At one point or another, we’ve all scanned the FM dial and landed, however briefly, on 91.9. We tune into that particular frequency aware that we’ll never hear the same thing twice: the middle of a two-hour set of Pink Floyd covers in Esperanto, the tail end of a little-known Art Tatum live bootleg (and the hosts’ ensuing debate about its merit), the crescendo of a rousing speech on global agribusiness.
We know KCSB when we hear it, but how much do we know about it? Ridiculously informal polling reveals that most people know the station broadcasts from the UCSB campus and has no commercials, but that’s about it. So, how could such mystery still shroud an institution of nearly 50 years’ standing?
My name is Colin Marshall. I write for the Indy, and I’ve been involved with KCSB since 2004, broadcasting, spinning music, and interviewing. Prompted by the general lack of KCSB-related knowledge-and, admittedly, my own surprising lack of KCSB-related knowledge-I have submerged myself in the station’s sizable archives, searching for what, since its first wave oscillated through the air, has made KCSB KCSB. The collected clippings, photos, and recordings show that numerous fascinating personalities have contributed their unique sensibilities to the KCSB signal through the decades, furthering its mutation and evolution. The inaugural series of The KCSBeat, this new online column dedicated to coverage of all things KCSB, chronicles that long journey in (reasonably) short form.
As much of a cliche as humble beginnings have become, beginnings don’t come much humbler than KCSB’s. Or, rather, than Radio Navajo’s; that’s how the station was known in 1961, back when it maintained its entire operation-administrative, managerial, technical, and all-in the broom closet of UCSB’s Navajo hall, located in the Anacapa dormitory. When Radio Navajo petered out, as these things do, Associated Students, UCSB’s student government, purchased the remains of its modest broadcasting gear. Having cranked through the necessary motions and procedures, Associated Students lifted Radio Navajo from the ashes as KCSB, which powered on in December 1962.
Still far from wielding the relatively mighty FM signal we now hear-pumping out all day, every day at 620 watts-the embryonic KCSB offered a mere four hours of daily programming on AM, delivered on what’s called “carrier current,” a means of low-power broadcasting that avoids the need for a license by distributing the signal through a building’s electrical wiring. Thus coursing through the walls, the KCSB of 1962’s pop, classical and jazz music, recorded lectures, sports coverage, and faculty interviews reached eager listeners in the residence halls and campus coffee shop.
It was not until October 1963, when the Federal Communications Commission issued the station its hoped-for Class D (educational) FM broadcasting license, that KCSB could extend beyond campus borders and into the territory of “legitimate” radio, becoming the first licensed station in the entire University of California system. With its two-watt, 91.9 megacycle signal reaching Isla Vista, the newly empowered KCSB purchased an Associated Press teletype, which was then the most efficient way to gather national and international news, and began acquiring content from such foreign broadcasters as Radio Sweden and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The station’s staff, well on its way to numbering almost 100 students in total, received front-page coverage in UCSB’s El Gaucho (now the Daily Nexus) for their live coverage of the 1964 elections.
Though still not quite a round-the-clock operation, KCSB was broadcasting 80 hours of programming per week by September 1965, when a brand new ten-watt transmitter allowed the residents of Montecito and Santa Barbara proper to tune in. Five months later, KCSB quit its increasingly cramped single-room headquarters for a fresh set of studios in UCSB’s newly-constructed University Center (or, as you may have heard the kids call it even today, the “UCen”). These new digs afforded space for a dedicated newsroom, a production studio, and a record library. This latest iteration-dubbed “The New KCSB” by its newspaper advertisements-would broadcast 105 hours per week, adding comedy, drama, and on-the-spot Isla Vista news to its offerings.
Coverage of Isla Vista would become a critically important issue as the 1960s ended and the area seemed, momentarily, to descend into chaos. Do join me in the next installment of The KCSBeat, when we’ll cover that fateful event, part of a time that, despite 40 years’ passing, has most certainly not faded from KCSB’s institutional memory.