There’s Something about KTUH
Mānoa’s free–wheeling radio station makes a profound impact
It’s a rare musical genre that has never aired on KTUH radio. In nearly 37 years of operation, the station’s programs have remained as dizzyingly diverse as the people who produce them.
Veteran community DJ Kevan Scott says he joined KTUH for "the creative process this station allowed 30 years ago and still does today."
Names like Da Flower Punk Show, If You Don’t Dig the Blues You Have a Hole in Your Soul, The Lightsleepers Show, Synocopated Paradidles with Rudi Mintz, The Armadillo Radio Program and Soul 69 give a sense of the creative freedom at the station.
Behind the elaborate monikers are DJs opinionated, open-minded, passionate and informed about the music they love. They are given technical training and set loose on the airwaves with complete creative control. Some of the resulting shows are, admittedly, a little rough around the edges, and no one will like everything they hear. But as a listener, the amazing feeling of a solid DJ turning you on to your new favorite song is unbeatable.
"What’s really great about good radio is that it exposes you to music you never would have heard—not only new music but old music as well—which is an incredibly important concept at KTUH," explains Jay Junker. The Mānoa music instructor and station alum urges all his students to do a show on KTUH.
"When you think about it, what happens at commercial stations is very close to censorship, and you can forget about hearing anything too unconventional or controversial," says 15-year KTUH veteran James Kneubuhl. "Almost all of Honolulu’s commercial stations sound just plain boring to me."
While many KTUH DJs have gone on to professional radio careers, others share Kneubuhl’s aversion to mainstream radio programming and practices. "KTUH is a safe haven of sound, a pu’uhonua that conscientious, choice-oriented people can go to," says a highly cerebral DJ who prefers to be known by his on-air name, MetaLX.
"There is a saying, ’by beholding one becomes.’ By exposing ourselves to a seemingly innocuous and banal barrage of top 40 lyrics, which is in no uncertain terms propaganda, we are unknowingly changed and molded into a better corporate consumer."
People make the station go round
Whether quirky, radical, effusive, intellectual, humorous, eccentric or just plain weird, on-air alumni of Mānoa’s student-run station have two things in common—an intense love of music and an appreciation for the camaraderie they found with their motley crew of KTUH contemporaries.
Station staffers ran the acoustic stage for the popular Diamond Head Crater festival during the 1970s
Honolulu cartoonist John S. Pritchett had been in Honolulu a year when he designed the station’s 1975 logo.
"Bespectacled classical DJs mingling with beatnik jazz bunnies, Mohawk clad punks, big-hair rockers and so on—there was a lot of cross-pollination," recalls Kit Grant of the dynamic early ’80s.
"It was like family," adds Bob "da Budman" Wiorek, who worked for the station from 1976 to 1984, just before the station’s first big power increase. "Sure we had our differences, but when it all came out, we stuck together and enjoyed those differences. We all had KTUH in common."
Grant is beginning a new career as outreach and development director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai’i. Wiorek now works as an electronics technician at a safety and security company in California.
Late ’80s DJ and journalism major Derek Ferrar helped found Honolulu Weekly and now works as an editor for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. "The best thing about being involved with KTUH was the people I met and who I am still friends with today," he says.
Training makes careers happen
Nowhere else in the state, except the Big Island’s rising University Radio Hilo (see below), can students get the simultaneous hands-on experience and total creative freedom that comes with committing to a weekly 3-hour time slot.. Alumni work in entertainment, media, public relations and countless other industries, including high tech and non-profit sectors. Many credit KTUH for giving them a leg up.
"In addition to learning about the fundamental aspects of radio broadcasting, my experience at KTUH landed me my first professional job in radio!" says Miles Takaaze. "I worked at radio stations throughout Hawai’i for the next 15 years."
Dixie Alexander translated a semester at KTUH in 1977 into a 20-year radio career. "Networking is the lifeblood of broadcasting," she emails from Southern California. "Friendships made at KTUH can launch and resurrect careers."
"KTUH provided facilities and experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have had," adds Vivian Chow, a musician, writer and recording artist who relocated to Los Angeles after graduating in 1999. "I loved meeting other people who were just as passionate about music and had eclectic tastes. As a DJ, it was empowering to be able to expose my favorite songs to a mass of people without being invasive. As a musician, I appreciate how KTUH is a great medium for actively supporting local talent."
Like many alumni, Chow tries to play the Saturday afternoon Alumni Show (3–6 p.m. HST) whenever she’s in town. Fellow alumni around the world can tune in online at ktuh.org.
"We encourage all former DJ’s to stay in touch with us, host our Alumni Show and let us know where you are and how you’ve been," says current General Manager Justin Quezon, aka Sifu "Jive" Walker on the Tuesday night Afrostylus show. Former DJs can link up with the KTUH History Project at email@example.com or via ktuh.org.
Breaking new ground every day
KTUH was innovative and important from the start. In 1971 it was the first Hawai’i station to broadcast in quadraphonic sound. A September 1977 Honolulu magazine article counted KTUH as only half a station, "very much minor league...an afterthought," but extolled its strengths as the only one of just three FM rock stations in the state airing "considerable amount of new talent." One of the other stations was syndicated from Dallas, the other favored established artists.
KTUH was one of the first stations in Hawai’i to play jazz and was instrumental in popularizing reggae and hip-hop. Now common on the local dial, the genres still get special treatment at KTUH, where obscure cuts are spotlighted and sales figures are irrelevant.
Less frequently heard styles, including punk, blues, Latin, funk, Brazilian, Afrobeat and electronica, thrive at KTUH. Even local mainstays like rock and Hawaiian find new life outside of the limited playlists of commercial stations.
"KTUH was built with the vision and action of a small but committed group of students with very little input from the administration or faculty of UH Mānoa," says John Burnett, who volunteered at the station in the ’70s and early ’80s.
"What we lacked in skill, we made up in creativity and persistence," adds Russ Roberts, who was there at the beginning.
Getting a strong signal
For the first 15 years, KTUH ran at 100 watts at best—about the strength of a light bulb—producing a signal that barely reached the student dorms and playing albums and audio tape spliced with a razor.
Community DJ Kevan Scott is a holdover—continuously involved since 1973—who counts Congressman Neil Abercrombie among his listeners. Scott’s Saturday afternoon Burnt Speakers show reflects his dedication to ’50s, ’60s and ’70s rock and the Americana, folk, jazz and blues that grew out of it.
"We went from sitting in a studio in Hawai’i Hall with a psychedelic clock on the wall and a window that looked over the grounds to the windowless room in Hemenway Hall, where it still is today," recalls Wiorek.
Because the station’s early reach was relatively insignificant, the Federal Communications Commission paid little attention, and the culture that grew around KTUH was even more freewheeling than it is today. Privately, early alumni reminisce over the wildness of their youthful radio experience. Few care to see such reflections in print, so readers will have to imagine life at the less regulated, hippie-run station.
Maturity requires adjustment. People who felt they had a right to their shows learned that they needed to comply with regulations, observes attorney Brion St. James, who enjoyed college radio so much in the ’80s that he still volunteers at a station near his home in Sacramento.
An increase to 3,000-watt signal strength and a new frequency reaching the Windward side in the last five years required a rise in the level of professionalism to meet the expectations of a new audience.
Still, like its listeners, KTUH hasn’t abandoned its roots. "The station is an oasis of individualism in a desert of homogenization," says U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie. "I enjoy it every time I listen, and it’s heartening just to know it exists."
University Radio Hilo is new kid on the rock
On the Big Island, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and Hawaiʻi Community College operate a small but buzzing musical haven known as University Radio Hilo.
Four years after students Z Knight and Mark Farrell, both slated to graduate in May 2006, wrote the charter and secured funding to launch URH as an internet station, students and staff installed four tenth-of-a-watt transmitters on the roof of the UH Hilo Theatre in March 2006. The transmitters extend an AM broadcast to a 3-mile radius that includes 10,000-15,000 people in Hilo’s urban center.
"The AM station is one more way to make town and gown closer," says staff advisor John Burnett, who’s spent 30-some years in radio and journalism, including a 14-year stint as the play-by-play announcer for the Hilo Vulcans, since cutting his teeth at UH Mānoa’s station KTUH.
Reflecting on the mostly 20-somethings who made the station a reality, he says, "I couldn’t be prouder of them if they were my own children."
On the URH website, listeners can send requests and messages to the DJs live and search the station’s small but growing music collection. Pukas in the schedule create ready opportunities for the right student DJs.
When there are no shows on the air, URH offers an automated playlist handpicked by staffer Dori Yamada, a Hilo alumna Burnett calls "a hip indie rock chick with great taste in music."
The resulting sound is reminiscent of the short-lived yet much-loved Radio Free Hawaiʻi—a mosaic of songs from a variety of genres that work together while flouting the rules of conventional broadcasting.
Listen online or tune in at AM 1640 in Hilo.