“I don’t know crap about music,” said Sheamus Nolan. A curious admission for someone who hosts a music show, you might think, especially when that show drops the names of two musical genres within three words. “Since KCSB is an alternative station, I couldn’t just play classic rock,” said Nolan. “I didn’t know jazz and blues were any different, so I brought them together and pulled a bunch of their albums from the music library.” But Down to Cruz with Jazz and Bluz isn’t just, or even mainly, about jazz and bluz—er, blues. While most of its two hour time slot is indeed consumed by music both live and recorded, the show’s first mission is to have a good time.
I first noticed this when I’d happen to stop in to KCSB’s offices during Nolan’s broadcasts. More often than not, it seemed, he would have one of the studio doors propped open, a trail of musical gear and a wall of musical noises spilling out. It’s not what you expect to see on a Thursday afternoon, nor is it what you expect to hear while scanning through the radio spectrum. Though it’s not available to outsiders, the visual component of the show can get pretty fascinating when one studio is packed with the personnel and equipment of a large live band and, across the glass, the control room is packed with Nolan and his co-hosts, who go by the radio names Jacoby Daniels, Victor Shakapopolous, Sunny, and Alice.
Though each member of Nolan’s on-air crew shows up with a frequency of their own, even their intermittent presence lends Down to Cruz a vibe different from that of most KCSB shows. Unlike many of the station’s programmers, for whom broadcasting is a passion in addition to whatever they already do all day, Nolan aims to forge a career in the hosting seat. A recent UCSB graduate in communication, he’s now perfecting the art of the audition tape. “I want to do talk shows, but nobody at KCSB seems to know how to get a job doing one,” he said when I came to sit in on his program. “I kept asking Phat J at KJEE about it instead — maybe I asked a little too much.”
For anyone bent on talking to the public for a living, that first moment of truth on the mic can be daunting indeed. It certainly was for Nolan, even though he debuted the KCSB schedule last year with a 4-6 a.m. Sunday morning time slot. “I was so nervous at the beginning,” he remembered. “I was thinking, ‘The world is listening to KCSB!’” And in a way, he was right: “I’ve had listeners call in from South Carolina, Idaho, Georgia, Egypt, Italy. One guy across the country called from his truck. He said he found the station on his satellite radio. He was like, ‘Now KCSB is all I listen to!’”
Nolan grew up listening to a host, as it were, of veteran talkers, naming Mark and Brian, Kevin and Bean, Rick Dees, and Adam Carolla as inspirations. “My whole view when it comes to radio—or art, or drawing, or whatever—is that you need to do what nobody else is doing. We do what we call ‘singing shout-outs,’ where we play our own guitars and harmonicas and sing shout-outs to whoever requests them. We just sang a shout-out to this one girl who was running late to work, for example. I bring a lot of people on the air, and I ask them, ‘What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do on the radio? Now’s your chance!’ But they usually think of it later that day.”
Though his program has one foot in the a.m. and one foot in the p.m., Nolan understands what any self-respecting morning radio host should: a solid sense of humor, in both the show and its cast, is paramount. “I’m really goofy, but I don’t do much goofy stuff myself—except when I used to be on in the middle of the night, because who’s listening, right?” he said. “The problem with radio is that you have no idea who’s laughing. On TV, guys like Stephen Colbert have live audiences who you can see laugh. You can’t do comedy by yourself, because you don’t know whether to laugh by yourself. I’ve got to bring in people to talk to. When you have a co-host, people want to get in on the fun. And when I bring girls in, I get a lot more callers.”
Midway through the show, Nolan was joined by Scott Foreman and Geoff Levy, from the Santa Barbara rock band Sprout, for their second Down to Cruz appearance. This time they came to talk, not to play, but they were prepared to join in the afternoon’s freewheeling spirit. Though somewhat vague, “freewheeling” really is the most suitable word to describe the dynamic between Nolan and his guests, Nolan and his music, even Nolan and his audience.
Still, he knows what makes a strong conversation. “I used to interview with 12 questions written on a sheet,” he said, “but I gave it up, because that just can’t flow.” Quickly firing up the mics to introduce his guests to the listeners, he asked Foreman and Levy, clad in faded Led Zeppelin and Beatles t-shirts, respectively, “If you guys were members of Led Zeppelin or the Beatles, which ones would you be?”
A freewheeling nature can also be an important survival technique around KCSB, the kind of technical environment that often calls for improvisation. At first experiencing technical difficulties when trying to play a bit of Sprout’s music for the audience, Nolan went with an inspired idea: “Let’s just describe it.” After some discussion about how best to characterize the specific aesthetic of the band’s hybridization of rock, blues, jazz, and folk—Sprout’s official influence list includes the Allman Brothers, the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, and John Coltrane—the group collectively figured out how to patch Foreman’s iPod, which happened to contain a live Sprouts recording, directly into the mixing board for the listeners’ enjoyment. That’s the can-do KCSB spirit for you.
Down to Cruz With Jazz and Bluz airs Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.