Long before I’d ever heard Darla Bea Smith’s eclectic, theme-intensive rock show on KCSB, I’d been hearing about Smith herself. This is normal for extraordinarily longtime KCSBers, those who have become institutions around the station, those who have been racking up notoriety ever since the control room was a heap of vacuum tubes, cart machines, and tape reels. But Smith’s program is a relative newborn, having only just hit the signal in the summer of 2009.
It wasn’t long before I started to notice that most of the cool people I knew in Santa Barbara—artists, filmmakers, musicians, other DJs, you name ‘em—already knew her. Many counted themselves as her listeners; some had even been in-studio guests. Much of this I found out from a glance at her show’s Facebook page, just one arm of what looked to be a large, well-oiled social media machine. Clearly, I thought, this Darla Bea Smith is some sort of self-promotional genius.
I, like most KCSBers, spill plenty of blood, sweat, and tears in the production of radio. Alas, like too many of those hardworking programmers, I find promoting my show to be a confusing, Herculean task, better simply ignored than futilely struggled with. But Smith, who studied marketing and graphic design through UCSB extension, knows no such hangups. Hence my desire to sit in on her program for a night: I had to learn her secret.
During the “Locals Only” edition of Rock It Properly I experienced, Smith revealed that her Santa Barbara roots run much deeper than having taken those extension classes. An art history graduate of UCSB as well, she turns out to have been born and raised in this fair city. Decked out in the distinctive green sweatshirt appropriate for the former four-year Santa Barbara High School cheerleader she is, she proceeded to spin two hours of tracks with all manner of ties, expected and unexpected, to our community.
A partial list of what I found out from this locals’ night follows: Wayne’s World soundtrack star Ugly Kid Joe came up in Isla Vista. Ska outfit The Henchmyn was formed by Adam Korn, former host of KCSB’s Ska la Carte.. Well-known popsmith Jack Johnson mentions UCSB’s good old De la Guerra Dining Commons in his song “Bubble Toes.” The name of 90s rockers Blazing Haley was, in fact, inspired by a blaze on Haley street. Legend has it that Jim Morrison, with some psychopharmacological assistance, composed “Crystal Ship” on Sands Beach, staring out at the oil platform. During his time as Santa Barbara High’s principal, Dishwalla frontman J.R. Richards’ father handed out copies of his son’s albums to the students. San Marcos High incubated another popular rock band: Toad the Wet Sprocket. And evidently the immortal Strawberry Alarm Clock has at least partial origins in Santa Barbara as well.
This is what one learns if one is such a true Santa Barbaran. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be a die-hard, trivia-loving music enthusiast as well. Smith told me of her childhood in a family that could always make merriment out of minutia. Unabridged dictionaries were packed, for entertainment purposes, with the camp-out gear. One life-defining moment came when Smith’s grandmother passed down her encyclopedia of music, allowing the young future DJ to absorb a megadose of musical factoids very early indeed.
Many of these factoids seemed to have made it to Smith’s clipboard, which held a sheaf of dense but neatly typed notes that amounted to a detailed script of her on-air performance that evening. Hearing about her time as an only child, inhaling knowledge about her recording make-believe radio shows with a microcassette recorder not long after learning to speak, and about her favorite subjects, I couldn’t help but note the striking congruence between her experience and my own. Perhaps organizations like KCSB attract people of, shall we say, a certain psychological profile.
Smith’s penchant for rock knowledge pays off in her ability to craft every installment of Rock it Properly around a theme. Past shows have included “Wham, Bam, Thank You Glam” (a tribute to glam rock), “We Gotcha Covered” (nothing but covers) and “I See London, I See France” (I’m not sure, but it certainly sounds intriguing). Even when she had to drag herself into the studio and somehow remain awake for the 3-6 a.m. graveyard shift on her debut last summer, she still managed to adhere to Rock It Properly’s organizing principles.
Luckily, Smith has something of an insomniac streak. In fact, without it, she probably wouldn’t have started her show at all. One day, while working at Lazy Acres, she suddenly had an epiphany on the order of, “Hey, I should do a KCSB show!” Then, late at night—or, rather, very, very early in the morning—she noticed that KCSB development coordinator Ted Coe happened to be logged into Facebook. That she was in a position to simply instant message him and ask how to go about getting a show was no doubt a result of her advanced networking skills, but the fact that the necessary staff meeting to attend just happened to be only a day or two away? That sounds like luck.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but ask Smith, a KCSB listener since 1994, why it took her so many years to join the station. “I’m a Virgo,” she explained, “a perfectionist.” It seems the very perfectionism that drives her to produce such a prepared, information-rich program also prevented her from doing so for quite some time. “When I was at UCSB, I was just focused on graduating,” she said, “and when I do something, I want to really do it.” And do it she certainly has, with all of the concentration the big-time FM DJs of old used to put into their broadcasts. As guest Spencer Barnitz of Santa Barbara “Latin big-band spy movie” band Spencer the Gardener remarked, “Darla, your show is how radio can’t be anymore.”
Hence, Smith’s affinity for a phrase once uttered by comedian Jack Black, whose voice opens every edition of her program: “Okay, let’s take it from the top, Jaybles”—as he calls himself—”and this time, rock it properly.” This line, she told me, so encapsulates her own attitude toward doing things well that she immediately added it to her own verbal repertoire. When it came time to decide on a title for her KCSB venture, Smith’s friends weren’t slow with the suggestion: “How about that thing you say all the time? The one about ‘rocking it properly?’”
Rock it Properly airs Sundays, from 8-10 p.m., on KCSB, 91.9