You may have heard about our upcoming frequency change on our station, other stations, in print, on the news, or through word of mouth. it’s the end of an era as we shift from 90.3 FM to 90.1 FM, but the new move comes with a massive jump from 3000 to 7000 watts of power and signal strength!
James Charisma (on the air Wednesday afternoons from 3 to 6pm) recently put together an article explaining the change and giving a little bit of background, history, and context to what we’re up to and why this new move is our biggest news yet. Read on for more! And we’ll see you in January at 90.1 FM ISLAND-WIDE. From 1969 to now, thank you for keeping tuned to Hawaiʻi’s original, KTUH.
Change Is Gonna Come
Hawaiʻi’s Favorite Radio Station Doubles In Strength and Finds A New Frequency
By James Charisma
Bookended by two heavy metal doors on the second floor of Hemenway Hall at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus, the noncommercial college radio station KTUH is jamming.
Inside, volunteer student and community DJs play everything from Fifties torch songs to Italian pop, modern minimalist to Motown, delta blues and drum & bass, in three-hour segments 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Rolling CD racks carrying thousands of discs arranged alphabetically run the length of the long hallway that span the KTUH studios, which include production rooms, performance space for live bands, and closets filled with broadcast equipment. In the vinyl vault, floor-to-ceiling shelves line the walls, housing an assortment of vintage and rare records; the largest such collection in the Pacific.
“The station is an oasis of individualism in a desert of homogenization,” Former Governor Neil Abercrombie said in a 2006 interview with Jeela Ongley for Mālamalama, the magazine for the University of Hawai‘i. “I enjoy it every time I listen, and it’s heartening just to know it exists.”
For more than 45 years, KTUH has flourished, both at the University and throughout Hawai‘i. Here, the DJ is king; music gets airtime based on the merit of its sound and not the merit of its sales figures. Previously undiscovered and independent artists are celebrated–such as Jack Johnson, whose music made its radio debut at KTUH after the then-unknown artist himself called in to DJ Kevan Scott and asked to be played on-air. Scott can still be heard on the radio at KTUH today. Jack Johnson too.
“It’s a totally open format where the announcers are allowed the creativity to present what they want,” says Scott, a KTUH DJ since 1973, in an interview with Honolulu Magazine. “There aren’t very many radio stations in this nation that have allowed the freedom that KTUH has in the last 40 years.”
This coming January, “the only station that loves you” will make history again–this time with a boost in signal strength, from the current 3,000 watts of broadcast power up to 7,000 watts. The move will place KTUH among the strongest top 1% of college radio stations across the United States. It’s an incredible landmark for the first noncommercial radio station in the fiftieth state.
KTUH’s roots stretch as far back as 1954. Then, it was known as KUOH, and began as a six watt monophonic FM station. DJs consisted of Speech and Communications Department professors that “played mostly classical tunes and ran news reports,” recalls Tony Phonpituck, former KTUH Jazz and Blues Director.
No one remembers why the station was abruptly shut down just three years later in 1957, but it would take nearly a decade before three engineering students, led by Fred Barbaria, heard about the stockpile of abandoned equipment in Hawai‘i Hall. They asked the Speech Communications department chair, Richard Rider, if they could relaunch the station (as a closed circuit AM carrier current station) under the supervision of Speech Communications instructor Tony Bond. Once they got the go-ahead, they placed an ad in Ka Leo, the University newspaper, asking for volunteers.
Together, they formed a small committee as part of the Associated Students of the University of Hawai‘i (ASUH) student government organization in 1966, dedicated to music and broadcasting. Comprised of assorted ASUH students and a handful of professors, their goal was to offer an education in programming previously unavailable for students in Hawai‘i.
“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,” John Burnett remembered in Mālamalama. Burnett was a volunteer with the station in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
Using allotted committee funds, the ‘new’ station named “KTUH” (K being the national standard call sign for radio stations west of the Mississippi River, and TUH for The University of Hawaiʻi) began as an AM closed circuit operation using hand built equipment that reached the UH dorms. Fred Barbaria and ASUH Senator Ken Kuniyuki, the station’s founders, became general manager and operations manager, respectively. Chris Harrison, KTUH’s first chief engineer, built and installed the closed circuit AM transmitters for the dorms.
An instant hit among students, the ASUH began passing resolutions to petition then-UH President Thomas Hamilton and the University of Hawai‘i’s governing Board of Regents (BOR) to apply for an FM educational license. As 1966 rolled into 1967 and then 1968 with no action from the President or the Board, additional voices rose to support the fledgling station. First it was ASUH Senator Kuniyuki who sponsored yet another resolution to petition the BOR, then KTUH faculty advisor Dr. Forest L. Whan, then the UH Speech-Communications Department Chairman Dr. Richard Rider, and then finally Dean Furniss of the College of Arts and Sciences. In January 1969, the BOR authorized a filing for a 10-watt FM radio station on behalf of KTUH. By September that same year, the FCC granted the station its license.
In the 1968 license application to the FCC, KTUH’s responsibilities were outlined as “to provide the people of Honolulu with alternative programming for the cultural and educational enrichment of the students of the University and the community.” And now broadcast throughout Honolulu with an output power of 60 watts at 90.5 MHz, the station was able to do just that, becoming the first non-commercial FM radio station in the state of Hawai‘i. Popularity grew quickly for the new station, the only one playing something other than the same Top 40 hits that circulated on every other radio station in town. Instead, KTUH was constantly pushing boundaries. It was one of the first stations in Hawai‘i to play jazz, and greatly helped to popularize reggae and hip-hop locally. By 1970, KTUH switched from monophonic to stereo FM using a borrowed stereo encoder and transmitter and a homemade stereo console. In 1971, KTUH became the first radio station in the state to broadcast in quadraphonic sound. In 1973, a handful of DJs installed an ASUH-funded translator (repeater) in Kaimuki atop Leahi Hospital, expanding the station’s 10-watt signal into Kaimuki, Kahala, and Hawai‘i Kai. The Leahi translator was followed by the Mount Ma‘ala translator, beaming KTUH’s signal to O‘ahu’s north shore.
Before long, KTUH outgrew its small home in a radio lab space in Hawaiʻi Hall. With a grant from the UH Legislature in 1974 and the Campus Center Board in 1979, construction began on a new space for the station. When construction was complete, the new KTUH studios were double the size of the previous facility, with triple the previously available studio space, allowing for live music and performances, more complete news coverage, a larger vinyl and CD archive, and other special events. The station began hosting Monday Night Live, a weekly program dedicated to showcasing different local bands on the air with an interview and live performance. On Sunday afternoons, KTUH also launched Kipuka Leo, a radio program conducted completely in Hawaiʻian.
“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,” Bob “da Budman” Wiorek, a staff member from 1976 to 1984, described to Mālamalama in 2006.
Accommodating the station meant changes for the University too. In 1977, KTUH now fell under the umbrella of the Director of the Bureau of Student Activities, who recommended that KTUH become part of a new chartered organization, a suggested “Broadcast Communication Authority” (BCA) to oversee radio and film programming for the University. The BCA was granted charter in 1983 with KTUH in tow, allowing for steady funding for the station. Its first project: increasing signal strength for the station from ten watts to 100.
At first, the plan was met with much resistance from the University, whose administration expressed concern about issues of liability that might arise from putting uncensored college students live on the air to a greater audience. Ultimately, KTUH won out and the station received the boost, allowing listeners from the North Shore to tune in for the first time. Sometimes on a clear day, KTUH could even come through all the way atop Haleakala on Maui. Not bad considering 100 watts is about the strength of your average light bulb.
For the next 15 years, KTUH would thrive on 100 watts. Due to its relatively short reach compared to commercial stations broadcasting at 50,000 watts, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) paid little attention to KTUH, allowing on-air DJs to experiment greatly and for the station to develop somewhat of a freewheeling reputation. But while 100 watts was a considerable boost from the past, KTUH was still spotty in many parts of the island; the station had fans who weren’t always able to tune in.
In 1988, plans went into motion to grow KTUH further in an effort to increase signal strength once more. It would take 13 years and $68,000 (raised mostly through community donations and student fees), but the dream would be realized in 2001 when the station announced another boost, increasing frequency strength 30 times, to a whopping 3,000 watts of power.
“Studies conducted in 1998 concluded that we would nearly double our previous range,” said Lori Ann Saeki, then-general manager of KTUH, in an article for Ka Leo back in 2001. “We did run a few tests [on Aug. 14] and at just a thousand watts we could be heard clearly in Halawa.”
“What this will do is solidify [the station’s] signal in the city,” KTUH Chief Engineer Dale Machado told The Honolulu Advertiser. “You could get [KTUH] in the past … but you go behind a building and it would be gone.”
The projected coverage map that Machado helped develop for the FCC for the proposed increase featured three or four times as much signal strength and power as before. The huge boost was necessary just to reach listeners because of the many obstacles for radio waves on O‘ahu. If a radio signal hits something–like the Ko‘olau Range–it’ll bounce off. Partially to the Windward side and some listeners, but also a lot of it out into the wind. And by being on an island, much of KTUH’s frequency winds up broadcasting…into the ocean.
“The prediction is, a lot of it is going into the water, actually,” continued Machado, with a laugh. “The fish will get us good.”
In order to achieve 3,000 watts of power for the station, a 90-foot tall tower with a 4-bay antenna was erected atop the Social Sciences Building at UH Mānoa. A 2,000-watt transmitter located on the sixth floor of the building would send its signals to the larger tower, which would pick it up and increase it by 1,000 watts, before sending it out across O‘ahu.
But the move wasn’t without hiccups. In preparation for the wattage increase, the station discovered the tower was covered in rust. It had to be repaired and cleaned–a necessary move that set the project back eighteen months. Anti-rust coating was purchased at $200 a kit to protect against Hawai‘i’s highly corrosive salt air.
Later, KTUH was forced to go off-air for the first extended time since 1969 that the station had been off Hawai‘i airwaves. Just a few days before the station was scheduled to resume broadcast back in August 2001, more trouble: contractor Ross Putnam noticed damage on the new antenna. Two inner connectors, just a quarter-inch in diameter and an inch and a half in length, had been bent along with their sleeves. This tiny damage would’ve meant immediate problems for the new antenna, so replacement parts were ordered from the manufacturer in Bridgton, Maine. Another week passed.
Local media swarmed with anticipation. “The Little Station That Could will become The Little Station That Can, as the station that promotes itself as Hawaiʻi’s Only Alternative gets its long-delayed and long-awaited chance to prove itself,” Gary Chun wrote in the August 13 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. But “Electronics and FedEx permitting,” warned the same day’s Pacific Business News.
That Thursday, August 16, 2001, the parts did arrive. And KTUH returned to Hawai‘i, bright and early at 6 a.m., greeting waiting listeners with the first song over the air at 3,000 watts: “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Sam Cooke, sung by Otis Redding.
With a broadcast strength that stretched across all of O‘ahu, that change had come for KTUH. And three minutes later, change came again when the station began streaming a live broadcast online at www.ktuh.org. For the first time ever, Hawai‘i’s only alternative music radio station was available to listeners across the globe.
But with great power came great responsibility: KTUH’s increased wattage and reach meant more people tuning in to listen, requiring an increase in professionalism to meet this new audience’s expectations. KTUH was growing up. The focus grew even tighter when, just four years later in November 2005, the station began broadcasting on a new translator specifically for the Windward side of the island, giving KTUH a third frequency (along with Honolulu and the North Shore).
And now, 15 years since the last power increase (and 30 years since the one before that), KTUH faces another bold leap forward, making the jump from 3,000 watts to 7,000. The increase will place KTUH among the strongest top 1% of college radio stations across the United States. But as part of an agreement with Hawai‘i Public Radio (HPR), which KTUH’s new antenna and signal strength are piggybacking on, it means the station will have to change frequencies for the first time in more than forty years. Although the North Shore will remain the same at 91.1 FM, KTUH 90.3 FM in Honolulu and 89.9 FM on the Windward side will become just 90.1 FM for the entire rest of the island.
Growth is good for KTUH and the boost in signal strength will mean an even larger coverage area on O‘ahu and with better clarity. But for the change in frequency, KTUH risks losing some of their audience; longtime listeners who’ve had their dials locked to 90.3 FM for decades. Sometime either late this year or in early 2016, anyone tuning into 90.3 FM will catch just an adjunct frequency of HPR. KTUH will be gone.
Today, the station is in overdrive to spread the word about the frequency change. Although it’s not due for another two to three months, KTUH has three separate parties planned to raise awareness and celebrate the shift from 90.3 to 90.1, on the North Shore, in downtown Honolulu, and at home in Mānoa. A new logo is currently in development to use this opportunity as a rebrand for the station, with additional events and promotions planned for the next several weeks.
“KTUH provided facilities and experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have had,” says musician, writer, and recording artist Vivian Chow in an interview with Mālamalama. “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.”
Original KTUH General Manager Fred Barbaria is still in touch with the station, and is proud of the growth. “Glad to hear that my favorite radio station’s move to 90.1 at 7 KW is close to launching. Tantalus should be a great site for coverage,” says Barbaria.
“It’s a big deal for all of us here at KTUH. This project has been in the making for over [five] years, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” says current KTUH General Manager Nick Ciuffetelli. “The fact that KTUH is accomplishing this and still 100% student-run is what I’m most proud of as we make the move to Tantalus.”
There are those who will invariably question the boost in wattage and whether the move is worthwhile, if the increase means losing an iconic local frequency. This change represents a paradigm shift for the station and a move towards the new or the different or the future means a move away from the past, away from KTUH’s roots and heritage. Some will argue that the station isn’t what it used to be.
It isn’t. Because even from the beginning, KTUH has always represented a vehicle for change. Its very existence, an anomaly somehow brought to life through sheer force of will in the notoriously slow UH system. For close to half a century, the station has provided alternative radio programming, following (or ignoring) global music trends, offering audio and recording education for UH students and the community, introducing new artists to Hawai‘i listeners, and ceasing airtime for those artists who are too overplayed on other radio stations already. And after each step forward, whether it was to a new building, wattage level, or frequency, KTUH immediately began planning the next big move; it has never settled for just being ‘what it used to be.’
Much like technology, KTUH’s survival depends on its ability to evolve and adapt. Growth is not a novelty here; it is a necessity in order to stay relevant to listeners. Changes such as the boost in wattage is important now more than ever, in this era of iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify where audiences can listen to any song they want to with the click of a button.
Luckily at KTUH’s core is the one element that these technologies, with their vast capabilities, have been unable to fully replicate: curated musical selections. The question for audiences in 2015 isn’t figuring out how to listen to music; it’s deciding what to listen to. And for all the songs picked at random by computer algorithms on Pandora or sloppily assembled by strangers on Spotify, none can replace the experience or insight of a skilled, passionate DJ up to snuff about their music. What the world asks of KTUH now is simply to make their voice a little louder; to be better heard apart from the noise.
After all the years and the students and the changes, KTUH is still here. Still operating from a low key building on the UH campus, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a tribute to the open-minded and the unique; to those seeking an alternative to the mainstream for wherever they may be and from whichever generation they might hail.
“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 Mānoa music instructor and station alum Jay Junker. According to Mālamalama, Junker urged all his students to do shows on KTUH if they were able.
The station will continue to travel at light speed, from 1969 all the way to 7,000 watts and beyond, despite evolving music styles, technologies, and even a constantly rotating management staff comprised of incoming and outgoing UH students. Because at KTUH, change is the constant. Fifty years later, it was perhaps Otis Redding who explained it best.
“There was a time that I thought, Lord, this couldn’t last for very long, but somehow I thought I was still able to try to carry on,” Otis Redding sang in 1965. “It’s been a long, long, long time coming … but I know a change is gotta come.”