Monday, March 19, 2012

Remembering Radio Free Hawaii, 15 Years Later

Radio Free Hawaii

Fifteen years ago this month, Hawaii's radio revolution was silenced. KDEO-FM "Radio Free Hawaii" only lasted six years on the air in Hawaii, but much like the late, lamented Indie 103.1 here in Los Angeles, it's still remembered fondly as a rare instance of a daring commercial radio station.

And even Indie 103.1 can't touch the uniqueness of Radio Free Hawaii, which existed in the final days of mom-and-pop radio. The station launched in June 1991 (replacing a low-rated country music station) with an unusual idea: Listeners would vote for the songs they wanted to hear, as well as the songs they'd like to banish from the radio forever. This was pre-Internet, so ballot boxes were stationed all over Oahu -- at record stores, clothing boutiques, book stores, you name it.

Each week, votes were tallied, and the station's playlist was filled with the songs that earned the most votes. The song with the most negative votes was sledgehammered off the air -- literally, the station took a sledgehammer and pounded the CD to bits, live on the air.

The voting system is what made Radio Free Hawaii different -- it was a station on shuffle, ten years before the iPod. Alternative and modern rock earned most of the votes, but reggae, Hawaiian, dance, top 40 and novelty songs were a steady diet as well. Pachelbel's "Canon" became an unlikely No. 1 hit at the station. The Muppets' "Mahna Mahna" was in heavy rotation. For listeners used to heavily researched, slick top 40, the station could sound like a trainwreck: A death metal song, followed by a classical track, then a reggae jam and a synth pop song.

Radio Free's personalities were just as unusual: "Mad Mohammed," a university grad student with a thick Pakistani accent, would talk about global politics at night while taking song requests (and gained a cult following). During the station's "Monkey Time," instant requests would only play for a minute, before another instant request was immediately played. And the station regularly invited listeners as guest DJs -- which is why I got to DJ on the station on three different occasions. (I still enjoy popping in those tapes every few years.) I was so inspired by the station that when I went to Northwestern for college, I named my late night WNUR radio show "Radio Free." And after years of proudly wearing my Radio Free Hawaii T-shirts, I've finally retired them (in order to save them).

Radio Free Hawaii began attracting alternative bands who might not have toured the islands previously. And word began to creep back to the mainland that this weird little radio station, broadcasting all the way out in Waipahu, was doing some wild things. Rolling Stone magazine caught wind of it and named it as one of the nation's best radio stations several years in a row. Not bad for a tiny radio market like Honolulu.

Radio Free Hawaii was the brainchild of Norm Winter, who owned the Jelly's Comics and Music stores that were popular spots and provided much of the station's staff (and music). Radio Free Hawaii never managed to pull off strong Arbitron ratings, but for kids like me, it was all we listened to. The station's events were always packed and everyone was talking about the station -- "Did you hear what they played?" But alas, it couldn't last forever.

By 1997, radio ownership rules had changed, and conglomerates were gobbling up the stations that were once independently owned. KDEO-FM was sold, and on March 7, 1997 Radio Free Hawaii ceased to exist. Winter and the station's staff attempted to resurrect it, but it never came to pass. Years later, the idea seems quaint -- Spotify, Pandora and, of course, iTunes, means that anyone can put together any kind of radio station they want to. But those services still lack the personality and the life that a radio station can have, and it's still a sad day whenever stations like Radio Free and Indie 103.1 go away. So 15 years later, a tip of the hat to a radio station that inspired me to think out of the box when it comes to music and broadcasting: Radio Free Hawaii.

Here's a 1997 news segment from soon after Radio Free Hawaii first went off the air:

And below, the very first Radio Free Hawaii music chart, from 1991. Notice that in the beginning there was a lot of top 40 mixed with the alternative; that would fade over time, as Radio Free became much more modern rock-intensive:

Radio Free Hawaii

These images come from Melvin Ah Ching's Radio Free Hawaii Chart Archive, which has a nice round up of the station's music playlists.

Also, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin did a "Where Are They Now?" feature on Radio Free in 2001; read it here. An excerpt:

"Ozzy Osbourne called me for an interview once, and he was just astounded by what we were doing on the air," recalls former Radio Free jock Dave O'Day. "He talked about how in England this type of almost 'pirate' kind of radio would never be allowed. He saw it as an anarchistic thing, and he was digging it."

Such divergent acts as Neil Young, Sonic Youth, Ice Cube and Fishbone marveled at Radio Free's concept and remarkable one-on-one relationship with its listeners. Even prior to their major-label deals, and years before their ascent on the national charts, bands like Nirvana, No Doubt, Sublime and Dance Hall Crashers had already gained huge local followings through numerous spins on Radio Free Hawaii.

"When it was still around, we could bring in three to four shows a month, and now we're down to one a month," notes Karin Last of concert promoters Goldenvoice. "Radio Free got people excited about hearing new music. It was more interactive than any other, and it broadened horizons for a lot of people. It really became a way of life for them."

And the pretty active I Loved Radio Free Hawaii page on Facebook features both former Radio Free staffers and fans reminiscing about the station.


Brian said...

I was privileged enough to live in Hawaii during Radio Free Hawaii's short reign. To this day, I remember it as some of the best radio I have ever listened to.

Sean said...

Thanks for this piece. I loved RFH! Ah, remembering the good old days. They played the best music. RFH exposed me to new music, opened me up to genres I would have never listened to. All the DJ's were awesome! Pretty much kept me sane, because of the great music. Awesome concerts & guests! Radio stations would be awesome, if they followed this format! They wouldn't lose so many listener!

Anonymous said...

This station kicked ass! Nothing like it before or since, anywhere.

Kim Sweeney said...

I miss Radio Free Hawaii, there has never been anything like it! I dig your website, I live on Big Island, but I was born in Echo Park! Aloha, Kim-Chee

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