Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, June 3, 2001


Norm Winter, founder of Radio Free Hawaii, now runs the
music department at Jelly's, and in the 10th anniversary of
the radio station's birth, is aiming for a comeback.

Bob Marley
met Nirvana

DJs revel in the magic
that was Radio Free


Shawn 'Speedy' Lopes

NORM WINTER cannot believe the paranoia that consumes the radio industry. Even after his revolutionary listener-driven, ballot-counting programming helped propel KIKI AM to the top of the local station rankings in 1979, the music retail mogul-turned-radio maverick could not convince station executives that his populist format was not an omen of the end of the world.

"Once, we put on the Clash's 'London's Burning' because listeners voted it in at No. 18," he says with a sly grin, "and the program director at the time ran into the studio and ripped the record off the turntable in the middle of the song."

Then in 1985, at floundering AM outlet KWAI, a deejay, driven to madness by the fact that he was obliged to play Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" thanks to Winter's formula, threw a punch at his head, missing him by mere inches and imbedding his fist into the studio's wall.

But Winter knew that he or, more important, the ballot-casting public was onto something big, triggering a "radio revolution" that began 10 years ago this weekend in June 1991. Although the revolution ended six years later, a 10th-anniversary celebration of Radio Free's birth is being planned for the end of the month.

When Radio Free began, the music industry was on the verge of a cultural explosion. Radio was behind the times, but Winter had already glimpsed the future. Before Hawaiian stations began incorporating reggae into their playlists, artists like Bob Marley (Hawaii's all-time top seller by Winter's estimates), Gregory Isaacs and Alpha Blondy were virtually ignored. On a national level, it was years before the advent of alternative rock as a standard format, yet Radio Free Hawaii gave voice to alt-rock icons like Depeche Mode, the Cure, Jane's Addiction and Ministry, who were singled out as early favorites through listeners' ballots. Hawaii listeners would also discover ska music two to three years ahead of mainland counterparts.

The Radio Free crew shared a happy moment in this group
portrait taken at the Waialae Iki home of Wally Fujiyama.
Fujiyama's son, Keith, was involved in the station.

Back then, armed with knowledge of what was happening in music through sales at his Jelly's music stores, Winter tried to sell radio executives on his ideas.

"I finally found a guy that would go for it at KDEO," he says, speaking of the late Bob Loew of Loew Broadcasting Inc., who believed the concept would bring his station more revenue than its then-country music format.

Radio Free's playlist was based on songs voted by listeners. Songs from every imaginable genre sometimes blended magically; other times, they jolted the ears of its audience, but each carried impact. Often, songs that were overplayed on other stations accumulated mass negative votes. Winter deemed them "air hogs," and once a week, listeners tuned in to hear him take a sledgehammer to the offending artists' CDs.

"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."

Although the station at 102.7 FM garnered top honors in Honolulu Weekly's yearly surveys and was voted among America's best stations in Rolling Stone's annual readers' poll every year it was eligible, Radio Free Hawaii usually placed near the bottom of the ratings handed out by Arbitron, the industry's unquestioned ratings authority. To its legions of listeners, seeing Radio Free Hawaii fall behind a Muzak station like KUMU was perplexing. For employees who saw how phone lines would light up incessantly, it seemed absolutely ludicrous.

Because stations rely heavily on these diary-based ratings to justify advertising rates, the results were particularly damaging. In 1992, unwilling to pay a $50,000 fee to subscribe to Arbitron's services, Winter decided to put together his own team, randomly calling thousands of Honolulu households, from numbers in the phone book, every night over a two-week period. The results were shocking, he said, showing his station was among the top three.

In response, he said, Arbitron officials told him, "You're doing a lot better."

One surf shop took its own in-store survey results to their ad agency when Radio Free Hawaii came in first, contrary to what their agency had been told by Arbitron. Perhaps also aware of Radio Free's influence, other stations dabbled in songs already popularized on the renegade station (even KQMQ tried out a Smashing Pumpkins track in the mid-'90s) or, in the case of KPOI, changed their format altogether to appeal to a younger, more progressive audience.

Winter says he now realizes that much of his resources were spent competing with other stations for ratings he believed a nonsubscribing station would never get. If Radio Free Hawaii emerges a third time (investors are interested and are waiting for an open signal), he has a simple solution to the radio rat race: "Don't even let Arbitron list us, because we have that right," he says. "Then no one can hold us by the throat and say how many listeners we have and how many we don't."

Confirming its status as a vital force in radio, Australia's Triple M FM, which broadcasts in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, employed Winter's system in 1993.

"When I was down there the first week, I took cabs and every driver knew about it," Winter said. "They were telling me about the station without knowing I was actually involved."

In the end, however, unable to work record labels into the equation and horrified by the prospect of King Missle's "Detachable Penis" reaching No. 1, Winter says the broadcasting giant phased out his system. "As usual, the deejays wouldn't go along with the instructions we gave them, and the program director chickened out," he huffs. "It went downhill soon after."

In 1994, with expectations of a bigger payoff, Loew Broadcasting switched to an ill-fated classic rock format which, despite the assurances of a mainland consulting firm, lasted a mere six months before returning to the Radio Free format. In 1997, after the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its limits on ownership in local markets, Loew Broadcasting sold its signal.

No longer would audiences be privy to the madcap hysterics of Mohammed, the Bangladeshi-born deejay with a bizarre sense of humor and interminable penchant for social and political topics. "Lips" (Don Fujiyama on his driver's license), Radio Free's morning prankster, became a one-man marketing machine; Byron the Fur traded in his microphone for a set of turntables and now works as a deejay several nights a week at Wave Waikiki; and Kai, who has since relocated to Los Angeles, works numbers for Fine clothing.

"The biggest question I get asked now is, 'Did you guys actually get paid?'" remarks Kathy Nakagawa, or "Kathy with a K," I-94's current midday hostess and the only Radio Free alum still on the air in Hawaii.

"The other one is, 'Is Mohammed for real?'" adds O'Day with a cackle.

In the near future, as alternative advertising outlets begin to surface through new technologies, Fujiyama believes radio stations will either be forced to drop their rates dramatically, sell off their stations or cease to exist altogether. "When it all comes down, it'll balance out," he says with a confident nod. "Norm will be back on the air sooner than people think."

Shawn "Speedy" Lopes is an alumnus of Radio Free Hawaii.

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