KZOO celebrates 45 years of serving Hawaii community
POSTED: Saturday, October 11, 2008
KZOO-AM 1210 signed on the air Oct. 18, 1963, and has been serving its primarily Japanese-speaking audience daily with news, entertainment, music and perhaps most importantly, a cultural connection.
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The lone station licensed to Honolulu-based Polynesian Broadcasting Inc. has outlived competitors; risen above industry consolidation; employed some of Honolulu's most enduring radio personalities and hosted or sponsored cultural events.
The driving force behind KZOO's success was the late Noboru Furuya, who bought the station in 1967 rather than become just an investor, said daughter-in-law, Robyn Furuya, executive vice president.
A former Honolulu Rapid Transit driver and Army veteran of the 100th Battalion, he also owned the Nippon Theater and partnered with Japan-based Shiseido Co. Ltd. to introduce its cosmetics to the United States, through Hawaii.
Furuya was adept at cross-promotion generations before terms like cross-platform-integration entered the business lexicon, said son David, now president of Polynesian Broadcasting. He would have visiting Japanese celebrities appear at the theater and radio station and would advertise Shiseido products on the air and on slides at the theater, for example.
Even now, celebrities who won't visit radio stations in Japan without appearance fees will drop in to KZOO for free while in Hawaii, Robyn said.
David and Robyn became involved in day-to-day operations in 1996, as Noboru's health declined from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
They now live and breathe KZOO and reside three minutes away with their four children.
David's mother Mitsuru, 87, was never involved in KZOO operations, "but behind the scenes was involved with everything," he said.
When performers or executives would come for theater, cosmetics, radio business or all three, she would entertain them, drive them around and serve as "a goodwill ambassador," Robyn said.
Staff as ohana
Noboru Furuya felt each member of each of his businesses was as integral as part of a clock, David said, explaining that all were valued and needed to make things run smoothly.
KZOO's veteran announcers include Keiko Ura, who joined the station six months after its launch. Her Okinawan-language program from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Sundays has aired ever since - and if it is not the longest-running radio show in Hawaii, it is among few of such duration.
Harumi "Danny" Oshita was with KZOO "from the beginning," Ura said. He left to join the old KOHO-AM 1170, but has long been back at KZOO.
Maki Norris signed on in 1976 and hosts shows including one of the twice-a-weekday "Moshi-Moshi Time" programs. Listeners call with questions and even if Norris knows the answer, she waits for other listeners to call in with answers - to help build a sense of community.
KZOO announcers all sell advertising and are well-known among sponsors for verbally driving hoards of listeners to events and product demonstrations.
Well before he bought the station, Furuya built a Japan-Hawaii connection that the station has maintained.
He mortgaged his home to bring a kabuki theater production to Hawaii for the 1964 opening of Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Ura, a former Japanese language school teacher, started a Japanese speech contest in 1965. "Nihongo Hanashikata Taikai" is now open to public and private high schools statewide. This year's winner represented Hawaii in a national speech contest in California.
As a young contestant Robyn was among many who received Nippon Theater tickets for participating, not knowing Furuya would be her future employer and father-in-law.
Prior to the karaoke craze, Furuya staged nodojiman competitions in which people would sing to live accompaniment at the theater. Performances would be rated positively with a chime or negatively with a gong.
"I got gonged," Robyn laughed.
Furuya once returned from a Japan trip with a karaoke record, which he gave to Ura with instructions to figure out what to do with it.
The Karaoke Festival followed as a way to mark the station's anniversary. Its first year at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel sold out quickly so it has been at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel since the second year.
Singers from ages 3 to 94 have competed in five age divisions to represent Hawaii at the championship in Japan, and judges include Japanese record producers as well as Karen Keawehawaii.
The 28th annual festival and 45th anniversary celebration at 10 a.m. next Sunday will showcase Hawaii's major karaoke instructors, Robyn said.
Airwaves over ocean waves
KZOO has a long history of simulcasts with Japanese radio stations and it "would rebroadcast short-wave pickups from Japan," according to Brock Whaley, a broadcast historian who works in Honolulu radio.
Live broadcasts from Japan included sumo tournaments via phone line.
Radio listening traditionally falls at night, but KZOO's was "spiking up really high" and ratings service Arbitron called wanting to know why, Robyn said. It was because of the sumo broadcasts, when local interest was at its apex.
Many pre-arrival Japanese visitors know about KZOO because of Tokyo Broadcasting System personalities Hiroshi Ikushima and Takero Morimoto, whose shows air on KZOO. Part of Ikushima's shtick is to announce that the show is heard throughout Japan, in Okinawa, Los Angeles and on "Hawaii KZOO."
Despite the elder Furuya's business acumen, his vision for KZOO was always to serve the community, David said.
Radio and television stations are licensed by the government to operate in the interests of their communities.
Furuya went beyond that, putting his home on the line once again, this time to keep the station afloat, David said.
Elected officials make regular appearances to address the audience and listen to input.
A listener once complained of a crack in the sidewalk near their home and by the politician's next appearance it was repaired, Robyn said.
After a two-year hiatus, Dorothy Hoe will return to KZOO next year to guide listeners on where to get various government and nonprofit services. During her previous run, she would often prepare and deliver food to listeners desperate for help.
Some KZOO programs are older than their listeners, including a 30-year-old doctors' show featuring a rotating stable of health care providers that answer listener questions. It is presented as a community service and is not paid for by the doctors.
KZOO does have time-brokered shows, where someone buys a block of time and provides a station-approved program. One example is an immigration attorney who sponsors his own show.
Back-up power on board
KZOO was among many stations knocked off the air by the 2006 Big Island earthquake, leaving non-English-speaking listeners without emergency information they could understand. Assistant General Manager Kaoru Ekimoto called KSSK-FM 92.3/AM 590, which put her on the air to report the news in Japanese. At KZOO, a corded phone was used to answer listener questions one by one.
As a result of the Governor's Comprehensive Communications Review Committee and state Adjutant General Bob Lee, KZOO has back-up power for its transmitter and will soon have studio back-up power in place.
A longtime perception is that KZOO listeners are elderly, but that is only partly true.
Like many of his contemporaries, Noboru Furuya was nisei, or a second-generation Japanese-American.
KZOO programming appealed to them as they aged, but it was also a natural touch-stone for "shin-issei," or newly arrived first-generation Japanese-Americans who are often young, female and newly married.
"When they first come, they don't have friends and there's no support system," David said. "As they listen to programming that's really useful for their daily lives, they become hooked and they start participating in different activities like 'Moshi-Moshi' and you know, it goes on from there. They were helped, so they start helping people."
The other stalwart all-Japanese radio station in Honolulu was KOHO-AM 1170, which signed on in 1959.
In the 1980s, tourist-aimed Japanese programming hit the FM dial at the brand-new 99.5. Japanese programming branded as KJPN appeared on other stations that needed content.
They are gone.
KJPN left KORL-FM 101.1, which now plays smooth jazz; 99.5 FM went off the air following a raid by the U.S. Marshals Service and has new owners; and KOHO went dark in about 1990.
KOHO was on the old KAIM-AM 850 tower in Kaimuki "and when that tower went down, they could not find another tower to go on," said Whaley.
"KZOO outlasted them all."
A locally owned rarity
It is significant that KZOO survived as a standalone station following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed ownership rules and caused cascading consolidation in the broadcast industry.
"Many people have asked to buy our station, but our answer has always been that we're doing it for the community," Robyn said.
KZOO has endured financial challenges. Before David and Robyn became active operators, the station had written off nearly $100,000 in receivables. After she joined the company, Chief Financial Officer Cynthia Uyehara collected about three-fourths of it, Robyn said. Both Robyn and David liken Uyehara to an older sister and praise her astute budget forecasting and management.
The Furuyas plan to establish a nonprofit foundation to expand KZOO's reach.
They will continue to adjust the programming mix in order to stay relevant to its Japanese-, Okinawan- and English-speaking listeners.
"Where my dad was coming from, (KZOO) plays a big role in the community and it needs to continue ... We'll never be number one in the radio world, but I guess for what we do I think we feel we're pretty high on the charts," he said.
Tuning In: KZOO History At A Glance
After serving in the Army's 100th Battalion, Noboru Furuya opened Nippon Theater, formerly called the Park Theater, purchased in the 1930s by his father.
Noboru Furuya established Shiseido of Hawaii Inc., after being approached by Japan-based Shiseido Co. Ltd. He later sold his stock back to Shiseido. Retired in 1988.
KZOO-AM 1210 signed on the air with primarily Japanese programming. It is licensed to Polynesian Broadcasting Inc., established in 1960.
Japanese-school teacher Keiko Ura joined KZOO as an announcer, six months after station debut. Her Okinawan-language program "Kariyushi To Tomoni" has aired from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Sundays ever since.
First "Nihongo Hanashikata Taikai" (Japanese language festival) was held. Ura started this contest for all Japanese language schools. Following the decline of Japanese schools, the contest was opened to public and private high school students statewide.
Noboru Furuya bought KZOO.
Announcer Maki Norris joined KZOO and is still a popular personality, driving listeners to sponsors' events. When she mentions that something is delicious at a sponsor location, they quickly sell out of that item.
Nippon Theater was closed, following declining attendance.
Oct. 25: KZOO's 18th Anniversary Party and first-annual "KZOO Karaoke Taikai" was held at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel to an overflowing crowd of 300 people that extended to the outside pool area.
Noboru's son David married former KZOO disc jockey and 1987 Cherry Blossom Festival court attendant Robyn Kosaki, who had also been a contestant in KZOO speech and song contests over the years.
David and Robyn become involved in day-to-day station operations, given Noboru's health, in decline from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
David Furuya became president of Polynesian Broadcasting, licensee of KZOO.
Station visionary Noboru Furuya died at age 82.
Marking its 45th anniversary, KZOO is preparing for its 28th annual Karaoke Festival on Oct. 19. The grand champion will represent Hawaii at the 25th Annual Nippon Amateur Kayo Sai Grand Prix in May 2009 in Tokyo.