Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Radio Days

Story by Liza Simon. Photo by Tommy Shih.

Harry B. Soria was 27 when he first went live with Territorial Airwaves in 1979. His father and grandfather had pioneered the rise of Hawai‘i radio, and Harry B. grew up watching them make Honolulu airwaves a haven for Island musicians. Many of those same music makers remember him from when he was a boy and today drop in to talk story or jam during Territorial Airwaves. “I would get callbacks from these tutus [grandparents] telling me, ‘Hey, thanks to your program, my grandkids just discovered me!’” Harry says.

This summer, Territorial Airwaves turns 40, becoming the world’s longest-running weekly radio program devoted to Hawaiian music, overtaking Webley Edwards’ Hawaii Calls. It’s no surprise to his fans that Harry B. isn’t going to rest on those laurels: He’s just formed a nonprofit to archive the wealth of his radio show’s resources. This includes ten-thousand-plus platters of Hawaiian music, many of which are brittle 78s that once required him to swap out the studio turntable needles meant for LPs in the days before turntables and LPs were obsolete. Then he transferred the music on those relic vinyl records to digital MiniDiscs, just one of many examples of Harry B. keeping his retro-focused radio show up to date. Whatever the medium, his motive has always been the same: to shine a light on the entertainers and composers whose music played everywhere from Waikīkī showrooms to backyard parties in the decades before statehood—the era for which he named his radio program.

When local radio became less local and began limiting airplay to new releases at the top of the national pop charts, many predicted Territorial Airwaves would become dead air. Instead, Harry B. just changed stations. Today the show plays on Honolulu’s AM 940 and is live-streamed on the web. Among his audience, he counts “the new Hawaiian music traditionalists,” his term for young musicians who follow his show in hopes of unearthing tuneful, new-to-them gems. Several artists have re-recorded these discoveries, giving them new life in the twenty-first century and Harry B. a source of satisfaction. “If it is saving something so valuable from being lost forever, then Territorial Airwaves is relevant,” he says, “and I am happy to do whatever I can to keep it going.”