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.
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.
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