Born of a hurricane, Kaua‘i Community Radio turns 10

When Hurricane ‘Iniki hit Kaua‘i in 1992 the North Shore was virtually cut off from the rest of the island. “We couldn’t get any radio signal from Lihu‘e,” remembers the station’s News Director Donna Lewis. The storm was the impetus for a group of Kaua‘i residents to begin looking for grant money to start a radio station, with the main purpose of serving the local community during hurricanes or other natural disasters. The young station was prioritized for a federal grant due to its geographic locale and by the summer of 1997, KKCR hit the airwaves with its first broadcast.

For 10 years the station, built and sustained by a dedicated community of volunteers, has become much more than a safe-guard in disaster communication — it is a powerful artery running from the very heart of Kaua‘i to the diverse community of the people who live and visit the island.

Finding the KKCR studio nestled among Kaua‘i’s evergreen northern jungle, down a circuitous bumpy road, and surrounded by potted palms and bougainvillea is like arriving at Bilbo’s house in the magical shire of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

The green house is lined with twinkling Christmas lights and the overwhelming amount of flowers invite bees and even an occasional hummingbird. The radio tower peeking out from the thick foliage is the only hint of what lies inside: state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment, a bustling office and DJ booth, with people who would look similarly at ease either kayaking around the Na Pali Coast, or sitting in the studio broadcasting thought-provoking, eclectic and locally relevant programming.

The station is “listener powered and commercial free” — this means that the entire operation runs on donations from members, grants, and support from local businesses. “Unlike commercial radio where so much of the programming is dictated by the corporation that owns the station, our programming is dictated by our volunteers,” said Lewis. “Our volunteers come from Kekaha to Ha‘ena — we have over 40 volunteer DJs who approached us with a unique idea for a show and now share it with the entire island,” said Music/Program director Ken Jannelli.

KKCR’s broadcast reaches far beyond the island of Kaua‘i through live-streaming audio on the World Wide Web. Station manager Larry LaSota said, “At any one moment, we can pull up the digital map of who is streaming our broadcast and it’s amazing. Asia, Europe, all over the world, people are listening to KKCR.”

While the aim of the station is education, entertainment and communication, it is linked to the Emergency Broadcast System that literally takes over the air waves in an emergency. “Community radio is much more than just being on air,” explained Lewis. “We attend community events like the recent county fair and Festival of Lights, invite schools to tour the facility, and hold special ‘mahalo parties’ after our pledge drives.”

For anyone who has listened to the wide range of talk shows that KKCR airs, from the politically astute and challenging “Democracy Now” produced by Free Speech Radio at Pacifica in Los Angeles, to local programs that provide a forum for vital community issues such as “Back to the Garden,” “Kaua‘i Soapbox” or “Health Talk,” they can understand when Lewis says, “we are grounded in this community.”

“While we greatly respect KONG and Ron Wiley for what he does, we hope to fill the void that commercial radio stations often leave,” said Lewis.

“We feel we represent the general vibe of Kaua‘i,” said Jannelli, “this is a diverse, rich, and isolated community — KKCR provides a unifying companion by connecting the island, not only with each other but with off-island listeners. Visitors who get turned on to the station go home and stream-cast KKCR — they even support us through donations.”

Jannelli manages the extensive and eclectic library of nearly 10,000 CDs and vinyl titles.

The station is home-grown, and over the past 10 years has become a respected and loved member of the community. “We feel a real responsibility to our listeners and residents of the island. We want to facilitate communication that is important to this population, whether it’s a lost pet, surf report or major emergency,” said Lewis. “Being non-profit and non-commercial allows us to create an uncluttered on-air environment, without commercial sponsors that tend to determine genre and programming.”

Underwriting director Dawn Jewell explained, “We have specific rules regarding our business sponsor announcements — no jingles, no use of superlatives, we basically try to have no more than three ‘mentions’ at the top of the hour. It’s uninterrupted and simple,” said Jewell.

With nearly a third of the annual funding coming from donations made during the bi-annual pledge drives, KKCR depends on the community to facilitate its broadcasts. “Federal funding has dropped significantly in the past few years,” said Jannelli.

For the upcoming pledge drive, KKCR has set a goal of $75,000.

All donations are accepted, but general membership begins at $40 ($20 for students and seniors). Becoming a member during the pledge drives often yields one of the many “mahalo gifts” donated by local businesses, “but so many people just call in to pledge and say ‘keep the gift,’ they are giving money because they understand we are only here because of them,” said LaSota.

“We are your station,” said Lewis.

Beginning at 10 a.m. on Monday KKCR will begin its spring fund drive, lasting until May 23. “Get involved, show your dedication to the station, there are so many ways to give — volunteering your time or your services, food for our volunteers, answering phones, products we can give to donors, or becoming a financial sponsor are just a few ways to give back. We really encourage high school students who may be interested in radio to call us, become a volunteer,” said Lewis.

The station is always looking for interested parties to get involved, share ideas or unique musical interests.

“We are our community and we keep growing to reflect each and every part of it,” said Lewis, “With only one full-time staff member and four part-timers, we are almost completely volunteer based.”

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