My research into KCSB’s past has revealed many minor neat things about the station, all owing, in large part, to one major neat thing: its format. But wait, listeners might interrupt, isn’t KCSB a format-less station? Doesn’t it offer every kind of sound broadcastable over a 620-watt signal, without constraints? (Without constraints not imposed by the FCC, anyway.) Isn’t “anything goes” pretty much the extent of the formatting policy around KCSB’s studios? The answer: Precisely.
KCSB is one of America’s few remaining “freeform” radio stations. Though it technically qualifies as one, freeform counts as a format in much the same way as a card reading “This cabinet to be kept empty” counts as an item in that cabinet. It’s a format that cuts off all additional formatting, leaving the entire business of constructing content up to the individual DJ. While a great many freeform community and college broadcasters thrived in the 1960s and 70s, most have, in the ensuing decades, been dismantled, sold off, or smothered by more conventional sensibilities. Other notable freeform survivors include Portland, Oregon’s KBOO; Seattle, Washington’s KEXP; and East Orange, New Jersey’s WFMU.
Freeform, at least theoretically, allows not just for the airing of any musical perspective-and longtime KCSB fans will have heard most of them-but all perspectives personal, philosophical, religious, and political as well. My listening reveals that most freeform stations tend to register just the teensiest bit to the left on the U.S. political spectrum. But even as a political moderate, I’ve always felt at home at KCSB, and I wouldn’t be shocked to tune in to it and hear someone expressing a non-left perspective.
Still, many are startled upon learning that, in the late 1980s, KCSB’s staff roster included a certain Sean Hannity, widely known today as the host of national radio’s The Sean Hannity Show, Fox News’s Hannity and Hannity’s America as well as the author of books like Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism. Many statements can be made about the man’s political inclination, but being anywhere the near the left side of the U.S. political spectrum is most definitely not one of them.
And yet, in 1989, the then-28-year-old Hannity not only served as KCSB’s interim production director but had his very own time slot on the programming schedule. Though not a UCSB student, he managed to get involved with the station while working locally as a building contractor. Back in those days, he possessed, by his own admission, none of his current on-air slickness: “I wasn’t good at it,” he once admitted of his time at KCSB, during an interview on CBS’s The Early Show. “I was terrible.” And even though he only logged 40 total hours in the station’s control room, that was enough time to do what pundits, even rookie ones, do best: Stir up a little controversy.
Hannity aired a couple of conversations with a guest named Gene Antonio, author of the book The AIDS Coverup: The Real and Alarming Facts About AIDS, whose claims included that the disease in question was transmissible by close-proximity sneezes and that the gay community was “a subculture of people engaged in deviant, twisted acts.” What records remain of the story go on to describe another KCSB programmer calling in to the studio to argue against Antonio’s views, the result being an ugly on-air squabble. Hannity, as quoted in the May 25, 1989 issue of UCSB’s Daily Nexus, claimed that “anyone listening to this show that believes homosexuality is a normal lifestyle has been brainwashed. It’s very dangerous if we start accepting lower and lower forms of behavior as normal.”
Dismissed from KCSB afterward, Hannity would go on to recall the incident, in his signature embattled style, in Let Freedom Ring. “I was too conservative, the higher-ups said, and they didn’t like the comments one guest made on the show,” he writes. “The left-wing management had zero tolerance for conservative points of view. And I was promptly fired.” When the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to defend his right to free speech, the station offered him his show back, but it was not to be. “Once my voice was silenced, my destiny was set,” he continues, taking a turn for the heroic. “Do or die, I’d make my career in radio.”
This story reads quite differently to different people: Was a noble, lone voice quashed by the intolerant left-wing community media establishment, or did a broadcaster of homophobic bigotry get deservedly weeded out? Yet two conclusions seem certain. First, you really can find most anything you want to listen to-and, equally, most anything you don’t want to listen to-on freeform radio. Second, if we’re to extrapolate from this data point, a stint at KCSB can indeed provide preparation for success in broadcasting. It might seem an unlikely launch pad for a career in nationally-syndicated conservative punditry, but that’s only one of the countless possible outcomes when you let the DJs go with their guts.