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Listening Through the Graveyard, Part One

In Pursuit of KCSB Super-listener “Dave from the Grave”


Feeling alone in the broadcast wilderness from 2-6 a.m., first-time KCSB deejays expect little in the way of human contact. At that stage, it’s all about spinning a few tracks, saying a few words and hoping the gaps between the two aren’t too wide. It’s startling, even eerie, when, in the midst of the utter stillness of the dark campus and the nearly empty studio, the phone indicator light suddenly flashes. “Who on Earth could this be?” wonders the radio neophyte, made anxious enough already by the new responsibilities, both technical and aesthetic, imposed by their new, full-blown, FM status. “Isn’t this town supposed to be asleep?”

Surely many of these bundles of nerves don’t dare actually pick up the handset to engage this lone nocturnal listener in conversation. But those who do are, in all likelihood, pleasantly surprised by the distinctive nonverbal greeting — one difficult indeed to translate into text— of Dave from the Grave. He turns out to be KCSB’s most engaged and frequently tuned-in listener. That’s what these beginning KCSBers find out when they tell the story of the mysterious stranger who gave them a ring in the dead of night, spouted off a few words of solidarity and went right back to his business — everyone’s heard from him, no matter what they play, no matter when they play it.

I myself had this very experience not long after the inauspicious 4 a.m. debut of Colin’s Bachelor Pad, my first KCSB show. Desperately trying to keep straight whether I’d done the hour’s meter readings, whether I had a proper legally required station ID on deck, whether or not I’d already played that Sade song, and if I should go back on mic. That all dropped into the background when the phone started flashing. (It doesn’t actually ring, you see, or else the sound might inadvertently make it onto the air, telethon-style.) While I don’t recall what, exactly, Dave said to me that night — or early, early morning, if you prefer — I’m certain it was encouraging.

To judge by the degree of enthusiasm that comes across on the phone, Dave is a man of strong opinions when it comes to music and broadcast media. Yet he never seems to vent the flip side of this: the negative opinions that he surely must have of about at least some of what he hears on KCSB. This positivity has been the salvation of many a young programmer, the flagging of whose enthusiasm is to be expected after a few weeks of wee-hours broadcasting. Dave’s calls, bearing his own unique brand of inspiration and guidance, come as a badly needed indicator of the one thing of which every KCSBer wants to be assured: Somebody’s listening.

But for all the kind helpfulness of his KCSB boosterism, a question remains: Who is this guy? How did he come to enjoy so many vastly different genres of music enough to call in and congratulate the deejays playing them? How does he manage to listen around the clock, expressing support for programs at dawn, midnight, and noon alike? Does he ever sleep? A certain mystique has grown around Dave from the Grave, fed by rumor, speculation, and anecdote circulating among current and former staff.

All these unresolved issues prompted former KCSB general manager Carlotta Propersi to shoot an eponymous short documentary about the man whose presence looms large over the station without his ever having to set foot in its studios. But rather than deflate the legend of Dave from the Grave with a hard-nosed investigation into his life and past, she craftily made him even more mysterious. Her video comprises interviews with a series of KCSB programmers, all of whom remember their numerous encounters with the “grave man.” From this production, we learn that Dave donates a lot of money during the yearly fund drive, knows home remedies for hives, sends wind chimes in as presents, and has been spotted in the wild, though nobody can quite recall what he looks like.

Given The KCSBeat’s mandate to cover all things KCSB, I found I could no longer shy away from the obvious journalistic task before me: I had to interview Dave from the Grave. But despite the frequency of his calls to the control room, he’s not the easiest man to get hold of. For weeks I waited, hoping to receive or at least happen into the presence of a Grave Man call. For weeks, nothing. Then, when I joined Darla Bea Smith in the studio, my chance materialized. “Let me talk to him!” I insisted, half a second after her returned greeting to KCSB’s greatest internal celebrity.

Having secured Dave’s agreement to an interview, I couldn’t decide how I would handle it. I had no desire to diminish by over-clarification the larger-than-life persona he had achieved. Nor did I want to merely discuss the semi-known facts about the fellow without adding something new and interesting to the existing body of Dave from the Grave scholarship. It would be a tricky balance indeed, and only next week, dear KCSBeat readers, will you find out if I could strike it.

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