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June 6, 2003

 
  Casey Stangl, erstwhile SF 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 www.voodootower.com.

Voodoo Tower

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.

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Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content.

-- Othello

"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 Napoleon.

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 U.S. Congress.

"Oh, don't forget the cassette tapes," Napoleon reminded me as I stood to leave.

"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 division chief.

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 a month.

"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 statement.

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 agree.

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 the FCC.

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" the Hawaiians.

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 exceptions.

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 debate.

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 missionary-related interests.

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 sizzle.

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 daytime programming.

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.

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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 extension
Sign off for final line extension
Permit approved
County of Kaua'i permit approved
Clearing and grubbing of areas
Staking, tower tie-downs, power poles, enclosures, and containers
Footings, slabs, Sonatube footings, and chain-link fence
Install underground conduits, final plan approval for on-site electrical
Kaua'i Electric pull on-site power lines
Retrofitting of storage containers, ship to Kaua'i, deliver to site
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 of Kaua'i.