Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Little Nostalgia At KUSP FM

I am reaching that stage in life when the world I knew and grew up in is slowly crumbling. Change is inevitable of course, we know and understand that platitude, but it gets to be a little odd when you realize you are the one at the center of a world where the familiar is dying away.  First movie stars die, that's a bit of a shock especially when youngsters around you have no idea who Peter O'Toole or Paul Newman were. Then institutions that have been the bedrock of some important part of your life suddenly face dissolution...well that's when you understand finally that you are become your parents, the people who mumbled miserably about change and nostalgia and the Past. In the photo below I am not to be found, I was probably buzzing around Santa Cruz on my Vespa trailing a microphone and looking for someone to interview, but I recognize the faces and the names that go with them. KUSP was my life in California in the mid 80s.
This photograph of me hunched over a piece of paper editing my script, preparing to make a call or edit some tape who knows- was taken in the newsroom at the community radio station where I volunteered and then got a job. I had no idea I had any aptitude for the radio which I had always loved to listen to, but KUSP gave me a job and an education. 
Community Radio is a purely American phenomenon, imitated but never replicated in other parts of the world. In a country where government broadcasting is unknown and government funding amounts to pennies per capita the only other answer to get public funds is to ask...the public and as you can see below it was typical on air fundraising in the KUSP studio. Notice the walls covered in indexed discs and CDs as  music was a huge part of the local programming. 
The station was founded in 1972 and the second station manager was the bearded youth seen below. Lance was a remarkable man and still is no doubt, able to bridge the divide between the non conformist youth at the station and the money bags in the middle class business district side of town. It was his diplomacy and passion for local radio that made KUSP the flourishing enterprise it was in the 1980s. It never recovered when he departed to manage larger non profits in the county in the late 80s, and the radio station now is on the brink of bankruptcy and seems likely to vaporize.
For me it was  a place to learn how to live ( I wasn't very good at that in thse days, more so even than today) and my news director Marcia came down from Oregon to teach us how to do the news and she taught me too. It was halcyon time for me chasing news, selling stories to NPR and any other network that would pay me gas money.
The little hippy station that started out life a decade earlier on the harbor front broadcasting from high atop O'Neill's surf shop, was sending stories to the network while bringing NPR and Garrison Keillor to Monterey Bay audiences.
I was at the leading edge of the proliferation of NPR at the station that loved it's local eclectic music programming on 8th Avenue within sight of the Pacific Ocean. Not everyone was  happy with that and as happened at many community stations there was a tussle between the folk, acoustic, modern and Gamelan music crowd and the Serious News People. I sat on the fence because I liked the music and for me it was just one more thing to learn. I had no TV and in between movies I learned about the blues, modern jazz, Celtic music and interviews with performers I'd never have heard otherwise. I went with engineer Larry Blood to live broadcasts from various festivals and froze my ass on cold summer California nights watching the Montery Jazz Festival or the Cabrillo Music Festival listening to sounds I could barely decipher.
It was a time of social ferment as Santa Cruz politics landed firmly in the hands of young university radicals and the old conservative families lost power to the university campus they brought to town in the 1960s. The idea was to give the seaside town a year-round economy by inviting the University of California to build a campus in the redwoods. They succeeded and got themselves Berkeley South, a campus of radical left wing politics...which was great for a cub reporter at the local radio station. There was always stuff to report and people to interview in town and on campus and there were four local radio stations competing. We were a forest of microphones at public events. I had a blast.
On the musical side KUSP had world class musicians volunteering and old radio hands like Genial Johnny Simmons who  spent his working life behind the microphone and knew everything there was to know about music, music history, news and programming. He was Lance's right hand man and as program director struggled to keep the balance between satellite and local programming. I was in awe of him. He used to make these cards for his radio show, the Lost Highway:
And there I was, the local voice of the often despised satellite news shows, riding around town on my Vespa waving my microphone in the face of any who would listen. Looking back it was all seat of the pants stuff and if you tuned in at six after All Things Considered which started at 4:30, you never knew what the hell we would use to fill our half hour of local news. I spent my days madly cutting tape and splicing together my scripts with sound bites and background sounds as taught to me by my editors at NPR and it was all done as fast as possible to meet the inevitable daily deadline.
It would be impossible to list the people who made KUSP such a cultural ferment in those years, Peter Feistman was one, a stately German refuge from World War Two and his canary yellow E-type Jaguar, playing classical music immediately after the news:
The beards and bell bottoms of the annual live auction, a community affair at the Old Cooper House, a 19th century courthouse damaged by the 1989 earthquake and wrecked by city indifference. Much laughter, in jokes and weird stuff for sale at those auctions. Laura, Corky and Michael (not me!) grinning madly: 

KUSP had  dozens of volunteers and lots of meetings as a result. It was a kind of pirate ship, democracy in the wild, opinions, votes and discussions all the time. It was exhausting and exciting and we felt we had a real voice in our community filled with opinions and strong beliefs. Slowly the NPR satellite programming gained ascendancy and local music was moved to accommodate an increasing array of canned programs, as the radio chased the dream of a professional on air sound. Dan Garr head on in the picture below in all his hairy glory  I knew as a passionate music programmer and a sailor more avid than I. He died a few years ago and that marks another bourne in my own march towards extinction. These days its not just movie stars who fade, it's people we knew...
I returned to Santa Cruz after a few years in Florida and got a seat on the board of directors at the station but it was clear to me I never would fit back in and the leaders of the new direction had no place for me, now oddly an old timer and representative of a past no longer remembered fondly. My wife and I suggested buying a permanent home for the station in a lull in the spiraling housing costs but that was dismissed as impractical and the massive rent continued to be paid along with an impractical (in my opinion) remodel of the rented premises...We suggested  taking over an AM frequency that was coming available to center satellite programming there and open up a space for local music on stereo no avail. We quit and ultimately returned to Florida determined to find a city we could live in with warm weather for my wife's arthritis. I even offered to take up doing local news to give KUSP an edge over the rival station in Pacific Grove KAZU which was ascendant... that was a non starter. Happily we came back to Key West, and my wife's joints loved the weather, we liked our friends and our jobs and our warm Florida Ocean. And so it goes.
In those early days KUSP was built by hand, witness Bruce Larsen lending his carpentry skills to the new enterprise at the move to new spacious quarters on 8th Avenue. Nowadays KUSP has something like three quarters of a million in debt and is restructuring which means no more NPR, and hope listeners flock to local music and keep the old dear alive. I wonder though what the likelihood is that a community station with an eclectic bent will survive in a town that likes to parade its eccentric nature but that has yielded on all fronts to gentrification.  Santa Cruz lost the battle to stay weird in my opinion when Silicon Valley executives figured they could telecommute over the Santa Cruz Mountains and live by the ocean. They came in droves with a lot of money and the usual rear guard attempt by artists and hippies to defend their turf lost out to box stores and chains and all the usual stories of change making a place "better."
This isn't a unique or even I dare say rare story in 21st century America, but it is my story. I came to the US from a world where opportunities like these were not available, not even imagined, and I took every advantage I could of living in the Golden State, by the ocean, under the redwoods surrounded by people of greater intellect, great artistry and by far greater commitment to ideals that I sometimes found arbitrary or silly. I never did learn to believe that things happen for a reason, or that chanting or drum playing would liberate my inner self. But I did like being around people who did, they taught me a lot about myself and life. It was an exceptional moment to be where I was and I think many of us have gone through simlar experiences with similar memories.
I wish I could wave  a magic wand and make it all good, and giver KUSP the future it deserves, even as a vanity project, or simply to show the soulless University bureaucrats at KAZU that community radio is best. Maybe I just want KUSP to thrive to remind myself when I go back to Santa Cruz that I once had a very small part to play at 88.9fm and I am a better human being for it.

Photographs that are not mine own are to be seen on the KUSP Forward page on Facebook and I am sure they will be scrutinized massively by those who remember, putting names to faces and and admiring the views from the antenna atop Mount Toro (the photos were provided by Don Mussel engineer extraordinaire so they tend to have a somewhat engineering bent...).

For my own part I surprise myself when I think back to KUSP and find myself dispatching police in Key West but its not such a stretch I suppose. I find I am more at ease on the police radio, so much so I know my on-air quips annoy the supervisors sometimes but I am a good dispatcher and a sense of humor in the dark midnight hours can be forgiven if I am on point when the shit hits the fan. I miss community radio, but I prefer the pay and benefits and the company in dispatch at night is surprisingly cheerful for a bunch of youngsters who are nowhere near being KUSP- style hippies! I keep my politics to myself as much as I am able but Key West still manages to surprise sometimes with it's determination not to conform. And I am no longer the autistic obsessive I was in the 1980s, I hope, and knowing I have that inbuilt tendency it is easier to control in public view. There is nothing to be nostalgic about here, nothing happens for a reason but the reasons have happened and so far so good. The present is good because of the past.