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A Brief History of KCSB, Part V: The Controversial ‘80s


Those keeping score at home will recall that KCSB started out as an AM station, albeit one transmitted only by the UCSB campus’s electrical current. But after the early 1960s, the station’s staff seemed to grow increasingly disinterested in broadcasting with trusty old lo-fi amplitude modulation in favor of the relatively new, clear-as-a-bell frequency modulation. By the 1980s, KCSB’s AM capacity had gone unused for over 15 years.

But eventually, given the surfeit of hopefuls vying for the rare open spots on KCSB’s schedule, it presented itself the solution to a problem: Why not use the AM broadcast as a training station where the freshest of the freshly-minted DJs could loose their wildest impulses, thus hastening their progress toward the relatively (but not excessively) refined on-air manner the FM audience had come to enjoy?

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Hence the creation of KCSB-AM, KCSB’s very own combination of proving ground and wild West. Though now known as KJUC, the AM operation serves much the same function today as it did when turned on in 1980, putting would-be KCSBers through their paces before matriculation to the FM lineup. Offering rock-dominated programming days, KCSB-AM initially operated under the mandate of providing airtime primarily to student broadcasters. Since it could only be heard in the UCSB dorms the student-only rule made sense, but when the AM station made a deal with a local cable provider to distribute the impulses and experiments of these fledgling radio personalities through Santa Barbara’s television sets, it loosened a bit.

Grumbles started rising once again in the mid-80s about whether KCSB was fulfilling its obligation to students, whether it was fulfilling its obligation to the community, or whether it has any sort of obligation to either students or the community in the first place. A hail of editorials and snarky cartoons took jabs at the increasingly non-student-oriented schedule, nearly 70 percent of whose programs were produced by community members in 1986. An opposing salvo responded. Strong words flew back and forth, but the issue remained fundamentally unsettlable.

Complicating matters was the station’s new dual-management system, in place through the entire decade. Whereas KCSB had operated before, and operates today, under an elected student general manager, its org chart of the 80s assigned that position to a full-time staff member-a “grown-up,” in the words of a few student DJs of the time-above an elected student associate manager. This too caused a bit of a fuss in the opinion pages, and even more confusion about what KCSB was supposed to be. Listeners in 2009 no doubt recognize that the station has developed a time-tested, organic, semi-uncontrollable personality of its own, shaped by countless hundreds of mouths at the mic and hands at the mixing board; but hand-wringing about station identity appears to have once loomed as large at KCSB as hand-wringing about national identity does at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

A certain jolt may have excited the participants in these conversations, though, and a quite literal one at that. At precisely 1:20 a.m. on September 10, 1983, KCSB implemented its third and most recent power increase. Having for 13 years put out a directional 180-watt signal, the station more than tripled its wattage to 620. Thus with loudness and clarity did KCSB begin to reach the entire tri-county area. Thus also did an even closer eye-or rather, ear-concentrate on what, exactly, the newly boosted signal was carrying. If questions about the value of content arose when KCSB could barely reach Carpinteria, they were asked with no less import when anything a fresh-out-of-AM programmer said or spun could be heard beyond San Luis Obispo.

One scary case in point occurred in 1987, when a DJ happened to play the Pork Dukes’ “Makin’ Bacon”, a song as subtle and genteel as it sounds. While it’s anyone’s guess how some particularly sensitive listener out there managed to pick it out from under the distorted layers of noise and cartoonish Brit-punk accents, the official warning with which the Federal Communications Commission slapped KCSB cited “explicit language used to describe oral and anal intercourse,” which equals “broadcast indecency.” Evidently worked up enough to write a letter about he had heard, that single listener complained to the Tipper Gore-founded Parents Musical Resource Center, which forwarded it all the way to the top of censorship’s food chain. Though the punishment levied on KCSB ultimately amounted to nothing more than a letter of warning and reprimand, the incident shook up college and community broadcasters across the country, raising the kind of complicated, thorny issues about hindrance of the press, unequal treatment of the media, and our very freedom of speech that probably deserve a column or two of their own.

It’s a tad surprising to see such progress concurrent with such controversy; normally, one might expect internal and external fractiousness and federal-level legal trouble to hinder any enterprise’s growth. But that’s not, apparently, how it works at KCSB’s growth, and perhaps that suits a station that has always displayed an unusually stubborn will to keep on keeping on, no matter who’s griping.

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