Airway to Heaven

Free-rein college station KTUH has been igniting the radio airwaves for 40 years.

The station originally was named KUOH.

Photos: Courtesy of KTUH

"It’s a totally open format where the announcers are allowed the creativity to present what they want,” says Kevan Scott, a KTUH disc jockey since 1973. “There aren’t very many radio stations in this nation that have allowed the freedom that KTUH has in the last 40 years.”

It’s a statement that beats true. Dee-jays, who are either fee-paying University of  Hawaii at Manoa students, KTUH alumni or community members (a tough gig to secure, with 50 names in waiting), play three-hour time slots loosely defined by a certain genre—jazz, acid rock, reggae, hip-hop—with no forced playlist. Rather, songs are selected according to the dee-jay’s mood and by listener request—a far leap from commercial radio stations in which corporate big-wigs pre-program the day’s melodies in between a barrage of commercials, which KTUH doesn’t have, either. 

Dale Machado, in the station’s Hawaii Hall location, 1973.        

One of the few color photos existing that shows KTUH deejays moving the station’s tower into position in 1984.

This month, the free-rein nonprofit college radio station celebrates its 40th anniversary on the FM dial. To reflect upon its last four decades, a documentary featuring past and present dee-jays and more will debut to the public on Sept. 26 at UH’s Hemenway Theatre.

Few may know that KTUH (then-KUOH) got its start as a closed-circuit AM station in 1954. “In those days, professors of the speech and communications department played mostly classical tunes and ran news reports,” says Tony Phonpituck, KTUH’s jazz and blues director. The audience was diminutive; wires ran only from the station, formerly located on third floor of Hawaii Hall, to UH dorms.

In 1957—and no one really remembers why—the station was shut down. A decade later, three engineering students—led by Frank Barbaria—heard about a large amount of equipment sitting idly in Hawaii Hall. The trio asked the student senate if they could bring the station back up. Once they got the green light, they placed an ad in Ka Leo seeking volunteers.

“During the Hawaii Hall period, there was a long-haired counterculture philosophy that permeated the station,” says Scott, who adds that egg cartons were fixed to the station’s walls for better acoustics. “We played ’60s movement music, radical stuff like Jefferson Airplane and Marvin Gaye. It was music that was not being played on mainstream radio.”

That same mantra, to offer an alternative to students and the public, echoes into present day. For example, Scott was the first to play Jack Johnson on the radio, a request he received from the artist himself. What was once The Pakalolo Patch, has now evolved into Monday Night Live, which showcases live bands. On Sunday afternoons, you can hear Kipuka Leo, a show conducted only in Hawaiian.

 In 1979, the station moved to Hemenway Hall, where it remains today. One of its seven rooms, “The Vinyl Vault,” is a privilege just to stand in. “Very few people are granted access to this room,” says Nick Yee, KTUH’s general manager. Wall-to-wall shelves stop just short of the ceiling and are packed with old—and some highly valuable—records by the likes of Janis Joplin, Jethro Tull, Meatloaf and Nina Simone.

Art Caldeira spins a record in 1956.

In 2001, KTUH graduated from 100 watts to 3,000 watts, now reaching almost all of Oahu. Perhaps Kevan Scott speaks for Honolulu’s music-lovers best when he says: “KTUH is the best psychiatrist I could have. It’s an outlet, a release. Without it, I’d wither away and die.”

Rock on, KTUH.