“This story won’t make much sense to anyone who’s never been in Isla Vista,” announces Malcolm Gault-Williams at the top of the first chapter of Don’t Bank on Amerika. “But for those of us who have, or even call ourselves Isla Vistans, this series will supply valuable information in understanding the past.” So begins a 36-part radio series chronicling Isla Vista’s history, its changing relationship to UCSB, and manifestations of late-1960s student activism here in Santa Barbara including, of course, the infamous burning of Isla Vista’s Bank of America branch.
Marking the 40th anniversary of the Isla Vista uprisings, KCSB began airing the series on February 26, and it’ll run every Friday morning at 8 a.m. for the next three months.
Rest assured that the KCSB crew is not simply pulling the shows, last aired in the late 1980s, out of the mothballs and throwing them on the air. The episodes are being newly remastered straight from their original reels of quarter-inch audio tape, and augmented with conversations featuring the shows’ creators and subjects. The first chapter features a discussion between series creator Malcolm Gault-Williams, who DJed on the station in the 60s and managed it through the 80s; KCSB development coordinator Ted Coe; and Art of Peace host Philip Levasseur. The three discuss the origins of the series, the challenge of capturing and conveying the times in audio, and what it felt like to be right there in the midst of so much social change.
“I had begun commercial broadcasting in 1968 as a freshman in Arkansas,” Gault-Williams says in the segment, recalling his beginnings in the medium. “When I transferred to California, I was a City College student. The station let me in the door even though I wasn’t a UCSB student. I started filling in over Christmas break 69-70. It was my first experience with freeform radio; it made a big impression on me, that style of programming, and I tried to continue with that through my radio career. Unfortunately, the changes in radio and formatting as time went by made the opportunity to do that less and less. But when I was here at KCSB, it was mostly as what we called a ‘night owl’ DJ, holding down the FM shift between midnight and eight in the morning.”
In this first stint at KCSB, Gault-Williams came to understand that station’s capacity as a media force in the community. “KCSB has always had a very active news department, and it’s been to the benefit of the campus community ever since its inception. During the riots, we had student newscasters in the field, reporting. As you know, the station was shut down by the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. We young people felt that even though we were supposedly in an institution of higher learning, it didn’t seem like the administrators and many of the instructors were high in their learning, or their consciousness, compared to what we were trying to change in society.
When Coe and Levasseur ask him about the experience of the 60s in Isla Vista, Gault-Williams remembers fondly “the great sense of unity that we experienced as young people fighting the established order. . . . I don’t mean strictly in the streets,” he adds. “I mean on every level. We had a number of issues affecting us as students and young Americans that united us all. The community-building that came out of the I.V. riots and the legacy of that that still continues today. We showed in that period after the riots that, despite the political differences between ourselves, the university, the county, and the national government, we could all unite on helping make I.V. a better place to live. It’s that kind of working together that, personally, I would like to see on a national level in our Congress and in our state legislature. If we could do it here in I.V. and at UCSB, why can’t they do it in D.C. and Sacramento?”
Returning to manage KCSB in the early 80s, Gault-Williams discovered that the news department had held onto many broadcasts from that turbulent previous era. “I decided that since I was here, there was an opportunity to use the public affairs archives and research a book on the I.V. riots. Up until that time, the only historical work of any substance had been what we called the Red Book, which was published shortly after the riots by professors [Robert] Potter and [James] Sullivan. When I decided to do a book based on listening to the tapes, it just made sense to me as a radio person: I might as well kill two birds with one stone, not only write the book but also do a radio series.”
Thus began the dual challenge of writing Don’t Bank on Amerika, the text, while producing Don’t Bank on Amerika the broadcast. At roughly 40 hours long, the radio series presents an impressive intellectual and aesthetic sprawl. “It is very lengthy,” Gault-Williams admits in the supplementary conversation. “One of the reasons why is because material from one chapter would be somewhat repeated into the next chapter, under the assumption that not everybody would be able to listen to each and every chapter going forward.”
The production process ran from 1983 to 1985, and KCSB broadcast and rebroadcast it throughout the remainder of the decade. Each episode amounts to an eclectic audio collage: contemporary interviews, vintage radio broadcasts, conversations and interactions recorded live on the streets of Isla Vista, and music popular with the students of the late 60s and early 70s. Gault-Williams considers it a textbook labor of love: “I did the radio series more or less because I was just into it. I didn’t have any kind of long term vision. In fact, the series, for any professional or even serious radio documentary — it’s just really very amateurish. But I had a whole lot of fun doing it.”