Explosive expansion of radio choices has occurred on Kaua’i

If someone would have told John Wada five or 10 years ago that the number of radio stations on Kaua’i was going to quadruple, he probably would have asked them what they’re smoking.

Then, a crazy little thing called deregulation came along, and anyone with a bit of money, ambition and open signal area on the FM dial could become a station owner.

Where radio reality on Kaua’i is concerned, a station needs an island-wide signal to draw island-wide listenership, said Wada, general manager of FM97 (KFMN, 96.9 on the FM dial) and the island’s newest station, The Wave (KAWV, 98.1 on the FM dial).

But, the Federal Communications Commission when deregulation came around decided different towns on Kaua’i each deserved at least the opportunity to become homes of radio stations, so licenses were offered for towns from Kekaha to Ha’ena, Wada explained.

The result has been a proliferation of stations, at least 16 either on the air of approved for broadcast, with a variety of formats ranging from teen and adult gospel and religious to talk to rock to oldies to island music.

“Are all these stations making money? I don’t think so,” Wada said.

While Wada personally feels it’s “overkill” for the FCC to allow that many licenses in a small market like Kaua’i, he and partners including Ray Paler are in the process of acquiring their second station, KAWV, from California-based owner Ohana Partners.

On the air since late August, The Wave, or Kaua’i’s Wave, features a hot adult contemporary format aimed straight at the island’s younger males and females.

“The niche that we have decided to chase after has been disenfranchised, if you will,” he said of the island’s younger listeners. He feels they have turned to CDs and away from local radio stations as formats have changed to lure older listeners.

He called younger listeners “a niche that isn’t being adequately served,” even by FM97, which intentionally aims for local female listeners ages 25 to 54.

That programming has been so successful that other Kaua’i stations have tried to imitate it to lure FM97 listeners away, he said.

On the air since 1988, FM97 has 100,000 watts of power, and is locally owned by FM-97 Associates. Wada did not wish to disclose the names of other partners, who are also in the process of purchasing KAWV from Ohana Partners, and are operating the station under a limited marketing agreement.

Three other Kaua’i stations also have 100,000 watts of power. The Wave is broadcasting with 50,000 watts.

The proliferation of local radio stations has made more acute a shortage of trained, local, on-air personalities, Wada said. FM97 has had success cultivating largely untrained local folks and making them popular announcers.

The Wave, for now, is served by a programming service, where Mainland-based announcers are fed via e-mail copy for local advertisements and local weather, he explained.

As radio is an ever-changing entity, The Wave’s owners are experimenting with various voices, and may eventually decide to go live and local, Wada added.

Again for now, the new station is sharing office facilities with FM97 in Puhi, and one advertising sales force is selling advertising time on both stations.

While sales representatives of other stations under single ownership offer packages with ads to run on all their stations, it has been the strategy of FM97 and The Wave salespeople to sell the stations separately, as distinct entities, even though they are linked now and destined likely to become owned by the local partners eventually, he said.

Finally, Wada feels a philosophical decision needs to be made in local radio, whether the owners view their properties as commodities, or as vehicles to provide service to the community.

Business Editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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