Hiki Nō Celebrates 10 Years of Sharing Students’ Stories

PBS Hawai‘i marks a decade of the nation’s first statewide student news network with a special show. We look back at what it took to turn an ambitious idea into reality.



It begins with a screen that peels back to reveal a trio of smiling faces in rapid succession, each delivering a self-introduction with zeal.


“Aloha, I’m Christopher Kim.


I’m Dayna Yamasaki.


And I’m Justin Collado.


We’re here on the campus of our school, Maui Waena Intermediate, home base for this premiere episode of Hiki Nō, the first statewide student news network. Hiki Nō means “can do” and you’ll see what students from our team of schools can do. On the show you’ll hear from diverse voices across the island chain telling stories that connect communities, on Hiki Nō … Can do!”


The end comes with an energetic thumbs up. And with that, PBS Hawai‘i debuted the program that would give voice to thousands of students, from elementary through high school, from Lāna‘i to Hawai‘i Island. Every week, the half-hour Hiki Nō show broadcasts video pieces pitched, written, recorded and edited by local kids guided by their schoolteachers and honed by broadcast professionals. Student journalists have covered everything from homelessness in their neighborhoods to the challenges of transgender students at school to the Thirty Meter Telescope controversy years before the protests halted construction vehicles. They’ve also shown the typically mature PBS Hawai‘i audience how to use Instagram, the do’s and don’ts of Facebook and how to make a bristlebot with a toothbrush and a motor. But the key difference, and you can feel it as a viewer, is the way these stories are told—through the lens and language of the young storyteller.


SEE ALSO: 5 Hiki Nō Stories that Changed the Game for Hawai‘i’s Student News Network


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Pōmaika‘i Elementary School teachers Hazel Rico (left) and Joann Shishido (right) work with a student. Photo: Courtesy of PBS Hawai‘i



The first episode aired on Feb. 28, 2011, with pieces from nine campuses on four islands. But the creation of the program began years before. Then PBS Hawai‘i President and CEO Leslie Wilcox, Vice President of Programming and Communications Linda Brock and their teams developed an idea to form a student news network that connected schools on every island. By 2009, PBS Hawai‘i’s e-magazine announced that the now-named Hiki Nō had garnered $200,000 in grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The station kept seeking other grants and funding to get it going while compiling a list of media teachers across the state, working closely with Candy Suiso, whose successful Seariders Productions at Wai‘anae High School inspired the concept, and other experienced professionals, and building an infrastructure. Next, they began reaching out to educators to see who might be interested in joining the fledgling project.


“We were happy that, I think, 35 schools … on all the main islands, said that they were game,” says Robert Pennybacker, current vice president of learning initiatives and Hiki Nō executive producer since day one. “I think that was more than we expected. And then it quickly blew up to 55.”


Fifty-five schools all funneling ideas, questions, rough drafts of scripts, videos and everything else through a core team of three: Pennybacker, managing editor Sue Yim and then editor Lawrence Pacheco. “It was crazy,” Pennybacker says. “We just did it. It was a lot of growing pains.”


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Hiki Nō executive director Robert Pennybacker working with kids at Kanu o ka ‘Āina New Century Public Charter School in Kamuela. Photo: Stuart Yamane, courtesy of PBS Hawai‘i



And it took a lot of time. Every video went through PBS’ rigorous process to ensure only broadcast-quality pieces made it to the show. Story ideas had to be approved by PBS Hawai‘i before work began and schools were required to follow Hiki Nō’s guidelines to produce well-shot and composed video, clear sound and an interesting script while abiding by PBS Hawai‘i’s standards for objective and fair reporting. Equipment and experience varied, from seasoned teams with up-to-date technology to first-time media teachers with just a few cameras to go around. Most student teams needed to edit their projects multiple times, with PBS feedback each time, before their pieces were finally approved for broadcasting months later.


Even then, just getting finished pieces to PBS could be problematic. Uploading a huge video file was not easy for anyone in 2010, especially in areas with slow or spotty Internet connections. Many had to email fuzzy, low-resolution versions to PBS for tentative approval then send a flash drive in the mail hoping the full-resolution video would pass muster. Others had to drive to town or wait for Yim, Pennybacker or Pacheco to make the sometimes hours-long trek to pick up a 3-minute video. And if a package didn’t make it, if someone hit traffic, or if any other complications occurred, Hiki Nō still had to make air every week, on-time. Participating schools were expected to understand the strict deadlines.


The Hiki Nō team was there to guide students through the creative and technical steps, at all hours of the day in between their and the teachers’ other duties. They traveled to every island to work with classes. Pennybacker, especially, was stretched thin as he helped every school through the new process while continuing to produce the stations’ local programming. Still, the folks at Hiki Nō maintained their expectations.


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A Hiki Nō student team at work. Photo: Courtesy of PBS Hawai‘i



“In the beginning, we just said, these are journalists. We’re not going to soft pedal this; we’re going to work with them like we would our peers,” Pennybacker says. “We may have stepped on some toes but it also got some of the schools feisty.”


Some of the kids as well. He recalls a phone conversation with a teacher who was upset by the amount of re-editing requested for her student’s story. She told him it was too much and was basically cruel punishment for a child. Then, in the background, Pennybacker heard a small voice say, “You know, I think I can do that.’” It was the student, who promised to deliver the new draft by noon the next day.


Searider Productions Video and Journalism adviser John Allen III was in the inaugural class of educators. By then, the Wai‘anae High School-based media program was one of the top in the state, earning national honors for more than a decade. He and Suiso had already hosted workshops for other teachers building their own programs and were soon helping their Hiki Nō peers.


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Searider Productions Video and Journalism adviser John Allen III. Photo: Courtesy of Searider Productions



“A new school comes in, they look at what we’re doing and they’re thinking, we’re not this school, we don’t have this production, we don’t have these kids, there’s no way we can do this,” he says. “I knew that it was going to be intimidating. So how do we make it more approachable for people? How do we help them?”


Help was on the way for Pennybacker and Yim as well. By the time the first show aired, they had created a pool of local mentors for the schools: former news producers and reporters, documentary makers, videographers, editors and others with real-life experience, including myself, to coach the schools from the first story pitch to the final product.


Beyond the added training and input for the students, Allen says the student news network provided a way for teachers to meet and connect in a way not possible before. Hiki Nō brought them together for workshops on each island and, starting in 2014, statewide conferences where they could learn new techniques for interviewing, writing, editing and setting a compelling storyline from professional mentors and other school instructors. Allen would say at the start of his sessions: “The cool thing about this, guys, is I’m by myself at school. But here we have a team. And I think we should all remember that as we’re going back to our individual classrooms in our individual schools, that we’re actually not alone anymore, because of Hiki Nō.”


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Pennybacker working with students of Kua o ka Lā Public Charter School on the Big Island. Photo: Stuart Yamane, courtesy of PBS Hawai‘i



Allen, Pennybacker and Yim all immediately credit those teachers’ passion, tenacity and support for the ultimate success of the show, and for keeping it going. In 10 years, the largely grant- and donation-funded Hiki Nō has broadcast 1,142 stories created by teams at 109 schools. At the core was always the voices of the kids behind the cameras. To give you a sense of the range, I have personally mentored teams trying to explain why there are so many chickens on Kaua‘i, and teams that have taken us on a security guard’s journey to American citizenship, tracked the battle against little fire ants, and profiled a family that started a nonprofit after the sudden loss of their 3-year-old son. Many others have produced slice-of-life segments about their neighborhood stores, exceptional classmates, interesting community characters and cultural practitioners.


“I’m always surprised by the stories that come out, because these are ones we never saw when we were in news,” Allen says. “It’s not big enough [for that] but they are still very important stories to tell and these stories are amazing.”


Inclusivity is still the mantra.


“You may not get on the air yet until you’ve learned, but we’re not going to reject anybody who wants to try,” Pennybacker says. “That went along with the original spirit of the grant, community engagement, and that shouldn’t be based on how advanced or well-resourced your program is.”



Some things have changed. Uploading video to PBS is much simpler and faster. Hiki Nō is on Instagram and dabbles in TikTok. The team has years of resources, training videos, guides, iPad video kits and an archive of 242 shows to turn to as well as a large group of now-seasoned educators. But one of the most significant shifts, Pennybacker says, are the new directions they’ve explored beyond the traditional news stories at the center of the first shows. Students now have the option to create point-of-view pieces, inserting their own thoughts instead of a strictly objective tone. When schools went into distance learning, Hiki Nō asked kids to start producing short, simple student reflections, inspired by MTV’s confessional cameras, to talk about the good and bad of their lives during the pandemic.


Still, even new genres must remain balanced and fair to make it into a show. In a world where social media can spread misinformation and lies in an instant and distrust of news is at an all-time high, Allen says learning this is as essential, possibly more so, than the technical skills.


“You can pick up a phone and you can literally do a whole expose on somebody or bring awareness to an issue. So just learning how to be responsible with that is a huge deal,” he says. “Hiki Nō is one of the most valuable curriculums we have at our disposal in terms of media production because it brings out those conversations, those hard conversations. It forces the kids to make decisions that have benefits and consequences.”


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Waiākea Elementary School students record an interview. Photo: Courtesy of PBS Hawai‘i



Says Pennybacker: “The filmmaking and techniques and journalism aside, what I see coming out of the stories is a great aptitude for empathy and curiosity [and] wanting to solve problems, but really being empathetic to people who are different from you. And it’s very sincere, it comes out of them naturally.


“I say this, and it sounds corny, but this generation really does give me hope. Maybe because I get to see the best of it.”


The 10th anniversary show revisits with those Maui Waena Intermediate School students from the first episode, who are now in their 20s, and other students and teachers from Hiki Nō Episode 101. You can see it on PBS Hawai‘i on Saturday, Feb. 27 at noon and Sunday, Feb. 28 at 3 p.m. or on the station’s YouTube channel.


Hiki Nō airs new episodes every Thursday, 7:30 p.m., on PBS Hawai‘i. Watch past episodes and find out more at pbshawaii.org/programs/hiki-no. The final two shows of the 10th anniversary season air on PBS Hawai‘i on June 10 and 17 at 7:30 p.m.