The hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on KCSB comprise what’s called “safe harbor,” the part of the broadcasting day when DJs can air material that the FCC might otherwise consider “indecent.” Those who exercise this particular freedom regularly air warnings during their show that signal for the listener, “Potentially objectionable content dead ahead!” For some listeners, it’s a prompt to tune out. For others, it’s a promise of intriguing things to come.
For Dave from the Grave, it brought about a new way of life.
“It was Sunday morning, about 3 a.m.,” Dave recalled, on the phone for a proper interview at last. “I got up and my elbow hit the dial on my radio. That’s when I heard the objectionable material warning. Then I heard this crazy heavy metal music that I’d never heard before. It turned out to be a programmer named Linda Mathias playing all this music live, at three in the morning! She said, ‘This is KCSB 91.9 FM in Santa Barbara. I’m Linda and you’re listening to my show, Where’s My Elephant? I play hardcore indie music.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’ve gotta check this out.’”
A heavy metal fan from way back, Dave was instantly won over by Mathias’s loud, forceful playlists. “After the show, she said she’d be there at the same time, from 2 to 4 a.m., next Sunday.” During the long wait for her next show, Dave couldn’t help but check back in on this strange new station he’d happened upon. “On Wednesday morning, like 7 a.m., I put KCSB on just to check it out. This girl came on, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, saying, ‘Good morning, kids! This is Jamie with Rock Theory, where I play indie, punk, and hardcore.’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to get into this one for sure!’” Each time Dave dipped back into the KCSB well, he found something to draw him further in.
Though a longtime Santa Barbara resident, Dave went through life unaware of KCSB until about seven years ago. “You hear about college radio, but you don’t really put it together. The station’s kind of hard to dial in, too. I used to have to twist my stereo this way and that to get the right reception.” And what was he listening to before? “Aw, you know, just those two local stations. Can I say them? KJEE and KTYD. But it’s just the same thing over and over, the same Zeppelin song you heard yesterday that you’re going to hear tomorrow and the week after. For years. I’m tellin’ ‘em, they have other songs on those albums!”
For someone who listens to the radio as many hours a day as Dave does, KCSB’s lack of commercials makes an enormous difference. “Sometimes I check back in on those other stations. I’ll go, ‘I bet there’s a commercial on right now,’ so I dial over and, nine times out of ten, they’re airing commercials — the same commercials. It’s just crazy. I was wasting my time, frying my brain on commercials for stuff I didn’t even use.” Now, listening only to KCSB, Dave not only hears no commercials but runs very little risk of hearing the same song twice at all, let along two days in a row. “Before, I heard maybe 30 new songs a day. Now I’m hearing 30 new songs every couple of shows! These other stations are playing that one song again and again, and I’m always getting different music from all over the world.”
Dave recalls a characteristic KCSB moment from a few years back. “I was listening to the show My Brother Broke My Amp. One girl was talking, and all of a sudden, there was this sound — sniff, sniff. The one girl asks the other what she was doing. She was smelling the cover of the microphone. She said, ‘This thing really stinks!’” The spontaneity of a constant live DJ presence, not to mention the occasional goofiness that results, is perhaps what Dave values most about KCSB. “When they make mistakes on the air, you know it’s real. It’s not all computerized. You can talk to them, request a song, give a shout-out to your friends.”
Ever since first working up the courage to dial the studio line, Dave has become known as KCSB’s most frequent caller. “It took a little while,” he explained. “I was scared to call in. Some DJs try to put me on the air, and my throat will close up if I even hear they’re going to it. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” But he’s certainly gotten comfortable with one-on-one conversations with the voices behind the mic, especially about the music itself. “I talk to everybody. Maybe I have an idea about what an artist did that they didn’t know about. There’s all this music out there that nobody knows about. It’s unbelievable.”
Though he’s never visited the KCSB studio, Dave has remotely cultivated an impressive familiarity with the station and its denizens. He’s met a few programmers in the flesh, but he claims to be able to imagine the rest with uncanny accuracy: “I’m pretty good at picking programmers out. I’ll describe to someone what I think a certain DJ looks like, and they’ll tell me I’m spot on.” By sound alone, he’s developed a clear enough mental picture of the control room to help out fledgling programmers in trouble. “The alarm’s going and they don’t know where the button is to turn it off, or their mic’s not working, or they have the wrong thing turned off. I’ll call and say, ‘Hit that little button behind the mic!’”
With each new programming quarter comes a substantial change in KCSB’s schedule, which Dave finds both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, many new programs show up, bringing different and fascinating content. On the other hand, the old DJs that he’s come to know through the airwaves and phone lines have a way of moving on. “I get used to the programs, but they keep changing on me!” he lamented. “Some programmers graduate and just break my heart. They might be intimidated at first, but once they do it, they love it. When they leave, I know they’re gonna cry, even the ones who are hardcore, the ones who aren’t the type to cry. They always have a tough time when they’re sayin’ goodbye.”
When you live a life like Dave’s, tapping sources of new culture and fresh human voices is vital. “I take care of my mom. She has Alzheimer’s, and her days are her nights and her nights are her days. She’s backwards. She owned a restaurant, a pizza place, and she’d get up after like four hours of sleep, take us kids to school, get all the groceries for the restaurant, make the dough, get ready for the customers, and it’d be like two, three in the morning before she got out of there. Then she had to do it all over again. As we got older, my sister and I started helping her out with the restaurant biz. We started staying up late. That’s how I got nocturnal.”
When his mother came to require round-the-clock care, Dave was prepared. “She got me nursing, and I did nursing through the graveyard shift. It was pretty easy after working at the pizza place.” His responsibilities demand that he stay in the house all day, every day, a condition that would seem to impede pretty much every pursuit except listening to KCSB all the time. “It’s just me, my mother, and the dog. I’m the only one she trusts. I’m here 24/7. There’s a song that goes, ‘I’m not alone ‘cause the TV’s on, yeah.’ I’m not alone because I’ve got all you KCSB people, real people, instead of having the TV being my friend. Otherwise, I would have cracked up by now.”
DJs who already know something of Dave’s story will be happy to learn that his mom is a fan of the station as well. “I have two radios. One’s in my room and one’s in the other room, because mom likes to dance, especially when they play salsa music, and listen to the ‘kids’ talking on the air. They say the funniest stuff; she cracks up.” The needs of any Alzheimer’s sufferer dictate quite a lot of sameness, routine, and familiarity, which Dave has ensured. “I’ve kept her in the same place for over ten years. I just keep everything simple. She knows me from way back when. I keep everything just the way it’s always been. When we moved, I hung the pictures on the wall exactly how they were in the old house.” It’s no wonder, then, that he so enjoys the ever-shifting sensibility of KCSB’s programming. “The station’s like a family, but it’s always changing. It’s never the same thing, all the time.”
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