Casey Stangl, erstwhile
Call contributor, former deejay at KSJO & KMEL, longtime radio man &
consummate raconteur, has written a book. Part adventure saga, part horror
story, it tells of his struggles to erect a radio tower in a remote part
of Hawai'i. Entrepreneurs who think the City & County of San Francisco has
erected obstacles to development should visit the Garden Island. Hereís an
excerpt. More info at
A Hawai'i Businessmanís Worst Nightmare
By Casey Stangl
All I wanted was to build a tower, but it so happened I chose the
Garden Island of Kaua'i, Hawai'i on which to build it. I was a radio guy,
radio guys need towers, and the Garden Island needed a tower. Simple,
right? So why would the ensuing years herald a bizarre journey through
hell? How could I know I was soon to be admitted into a mad doctor's ward
where he would prescribe brutal medicine throughout a sick, seemingly
endless escapade? I would stare down suicidal thoughts, come face to face
with da Governor, da mayor, and chambers of legislators. I would almost
see God and commiserate long hours with Buddha. My world soon would become
front-page news, littered with lawyers, accusations, even threats from
politicians from Lihu'e to Honolulu to Washington, D.C., where I faced
near-criminal persecution by the Federal Communications Commission.
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content.
"The state said what?" I was sitting in Buddha's office high
above Bishop Street, listening to Napoleon ramble on. It was July 1996.
"Hey Case, it's a compliment, buddy. What they're saying is, you've got
a hell of an idea here, a sure winner."
"I don't really think the state is serious about building a tower of
their own, Stang," Buddha said. "I perceive it as one or two bureaucrats
simply talking out of line. In fact, I'm pretty sure it would be illegal
for them to do so in this case."
The eight-inch thick application for my permit to build the tower on
conservation land had been with the state for almost a month. I had been
assured it would take three, maybe four months for approval, so while
Napoleon shepherded the permit process, Andrew, The Big Man, and I were in
full swing anticipating a groundbreaking in late summer.
The Conservation District Use Application (CDUA) was a piece of work.
The table of contents alone ran four pages, outlining "General
Information, Background, Project Needs and Objectives, Project
Description, Alternatives Considered, Existing Conditions, Physical and
Natural Environment, Infrastructure and Public Facilities, Social and
Economic Factors, Compliance with County Land Use Determination, Comments
and Responses," and so forth.
"Hey, don't think those letters from Hawai'i's two U.S. Senators and
two U.S. Representatives commending this tower for finally bringing
Hawai'i Public Radio (HPR) to Kaua'i isn't a home run, Stang," said
Yeah, but that was another sore spot. Al Hulsen had run Hawai'i Public
Radio for a decade and committed to lease space at the tower, applied for
Kaua'i Electric with me, and had already gotten bids for equipment and
applied for key federal matching funds. But Hulsen had been promoted to a
Mainland desk job. This was the absolute worst news, for not only had I
enjoyed a long working relationship with him on projects for HPR, he also
was a guy with whom I saw eye to eye. Hulsen was so ensconced in politics,
people, other doings and da kine in Hawai'i, that he was able to
solicit letters like the ones for which Napoleon was taking credit. Not
that the letters actually validated the tower. The writers merely endorsed
Hawai'i Public Radio, and the letters, labeled accordingly, were logged in
the CDUA appendix.
Nor was I feeling optimistic about working with Hulsen's HPR
replacement who earned the nickname "Firewoman" when she ran a New Jersey
public radio station. I scheduled lunch with her the next week.
However, the public radio benefit was but one small part of the new
services that the CDUA spelled out. We listed eleven new potential users
for the tower, from new FMs, low-power TV, and two-way radio, to paging,
cellular, public radio, and new emergency services, all together on the
same page. Apparently the revenue potential from this list caught the eye
of one or more state planners Napoleon supposedly had in his pocket. Worse
-- and it would be a long time before this ever was revealed to me -- the
letters later would be bitterly thrown in my face at the FCC and in the
"Oh, don't forget the cassette tapes," Napoleon reminded me as I stood
"Yeah," I said. "I wouldn't want these fellas to have to turn on their
own radios or anything."
One of the state's requests, to help them further their review of the
tower permit, was for us to supply them with five cassettes featuring
excerpts from HPR, so they could "better understand the feel for this new
service" the tower would provide. Never mind that it was to be a simulcast
of the station that had been available to them in Honolulu every day of
their lives for the past twenty-five years.
Quirky? Maybe. A rock purposefully placed in my road early on? I wasn't
thinking that way about state machinations yet. I dealt with them before,
and at times came away impatient, incredulous, or satisfied-- it all
depended. But one thing about people in all walks of life in Hawai'i, from
the way they govern to the way they act, to the way they drive and the way
they see things, is the almost absolute absence of outside influence. This
was exemplified in a story about
the fella I had to pay to make those cassettes.
Derek Dakine was thirty-five and never had been away from the Islands.
A dark, good-looking stud, he was half Hawaiian and half Portuguese. He
was born and raised on Kaua'i, worked in radio there, and twice worked for
me in Honolulu as production director, the guy who produces and
coordinates all the station's commercials and promos.
Da kine, the local words that can mean literally anything
whatsoever, was the perfect name to describe Derek, because he could do
hundreds of voices. When I owned and ran KGU-AM, the flagship station for
University of Hawai'i sports, he was the voice of the sta-tion and, at any
given time, would be featured in thirty or more other voices on station
commercials. Once, he entered a Chris Berman sound-alike contest for a Pro
Bowl promotion that the NFL and ESPN were staging. Not only had Derek
never heard Chris Berman, he'd never even heard of him.
Nonetheless, he went to a friend's house, taped the ESPN anchor, practiced
for fewer than two hours, then went to the party at an Aloha Tower
nightspot and won the contest. People there said that Berman was all over
him, claiming that no one in the country nailed his voice and mannerisms
as well as Dakine. Knowing Derek, the five hundred dollar prize money
surely was gone by morning, but a four-foot-tall trophy was displayed
proudly in his studio for a long time.
At the University of Hawai'i, 1992 was a big year for major sports.
When the football team won a spot in the Holiday Bowl, I decided to treat
a few key employees with a trip to the Mainland. Derek was among them. The
point of this story is that a city the size of San Diego was so
overwhelming to Derek that he never left the Marriott Hotel in two and a
half days, and they barely got him on the bus for the game.
When Charles Givens Jr's son, known as "C-3," Charles the third, called
to see if I had any interest in taking over KGU, his father's troubled
station in Honolulu, I was dubious. I had just split from my San Francisco
partner and there was no real urgency to what I did next. KGU then was an
ancient jewel, robbed of much luster. But a free lunch in San Francisco
always is appealing, so I agreed to talk with Shane Hackett, his radio
I met him at John's Grill, a legendary eatery a few blocks from Union
Square. Hackett went on and on about Charles J. Givens Jr., which was my
first clue. Then he went on about what grand successes he was overseeing
at the Honolulu and New Orleans stations, but he was just so darned busy
with Chuck. "Chuck?"
"Oh yeah, I can call him that."
Great, I thought, we each have real famous pals named Chuck. "Anyway,
like I was saying, I'm way back at headquarters in Orlando and with
everything growing so fast, I'm needed there eighty hours a week, setting
up the credit card and insurance programs."
Later, I actually would visit one of Givens' "hot rooms" with Hackett
and the financial guru himself, near Salt Lake City when I took them to a
UH-BYU game. Three hundred people working the phones, and it was just part
of Hackett's racket that was said to bring in twenty-five million dollars
"Did you bring those financials?" I asked. "Yeah, here ya go."
You don't make money in radio without keeping track of your
competitors. After all, there is a finite amount of money in every
American radio market to be carved up among us. The ad dollar that guy won
was one this guy never would get. So it pays to keep your eye on every
dollar spent. I'm fortunate in being savvy about one thing an alarming
number of broadcasters are not, namely, how to read a profit and loss
Two things jumped out at me from KGU's P & L statement. First, I had no
idea that UH sports billed so much revenue; it was about two hundred
thousand dollars a year more than I guessed. Second, I quickly spotted
tens of thousands of dollars in expenses that I knew weren't necessary to
run a good station in Hawai'i. I also could tell that Hackett didn't see
what I saw. So I asked that along with any deal to hire me, I also would
get an exclusive option to purchase KGU. The station that he called so
successful was in fact losing boatloads of money, so he soon got Givens to
That's how I came to manage, and ultimately own KGU, one of the oldest
radio stations in the world. From KFI Los Angeles, to WGN Chicago, to WOR
New York City, to KGO San Francisco, radio stations with just three call
letters are few and far between. KGU Honolulu first signed on the air in
1922, before any of those other stations, twelve years before Babe Ruth
hit sixty home runs in one season, and four years before the inception of
Most of the newfangled wireless broadcast setups were ushered to
American communities by the same folks who printed the local newspaper,
and Honolulu was no exception: The family that owned The Honolulu
Advertiser put KGU on the air. The paper was led by the son of the man
some regarded as one of the leaders of those who had stolen the nation
from the Hawaiians. The man who would give a radio voice to all the
islands was just four generations removed from his pioneer ancestors --
the ones who came eight thousand miles and rounded Cape Horn to "civilize"
In 1922, just a few months earlier, KDKA signed on in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, to become the nation's first radio station. I always found
it odd that the very first station decided to use four letters, while
almost all of the other pioneer stations chose three. Actually, they only
chose two and the FCC gave them the third. With a few rare exceptions all
stations licensed east of the Mississippi River begin with the letter "W"
while those west were assigned the letter "K." KDKA was one of the
AM differs from FM. AM is an airwave. FM signals travel the curvature
of the earth, which is why you often can hear them even inside a tunnel.
But AM blasts out into the air, where it is often "bounced" further along
by moisture in clouds or large bodies of water. You might say the Pacific
Ocean qualifies as a large body of water, which is why a couple times each
month we would receive postcards sent to KGU from places as remote as New
Zealand, Russia, Norway, and many other countries, as well as from all
over the USA. Some were from the curious, but most came from
quasi-professional listeners around the world who religiously scan
airwaves with sophisticated listening gear to "collect" signals such as
KGU's. Once they hear your broadcast, they send you a postcard or letter
describing what they heard, and ask you to authenticate it. Once
authenticated and sent back to them, the note goes into their collection,
like a rare postage stamp or baseball card.
This strength of an AM signal is one reason it was possible for us high
school punks' to play basketball under the lights in Southern California
while listening to wild Wolfman Jack broadcast out of Mexico on five
hundred thousand watts, ten times the U.S. maximum, to fourteen western
states. An FM signal would have petered out after one hundred miles, but
that AM signal was like the Energizer Bunny.
Along these same lines, many historians still contend that Japanese
Zeros far out at sea homed in on KGU's signal, then aimed right for it on
that infamous December 7th Sunday morning long ago. But that clear-channel
heritage wasn't earning KGU much money in the early nineties. It had the
big signal, which helped reach more audience on Neighbor Islands. It also
featured University of Hawai'i sports, which in the Fiftieth State is like
the 49ers are to San Francisco. Since eighty percent of sports broadcasts
were at night, the question I faced, as a manager, was what to do with the
rest of the prime time radio day, to attract the listeners needed to
justify advertising dollars? I decided to aim at the entrenched
establishment, go political, and try to spark some occasionally fiery
Hawai'i is very much a one-party state, even with the recent election
of Republican Governor Linda Lingle.
Beginning with the advent of the Territory of Hawai'i in 1898,
Republicans swept every election and filled almost every seat in the
legislature. They were the party in power when KGU rolled 78 rpm records
between FDR speeches and Amos and Andy skits.
World War II, however, created a new class of world-traveled veterans
who qualified for the G.I. Bill. Many were dissatisfied with the
plantation mentality and after college (and often law school) joined
forces to revitalize the then-almost somnambular Democratic Party. The
tables turned, and in a stunning political revolution in 1954, these new
Democrats took over, a tradition, which, with a few exceptions like Lingle
and Fred Hemmings, is still in place, half a century later.
Remember those missionaries who arrived without the "1-part fun"? Some
of them became advisors to the Hawaiian monarchy, and engineered the Great
Mahele (land division) of 1848. This allowed private ownership of land for
the first time and eventually deteriorated into a land grab. Many
missionary sons and grandsons would later engineer the overthrow of Queen
Lili'uokalani in 1893, and shepherd the Islands from an independent nation
into status as a U.S. Territory.
Just as San Francisco had its "Big Four," Hawai'i boasted of -- or was
saddled with -- its Big Five: C. Brewer, H. Hackfeld (later American
Factors), Theo H. Davies, Castle & Cooke, and Alexander & Baldwin. The
first three of these were founded by merchants, the final two by
Honolulu also is about the weakest newspaper town of any large U.S.
city I can think of. The very name of the paper now owned by Gannett --
The Honolulu Advertiser -- speaks volumes. Owned until the
recent sale to Gannett by the descendants of one of the kingpins of the
overthrow, it has been editorially pro-big-business ever since.
And most other media outlets fell right in line. So we at KGU decided
we would go cutting edge. And who more diametrically opposed to the
entrenched Hawai'i Democrats than the bombastic Rush Limbaugh?
"Rush is Right," read the new bumper stickers we immediately rolled
out. We put him on at 9:00 AM, right after Hemmings and Zee. Left-leaning
Alan Zee could match Rush for loudness if not substance. Republican Fred
Hemmings was one of the first world champion surfers, a former member of
the House, and had actually gotten almost forty percent of the
overwhelmingly Democratic vote in his doomed run for governor.
To this day, I think Hemmings is a lefty who turned hard right for the
cameras. We would argue good-naturedly for hours, resolving only that he
was entirely wrong, I was entirely right, and that his sign off to each
show with the surfing adage to "slide right" was a winner.
The mixture of Hemmings and Zee on weekday mornings was beginning to
Afternoons featured Bob Rees, perhaps local government's number one
enemy. I believe that Rees is one of only two investigative reporters in
Hawai'i. (The other is James Dooley, who was with The Advertiser
for many years, did a stint with TV, and then went back to the paper.) As
lead investigative reporter for the Honolulu Weekly, Rees was
regularly in government's face. He brought attitude, contentious guests,
and substance to people on their drive home, anchoring the end of our
I also tried to bring some attitude and substance to my own reg-ular
editorials. I would walk into Derek's studio with seven or ten ideas and
as many scraps of paper, wing my thoughts to tape, thoughts that rarely
agreed with the lazy status quo of Honolulu, and Dakine would format them
into something you could listen to. The editorials ran regularly every few
hours, seven days a week. I didn't know whether people even listened to
them. I certainly didn't know they would ever come back to haunt me.
KGU also sold blocks of time, half hours and hour-long slots, to
whoever would pay for them. This included avowed gay bashers, evangelists,
self-help gurus, all sorts of opposing political spokespersons, and even
bookies -- you can't believe how gambling crazy Hawai'i is. I went after
columnists like Eddie Sherman and TV anchors like Joe Moore, and put them
on in the morning. Even an exotic dancer guest-hosted for us for more than
a year; talk about a daily staff morale builder.
But probably my biggest coup was convincing the mayor to do a daily
talk show. Hizzoner Frank Fasi, who had been mayor of Honolulu for about
twenty years, was perhaps the most dynamic politician Hawai'i had seen in
the second half of the Twentieth Century. He had flipped from Democrat to
Republican and even started his own party to run for office under, the
Best Party. He raised ire or at least eyebrows wherever he went and
whatever he said. He was, in a word, controversial, precisely what you
want on talk radio. And the icing on the cake was: he paid me
a lot of money to host his show!
So controversy, we had. Ratings came too, then revenues. We made money
off people's opinions and their likes and dislikes. The newspapers stopped
their reporters from appearing on KGU. I received plenty of hate mail. I
loved it. KGU thrived for years right up until I sold it in 1995 along
with KGMZ, an FM I built along the way. It honestly never occurred to me
until much later, that someone doing an honest job, perhaps raising
consciences or at least opening dialogue, might one day come to feel like
he wore a bull's eye on his back. Target practice was just beginning.
I met "Firewoman" at Honolulu's floating Pagoda restaurant a block from
the Hawai'i Public Radio studios. She knew next to nothing about the
Kaua'i license and power application, and thought that expanding coverage
to all major islands was a cute idea, but she said she was swamped.
"We have so much on our plates," she said, "I just don't see something
like this happening for at least a couple of years."
This was a crack in the ribs. HPR was worth so, so much to me! It
wasn't even the immediate monthly revenues, which I thought would go on
forever, but also because of that Kaua'i Electric application. I was
liable for any shortfall there, and HPR represented precisely one third of
the almost four hundred thousand dollars in revenues Kaua'i Electric was
counting on when they committed to bring power.
To make matters worse, chaos was surrounding my landlord, Grove Farm.
Damn, this tower project was growing hair everywhere!
As a company, Grove Farm wasn't quite at the level of the Big Five
Companies, but on Kaua'i, it was the big kahuna. They employed a
lot of people. They were connected politically. They leased lots of their
land (a sixth of the entire island) and they owned shopping centers and
mountaintops. But during the early 1990s, Hawai'i went through the
roughest economic time in its entire statehood. It was hit by a triple
whammy, one that has never recovered to this day: a steep loss of military
spending, an elevator drop in high-end Japanese tourists, and the
effective loss of its all sugar cane and pineapple agriculture to cheaper,
emerging new producers like Thailand and the Philippines.
In the middle of all that, Grove Farm stabbed itself. When I first met
Bill Honjiyo, he ruled like a bantam over his shopping center, which
boasted a waiting list of tenants. But once Grove Farm let the big boys
in, the business landscape on Kaua'i changed forever. For a couple of
years, there was just one Wal-Mart on O'ahu, so many Neighbor Islanders
made regular shopping trips there.
But a dramatic change in shopping came to the outer islands, especially
Kaua'i, the least populated, and it swept in like a tsunami. When Wal-Mart
opened for business in Lihu'e, it came on line with fellow Grove Farm
lessees like K-Mart, Borders, and a couple of other large box stores, the
likes of which most locals hadn't even heard of.
The impact on Bill Honjiyo's shopping center was swift and dramatic.
Now it seemed the only shoppers came to the movie theatres or to stop at
Longs on the way to the airport, for the best prices on macadamia nuts,
chocolates, coffee, and the like. Overall, Grove Farm's income suffered,
which not only caused deep cutbacks, it slowed down their ambitious
condominium and home-building schemes. (In what has to be one of the
golfing world's weirdest twists, the company scaled back its new golf
course almost, but not quite in half. To be specific, today Grove Farm
boasts the only ten-hole golf course I know of in the entire world.)
If Honjiyo had been a golfer instead of a fisherman, he would have had
lots of time to enjoy the new, shorter course. His office at the shopping
center was shuttered, and, after all those years, he was let go, along
with a quarter of Grove Farm's employees.
So, as I flew from Honolulu to Kaua'i to meet the island's mayor, I was
somewhat less than the euphoric developer I had been a month earlier when
my lease and electric had been confirmed. Since then, I had lost HPR, a
key tenant, and Bill Honjiyo, my contact and drinking buddy at Grove Farm.
Moreover, I learned the application process was to be no slam-dunk, and
even heard that the state might consider competing against me. Soon I
would pray for a list of problems so short.
Andrew picked me up at the Lihu'e airport the next day, and we spent
the next week working to nail down all that we could from his lengthy
list, and this was only a list of things that could be attacked or
coordinated prior to receiving the state permit.
Here was Andrew's "Pending List," which presumed that we would win the
permit in a timely manner:
|Kaua'i Electric to approve site plans
|Kaua'i Electric to approve HECO plans
|Get bids from HECO and American Line Builders Draft final line
|Sign off for final line extension
|County of Kaua'i permit approved
|Clearing and grubbing of areas
|Staking, tower tie-downs, power poles, enclosures, and
|Footings, slabs, Sonatube footings, and chain-link fence
|Install underground conduits, final plan approval for on-site
|Kaua'i Electric pull on-site power lines
|Retrofitting of storage containers, ship to Kaua'i, deliver to
|Erection of tower, guying to tie-downs
|Off-site improvements (to include four new poles)
|Setting containers on site tie downs, and connections
|On-site electrical, containers, meters, hookups
|Connections tower to containers
|Final adjustments, tuning, broadcast requirements
|Erosion control and landscaping installed
At least we weren't short of stuff to do. While waiting for news from
the state, we could plan meetings, get bids, do all the
testing, firm up all our building plans, and in general, ultra-ready
ourselves for that day when a shovel might actually strike dirt.
For fun, I planned to fly to Las Vegas after Kaua'i, to meet the blonde
and attend the middleweight championship fight with Buddha. But first, a
political interlude. That summer of 1996, when Bob Dole had the Republican
nomination locked, and Strom Thurmond announced he would run for a
record eighth term in the Senate, Casey Stangl was going to meet the Mayor