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“ACL TV” Reaches New Limits: A Chat With Terry Lickona About the 50th Anniversary of the Iconic Show

Terry Lickona reflects on the decades of producing Austin's celebrated television show

Terry Lickona Austin City-Limits-Tribeza-by-Weston-Carls-035
Photo by Weston Carls

When we met Terry Lickona, television producer of Austin PBS’s “Austin City Limits since 1978, at his residence in Clarksville, he breezily invited us upstairs to his entertainment room. Along with signed posters of some of his favorite artists that had performed on “ACL TV” across the decades was a gorgeous 1911 Steinway baby grand piano, the original piano used on the original “Austin City Limits” set on the UT campus for the first 36 years of production. When he listed the artists who’d played on that piano — including Ray Charles, Norah Jones, Tom Waits, B.B. King, and Chris Martin — we started to understand how phenomenal Lickona’s career at the show has been thus far. 

“If I have any regrets, it’s that I never did really take up an instrument,” Lickona said as we settled in. “Nobody in my family did, so I wasn’t inspired by an older brother or someone else. I’ve always hung out with musicians, so maybe I’ve been a little intimidated to pick up a guitar. Or maybe that’s just not my skill set.”

Growing up in upstate New York, Lickona was always influenced and inspired by music. After college, he got a job at a local radio station. In his early 20s, he was thrilled to be making a living by playing records and talking into a microphone. However, he wanted to escape the familiarity (and cold winters) of his hometown. After he and a friend road-tripped to Austin one sweltering summer in the 1970s to attend Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, they both decided that the Texas capital city would be their new home. 

Terry Lickona (photo by Weston Carls)

After moving to Austin, Lickona got a job at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR Station, and quickly discovered there was a TV station in the same building, which was located on the UT campus at the time. “Austin City Limits” had recently started as a new PBS television series, and it was unclear if it would last — but Lickona was curious about the intersection of music and TV, so he offered to be an assistant for the show. As fate would have it, when the original producers and director quit suddenly, Lickona boldly asked the station manager if he could work as the show’s producer. With little to lose, the station gave him the job in 1979 during season 4, and Lickona has been the executive producer ever since.  

Makeup preparations ahead of Austin City Limits (photo by Scott Newton)

Needless to say, the show did not fail as many had anticipated. It has become a beloved and hugely successful Austin PBS Original production representing Austin throughout the decades. In February, the show started the year with a live taping of the Black Pumas, a psychedelic soul band based in Austin. Aside from some nods to their past, the show won’t deviate too radically from its traditional format or approach this year. 

“The whole history of ACL has been based on an eclectic approach,” explained Lickona. “It started with Austin music as the foundation, but we’ve mixed it up with a variety of artists and genres — country, blues, jazz, rock, Latin, acoustic, electric. The two criteria are that it has to be good and authentic.” 

Lickona recognizes all of the effort and luck that has made the show’s longevity possible. Most of all, he thinks it’s due to the commitment and passion of the staff, some of whom have been there since day one. 

“A lot of the staff has dedicated their life’s work to doing this when they could have gone on to bigger or different things,” said Lickona. “But they hung with it because they believed in it.” 

Austin City Limits PBS Staff (photo by Scott Newton)

Over the years, the staff has developed a spirit of family and camaraderie that’s been critical to the show’s longstanding success. Along with a love for the show, the ability to build a TV career here in Austin has also lured incredible folks to work on this production. 

“The city of Austin itself is one of our funders of the show,” said Lickona. “They want us to continue to thrive, and the show has become the best window to the world of what Austin represents.” 

Terry Lickona and Willie Nelson (photo courtesy of Terry Lickona)

In the early aughts, when some locals were trying to come up with the name for a new music festival, they approached “Austin City Limits” for the rights to use their name, which was well-known by then and could give the festival instant credibility. 

“If they created a new music festival called ‘Austin City Limits,’ it would make it easier for them to book the talent they wanted and to sell tickets. People would trust it,” explained Lickona. 

The first ACL Festival was held in 2002, and has since become a massive success in its own right. The fest and TV show have formed a synergetic relationship, working together when booking talent and elevating the awareness of ACL both as a show and a festival. 

In 2011, after capacity and campus regulations had become prohibitive, “Austin City Limits” moved production to downtown Austin’s 2nd Street District at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, a full-time music venue and state-of-the-art production facility with a 2,700-seat capacity. This upgrade was made possible thanks to Stratus Properties including a nonprofit piece in their master development plan. Because “Austin City Limits” is a production of the nonprofit Austin PBS, they qualified for the project and were essentially handed a blank check to design their state-of-the-art dream studio. 

Gary Clark Junior preforming at Austin City Limits (photo by Scott Newton)

Then, in 2020, the pandemic took a huge toll on the entire industry. There were doubts that “Austin City Limits” would survive as live tapings had to be completely reimagined. With a limited production crew and heightened safety measures in place, the show’s team continued taping new shows throughout most of the pandemic, albeit without a live audience. Thanks to the staff’s dedication, they made it through the difficult times and emerged more resilient than ever. 

The “Austin City Limits” team recently started live streaming many of their shows and digitized their entire library of edited master programs and raw recordings. While these are exciting nods to what could be in store for the future of the show, Lickona says it is a miracle worth celebrating that they are still around after so many decades of challenges and evolution. 

“It’s a major milestone,” he said. “Whether it’s a TV show, job, marriage, or business, you only have one 50th anniversary, so you must make the most of it. We’re looking ahead to the future and how we can build on this milestone year and maybe reimagine ‘ACL.’”

Terry Lickona (photo by Weston Carls)

Oct. 17, 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of Willie Nelson stepping onto the original stage to tape the pilot episode of “Austin City Limits,” as one of the first Original Productions for Austin PBS. The celebrations will include special events, episode premieres, exclusive merch collaborations, and more, ending with a huge party in early 2025. Here’s to another 50 years of incredible memories and music.