Thursday, July 14, 2005

Tribute to Steve Sellman

In its first decades on the air, the University of California at Santa Barbara’s student radio station KCSB-FM was in many ways defined by one man.

He began as a volunteer student engineer at the station’s beginning, in the mid-1960’s. He was there as a student engineer and newsman during KCSB’s most historical times – the three riots and the burning of the Bank of America branch in Isla Vista (adjacent to the UCSB campus, in 1970) and the station shutdown by overzealous local law enforcement goons. He saw the station through the 1970’s when he became the first paid non-student Chief Engineer. He was there during several power increases, frequency changes and even Federal Communication Commission scrutiny in the 1980’s.

He helped thousands of students during the course of his quarter century at KCSB. He was friend to all. His good nature and little boy smile were infectious.

His name was Steve Sellman.

You may not have heard of him, but anyone who has listened to KCSB in the past or today owes Steve on one level or another. He was not only part of that pioneer student group who got the station going, but later acted as an unofficial pilot for the station during waves of different student broadcasters during the 1970's. These student and community leaders had their own ideas of they wanted to do, but were smart enough to listen to Steve when he would patiently rundown the history behind why things were the way they were.

I was one of those young broadcasters Steve helped in the Christmas season of 1969. Steve was not much older than I, but had already been with the station for awhile and was already considered an engineering resource – the student engineer to call when you had a technical problem. Steve showed me how to operate KCSB's broadcasting equipment and gave advice when I said I wanted to pursue radio as a career.

“Get your First Phone,” he said simply. It was probably standard advice, but it was solid because back in those late 1960’s/early 1970’s days, broadcasters were licensed by the FCC. Most announcers, DJ’s or jocks just had a “Third Phone” – Third Class Radiotelephone Operator’s License. You wrote to the F.C.C., got a study guide, took the test at a big federal building in the closest major city and, passing, you then you could broadcast legally. Inspectors would come by (usually at random or if there had been complaints filed) and inspect the transmitter, engineering meters against the logs and compared signatures against posted licenses. The First Class Radiotelephone Operator’s License was lots better than the Third. With it, you could legally operate any radio or television station in the country by yourself. You were, in essence, an engineer of record. Your marketability greatly improved along with your capability.

Well, years later, when I came back to KCSB to do some political documentaries, Steve was still at KCSB. In the decade since I had been gone, I got that First Phone and put it to good use in both radio and television, as announcer, DJ, even engineer myself. For a short and very lean time, I even had a tower climbing business where the First Phone was nice to flash around.

Steve welcomed me back and we renewed our friendship. He had become the station’s first full-time employee as Chief Engineer. In that role, he not only maintained all the broadcasting equipment, but trained many of the students and non-students that came through the radio station each academic quarter. Perhaps most significantly, he provided a sense of continuity to the ever-changing personnel roster of the station and the programming schedule which reflected the flux. In essence, he was the station’s history.

As fate would have it, I went on to become KCSB’s second full-time employee, as the station’s first (and only) professional General Manager. In our first year working together as manager and engineer (1983-84), Steve and I and a good number of talented student and community leaders achieved great financial stability for the station – achievements that continue to benefit KCSB to this day.

In our second year as the professionals at KCSB, the relationship between Steve and I began to become strained. This was not because of a change in him – Steve was one of the most changeless guys I’ve ever known – but because of a strategic shift of focus on my part. My first year had been dedicated to improving the station’s fiscal position and it’s amazing what we did in just one year. In the second year, I wanted to improve KCSB’s inner workings – most especially upgrading our technical facilities.

I won’t go into the details of all of this. It doesn’t much matter, now. I will say, however, that from 1985 onward, there were a series of running pitched battles between Sellman and I (Yes, somewhere along the line, my view of Steve had shifted, too, so my references to him did likewise. Steve became Sellman). It was mostly because Steve had grown too comfortable in his job over the years and it was hard to get him to do the work necessary to upgrade the station. “Lazy,” I think, is too strong a word, but it does come to mind.

Also, Steve had a real interest in what I considered “dinosaur” equipment rather than the latest digital technology. He was an analog guy living in a world going digital. Rather than spend time learning the latest developments, he would spend hours trying to make old equipment work in a fast-changing technological landscape. It may be that, in the goodness of his heart, he was still locked into a mode where he felt we had to save money for the station in any way we could. The reality was, though, that that had been the situation in the 1970s, but it was no longer the case by the mid-1980s.

The worst part of the differences in opinion over KCSB’s engineering between Steve and I was that he used his natural affable character and loveable personality in winning over a series of student leaders in opposition to me, personally. Because they were around for only four years at best, the students never did fully understand the struggle that was going on internally.

In the meantime, with the help from our parent organization the Associated Students of UCSB, I made it possible for KCSB to once again be a primarily-run student station while still providing a place for non-students to take part and contribute. It may seem like a big boast, but I am comfortable in saying that I gave KCSB back to the students of UCSB. On top of that, this was during a time when Sellman was using many of the station’s student leaders against me.

Nevertheless, I kept the pressure on Steve to either get with it or get going. He finally chose to leave the station on the eve of his dismissal, at the end of the 1980s.

After Steve left KCSB, and with the help of the Associated Students Executive Director Tamara Scott, I changed the General Manager’s job description to be more of an advisor than a manager, giving back the GM role to the students where it had originated. On the engineering side, I used half of the savings of no longer having a full-time engineer, to contract a very capable part-time engineer interested in digital technology. The other half I plowed into digital equipment and facilities enhancements.

With the station finally on a course I had set for it 7 years before, I left KCSB to pursue my career elsewhere. While I feel I did a lot for KCSB, I can’t help but look back with a good degree of sadness at the destroyed friendship between Steve and I and wish it had been otherwise.

THE END: Steve – born Steven M. Sellman -- died suddenly on August 26, 1998 at his home in San Diego. he had complained of a severe headache and announced his intention to check himself into a hospital, but he never made it out of his room and was found dead at the foot of his bed the next day. The cause of death was listed as "stroke" on the Death Certificate. Steve was employed not only at UCSB, but also by stations in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Diego counties. He was active in the Society of Broadcast Engineers. He was survived by his son, James K. Sellman of Idaho Falls (skuld@anime.net), mother Lynn Sellman of Camarillo, and former wife Ann McCreery. A longtime friend of his is J. D. Strahler (strahler@ieee.org).

Not surprisingly, Steve left behind a mound of outdated studio audio gear, test equipment and tools which the San Diego Chapter of the SBE helped the family sort through the gear and dispose of. A memorial was held in heavy rain and attended by Lee McGowan (KYXY), Mike Tosch (KPBS-FM), Bob Gonsett (CGC), Jim Sellman and Jim's mother Ann.

Whenever I think of Steve, I remember him as a friend -- a good hearted man who played a huge role in the early days of KCSB-FM, Santa Barbara. If you are ever by Storke Tower, on the UCSB campus, you may still hear his footsteps on the stairs or spot his ghost riding the elevator up to the top...

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