LIHUE — Disc Jockey, TV personality and all-around everyman’s guy James “JK” Kennedy died Wednesday morning at Wilcox Memorial Hospital of esophageal cancer.
“It’s sad; we’ve lost a legend,” said Dickie Chang, who was a contemporary of Kennedy’s during his time on television. “I would call him an icon.”
The 73-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, first hit the airwaves in the 1960s, streaming rock and roll in the Sunshine State.
“Someone just said the other day that he lived live on his own terms,” said Katie Beer, Kennedy’s caregiver. “He lived very frugally, but he enjoyed life and did what he liked to do. He made a living doing video production, which is really difficult.”
Bruce Smalling, who worked with Kennedy in the late 80s on the TV show “Kauai Tonight,” said he first caught wind of JK during that time.
“I was unconsciously aware of him back when I was a teenager in the 60s because he was a disc jockey back then and had a real distinctive voice,” Smalling said. “It was kind of scraggly.”
When Smalling moved to Kauai in 1970, he tuned in to the local airwaves and heard that same voice.
“I said, ‘That’s him,’ and subsequently I met him and told him all about it and he got a big kick out of that,” Smalling said.
Along with playing the Top 40 hits at the time, Kennedy’s radio show had a low-key Hawaii flavor that appealed to Kauai locals.
“He really liked to relate to the everyday man,” said Andy Melamed, who worked with Kennedy and had his own show on KIVM. “His radio show was low-key and very professional.”
Kennedy’s radio show also debuted the Kauai Buy and Sell concept decades before Facebook, Craigslist and the rest of the online shopping and swapping platforms existed.
“He did classifieds on his radio,” Chang said. “People would give him a Polaroid shot and a description and he’d put it up and didn’t take any commission. When it was off the market, he’d update new stuff.”
Eventually, Kennedy would continue that concept to his own TV show, “The JK Show,” the last episode of which he filed from his hospital room at Wilcox.
“The crazy thing about the TV show is that it was the same thing as the radio,” said Melamed. “It was a reflection of the lifestyle back then. It was sports and hunting and fishing, everything that was going on back then.”
Kennedy was also a fixture on Kauai Cable TV’s “Kauai Tonight,” a news show that aired in the 1980s.
“He was one of the newscasters and that’s how we met him,” said Marlene Matutino, general manager of Oceanic Cable. “Then the hurricane (Iniki, 1992) hit and that kind of went off air until we could recover.”
When “Kauai Tonight” came back on the air, Kennedy created his own “JK Show,” where he covered local sports, as well as hunting, fishing and other local activities. Kennedy did all of the camera work, editing, and anchoring himself.
“He was really a one-of-a-kind person and it was just a one man show, a stream of consciousness kind of thing,” said Smalling. “He had kids help him with videos sometimes, but mostly he did everything.”
When he wasn’t holding down the airwaves with one type of media or another, Kennedy was investing in the lives of the young people on Kauai.
“He’d take kids on surf trips around the island,” Melamed said. “He’d have these kids that were really good surfers, but not old enough to drive, so he’d load everyone up and go to Queen’s Pond or all these places and surf with them.”
The community man will be missed by many, and was honored by a visit from the entire Kauai County Council the week before he died. He was under the care of Hospice and was at Wilcox Hospital.
“All the council members went to his bedside at the hospital to acknowledge him last week Wednesday,” Chang said. “JK was floored to tears. He was loved by the community and he did a lot for the people.”
A memorial is being planned for Kennedy.