King Kong Radio Kauai
The Kaumuali'i Highway traverses the western side of the island
of Kaua'i, leading to historic Waimea where Captain Cook landed in 1778,
and where Russian traders built a fort in 1816. Along the way, it passes
through Hanapepe, famous throughout Hawai'i as the home of Leppert's
icecream, and the small shopping center that marks the village of Ele'ele.
As you approach from the east, canefields reach down to the sides of
the highway, and a tall radio tower is outlined against the blue sky.
Tune to 720 on your AM radio dial, and you're listening to a hometown
Pacific radio station that has little interest in commercial rating
games. Much like the icecream, it just reflects the local flavor. You're
listening to KUAI, licenced by the Federal Communications Commission
to broadcast from Ele'ele to the island of Kauai for 24 hours every
day with a transmitter power of 5000 watts.
Turn left at the Dairy Queen, find a space in the uncrowded parking
lot, and walk out the back of the shopping center. Only a satellite
dish and a collection of antennas on the roof give some hint that you're
looking at the studios and business offices of KUAI Radio. Local school
children have displayed colorful cardboard figures of Santa Claus, and
other characters, to brighten up the courtyard. The decal on the dusty
window reads KUAI/720, and concrete block public restrooms separate
the small studios from the small offices in the same single story building
backing onto sugar canefields.
20th Anniversary bumper sticker.
Owned by local people, KUAI serves the southern part of the island
with its strongest signal. The visitor industry is concentrated along
the north-eastern shores, and at nearby Poi'pu Beach, where refugees
from mid-western winters consider renting modern condos. Here in Ele'ele,
big fancy facilities don't impress the locals. Instead, it's the sound
of the music, the downhome friendliness of the DJ and the feeling that
this is their local station, that counts for much more. The Outside
Broadcast unit, of which KUAI is very proud, gets a lot of use around
the neighborhood, especially on high school sports days.
This is basic broadcasting such as you'll find anywhere around the
Pacific. The studio is small, the DJ has room to work the console standing
up, and full soundproofing is a luxury reserved for other stations on
the island. Madison Avenue marketing executives can say that vinyl LP
records are a dying breed, but they still hold pride of place in the
KUAI record library; along with a collection of vintage 45's, the ones
with extra big holes in the middle that were issued by record companies
'for radio station use only'. Of course, they have tapes and 'carts'
and a small production studio, one where the facilities encourage extra
flair and creativity. The news is basically of the 'rip and read' variety
off the teleprinter which helps link KUAI with the world beyond Kaua'i.
But the real local news and comment comes from a DJ who talks from the
heart, not a script.
The station noticeboard has a coverage map of Kaua'i, showing where
the signal is strongest on this mountainous island. They get reception
reports from as far away as New Zealand, the 280 foot tower out there
in the canefields pushing KUAI thousands of miles south through the
warm Pacific nights. They don't bill the advertisers any extra for the
bonus coverage. Instead, they get thank you letters from local service
clubs and schools for their public service broadcasts. KUAI has been
broadcasting on 720 AM for a long time, the locals know where to find
it on the dial, and the easy listening music format is one they're very
comfortable with. This is relaxed radio in keeping with the 'Garden
Isle', broadcasting local flavor as strong as that icecream just down
the highway, and tasting just as mellow.
KQNG 570 AM
Meanwhile, back up the island in Lihue, they've got traffic signals
and a brand spanking new air terminal that lands jets in direct from
Seattle and Los Angeles. They've also got a 55 foot inflatable King
Kong ape that you can find when something is happening with the crew
from 'KONG'. Actually, the real call allocated by the FCC is KQNG,
but it's become KONG for promotional purposes. Anyway, the movie 'King
Kong' was shot on the island, hence the slogan.
There's always something happening at KONG. After all, you don't
get to be #1 station on Kaua'i by not doing things; like letting a lucky
listener loose in one of the local shopping centers for five minutes
to see how much he can collect. Program Director John Cole reminds his
staff to collect all the receipts later; 'we've got to keep the paperwork
in line' he comments. This is a station that takes business seriously.
Over recent years, Kaua'i listeners have had to run up and down
the dial to find the station, which now seems settled on 570 AM after
many years on 1350 AM. Changing owners have also been reflected in changing
calls, starting off as KTOH,
then KIVM, then becoming KIPO and finally KQNG. The new owner also has
a station in Italy, but you'll find no Italian music here in Lihue.
Instead, on Sunday mornings, and from 7 to 10 every night, listeners
hear Hawaiian music on the Kaua'i Aloha Show. On Saturdays, you'll find
Country music. Kaua'i is a small radio market, and there's just no need
to have a totally inflexible program format dictated by advertising
dollars and the entertainment industry. However, KQNG keeps a close
eye on format trends in nearby Honolulu, and mainland magazines inspire
new promotional ideas. The AM outlet already uses new technology, with
pre-recorded music programs so that a part-time DJ can insert commercials
and local announcements as an operator assist. Only the FM outlet on
93.5 has the luxury of a fulltime, and live DJ. The budget simply doesn't
run to having two fulltime radio stations on air with live programs.
KQNG bumper sticker.
KONG has a modern image. The studios and offices are at 4271 Halenani
Street in Lihue.
Kaua'i's #1 is buzzing. They've got competition now from a new station,
KFMN, on FM 97, and you need lots of creative energy to stay at the
top. The new battleground for the Kaua'i listener is on FM, and KQNG
93.5 is determined to keep the high ground. For local listeners, it's
refreshing to have a 'big city' sophisticated sound in town, complete
with surf and resort reports. It makes visitors feel more comfortable
to hear more of the kind of radio they're used to back home. And, it
makes local visitor industry advertisers even more comfortable to have
the visitors listening from the resorts of Hanale'i in the north to
the condos of Poipu Beach in the south.
For now, KONG is still King of Kaua'i radio. But the air waves,
much like the sea waves that crash onto the rocky western shores of
Kaua'i are notoriously fickle. Unpredictable change is always in the
air. Stay tuned.
This article was originally prepared in 1989 by David Ricquish who is a member of the Radio Heritage Foundation Board.
All photos © David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation