I often fantasize about one particular media scenario: What if morning radio weren’t so dumb? What if, instead of a couple of dudes clowning manically around during the brief snatches of time between commercials and tired rock anthems, there were shows where a couple of dudes instead had real, extended conversations with people about rich subjects and played interesting, unusual music? Given the prevalence of the standard zaniness-intensive “morning zoo” format in commercial radio, and the increasing jittery-iness even in mainstream public radio, this may sound like an impossible dream. But Tuesday morning of this quarter, Intents & Purposes has realized it—where else?—on KCSB.
On the particular Tuesday morning I visit the studio, I find two guests especially unsuited to the morning zoo: astronomers Tim Lister and Rachel Street of the UCSB-affiliated Las Cumbres Global Telescope Network. Hosts Levi Maaia and Tim Grigsby invited them onto the program to discuss their research into the nature of planets outside our solar system, as well as the nine gaseous planets recently discovered. Maaia is sitting at the mixing board and Grigsby is standing at the back of the room, each in front of his own microphone. Through the wall of glass that separates the control room from the auxiliary studio where the astronomers sit, they trade off questioning Drs. Lister and Street about their insights into outer space and the bodies that drift through it.
Seemingly unused to live radio, the astronomers at first respond with unexpectedly brief answers, but soon open up, once the hosts find the angles that really get them talking. The questions are designed to bring the complex, rarefied nature of the interviewees’ work to an audience-accessible level, using common points of reference. Grigsby asks if the wide-angle lenses they use to search the sky are at all technologically comparable to the one he’d put on his own camera. Maaia asks how different the telescopes in their network are from the one he’d point at the moon on a clear night. While they do ask plenty of questions about the specific details of extrasolar planets and such, they also pose a few that lighten things up: Grigsby asks if, in all their years gazing into the sky, they’ve ever seen any flying objects of the unidentified variety, noting aloud how hard it is to ask that and “not sound like a loon.”
The first half of each Intents & Purposes comprises such an interview. Recent guests have included UCSB communication researcher K.K. Holland on net neutrality, Sanford Burham Center for Nanomedicine cancer researcher Erkki Ruoslahti, and audiovisual artist John Williams. There seem to be few constraints on the subject matter: whether in science, technology, the social world, or the arts, anyone doing fascinating work in and around Santa Barbara—or just happen passing through—is fair game. As graduate students in UCSB’s education department, Maaia and Grigsby savor the challenge of putting themselves through a crash course in so many different sorts of specialized information and making it relatable for anyone who tunes in.
“The experience forces you to get a deeper understanding,” Maaia explains. “You need to go back, to engage with the headlines, to think about the related issues. The stereotype of the nerdy academic who doesn’t shower, who can’t talk outside their field—it’s not true. People think of computer scientists that way, for example, but the computer scientists we’ve had on were the most eloquent and passionate about sharing their subject with the world.” Maaia talks about Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross as an inspiration, since she “makes the subject accessible, even when some answers might be over your head.” Grigsby cites Tom Ashbrook, of WBUR’s On Point, as an influence. “We’re sort of On Point meets Morning Becomes Eclectic, since that show also brings to light songs that aren’t widely heard.”
Maaia and Grigsby’s mixture of forebears makes their project more than just an interview show. Its second half provides time to “decompress” with a mixture of inter-host banter and discussion of unusual items recently in the news. (This morning’s first item is introduced as “man bites man over dog.”) Between talk segments, the hosts use their laptops, both of which are patched into the mixing board, to play a variety of musical selections both thematically linked to the topic of the day—Pinback’s “My Star” is an early spin—and reflective of who’s playing live in the local music scene. The program’s focus on music will sharpen in their show on June 8: San Diego indie rockers Swim Party will play a live set on the air in the KCSB studio. Their I&P appearance will set the stage for a show that night at the Mercury Lounge in Goleta.
The program’s Mercury Lounge connection comes in the person of Pavneet Aulakh, a bartender there as well as a graduate student in UCSB’s English department. Calling himself Intents & Purposes’ “intern,” he doesn’t make any on-air appearances today, though he does keep busy listening closely to the show as it develops and logging the public service announcements played in the official station paperwork. He’ll assume full host duties next quarter, when Maaia will take an extended trip to Rhode Island and the Intents & Purposes name will be retired. But the show will continue in the summer as Radio Causeway with Tim and Pav, carrying on its predecessor’s engaging conversations-and-music form. “The flavor of the guests will be different,” Grigsby, a serious music fan, makes sure to note. “I’d like to get more humanities researchers on the show,” adds Aulakh, whose graduate work has no doubt given him many connections in the relevant departments.
As with any KCSB show, much of what makes Intents & Purposes stand out, and what will make Radio Causeway stand out in its own way, is how driven it is by its creators’ personalities. Along with all the show’s other fans, I have enjoyed hearing it take shape and look forward to whatever surprises its next iteration has in store. If only mainstream morning radio programmers would listen as well; surely they’d learn something.
This column has been amended since its original posting to correct the date of Swim Party's shows.