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Gap Fire: Scenes from the End of the World

How KCSB Crew Used Car Cigarette Lighter to Stay on Air When Lights Went Out


Bryan Brown, noted cue-ball head and chief engineer of community radio station KCSB-FM, was about to uncork a nice pinot noir at his home in San Roque at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 1, when everything went black.

I was that close to opening a bottle of wine,” he said yesterday, holding thumb and pointer finger a quarter-inch apart, as we talked near the station’s studios on the UCSB campus. “Then the lights went out and I knew I better call in to the station. When I did, I had a message that we were off the air.”

Abandoning his civilized evening at home, Brown jumped in the car and headed back to campus, where a platoon of students, volunteers, and staff members had showed up at KCSB’s venerable digs, located in the very shadow of Thomas Storke’s greatest erection.

The crisis crew scrambled throughout the night to restore the station’s signal at 91.9 on the FM dial, to keep it on the air, and to pre-empt regular programming, the better to serve as a community clearinghouse and sounding board for information about the blackout and the Gap Fire, on a night when real-time information was hard to come by.

The bootstrap operation was not only a tribute to the caring and resourcefulness of the folks whose commitment keeps the station going 24/7, but also a case study of how radio, that most blue collar of media, always seems to rise to the occasion. When a local emergency goes down, local radio is a beacon of reliable durability after hairsprayed TV and cable stars fade to black and the shiny toy of the Internet shuts down.

Our immediate reaction was that we needed to get crucial information out,” Brown recalled. “This is the fun part.”

Within minutes of falling silent, KCSB was back up, using just a microphone, a mixer, and a laptop, all powered by a small Uninterrupted Power Supply (or what Brown calls “UPS,” in his rapid-fire vocabulary of amps and acronyms, clearly designed to baffle English majors). The UPS, however, carried only enough power to keep the station going for about an hour.

Working against the clock, Brown and posse first needed to determine whether the power problem was in the studio itself, or more ominously, in its transmitter site on Broadcast Peak, not far from where the fire rages. While volunteers organized a mini cell-phone bank to call people and businesses around the county, in an effort to map the perimeter where power was out, the on-air talent invited listeners to call in with reports about what was happening in their neighborhoods. It soon became clear that the outage was limited to the South Coast, meaning the transmitter was still working and safe.

Without a standby generator at Storke, the KCSB strike force next planned to pull power from someone’s car battery, through an elaborate linkage of extension cords running from the studio to the auto’s cigarette lighter. Outgoing general manager Josh Redmond dashed off to get his van, taking a quick detour to fill up on gas so he could run the engine and the station for hours.

Then the cavalry arrived, in the form of a Verizon crew, which showed up with its own generator in order to power the cell-phone antenna that Verizon houses in Storke Tower. Two other cell companies also have antennae there. When the cable crew couldn’t manage to get into their tightly secured equipment locker, Brown helpfully scared up a university facilities worker, who got them in.

In return, the cell crew let KCSB hook into their powerful generator, keeping them on the air, and broadcasting up-to-date information, all night, to the benefit of thousands of South Coast residents sitting in the dark.

(Full disclosure: the Daily Nexus, where I work, has a revenue-sharing arrangement with KCSB, for the fees paid by cell phone companies to house antennae in Storke Tower. In partnership, KCSB and the Nexus use that money for repairs and maintenance to the Storke Plaza buildings where both our operations are housed.)

Upper State Bazaar: Just before the power went out again on Wednesday night, the scene at Long’s Drug Store on Upper State Street was quite un-Santa Barbara-like, as hordes of shoppers jammed in and jostled to grab supplies for what is shaping up as an uncertain period of uncertain power.

With store lights already flickering, people packed the battery aisle, grabbing packs of AAs, Cs, and 9-volts as fast as a harried clerk in a green polo shirt could carry cartons out of the back, tear them open, and restock the shelf. Having handed my trusty yellow maintenance flashlight to an unprepared family member the night before (I name no names), I curled my lip at the few, funky lights still left on the shelf. I selected a hefty Magna-Lite suitable for hitting a curve ball, but put it back when I saw the hoarders had already bought out the store’s supply of D batteries. Among a small selection of remaining odd-sized lights that looked like a garage sale, I finally chose a hand-sized Duracell model with “Truebeam Optics” and “Daylite Technology,” whatever that is.

With the overhead fluorescents blinking anew, I headed to the long lines at the check-out counter, where a whole Turkish bazaar thing was unfolding. One lady was laden with two boxed, portable, battery-powered TVs; two others energetically discussed the relative smoothness of two brands of vodka, each of them holding a quart of their favorite to get them through the night; a tattoo-festooned fellow shouted to his lady friend in the other line:

You got cards for poker?”

Yeah, I got cards.”

You got beer?”

Yeah, I got beer.”

You got enough?”

Clutching my own survival kit of flashlight, AAAs, a six-pack of Corona Lites, and a fresh supply of Pepcid, I made it through the line and out the door, just as Long’s, and the rest of the neighborhood, returned again to darkness, frustrating the plans of those still on line for purchases to make more comfortable their evening of cocooning and canoodling.

People’s Politics: Politicians walk a fine line during times of natural disaster, between looking concerned and compassionate when they show up at the scene, and coming off as blatantly opportunistic by seeming to use tragedy as a stage set for their own ambitions.

So far, among our local worthies, Assemblymember Pedro Nava seems to be walking that line most effectively. Since the fire started, Nava has issued a flurry of statements, including several updates for constituents on the fire conditions and available resources, plus an announcement of legislation to provide state disaster relief, while also touring emergency shelters and the fire command center.

Nava may be the first politician in history to put out a disaster update that actually contains useful, practical information, as his solid releases have been packed with numbers, resource contacts, and up-to-date factual data about the fire.

His only slip came Tuesday night, when his update noted, “There are two major power lines in the area of the fire. However, if they go down, power can be rerouted to alternate lines.”

I had just finished reading that at around 7:29, when the lights went out.

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