“Try all kinds of things”: Local radio icon Jim Williams reflects on decades of broadcasting
Longtime radio journalist and Goleta resident ‘Big’ Jim Williams will turn 91 this year. He’s a local radio icon in Santa Barbara, with decades of broadcasting under his belt.
Williams worked in community radio for twenty years, served as Santa Barbara City College’s first public information officer, and has published several works of fiction from westerns to a radio play.
Early in Williams' career, Ventura County had a professional baseball team in California's C League. The local radio station, KVVC, would recreate their away games. Jim recalls while the host would recreate the game, he would be in the other studio doing the sound effects.
He recalled one night where things went a little awry.
“One night we got into the game,” he said, “about the fourth inning, Modesto came up to bat at four outs.” The man who was in charge of describing what was happening in the game was drunk.
Jim chuckled. “So we had quite a time. The poor guy doing the recreation couldn’t figure out what to do because obviously you can’t have a team come up and have four outs and then come back again. And so he started thinking of everything from the standpoint that we had a snowstorm or a sandstorm.”
Eventually, Williams had to put on 15 minutes of music until they could straighten out the mess.
Williams had started in radio as a teenager, while he was growing up in the Ojai Valley, just after World War II. At his local boy’s club, he volunteered to do a weekly radio program for a station in Santa Paula.
“Then, gradually through the radio station I was able to get some air time on a Sunday and do three or four hours of air time,” he said. “and I worked real cheap, sold my own advertising, and then after I graduated from high school, I wanted to remain in broadcasting.”
After earning his degree, he got his first full time role in Ventura at KVVC.
“When I first joined the station, they gave me the late night shift, which I actually enjoyed and I cut my teeth that way,” he recalled. “The guy, who was a real pro, he put me on the board - the board being the audio board that you used in a radio station and still do. And he said, 'hey kid,' and I was a kid of about 18 or 19 at the time. He said, ‘I’m going to the motion picture theater. If you have an emergency, call them. Otherwise, leave me alone.’"
Williams was left to learn the board on his own.
“It’s gonna be fresh, It’s gonna be new, but you’re on your own and by the time I get back in four or five hours, you will know what the heck you are doing.”
In the 1950s, radio was still in its ‘golden age,’ and news, dramas, even game shows, all live, drew millions of listeners.
Jim recalls how, “we all did dramas that [were] heard on radio, done live, that type of thing. And now of course with the device you’re using at the moment to record my voice, you can record and edit and do just about anything you want on a computer. So simple today, but in our day we had reel-to-reel tape, sipped it with a pair of scissors, pasted it together and hoped it worked.”
Williams’s radio career was interrupted, briefly, when he was drafted into the US army — but not as a soldier. He said he was “one of the luckiest guys in the world because [he] ended up in Armed Forces television.” He did programming for the troops while stationed in SLO and at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.
“I worked with a wonderful crew of people,” Jim said. “We were all broadcasters or actors or writers or directors. One of them turned out to be Adam West, who went on to play Batman on television.”
This was, as Williams described, the "early days of television." In 1950, only about 9% of people in the US owned a TV. By 1959, that number was 86%. Jim worked all throughout the industry. He recalled: “sometimes I would direct the TV program. Sometimes I would narrate it. Sometimes I’d push a camera. It was fun. Sometimes I’d be in front of the camera.”
Williams returned to KVVC after serving two years. Then, in 1959, he moved to KDB News in Santa Barbara, where he started doing the morning broadcast.
“I was a morning man for most of my broadcast career,” he said. “I did morning radio, usually wake-up stuff beginning at six in the morning, sometimes five in the morning, and I loved it. I loved doing the morning radio. The only thing wrong with morning radio is it’s morning radio. It’s early, but to me it’s the best time to be on the air.”
He settled in Goleta which, at the time, was unincorporated. “Goleta was sparsely populated with farms, ranches, a few schools scattered around and some businesses.”
Radio looked a little different than it does today, too. In 1960, there were three radio stations in Santa Barbara, each with a full news team. Williams said due to competition and expense, that wouldn’t happen today.
“It was a really great public service too, to provide the flood coverage or the fire coverage or the accidents,” he said. “We did the same thing down in Ventura County. We had mobile units when I was in Ventura. Some of the very first in Southern California back in the late ‘50s.” Ventura had these units even before Los Angeles stations did.
Local coverage wasn’t all fire and flood, though. Jim recalls some fantastic interviews he was able to do over the years.
“The one thing that was so great about working in radio was the people I got to meet. Never in my wildest dreams I ever thought I would be able to sit down with some of the great movie stars that came through Santa Barbara,” he said. “I was able to interview someone like the great Louis Armstrong.”
This was in the late 1960s. Williams recalls Armstrong was coming down from the Monterey Jazz Festival, and staying at the Marmadi Hotel in East Beach. As it turns out, this is where the radio studios were located. Williams was able to interview him first thing in the morning.
National coverage came by way of teletype. Teletypes were electromechanical printers that could send and receive text. If you were hooked up to the same system either by wires or a wireless radio system and typed a message, that message would appear on another machine. So, each day, large, national news outlets would use teletypes to send news to smaller stations like KDB or KVVC.
“They’re very giant typewriters that had a continuous spool of paper on it, pounding out stories, whether it happened to be the weather, Congress, the president, war, sports, whatever it may be,” Jim supplied.
Teletypes started to fall out of use in the 1970s and 80s. By this time, Williams was working at Santa Barbara City College.
“In 1969, after a full twenty years in broadcasting, the station I was working for was going to be sold…” he explained. “and generally when a radio station is sold, quite often the managership changes, the staff changes, the programming changes, a lot of things change and you can find yourself out on the street unemployed.” Williams had a family and home to think of.
“So I started looking around for something in the public relations field. In my college years at Ventura JC, I had majored in speech and journalism, so I had the background and I kept looking around and fortunately I found a job at Santa Barbara City College for the first full-time public information officer.”
Williams held the position for 23 years: publicity, speeches, photography, scheduling, features, press releases and more. He’s got some great stories from that time, too. He told one from 1971.
“There was a great broadcaster, Walter Cronkite, who was on CBS and he was the newscaster,” Williams began. “I had been able to feed a story to the LA television stations about one of our football players at Santa Barbara City College who weighed 600 pounds - Big Man Earl Pointer.”
A reporter named Bill Curtis came to the college to interview the athlete and film part of the game. When he left, Jim wasn’t sure when the clip would air. Then, he got a call.
“He called me from Hawaii, Bill Curtis did.” Jim said. “And he called and said, by the way, that clip will [air] on Sunday night, and then he called me again and he said, by the way, I’m leaving Hawaii, flying to California, and then I’m going up to the Pacific Northwest to cover a strange story about a guy who managed to get a whole bunch of money out of an airplane.”
The football story aired at the same time that the D.B. Cooper hijacking story broke. D.B. Cooper, whose real name is still unknown, hijacked and jumped out of an airplane over Washington State with $200,000 in cash. The FBI has yet to identify Cooper, or find the money.
While he honed a wealth of knowledge in the fields, Williams’ interests weren’t limited to PR or journalism. He was also drawn to writing fiction. “I always wanted to write,” he said. “Writing was something in the back of my mind and I wanted to do it but I was earning a living in broadcasting and happy to do that.”
While he was still working, he managed to squeeze in time in evenings and on weekends. In the 80s and 90s, he wrote a radio play, Close Encounters of the Confederate Kind, which was produced by Shoestring Theater in San Francisco and aired across the United States. After he retired in 1992, he continued writing, eventually publishing his first book: a western.
“I got a book started in 1984 called Cattle Drive and I finally finished it and got it published in 2014,” he said. Today, Williams has several books published, which you can find in bookstores around Santa Barbara.
At the end of the conversation, Jim reflected on what advice he might give a young reporter. “Well, the main thing to my way of thinking is to get as much variety in your career as possible,” he said. “Try all kinds of things.”
He finished the interview reflecting on not just his many decades of broadcasting, but his own long and full life.
“[I was] born in 1932, so I’m now 90 years old and I still can’t believe I’m 90,” he said. “I’m taking care of myself. I drive. I do whatever it takes to complete a day. I’m at the age now my sons are retiring. You just put one foot in front of the other… I’m very fortunate. I’m very lucky. I do have some health issues like everybody else, but I’ve been lucky. I’ve got a lot of friends and I keep busy, and it’s been a good life.”