Anyone involved with KCSB today would be hard pressed to envision how the station and its people could erupt into ideological conflict, inter-genre musical spite, and all-around fractiousness. It’s just too accommodating a place. But things weren’t always so peaceful, as we’ve seen in this series’ past installments: battle after ugly battle has been fought about its mission, its identity, its composition, its direction, its so on, and its so forth.
Though the 1990s saw these struggles continue to surface, the decade ended with their simmering down for what seems like good. But this peace rose, to get a little metaphorically grand, out of the waves of turmoil that washed from the remains of the ‘80s onto the coast of the ‘90s. As the final decade of the last millennium began, KCSB received national plaudits for its music programming from authorities as well-known as the College Music Journal.
Then as now, the deejays gave a great deal of airtime to tracks not easily heard anywhere else, especially in those comparatively information-light pre-World Wide Web days. Well before rap became hugely popular, fully “gangstafied,” and constantly delivered by countless outlets worldwide, KCSBers were so busy spinning it that grateful labels mailed the station gifts. A set of framed platinum albums by Naughty By Nature, sent by Tommy Boy Records, hangs on one of KCSB’s office walls to this day. These accolades added fuel to yet another heated intra-station discussion about where to go next: Should KCSB become a more classically defined “college” station, sticking primarily to new stuff and indie rock? Or should it take on a broader mandate, encompassing news, public affairs, cultural arts, and the whole of the musical world? Some of the newer programmers insisted that a focus on rock and rock alone was the way to go in the ‘90s. Some older programmers resented the intrusion, fearing the loss of the personal, unconventional shows they’d been refining over the years. A climate of mistrust settled over the station.
Only when KCSB’s various factions met and talked through their grievances did the fog begin to clear, producing by the end of the ‘90s the more conciliatory model that any listener can hear in action even today when they tune in to 91.9. The station could, as it happened, accommodate more or less any programming philosophy a volunteer could bring to it, and it can now make room for all voices without angrying up anyone’s blood. But how did this transformation come about?
Though this question has no cut-and-dried answers, the revitalized culture of student activism that characterized the early ‘90s surely played a part. Movements against 1990’s Persian Gulf War began the renewal, and the reaction to 1992’s Los Angeles riots continued it. KCSB organized clothing and food drives, as well as a caravan to go work in South Central L.A. in the weekend following the riots. Protesting a 1991 attempt to abolish “safe harbor”-the overnight hours when broadcasters are allowed to legally transmit material, such as explicit song lyrics, considered by the FCC to be “indecent” during the daytime-KCSB’s population banded together with 12 other California college stations for the “Day of Decency,” an 18-hour block of programming meant to educate listeners about the dangers of censorship.
KCSB continued to join larger movements in the years following, including the University of California Radio Network and the Grassroots Radio Coalition (GRC), the latter formed in reaction to the many stations that had sold their licenses to the highest bidder and the profit-oriented, professionally staffed models that then spread widely across the medium. The GRC took up the cause of making media access affordable to the average person. Involved with the organization, KCSB championed programming inclusiveness and the volunteer staffing model, without which most community stations, operating as they do on shoestring budgets, couldn’t exist. Even then, warnings about the imminent death of radio became a commonly heard refrain. Collective action to take on issues directly affecting the station led KCSB to realize the importance of what it was doing, forget its internal squabbles, and change its organizational culture accordingly.
The effort of understanding and employing the astounding technological progress of the 1990s also helped unify the station. A 1989 increase in student-provided funding, plus a contract with a cell phone service provider for use of KCSB’s broadcasting tower, allowed the station to ride that electronic wave. In 1990, the CD section of the music library amounted to one-count it, one-18-inch rack of discs. By the turn of the millennium, CDs had become its dominant format by far. Similarly, KCSB bid its rack of tape cartridges adieu in 1995, replacing it with a slick new digital audio system that connected all the studios. It even gained a Web site that year, albeit a relatively featureless one.
It’s often said that those who endure challenges together end up with better relationships, and this seems to be borne out by the case of KCSB in the ‘90s. Whether coming to the aid of those affected by nearby troubles, grappling with new technology, or championing the very cause of community media, the station emerged with a much more relaxed, competent attitude, a poise no longer subject to disruption by deejays irked about what sub-sub-subgenres are either being spun too much or not enough. It turns out that only one aesthetic truly suits KCSB: total eclecticism.