Aku energizedBy Burl Burlingame
ONE day in 1946, an out-of-work violinist in San Francisco took a job offer in Honolulu. It wasn't much, a couple hundred bucks a month as a staff announcer at KGMB radio, and he had to sleep on Waikiki Beach to make ends meet. Within two months, he was fired for insubordination.
Hal Lewis began writing for the ILWU and for Hilo Hattie, and lucked into a temporary morning DJ slot at KPOA. He made the most of it, using radio tricks he'd heard on the mainland, such as continuously announcing the time. One day, he got the time wrong by an hour and a woman called up, furious, and labeled Lewis an "aku-head."
Typically, Lewis was delighted and began calling himself "J. Akuhead Pupule," or just "Aku." By the mid-'50s, Aku was a force to be reckoned with in Hawaii radio, bouncing around various stations before settling back into KGMB in 1965. His run as a disc jockey was unparalleled, with influence far beyond the airwaves. Successors Michael W. Perry and Larry Price are still riding on radio-listening habits established by Aku.
Part of his charm was his contrariness. Said to be the highest-paid disc jockey in the world then, several times he was near bankrupt. A grumpy crank at the best of times, he was also a soothing presence during calamity. In an era of rock 'n' roll radio, he spun sappy '40s ballads. His morning radio show was a psychological gathering place, a breakfast nook in the ether where Hawaii's neighbors drank coffee, chatted and prepared for the working day. A lover of practical jokes -- such as one April Fools' Day gag in which thousands showed up for a fake parade -- Aku was also thin-skinned and bridled at the least criticism. A consummate entertainer, he insisted on being called a journalist.
He passed away in 1983 -- and even then, managed to orchestrate public mourning with a series of canny pre-recorded announcements.