Houston’s 30-year-old late-night LGBTQ radio show goes off the air.
By Andrew Edmonson
It’s the end of an era for LGBTQ radio in Houston. After a glorious, freewheeling three-decade run, After Hours—the local late-night queer institution—will celebrate a bittersweet milestone. On September 9, which marks its 30th anniversary, the show will sign off the air for the last time.
With its sassy tag line, “Queer Radio with Attitude,” After Hours won a devoted following with its queer variety-show format—a unique mix of music, news, chat, risqué antics, gossip, and above all, activism. Beginning in 1987, the program reigned supreme on the airwaves of KPFT 90.1, Houston’s left-leaning Pacifica outlet, in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
It entertained club-goers tuning in for the latest dance mixes on their way home from the bars. It educated its fans about the LGBTQ community’s many nonprofit and social organizations. And it reached out with special compassion to isolated, closeted listeners who were not yet ready to come out, but wanted to vicariously experience the panoply of queer life in Houston.
Over the years, the program’s hosts threw their studio doors open to welcome many groups—ranging from Hatch Youth to the proponents of Pagan Pride, from denizens of the International Mr. Leather contest to titleholders from the Empire of the Royal Sovereign and Imperial Court of the Single Star. Along the way, After Hours blazed a trail by frankly discussing HIV and safer sex on the radio at the height of the AIDS crisis, back when such candor was considered controversial.
It also provided a media platform for transgender Houstonians 20 years before the mainstream media began to take note of their movement. Trans activists Sarah DePalma, Vanessa Edwards Foster, and Monica Roberts all served as cohosts of the broadcast from the mid-1990s to 2001. “Jimmy Carper on his After Hours show was practicing intersectionality and inclusion during a time when it wasn’t cool in some quarters of this community to do and practice that value,” Roberts wrote on her blog, TransGriot, in 2014.
On July 8, when executive producer and host Chris Arasin announced the end of the show, it provoked an emotional outpouring of responses on Facebook. “After Hours was the voice I heard through the radio when I was just trying to understand myself at 16,” posted Tim Bratcher, a Conroe native who now lives in Dallas. “In a world where gays weren’t talked about and the Internet did not yet exist, it was the voice in the darkness for me when I was a child. It was my very own ‘It Gets Better’ every Saturday night. And I am thrilled that it has persisted so long.”
For noted LGBTQ historian JD Doyle, the show had a profound impact. “I got my start by Jimmy Carper inviting me on the show to play queer music back in late 1999. It was a major turning point in my life, for which I’m ever grateful. For so, so many, this show was a lifeline.” His experience on After Hours ultimately led to the creation of his acclaimed website, Queer Music Heritage, a nationally respected resource for LGBTQ history and culture.
After Hours had its two-hour debut at 2 a.m. on Sunday, September 6, 1987—initially on a two-month trial basis.
“I thought the show would last about 15 minutes,” Johnston adds. “I was terrified. But I always thought it would be a big deal as an openly gay man doing a radio show in the middle of the night.”
Johnston, who served as executive producer and host of the show for its first four years, was an unlikely trailblazer. At that time, he was employed as a dispatcher by the Houston Police Department and was deep in the closet. But his newfound radio gig (and blunt outspokenness on the air) quickly earned him notoriety.
“Since I was on a 100,000-watt stereo radio station screaming ‘I’m here and queer,’ it was sort of hard to stay in the closet,” he explained to the Houston Voice in a 1994 profile. After coming out, he went on to be elected president of the Houston Police Support Personnel Union, which he led for several years.
From the start, he was wise enough to recruit a cadre of dedicated volunteers for the show. Longtime volunteer Judy Reeves, a moving force behind the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum, still saddles up on Saturday nights at midnight to welcome guests and continue the three-decade party that she has helped to host.
At the heart of the enterprise was beloved community volunteer Jimmy Carper, who served for 23 years as executive producer and host after Johnston left the show in 1991. Named male grand marshal of Houston’s Pride parade in 1997, Carper was a tireless and exuberant champion of LGBTQ rights, thriving in the face of HIV with resilience, grit, and campy gay humor that endeared him to his listeners. He hosted the show until several weeks before his death in 2014.
Carper nurtured other talent such as current executive producer Chris Arasin, who began listening to the program as a teen in the Houston suburbs. Arasin later joined After Hours as a production assistant, and has helmed the show for the last three years, working with a dedicated team that includes Wes Lavergne, Papa Merlyn, Jose Galvan, and Mark Sauer. Over the last three decades, Arasin calculates that the all-volunteer team has programmed and hosted 1,500 episodes ranging in length from two to three hours each.
It was Arasin, in consultation with his team of volunteers, who decided to bring the show to its conclusion. “The airwaves are a precious resource, and even more so on a community radio station where the funding comes from listeners instead of corporate advertisers,” he observed in a Facebook post. “At the end of [each] show, I have a long drive home and think about the show we just put on and I wonder, more often than not, did we put on a program that was worthy of the gift of the airwaves?
“We have had a lot of shows lately that really have been lacking in quality. We have noticed, and some of the listeners have noticed as well,” Arasin added. “For the past year, we have asked the listeners for suggestions for programs and solicited new voices to come on the show, all to no avail. So we decided it was time to step aside and let someone else get the opportunity to speak to whatever community they are a part of, and [give them] a chance to thrive.”
Arasin and his team are looking at options for extending the After Hours brand after its final broadcast show on September 9 by promoting music on its Facebook page and possibly producing a podcast. “It is understandable for people to feel they must move on,” observed Deborah Moncrief Bell, a veteran lesbian activist who served for many years as cohost of KPFT’s other LGBTQ program, Queer Voices. “I am sure After Hours will be missed, leaving a vacuum—but perhaps it will open doors to something else. It is a different world than it was 30 years ago. We aren’t done by any means. Just think of the hundreds of people who have sat at those mics through the years—the music, all the volunteers (both on-air and behind the scenes), and the laughter.” •
This article drew significantly on the research done by LGBTQ historian JD Doyle and the website houstonlgbthistory.org, which he curates.
This article appears in the September 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.