Newsman thrived amid 'shenanigans'


POSTED: Monday, December 01, 2008

Forty years ago this month, Don Picken was hired to run KHON News as anchorman and news director. It was a time when you could still see Don Ho at Duke's at the International Marketplace or Sterling Mossman at the Barefoot Bar at the old Colony Surf.

“;I remember the wrecking ball take its first swing at the Queen's Surf,”; Picken said of the bar and nightclub. “;I still have my 'Save Queen's Surf' T-shirt. I was wearing it the day a big cop named Kimo turned his back from the swing of the first wrecking ball and wept.”;

He was aboard the islands' final USS Luriline cruise, and the islands' first 747 flight, in the company of Gov. John Burns and Charles Lindbergh.

During a recent return visit to the islands, Picken recalled not only his memories of presenting the news here, but why Hawaii still feels like home.

“;Hawaii and its people profoundly changed my life forever. I arrived for my first visit to take the job at KHON. When I stepped from the plane, I was overwhelmed by the aroma of the flowers everywhere and by the scent of pineapple from a nearby processing plant.”;

Picken's time in the news business had him interviewing the likes of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon as well as Elvis Presley, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Sally Field and other TV, movie and political greats.

One night, after he reported on the closing of the Hansen's disease colony at Kalaupapa on Molokai, he picked up a phone call from the islands' most famous entertainer. “;Don Ho asked me if I knew what the story really meant, then explained. He dared me to find out for myself, so (cameraman) Tommy Hisamura and I signed the Health Department waivers required, and we spent two days there,”; he said. Soon after their story aired, the state changed its stance and allowed Kalaupapa residents to remain if they chose.

Picken hails from Iowa, where he graduated with a business degree from Parsons College in Fairfield. After a stint in the Army, he took a job selling commercials for the local radio station. After filling in for a deejay, he was asked go on the air full time.

“;I realized I didn't know any old deejays, but I knew a lot of old newsmen,”; he said. “;I thought to myself, 'If you're going to stay in this business, you'd better get into news.'”;

After working at stations in Fairfield, Ottuma, Iowa, and Salem, Ore., Picken began his television career at KOIN, the CBS affiliate in Portland, Ore., where he anchored the weekend news. His next move was to KRON, the former NBC affiliate in San Francisco.

“;I always took my job very seriously, whether it was covering race riots at the Bayview Community Center in San Francisco or doing lightweight feature stories,”; Picken says. “;I worked hardest at becoming a good interviewer, tried to become a proxy for my viewers, asking things they'd ask in my place. I think I even succeeded at that sometimes.”;

After KRON he moved to WJRT, the ABC affiliate in Flint, Mich., where the general manager, Duane Harm, asked Picken to help boost the last-place ratings at his new station, KHON, then the NBC affiliate in Honolulu. In the fall of 1968, KHON was looking for a new anchorman as Mason Altiery had gone to work for U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink in Washington, D.C.

For the next two years Picken would be lead news anchor, working with Bill Baist, Bob Basso, Marsha Fried Bohnett, Bob Hilton and the late Charles Stubblefield.

Basso said Picken stepped into a local news scenario full of “;show-biz shenanigans”; that he learned to handle smoothly.

“;Joe Moore at KGMB was competing with me in sports to be the more controversial—taking pie-in-the-face pranks while I was showing the day's baseball scores on the body of a bikini-clad beauty,”; Basso said. “;But Don quickly saw that fun was important on the local scene and bravely allowed it to all unfold around him.”;

He was un-fazed by KHON's many technical glitches (such as news personalities appearing upside down on the air, or surprise guests walking onto the set), Basso said. “;Don never got ruffled and handled it with ease.”;

In July 1969, after the Apollo 11 astronauts landed near Wake Island in the Pacific, their first stop on the return to Houston was Honolulu, where they were greeted by 25,000 onlookers as well as President Nixon.

“;When (Buzz) Aldrin came through, Bob Sevey at KGMB was the 'pool commentator,' but audio from the airport failed and the rest of us sat in (our) booths trying to fill the silence over the live pictures for about half an hour,”; Picken recalled.

“;The moon landing was undoubtedly the most impressive news event in which I was ever involved. ... The closing credits, put together by Chip Ellis and the KHON tech staff, ran over the soundtrack from '2001: A Space Odyssey,' and it said simply, 'Produced by the people of the United States of America.'”;

In 1970, Picken left Hawaii for Sydney, to work in public relations. He returned to Oregon in the late 1970s and has lived there since, working in advertising, public relations and events management until retiring.

But he returns often to Hawaii. “;Hawaii has the sweetest people on earth. It's a very special place to me.”;