent experience or message, that's why it's very important radio doesn't stop," he says.
"There's something magical about knowing that other people are listening to the same thing you are."