Trisha Kehaulani Watson: Radio station layoffs are a blow to Hawaiian music
I have a weakness for Hawaiian music. It wasn’t just my childhood music, but my grandparents loved Hawaiian music. He played all over their house every time we went to visit. It served as the base for all family gatherings.
My uncle played in the Olomana band so his teammate Haunani Apoliona played my first baby luau. Uncle Jerry Santos often played in our garage or in the garden of the house in which we had a paina this weekend.
These were not concerts. They were just how we celebrated. Almost everyone picked up a guitar or a ukulele. Everyone sang.
As a child, I had no idea of the extraordinary nature of these regular events. I remember lying on our living room floor, with its yellow shag carpet, wearing my dad’s Country Comfort eight-track tape. Hawaiian music is the soundtrack of my life.
Hawaiian music is a big part of the fabric that makes the islands so special. He always managed to straddle worlds: he would live in backyards and still support himself by working in Waikiki or other resort areas.
The woes of the pandemic
I am now married to a Hawaiian musician, Matt Sproat, and I can say from my front row seat to this world that Covid-19 has been a devastating blow. My husband, a full time musician, was actually on tour in 2020 when the shutdowns started. He returned home worried about what the pandemic would mean.
The loss of tours, concerts and other events has been crushing for the Hawaiian music industry – not only for musicians, but also for entertainers, DJs, sound engineers and all members of this once robust industry. . Government mandates have been slow to allow live music to return, even with Covid precautions in place.
Hawaiian music stations have been a lifeline, though radio DJs have also taken a hit when big events have been canceled.
“This has been a tough year for radio announcers during the pandemic,” said veteran broadcaster Billy V. “Some have had to work remotely; meanwhile, at the radio stations themselves, what would typically be a bustling hub of activity is continually a ghost town, as minimal crews and protocols are in effect.
Last week, to the surprise of staff and the public, Summit Media, the parent company of four local radio stations – Hawaiian 105, KCCN FM 100, Power 104.3 and KRATER 96 FM – laid off 20 employees.
These included longtime radio veterans Shannon Scott, Gregg Hammer and Billy V. Station general manager Andrew Rosen and operations manager Wayne Maria were also fired. Traffic reporter Danielle Tucker was also fired.
As their shows continue, largely with music and less banter, the layoffs have raised concerns in local and Hawaiian communities that Summit Media, which is based in Birmingham, Alabama, was giving an early signal that he might stop supporting local or Hawaiian music.
New Summit Media/Honolulu President Patti Ponimoi declined to comment on the layoffs, referring questions to the Alabama headquarters. Summit Media promised in a statement to Hawaii News Now that “it will continue the tradition of Hawaiian music and celebrate the culture.”
Summit Media provided no reason for the sudden layoffs. And it’s hard to know what the loss of so many personalities will mean or look like in the months ahead.
I couldn’t do the job. I don’t have the energy. It’s a job that requires a constant supply of energy that I would find exhausting.
“As radio personalities, we thrive on this business hub; this chance to interact physically and mentally. But when you do that remotely or virtually, it really numbs the experience,” said Billy V, who is also a regular on HNN’s ‘Sunrise’ morning show. “You try to give the best energy when you’re in the studio, and you do your best, but you always wish you could give more. The best thing though is that we continually get energy from our audience who always appreciate and give aloha back.
Local radio has been one of the few places where Hawaiian voices have consistently played a prominent role. Even though the DJs weren’t Hawaiian, Hawaiian issues and news were a constant thread. It was a space where the local culture, including the pidgin, was showcased.
Hawaiian musicians certainly have a deep appreciation for Hawaiian music radio‘s contribution to Hawaiian culture.
“Over the generations, Hawaiian music radio has always served as an important catalyst for showcasing cultural pride and identity through music and mele,” said musician and kumu hula Keali’i Reichel.
“It is the singular place on the airwaves where our collective Hawaiian communities across the pae ʻaina are able to connect, listen, sometimes engage, learn and bask in the brilliance of our kupuna. All in real time,” Reichel added. “It’s a space in which artists old and new fuse alongside the radio personalities who have kept their hand on the pulse of our lahui.”
Hawaiian music, Hawaiian voices
Reichel is right. Hawaiian music radio has always been about more than music. It has been a space where Hawaiians and Hawaiian issues have been amplified.
Much of this wealth comes from the DJs themselves; people like Billy V or Mele Apana.
“Mento” Mele Apana left Hawaiian 105 last year, but she’s a perfect example of the type of voice that’s valuable and needed on radio. She is the archetype of the “crazy tita”. She’s that crazy friend everyone has – the one who’s both outrageous and kind. And on the radio, as part of the Kolohe Crew, she became the crazy friend of all listeners and commuters.
The entire Kolohe Crew dealt with that kind of authentic local vibe – hilarious, unexpected, and real, without being offensive or mean. They were just funny and didn’t need to be at the expense of others.
Hawaiian radio has also been a space where new Hawaiian musicians have had the opportunity to be heard.
It was on Hawaiian radio that I first heard Keali’i Reichel when he released his debut album “Kawaipunahele”. Hawaiian Music Radio was where most of us first learned about new music and bands. Radio announcers are the facilitators of this growth and this process.
And while Summit Media says it remains committed to Hawaiian music and culture, it’s hard to know what it will be like without many of the personalities who have become synonymous with Hawaiian music radio in Hawaii.
Reichel sums it up perfectly: “With all the changes in Hawaiian radio over the past decade – and more recently – we hope this isn’t a harbinger of things to come.”