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ACL is the longest-running music program in television history, the only television show to have been awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts, and was recently recognized by Time magazine as one of the 10 most influential music programs of all time. It’s a show that’s presented a huge variety of musical styles and genres, hosting everyone from Willie Nelson to BB King to Foo Fighters and a show that’s been enshrined as a Rock & Roll Landmark in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
But no one knew it would be any of those things back in 1974. That was the year KLRU (then KLRN) program director Bill Arhos, producer Paul Bosner and director Bruce Scafe hatched the idea in response to PBS’s call for original programming from its member stations. Scafe had already directed the music show The Session for WSIU in Carbondale, Illinois, while Bosner was a dedicated fan of the so-called cosmic cowboy scene in Austin. After the latter turned Arhos on to Jan Reid’s book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, which covered the progressive country scene, the trio came up with the idea of a TV program to showcase Austin’s diverse mix of country, blues, folk and psychedelia. Thus Austin City Limits (title courtesy of Bosner, who saw the sign every week when he commuted from Dallas to Austin) was born.
The pilot was shot on October 17, 1974, and starred Willie Nelson, who was not yet the iconographic American music figure he would become. (B.W. Stevenson was actually taped the night before, but the recording was deemed unusable.) The deliberate lack of production slickness and attention to audio detail pleased even the notoriously TV-shy Nelson, and Arhos pitched the pilot to PBS as part of its 1975 pledge drive. The show’s success as a fundraiser was enough for Arhos to get ACL greenlighted as a series, and the odyssey began.