Phil LeVasseur is interested in many things, but none seem to get him quite as fascinated as what he calls “heart awakenings.” It’s his own term, he explained to me when I sat in with him in the KCSB studio, but one that describes an immediately recognizable phenomenon. “Your heart just speaks to you at a certain point,” he said. Heart awakenings tend to precede one’s major shifts in perspective, and thus one’s major changes in life.
LeVasseur’s guests tend to have undergone heart awakenings at some time in their lives. His radio show, Art of Peace, is the product of one of his own.
Christopher Lowman had a heart awakening. “Here he was, this East Coast guy, wealthy, educated, but he felt like he wasn’t making a difference,” said LeVasseur. “So he studied these Japanese healing techniques to cure the effects of trauma, then went to Rwanda and started working on the people who had been traumatized by war. He formed this whole group, Moving Towards Peace. Chris isn’t a loud guy; at first, he didn’t want to take a stand. But he was helping.”
B. Allan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk and current lecturer on Buddhism and the mind, also had a heart awakening. “Here’s a guy, a PhD, more brilliant than ten of us put together,” as LeVasseur described him, “and he wanted to become a Buddhist monk! He researches what’s called contemplative science—meditation—which teaches people to be still. You listen to him speak, and you can’t help but settle down and be calm. He doesn’t even necessarily talk about Buddhism as a religion now; he thinks of it more like Western psychology.”
The initially formidable-sounding General Leopard would seem an even less likely candidate for a heart awakening. Now known as Christian Bethelson, he was once a military general in Liberia, “like the Blood Diamond general,” LeVasseur explained. “He was doing these terrible tings. He was on the verge of killing himself. He was an Ethiopian presidential bodyguard during the coup, where he was tortured. But he came upon a guy from the Everyday Gandhis. They’re a group that do this thing they call ‘dreaming together’ for days before they decide what they’re going to do or what they need to help the world, and he joined them.”
LeVasseur, who has interviewed all three of these people on KCSB, gives the impression of a man who’s made many changes in his own life. Aside from his radio work, he mentioned stints as a sushi chef, an electronics salesman, and much more besides. Employed in a stereo shop in the early 1990s, he discovered he could use their selection of “killer” Nakamichi tape decks to record KCSB’s blues shows, especially Greg Drust’s now-legendary Back at the Chicken Shack. Getting curious as he listened, he simply stopped by the station one day and ran into its general manager. “I was like, ‘Sign me up!’”
After learning the ropes, he found himself in a position to sub for some of his favorite KCSB DJs, including Drust himself. (“At some point, he’d moved on to polka, which he knew more about than blues, and he knew more about blues than blues artists do,” LeVasseur said. “I was definitely glad he made a tape in advance for me to play.”) He began his own environmentally-focused public affairs show in 1994, but after three years had to put it on hiatus to make room for everything else in his life, including a growing son and a new full-time job.
But current events eventually conspired to draw him back into the broadcasting fold. “The Bush era started, and I just became deeply confused,” he said. “I stopped listening to the radio, I stopped watching TV, and I stopped reading papers for a long stretch. I started joining peace walks. I got to a place where I was ready to say something.” The result was, at its core, the same Art of Peace that airs today.
LeVasseur allows his program a wide mandate, but it often returns to a suite of favorite subjects: activism, the environment, events in the community, nuclear disarmament, and religious perspectives from traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. He’s spent this summer re-airing interviews from his early years in radio, which even back then covered such now-fashionable topics as design principles for sustainable community. “And now everyone’s talking about this stuff,” he said. “Whoda thunk? The 1969 oil spill was the watershed moment for Santa Barbara, but the community developed afterward. Now we have the Bren School right here at UCSB. Green has become very businesslike.”
But whatever the topic of the week, Art of Peace is united by LeVasseur’s relaxed approach. “The best way to learn is not to be the most intelligent or the best reporter,” he said, “but to have a conversation and listen to the stories. I look for people with the courage to step up; my courage is to get their stories. When they’re on the couch here at KCSB, it’s real easy. I try to find what’s alive in them, what’s present in them, and that takes getting out of the way. I like to settle in: I practice tai chi, I swim, I do yoga. Every day is a day to calm my brain down. If I get five minutes of connection with someone, it makes my week—and it probably makes theirs.”
LeVasseur seems to believe that this station is the only place he can make it happen: “I’ve traveled all around, and I can tell you that KCSB is unique. Sometimes you have to do your show and you’ll think, ‘Oh, this again.’ But then you come down and experience this culture built over 45 years. Radio’s a basic tool of democracy, like a kiosk on the street. And the other question is, what kind of legacy will you leave behind when you check out? I think the first step toward ending war, poverty, drugs, and gangs is listening, having a conversation, practicing all that. And it does take practice.”
Art of Peace airs Wednesdays from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM. For details, visit artofpeaceradio.podomatic.com.