James Lull’s Journey from Radio Saigon to Hardcore California by Daniel Makagon

Jan 09, 2020

Part of The Sound Salvation series

I first discovered James Lull’s academic work while I was in graduate school. When I started teaching intercultural communication courses, I assigned an article he wrote about the different uses of music by teenagers, who seek to carve out connections among themselves free from the control of the adults in their lives. I wasn’t aware that James had a complex and expansive history working in radio.

Then, someone told me that everybody who discovered punk in the Santa Barbara area in the late 1970s and early 1980s had their interests enlarged by listening to James’ “New Music Hour” on KTYD FM. That rich history begins in Vietnam and later includes re-programming KTYD. James believed that there were opportunities to introduce listeners to alternative music by adopting a new wave format at KTYD. This format change happened in other cities throughout the United States at a similar time, helping initiate a larger cultural shift in mainstream music from pop, rock, and disco to new wave. Many of the bands identified as new wave started out in punk rock scenes in the U.S. and abroad, but their overall aesthetic would seem tame in comparison to the next wave of punk bands, many that would be linked to an emerging hardcore sound and scene. James was able to straddle both of these music worlds: a developing, mainstream new wave and a more underground punk scene, all while building a national reputation for his scholarship.

Daniel: How did you get into punk?

James: It was really kind of a combination of factors. Number one, I’ve always been interested in an alternative to whatever is going on, musically, politically, whatever. I guess you could say that my general orientation toward music, programming radio, and just toward life reflected an interest in new things, bringing new things into my life.

Of course, in the mid-’70s things were happening with music more generally, particularly in Europe and in England. I had gone to England in the late ’70s. And the reading that I was doing, including this book by Dick Hebdige called Subculture and the breaking ground of cultural studies at the time with a group at the University of Birmingham, all of that was kind of a backdrop for me to also inform my decisions about music.

Daniel: How did those music interests lead you to radio?

James: There’s a little bit more to this. I’m a Vietnam vet. I came home in 1966. I was an announcer on Armed Forces Radio in Saigon in 1965 and 1966. If you know the movie Good Morning Vietnam, that was about a guy named Ade (Adrian) Cronauer, who was on from six until ten in the mornings. I was on during the same time period, but from midnight to 6:00 on Armed Forces Radio. In that movie, they have a guy they sort of cast as me, being the guy who handed over the station every morning at 6:00 to Ade.

During that time period, from midnight to 6:00, I had a pipeline of music coming to me from the States that I could put on the radio unauthorized. So here’s the sort of punk attitude in general. I was playing unauthorized music that came to me from sources outside government channels. Normally you play the music that the station provides for you. But I had stuff coming in that was sort of part of the resistance at that time: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Donovan. Things that were outside the accepted playlists. During the late ’60s, the turbulence of the Vietnam War and the things that were going on culturally and environmentally fed into this personal narrative for me: risk-taking, novelty-seeking, rebellious character that I felt myself to be that I was acting out on the radio. So when the punk thing came along in the ’70s, I was already primed for it. And I was interested in alternatives to mainstream FM radio.

Daniel: That’s a fascinating link to radio. Did you seek out other DJ opportunities when you returned to the U.S.?

James: By 1968, I was up in San Jose and I was working at a radio station while I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at San Jose State. From 1968–1971, I was working in San Jose on an alternative station. It was one of the first alternative stations in the United States. We had KSAN in San Francisco and KSJO in San Jose. It was free-form and almost commercial free. FM in the ’60s didn’t have much financial support.

Now jumping forward to Santa Barbara in 1976. When I arrived there, I turned on the radio, listening in a motel where I was staying for a couple days while I found a place to live. There was the voice of this guy who I had worked with in San Jose back in the ’60s. That guy, whose name is Larry Johnson, was also the program director for this station: KTYD in Santa Barbara.

Just to unravel the key details here. I was hired by UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara) as a lecturer for six months, January through July or whatever. Then I went back to Madison, Wisconsin during that summer and I finished my Ph.D. They liked me at UCSB, so I became an assistant professor. So, I got on the air at KTYD, and because I was a Ph.D., the program director—my friend Larry Johnson who I just mentioned—started to call me Dr. Rock. He hired me to do a Saturday night show from 6:00 until midnight.

During that time period, I was a young professor at UCSB and I had a huge class. I started this class, which was Introduction to Mass Media, and went from thirty students to five-hundred students in an enormous lecture hall. I had this big old sound system, so I’d pump out alternative music as the kids were coming in and there became this big attraction to that class. I had guests: Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys; Rick Carroll, who at the time was the program director for KROQ in Los Angeles. As a side note, I also worked at KROQ some weekends by his invitation.

Daniel: It sounds like you were able to link your work with the station and your ties to the music community to your teaching, but you were basically holding down two full-time jobs.

James: I was straddling between the academic world, where I was doing well, and the pop culture/alternative music scene in Santa Barbara, where I was involved. So, I really had two things going on at the same time, which pissed off the academics. Some of the academic people didn’t know what to do with me. I just had a different way of being. But it worked. From an academic standpoint, I got off to a great start as a scholar and was getting great reviews about my writing. But the whole Dr. Rock image didn’t help me, I’ll say that. It helped me with the students and some cooler colleagues in other departments, but some of the more conservative colleagues weren’t too happy.

Daniel: What was the music format at KTYD? Were there punk shows?

James: I was just looking at a column in Radio & Records. And the headline is: “Doctor’s Prescription for KTYD: Modernize.” So here’s what happened. I was on Saturday nights and it was a transitional moment for the station. It was a free-form, kind of laid back station that was jazz and folk music oriented. It was kind of an artistic station. It sounded like a non-commercial station and it had pretty good ratings because there wasn’t that much competition. The only real competition was two big rock stations from Los Angeles that reached Santa Barbara. Then the station started to lose ratings.

New wave music was coming in during this period, the late ’70s and early ’80s. The station asked me if I’d take over as program director, which I did. I became the program director while I was also a full-time professor. The good thing is that I could do what I wanted to do, which was modernize the station, change the music. The DJs had to integrate more new music. The idea was to integrate bands like the B-52’s or the Stray Cats into the system. Santa Barbara was a laid back, beautiful—but sleepy—beach community, but there were a lot of really cool new wave and punk bands in town and they all became really interested in the station when we started to change over. We got involved with a lot of the bands putting on shows, and during that time, we also had a lot of the best bands coming through. I remember interviewing Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. And we got the ratings way up there, too.

Daniel: You’re describing a time period when music was shifting. The bands you’ve mentioned (B-52s, Pretenders, and Stray Cats) would all blow up and new wave would become more mainstream. I know you were also involved with music that flew a bit more beneath the radar. You already mentioned having Jello Biafra come into your class. How did punk fit into your radio experiences? Were you programming punk records during the regular rotation?

James: There was a real intimacy between the radio station, the changing music scene, and the local bands. It was a very organic and wonderful time to be doing radio during that period. So “The New Music Hour” was on Saturday night during the last hour of my show and ran from 11:00 until 12:00. It was pretty much out of the ratings, period. That hour was a good hook for getting people interested in the station.

Also, it was sponsored in a different way. I went out and got my own sponsors. Some of these were done on trade-outs. Because we needed independent records that weren’t coming to us through the regular system—radio stations getting records supplied by the record companies—I would go to a local record store called Rockpile. The guy who owned it (Robert Antonini) was a real supporter of punk and loved that we were playing that music on Saturday nights. So we’d do trades: I would give him commercials and he would provide me with what he thought was the best new alternative music, which generally fell into the realm of punk. This was a creative sponsorship where I was able to reinforce the whole culture of what I was trying to do. We didn’t do any commercials during the show. Those commercials would only run at the beginning and end of the hour. I would do twenty-minute sets and then come on and say what was played. The show distinctly broke from the format and gave people a chance to hear something new. You asked about the degree to which that music was integrated during the rest of the week: only the most accessible stuff. There’s that reality. [Laughs]

Daniel: One of the many things that’s fascinating about the stories you’re sharing is that the station context is very different than many other punk radio shows at that time, which tended to be the only punk programming on non-profit or college radio stations. Your format during the ratings period had some overlap, but the format was still different in that the Stray Cats—even before they became really big—wouldn’t likely be played on those other punk specialty shows. And then there’s the other interesting twist: you were on a commercial radio station.

James: Yeah, we were playing Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads—we did shows with them. I was just looking at a photo of me with the B-52’s. I brought the Talking Heads on stage when they played at UCSB. I wanted to make these bands and others, like the Police, the mainstream in Santa Barbara.

The whole Saturday night program that I had was pretty alternative just by the way I handled it. I remember that some of my UCSB colleagues were pretty upset about it. Anyway, I tried to make “The New Music Hour” unique, but even the five hours prior to the show featured some alternative kind of programming.

I had this woman who was a cohost who called herself Kitty Mitsubishi and she was a foul-mouthed, local woman who knew everything going on and had opinions about everything. She would say things like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been hanging out with President Reagan and his security guard.” And it would all just be lies. She could tell these unbelievable stories that were so funny. It was a real precursor to a lot of what radio does now: the DJ talking with a sidekick. Howard Stern-type stuff. So there was a feeling going into that “New Music Hour” that it fit right into what I was doing.

Daniel: But the bands you were playing on “The New Music Hour” were different. Was the format during “The New Music Hour” all punk and hardcore?

James: Yeah. It was Patti Smith to Agent Orange, and it was really to provide an opportunity to play music that wasn’t going to get on the air at any other time of the week and I tried to keep it real music focused.

Daniel: To clarify, you were doing six hours straight? And the last hour is punk rock?

James: Yeah, and that was great for me. I would plan during the week what new music I would play during that last hour. I had a real sense of purity about the 11:00–12:00 hour. That was going to be treated in a special way. You had the music people around town, who were really serious about the bands—they loved that. There were a lot of people out there that gave me a lot of good feedback. And the sponsorship relationships, they also received good feedback. It was a really great time in the evolution of radio and the evolution of music, and it was fun to be helping with that. I loved doing that hour. We were just looking to expose those bands.

Daniel: What year did the show start and what year did it end?

James: It probably started around ’77 and ended around ’81 or ’82. The radio station was sold in 1982. We took it from the middle of the pack and made it number one in Santa Barbara. The owner—who was an independent guy from Minnesota, where I’m also from—he capitalized on it and sold it. I lost my job as program director when that happened. They started programming the station by phone from Detroit, which is where the new ownership group was located. So it all went down in a big crash at a certain point. They started programming more classic rock stuff.

Daniel: That’s the story of commercial radio. There seemed to be a brief window in big cities where stations could do really creative programming. And perhaps that window extended in smaller markets, but now almost all commercial radio stations will sound the same.

James: I had a lot of freedom even before I became the program director. It was a free-form station and Larry, who was my friend and my boss, let me do what I wanted. What I tried to do as program director when I took over was curtail the kind of stuff where we were just background noise and bring the radio station to the foreground. Probably “The New Music Hour” was as foreground as it gets. It sounded so different than anything else on the radio, including the campus station at UCSB.

Daniel: Every city has a radio station that bills itself as radio for the office, which is supposed to be background music: vanilla Billy Joel tracks or less interesting Beatles songs. So I hear what you’re saying about trying to build a radio station in general and then a punk show more specifically that can be meaningful for people who care about music.

James: And another important point is the reputation that you end up getting with the bands. Bands like the Circle Jerks, or whoever, had reached a level where they could sustain themselves, but they weren’t breaking into radio. They knew that KTYD would play them and we’d end up doing shows with them, bring them to town. That’s how we’d get a lot of bands to come to Santa Barbara. Of course, people liked to come to Santa Barbara: weather, the beach. And in those days, it was real local and there were real local venues where bands could play. It was a real scene and “The New Music Hour” was part of that. I also felt like, “Wow, I’m not only researching culture for my work as an academic, but I’m actually making culture.” Not me alone, but I was a driving force at our station that was creating a kind of freshness to the music and the cultural scene in Santa Barbara. We were really proud of the station.