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Radio Free Hawaii

by Will Kreth

It's about a 20 minute drive west from Honolulu on H1, the Kamehameha Highway, to the town of Waipahu, where swaying palm trees and mellow vibes belie the home of one of the most radical commercial radio experiments in the world. KDEO-FM 102.7 is Radio Free Hawaii—where, since the spring of 1991 (minus less than a year hiatus in 1994/1995), listeners have been controlling what they want to hear, 24 hours a day. Voted one of the top five radio stations in the Rolling Stone Readers Poll three times since its founding, RFH flies in the face of decades of tired pop radio formats and monopolistic Arbitron rating systems. Here's how it works: listeners fill out ballots at ballot boxes placed in public locations all over Oahu and a few other islands (or they fill out a ballot on RFH's Web site ) to vote for the top ten songs and artists they want to hear, the top ten songs and artists they don't want to hear, and the song that they think, if played, would become a hit. Listeners can also request new songs to go into the playlist during call-in shows. On top of this, listeners are asked to vote for a song to be "sledgehammered" - that is, taken off the air and never played again. Even artists can be sledgehammered (Vanilla Ice, Milli Vanilli, and Whitney Houston are a few of the artists permanently sledgehammered off the air).

On Saturday mornings, the results of the previous weeks' ballots are tabulated to make a new weekly playlist, which becomes part of a seven-hour rotation of songs (most pop radio stations have a two-hour rotation of songs, at best). In the DJ booth counting down the top 36 songs is "Sheriff Norm" Winters, the station manager and local legend from his days as owner of the Jelly's music store chain. RFH is the realization of a dream for Winters, 58, who's been trying to run a radio station since this way since the late 1970s.

Radio Free Hawaii
"[Radio programmers] want to play everything that has been established—to death." grumbles Winters. "I mean, that's the basic philosophy that has been part of radio since time immemorial." Since 1991, the reaction from the local radio community and record labels has been the polar opposite of the enthusiastic listenership. Considered a heretic by the "radio Mafia triangle" of Arbitron, major labels, and "good" stations who play along with the "hit singles" game, RFH was blackballed with low ratings, no advance CDs and a concerted effort to undermine its live concert promotions. The station went off the air in 1994, but came back with an infusion of money in March 1995. With the second strongest signal in the islands, RFH reaches thousands of listeners.

The playlist at RFH is always surprising. While the audience demographic may be 18 to 45, almost all genres are represented by voter selections. Rap, rock, metal, jazz, reggae, r&b, soul, oldies, punk, ska, classical—it's not uncommon to hear all these represented in a standard rotation. Recently, Chopin's "Nocturne in E" was on the playlist, and no one would blink an earlid to hear Nat King Cole next to Voo Doo Glowskulls. "I felt that what was missing from radio was the participation level," adds Winters. "It was obvious that [people] felt that the music they heard was out of their control and was irritating them. So I wanted to construct a system where they could feel like it was their station, where we could get programming from the people as opposed to official programmers."

In the age of interactive, personalized marketing, Winters may well be ahead of his time in bringing radio out of the Old Media dark ages.   </end>

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