story by Ric E. Valdez
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
Sunday nights in Honolulu, you can travel the world without touching your radio dial. You want Italian pop? You got it, followed by a torch ballad from the Canary Islands, some Hungarian gypsy music, a Pakistani qawwali singer and some Taiwanese techno.
KTUH DJ Ling circumnavigates the globe
every Sunday night on Planet of Sound.
"If it’s music that has been put out somewhere... it goes on my show," says Ling, the dizzyingly eclectic host of Planet of Sound . Ling speaks in the soothing tones of a flight attendant and she has a sensational knowledge of world music—but despite her on-air skill, she’s not a professional DJ. She’s a student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and every week from six to nine, she’s got her own show on the college radio station, KTUH, 90.3 on the FM dial.
"What I like about KTUH?" she says. "Our format is so free. We get three hours to totally put out whatever we want to."
E-mails posted in the KTUH studio:
Thanks for playing songs I’ve never heard before....
I’m totally hooked on your station.
I listen via the Internet from the U.K....
I was in Hawaii last week and I wanted to tell you some of your shows flowed really nice....
I sit here at the Aquarium and listen to you all day....
This year KTUH celebrates thirty-five years of life as, in its own words, "Hawaii’s only alternative." The station is nonprofit, noncommercial, educational, and it offers listeners a change from commercial radio twenty-four/seven. You want a guarantee that you’ll hear music you’ve never heard before? No problem, your guarantee is iron-clad. Here’s a sample of KTUH programming: Thursdays nights, you’ll find deep house, lounge and trance. Saturday mornings, there’s jazz and poetry. Thursday afternoons, it’s Brazilian. Early Monday mornings, you’ll find punk, ska, rockabilly and hip-hop. Thursdays from noon to three, it’s women singer-songwriters. And that’s just a sampling. The station airs eight three-hour shows a day, seven days a week and staffs sixty DJs. When they say "Hawaii’s only alternative," they’re not kidding.
KTUH is located in Room 203 of Hemenway Hall, a low-key, two-story building that’s also home to the university’s only bar, Manoa Gardens. The station is an unofficial coed frat house for UH’s high fidelity crowd. In the corner of the production room, there’s a lumpy couch for power naps between classes and a Mr. Coffee close by. Spam musubi wrappers are plastered throughout the station. But actually, forget the frat feel: What’s really important is that the whole place is a free pass to miles of vinyl; thousands of compact discs; and all the mixing consuls, Technic turntables, amps, pre-amps, compressors, rack mounts and computers a DJ could ever want.
KTUH is also a shrine of sorts, to music and free thought. There’s a montage of concert posters on the walls, graffiti, esoteric felt-tip pen scribbles and politically irreverent cartoons. Doors are tagged with stickers from popular local bands like Go Jimmy Go and the now-defunct Del Gato. Many of these bands got on the air for the first time ever on KTUH’s Monday Night Live, a show that began as a casual kanikapila (jam) called The Pakalolo Patch and evolved into a benchmark for Hawai‘i’s underground musicians. At 10 p.m. every Monday, KTUH broadcasts an hour of original live music by a local band—and whether the musicians are super-tight or painfully raw, the station treats them like they’ve arrived.
Beyond supporting the music of the future, KTUH also honors the ‘olelo, or voice, of the Islands. Every Sunday afternoon from three to six, DJ Kahikina de Silva hosts Kipuka Leo , a show conducted completely in Hawaiian. You don’t have to understand the language to appreciate its beauty. Kahikina, who has a B.A. in Hawaiian from UH, speaks effortlessly and makes even the campus events calendar sound like poetry.
DJ Kahikina de Silva
hosts Kipuka Leo on
On air, she spins the stuff you can’t always find on CD, like E Ku‘u Sweetie by Myra English or the track she uses to end every show, By and By Ho‘i Mai ‘Oe by Na ‘Oiwi. Before she lowers the needle on the vintage record, Kahikina encourages listeners to tune in again next week for some more "i ‘ono ke kole"—literally, "sweet-tasting fish" but, as Kahikina explains, also used to mean "sweet conversation."
Kahikina is hopeful that there will come a time when a radio show in Hawaii’s native language will not seem like a novelty. "I have a lot of fun doing this show, but I take it seriously," she says. "I think there needs to be places where Hawaiian is spoken just for the heck of speaking it... where people understand and you don’t have to translate."
When Hank McMonigle started as a DJ at KTUH in 1972, the station was broadcasting at ten watts using donated equipment, and its signal barely reached the UH dorms. Vietnam was raging, Nixon was president and streaking across campus was as trendy for coeds as body piercing is now. In 1973 a tribe of longhairs, including McMonigle, installed a translator atop Leahi Hospital in Kaimuki; the translator expanded the station’s ten-watt reach into Kaimuki and Hawaii Kai.
Today McMonigle works in sales for a national radio station in Dallas. He loves radio still, even as he points out how the industry is changing: "KTUH is freeform... versus stations that are preprogrammed for profit. For consolidators like Clear Channel and Infinity, radio is all about the money. Whatever will appease Wall Street and stockholders is what they’re going to do. In most markets, they have expensed their way to profitability." For listeners, that’s translated into prerecorded generic programming, often created thousands of miles from where it’s heard.
It’s a long way from the freedom of KTUH and its mandate to provide for the cultural and educational enrichment of the community. "Any time we had between class, we were up at the station," McMonigle recalls over the phone of those halcyon days. "Music was everything, and we just did it because we loved it."
In the 1980s, Bob Duesterhaus was an adviser to students at the station; his young daughter Joee created what remains the station’s most-played i.d. when, as an exuberant five-year-old, she declared, "I listen to KTUH-FM Honolulu, Hawaii, every day!" In the early ’80s, Bob helped students create the Broadcast Communication Authority, which established steady funding for KTUH. With the station’s financial problems eased, a new transmitter was purchased. After much back and forth with a university administration concerned about the liability issues that might come from airing live and uncensored college students, power was increased from ten watts to 100 in 1985. Suddenly, people could get the station on the North Shore, sometimes—on a clear day—even high atop Haleakala on Maui. But it took well over a decade more for the station to get true juice. That happened on August 16, 2001, at six a.m. when KTUH started broadcasting at 3,000 watts. The first song over the air? Change is Gonna Come by Otis Redding. Three minutes later, Redding’s prophecy was further fulfilled when the KTUH web site was launched, allowing listeners from around the world to listen to the station in real time.
It’s been over ten years since KTUH’s most memorable shock jock, Mohammed Rouf, rattled cages on a weekly basis. The transplanted Bangladeshi (on-air name: Non-Prophet Mohammed) shared the mic every Sunday morning with his sidekick, The Irreverend Fixation.
Sitting on the bench outside of Hemenway Hall today, Moh licks his lips and smiles. "I miss that microphone," he says. "It was my way to share my ideas. Every time I come back, it’s a flashback," he says. He seems to be searching for a meaningful explanation. "Man-child... free-thinker... I think that’s what it’s supposed to be. You have no boundary... no border. I hope it’s that way today."
It is. Every Thursday morning from six to nine, Moh’s heirs apparent Mano Lopez and MC Capicoo take to the air as KTUH’s current provocateurs. Their show, Fistful of Ganas, is intended to make listeners dance and laugh. The music runs to salsa, merengue, Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz. As for the banter, there’s no script, and the two DJs blend like chorizo con huevos, with a rapport reminiscent of Cheech and Chong.
Ganas has its groupies. Members of the Latin hip-hop band Ozomatli stop by the station when they’re in town from Los Angeles, and UH President Evan Dobelle occasionally calls in for some spicy bachata or cumbia. Famed Hawaiian musician Henry Kapono tunes in regularly. "Those guys are hot," he says. "I like the play list... the diverse Latin music makes me happy."
For thirty-five years, KTUH has been making us happy. The station has grown from a flickering ten-watt embryo into a brilliant 3,000-watt creation: tune in to 90.3 in Honolulu and to 91.3 on Oahu’s North Shore. Online, KTUH is promoting Hawaii’s alternative and cultural voice to the world: Listen from anywhere at www.ktuh.org. At this stage of its life, the station is like that cool uncle who refused to cut his ponytail. His pad is kind of messy, but he has the ultimate music collection, and when you visit, he let’s you stay up late, put your feet on the couch, turn down the lights and listen to whatever you like. Like that favorite uncle, KTUH continues to let students—and listeners—crank up the music they live by.
KTUH will celebrate its 35th anniversary with a radiothon from October 3 through 9. A celebration concert is also in the works. To learn more about the station, view show schedules or listen online, go to ktuh.org.