Not sure when I first became aware of the radio, but as stated in the previous installment of The Listening Experience, once I was affected, I held on to its power for a long time. My initial music memories come from California, it was just a few things but play a significant role for me as I explore my roots as a music fan, journalist, record/music collector, etc. Yet once my mom and dad moved back home to Honolulu, where I would begin to discover/develop myself, the world would open up to the point of no return, and not just music.
When my dad was fixing a car, a radio would always be on. If we went to the beach, we’d have a portable radio there. My parents had a clock radio. When we drove around to places or did the monthly (or so) drive around the island, it was the radio we tuned into. Before I hit the double digits, much of my radio listening was AM radio stations. KKUA-69 and KIKI-83 were two of my favorite stations, and these were Top 40 stations. While my parents and relatives had a good share of music, radio was my link to what was current and “now”, although I know I didn’t think in those words. Top 40 music today is often compared to being a musical wasteland, and yet I grew up in the area of sugar-sugary pop and disco, along with soul, funk, rock, hard rock, singer-songwriters, and a good share of novelty songs. I think for me, it was just “endless music” coming out of the radio, and while the format was Top 40, radio DJ’s would also go out of their way to play other songs. If someone liked the hit, but a DJ felt like playing something else, you would always hear “something else”. Radio stations are promotional tools to sell songs and music, so if I liked the hit, I might ask my mom to buy me the 45. I wasn’t aware at the time that “buying 45’s” was a ritual my mom did too, but it was just my mom simply wanting to, as the old promotional campaign went, “give the gift of music”.
The radio, however, meant you didn’t have to buy anything, you could just listen. Yet if I was able to get a blank cassette, I would make my own tapes so I could have that song. It would be awhile before I learned that I could make my own “custom edits” of songs with cassettes so it would sound like the record but without the DJ talking over it, but that’s another topic, another time.
I think the perception for me as a kid was these were men and women simply playing records for fun. This was their job: playing records AND getting paid to do it? Who in the world wanted to be a fireman, policeman, or astronaut if I could get paid to do what I was already doing? In my childhood, I don’t think I ever wanted to be anything else but a DJ. I didn’t know anything about the radio business, the role of advertising, ratings, or anything, it was just “play records = share music with people who would listen to it and me”. Me, on the radio?
I think the personal aspect of radio came from DJ’s who had some sense of personality, which is why for years they were called “radio personalities”. These people put a bit of themselves, their person, into their jobs, and it sounded incredible. I started to realize that listening to the radio wasn’t just about the music, but it was very much the DJ, the captain of the ship. I wasn’t aware of politics as I would be a few years later, although I knew of Mayor Frank Fasi. My world consisted of heroes that could’ve been friends or family members: kung fu master Bruce Lee, skateboarder Tony Alva, Kikaida, Captain Caveman, Redd Foxx, and actor/dancer Fred “Rerun” Berry. Then it was the people on the radio I could not see, but could rely on when I turned on the radio.
Pilot of the airwaves, here is my request
It sounded cool, I wanted to be in their world. My first radio DJ heroes were Wili Moku, Kimo Akane, and Kamasami Kong<. Wili Moku was the man, and I began listening to him when he was a DJ on KKUA. When he was on, I would try to listen as much as possible and as long as possible, because he always sounded like he loved what he did. I do realize that that is often the role of an on-air announcer, but he did it in a way which made it feel like he was saying “come on, join me, let’s have a good time.” He was a guy who I wanted to grow up to become, and part of that came from that voice. He also did it with a “local boy” accent, as in “someone who sounded like he came from Hawai’i and could be anyone of us. In other words, he had a bit of Hawaiian pidgin English, he wasn’t completely “brok’ da mout'” like Larry Price had been, but he could’ve been someone who hung out with my dad, uncles, or aunties. Hearing his personality and style made me want to become a radio DJ.
You don’t have to play it, but I hope you do your best
I’ve been listening to your show on the radio
and you seem like a friend to me
Kimo Akane was the “buddy” kind of guy too, and whenever I heard him, it was like “yes, Kimo is on”. He just made the radio feel welcoming, and sure, he may have played the same songs over and over, but it never felt that way, he would deliver his style of enthusiasm differently each time.
Then there’s the man who felt like the wildest man on Honolulu radio, the almighty (cue the gong) KAMASAMI… KONG. WOO, WOO, WOO WOO, WOO WOO, WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! I know I was not the only one who waited to hear his theme song, and for years I thought “wow, one of my favorite radio DJ’s has his own theme!” Superheroes had themes, just as described in Keenan Ivory Wayans‘ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and Kamasami Kong was definitely a hero of sorts. Then as the song was about to end, Kong would come on and it was as if people were awaiting his arrival. His personality was bold and strong, and who didn’t want to hear that? I did. Little did I know that the song was actually by a band I’d become familiar with with hip-hop when his “It’s Just Begun” became one of the original anthems for b-boys. The band was The Jimmy Castor Bunch, the song was “King Kong”. As you listen to this, keep in mind I had no awareness of who this song was by, nor did I know who Jimmy Castor was. I thought “wow, Kamasami Kong might be the one singing this. Right on!”.
Jimmy Castor Bunch – King Kong from Sandork on Vimeo.
In the late 80’s, when the Jungle Brothers sampled this song in “Sounds Of The Safari”, I thought “wait a minute, how in the hell did these guys know about Kamasami Kong?” I caught samples by Earth, Wind & Fire, Blue Swede, and Osibisa but Kamasami Kong? Eventually I found the answer, but it didn’t matter: Kamasami Kong was the man and was an influence on me wanting to become a radio DJ.
As for my parents, even though we had a good amount of Hawaiian music, we would listen to our share of Hawaiian music on the radio. Back then, the only station that did this was KCCN 1420-AM. At school, we would learn about Hawaiian culture, language, and everything that had to do with Hawaiiana, so eventually I got to understand the history, background, and meaning of some of these songs. My grandpa had a wealth of Hawaiian music, but as someone who also performed music on the weekend to make ends meet, he had his share of Don Ho albums too. To me, Don Ho was a great high but kind of a lounge act, almost cheesy at times and yet it was my grandpa’s music. Who didn’t know “Tiny Bubbles”? But I would also learn “One Paddle, Two Paddle”, “Ain’t No Big Ting”, and “E Lei Ka Lei Lei”, not only through my grandpa but also has an album I believe we had when we lived in California.
When I listened to KCCN, it was often with my parents. They would play a wide range of Hawaiian music, from Sunday Manoa and Palani Vaughan, Makaha Sons Of Ni’ihau and Myrah English, Sons Of Hawai’i to Olomana, Kahauano Lake Trio to Hui Ohana, Auntie Genoa Keawe to Gabby Pahinui. The music on here represented the music of my parents and my grandfather, and it very much represented me. Hawaiian music was not just a thing to listen to on Sunday’s, it was all day, all the time, along with everything else I heard. It almost seemed like one could listen to anything, but listening to Hawaiian music was “down home”, a “laid back” thing to do. It was there where I discovered radio DJ’s like Kimo Kaho’ano, Krash Kealoha, and Jacqueline Rossetti, who everyone knew by her radio name, Honolulu Skylark. Skylark had a very soothing, dare I say motherly voice, and as I got older, that voice became a bit luxurious and sexy. It was comforting, it was “home”. On the top of every hour on KCCN, they would play station ID’s that would rotate between two things. One featured her saying the simple phrase “this land of aloha”, backed by a kumu hula (hula dance teacher) chanting something, followed by some laid back keyboards that today would be called Yacht Rock. A man would be heard saying “Hawaiian radio, 1420, KCCN, Honolulu”. Just the way she said “this land of aloha” was almost like “you are Hawaiian, you are home, this is your music, this is your culture”, very commanding and authoritative. The other station ID would start out with someone playing guitar, maybe ki ho’alu (slack key) and then she would say “aloha ‘e Hawai’i”, and then give the time of the day in Hawaiian, followed by the time in English, a very pleasant “4 o’clock PM” or so. Hearing this felt like I was tapping into some command center, the island’s heartbeat and perhaps for a lot of us listening, it was. If you are aware of the role of the radio DJ in movies like The Warriors and Car Wash, Honolulu Skylark was very much like that but she was a local girl, she was Hawaiian. When The Brothers Cazimero did a song named after her in her honor, it was great to hear.
In elementary school, I was in an enrichment class, created specifically for kids who were “gifted”, the nerdy kids. This class would later be called E’onipa’a, or “one step higher”, and it was a way for the smarter kids to be geared towards doing better and staying on track. The teacher, Ms. Marilyn Kobata would ask what we all wanted to be when we grew up. All of my classmates shared their hopes and dreams, and I said “I want to be a disc jockey”. Somewhere down the line, Ms. Kobata would take myself and a classmate named Aaron to a broadcasting school near Moanalua Gardens, around the block from the Bob’s Big Boy that was close by. When I entered, the person there told us that this was where I might be able to learn to become a DJ. All of the equipment was there with turntables (or record players, since turntable was not in my musical vocabulary and the only turntables I knew were at Chinese restaurants), reel-to-reel tape machines, and cassette decks. I loved Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, but to see what I heard made this feel like the equivalent of a spaceship and… could I be the commander? If I were to push myself, it could. Since my family moved to the mainland in 1984, I did not get a chance to study there, so I had no idea if that broadcasting school was still in existence. Today, I discovered that it is now ‘Olelo Community Media, who regularly produce audio and video programs to honor, celebrate, and teach for and about Hawaiian culture and its community. I’ve been familiar with ‘Olelo for years, but was not aware of its location.
What I also liked about radio stations like KKUA and KIKI was that I could listen to countdown shows. I loved what Casey Kasem did, and when I’d go to the record store, I would always make sure to pick up the latest pamphlet so I could see a full list of that Top 40. Occasionally I would see a photo of one of the DJ’s, which was kind of weird since my perception of them had always been audio-only. Eventually, I would associate the voices with those faces. I don’t think I saw Honolulu Skylark until she was a guest on one of the local telethons. She looked different from what I pictured, but again, now I finally knew what she looked like, along with Kahoano and Kealoha.
As I started to become more curious as to what other music may be out there, I had alwyas been curious as to what this FM band was on my radio. The few times I had clicked on to FM, it almost seemed like it was just conversations of things I didn’t understand, or songs that didn’t appeal to me at the time. Then one day, I tuned in and while I don’t remember what song it was, I did realize something else: the sound quality of an FM station was far better than AM. “Why aren’t my favorite AM DJ’s not on FM? I want to hear better!” Most likely the radio station that made me become a freak for FM was 98 Rock, or KDUK 97.5 FM. They were KDUK in honor of legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku, and I clearly remember DJ’s saying “this is K-D-U-K, K-Duke, Honolulu”. Eventually, it would simply become known as “98 Rock”, and 98 Rock was the station that played hard rock and heavy metal. It was a chance to hear my favorite music without having to go to my uncle’s apartment. They played Ted Nugent, Jimi Hendrix, The Scorpions, Led Zeppelin and everyone else I had loved to hear. It was not “classic rock”, in fact these songs were fairly current/recent, it was just the place to hear hard rock, metal, or what was known as “acid rock”, the freaky music for stoners. I remember one day turning to 98 Rock and while I had been familiar with Pink Floyd, I had not heard of this album called Animals. They played a song I would discover was called “Dogs”, which I wanted to hear because it started out fairly cool: acoustic guitar, then David Gilmour‘s vocals. About four minutes in, the song got into a “mellow phase”, then switched in style. Twin guitar solo, then a dog barking. This was kinda trippy in my young mind. Then all of a sudden I hear:
“But it’s too late to use the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown as you go down all alone”
Then it came:
“Dragged down by the stone…”
This was then followed by a complete shift in the music, but the voice “stone” just echoed for what seemed like forever. What’s going on? Is the record skipping? Is it scratched? I realized this was part of the record, and I held on for its complete duration. The word “stone” looped 52 times, and I thought “wow”. The song kept on going: 10 minutes, 12 minutes. Just when I thought the song was about to end, it returns back to how the song started, with the acoustic guitars. This was blowing me away, and eventually I realized 17 minutes had passed me by. Radio stations can play long songs? Incredible! I thought “I have to be a DJ on 98 Rock!”.
One day, when my mome was shopping in downtown Honolulu, I passed a building with the 98 Rock logo. I discovered that this was where the station broadcasting was from, and I wanted in. Of course, being an 11 or 12 year old kid with radio ambitions probably meant nothing to them, but then again, had I not been afraid to meet “my radio DJ heroes”, maybe they would’ve given me a bit of support to fulfill my dream. All I could do was stare at the window and wondered what was going on inside. What I did see behind the curtain was a lobby and not much else. I’d never make it into 98Rock’s HQ, but I was a diehard 98Rock junkie. I had a 98Rock card where I could get discounts on things, and like a lot of kids my age and older, I had my trademark black 98Rock T-shirt. I had the 98Rock stickers that I proudly placed on my homemade skateboard, to let everyone know what my favorite radio station was. We also had portfolios where we’d put our homework and assignments in, and we’d also have the homemade book folders our moms made by cutting a paper sack from the supermarket and folding it properly. It was here we could doodle, sketch, or place favorite stickers of what we liked, be it Star Wars stickers, scratch’n’stiff stickers, or our favorite radio station. It was in school where I discovered that the 98Rock logo could be manipulated so that it would look like it said “go Fuck EM”. We felt “grown” and “bad ass”, because the station played what became our music, music that was grown, so as we became more free with how we spoke to each other, why not “go Fuck EM”, a way to say “this was our station”? We did.
It was silly and childish, but we were kids. I was a kid. I honored the power of the airwaves.
As a kid who was slowly moving towards being a teen, I discovered a style of music that, at least in the Hawai’i part of the United States, did not quite have a name. I loved Sugarhill Gang‘s “Rapper’s Delight”, Malcolm McLaren & The World Famous Supreme Team‘s “Buffalo Gals”, and Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force‘s “Planet Rock”, these became anthems for some of my friends, of “my” generation. I loved the funkiness, I loved the beats, and while I didn’t sport myself as one, I definitely loved to dance, to “shake my okole” and get down. While radio in Hawai’i did play “Rapper’s Delight” (I also remember one day when KIKI claimed they were going to play the long version of “Rapper’s Delight”, which was 15 minutes. Instead, they joked and played the song at half speed and said it would last an hour. Eventually they played the radio edit of the song), the type of music we wanted to hear seemed to be hard, if not impossible to find, on the radio, so awareness of these cool sounds from New York City was by word of mouth.
Then one day in the 7th grade, my friends told me to listen to 1500-AM, for one could listen this cool music up until midnight. Kids my age didn’t stay up until midnight, yet alone past 9pm. Yet I kept on hearing “bra, you gotta listen, they play Kraftwerk, they play “Planet Rock”, all da good kine stuffs.” Then one day I did, and it was on a Friday. I was aware of Kraftwerk because “Numbers” and “Pocket Calculator” became my favorite songs in elementary school, it was the music to pop and dance to, the robot stuff. But this radio station would play songs that seemed worlds away. Except it wasn’t the station format, it was just in the evening’s from 10pm to 12midnight, and on Friday’s from 7pm to midnight. I remember the first time I heard Grandmaster Flash‘s “Scorpio” and The Jonzun Crew‘s “Pack Jam”. This music was very much mine as much hard rock and heavy metal was, it’s just that one had a lot of guitars, and this new music was something I could dance to. This station was KHKA, and for about 18 months, up until my family moved to the Pacific Northwest, it too would become one of my all time favorite stations.
Back at school, we would talk about the new songs we heard but one of the highlights was when people would call in and talk with the DJ, which were recorded or broadcast live. These were “grown ups” calling in sharing their stories, but we thought it was cool when people of our age (i.e. between 9 to 17) could have their views shared all across Honolulu. I remember an incident where there was a guy at school who was a punk ass, liked to play a bully and he was tough, always pushing around. For whatever reason, he thought I was a push over and in truth, I didn’t think fighting solved anything. I didn’t do anything, and this guy spit in my eye. One night, I called the radio station and wanted to share my story. I told him the guy spit in my eye, and the DJ goes “oh no, HE SPIT IN YOUR EYE, RRRRRRRR”, with the “RRRRRRRRRR” being the sound of a pirate. He then says “that’s not right at all, this is what you should do”, and he played the sound of a toilet flushing. I recorded that moment and would play it a lot for the next few days. That would become the first time my voice traveled through the airwaves.
Sometime before 1984, I tuned into K59 AM, whose format was talk radio, and I had called in to the Larry Price show. The topic at the time was when milk supplies in Honolulu were tainted, and all of it had to be dumped. I called in without a care about the milk, and I said something like “did you hear about Linda McCartney?” and Price goes “like I give a damn!” and he hung up on me. That traveled over the air too.
There was another benefit of radio too: the prizes. In 1981, after the death of John Lennon, there was a radio show called The Beatles: The Days In Their Life. At this point, I was a Beatles fan but radio shows like this made me want to explore much deeper. MUCH DEEPER. When the radio show aired on KKUA, I wanted to listen to the entire series. Even when my Uncle Wayne had a birthday party out in the country (which in Hawai’i meant a number of sections, but in this case it was the west side of the island, meaning Nanakuli, Maile, Waianae and Makaha), while everyone else was celebrating, I asked my uncle if I could listen to the radio, and he said “sure”. I tuned into 690 AM and listened to as much as I can of the show. I believe one of the things I heard were elements from The Beatles Christmas Record. I don’t remember how long I listened, but my parents were telling me “come outside, go play”. No, I wanted to hear and learn from this radio show, I was drawn by the wealth of information it was sharing and it would become something that I wanted to do too.
Eventually, KKUA held a drawing for a compilation album Capitol Records did for The Beatles called Reel Music, which focused on the songs they made for movies (Reel Music, as in music that came from a reel of film). One day, they held a contest where one could win the Reel Music album and a T-shirt. I called in, don’t remember what caller I had to be, but I won. They told me where the station was, and my dad drove me to the station, which felt like an apartment building, and walked into the KKUA office. Keep in mind too that KKUA was the radio station where some of my DJ heroes were, so I was going to enter THE place to be, a place I thought I would work at one day. I walked in, saw the label and the lady behind the desk. I told her I was the winner of a prize, and she said one moment. I looked around, and saw that the DJ rooms were about 30 steps away. I could hear what was broadcasting live, but I don’t remember who was on at the time (mid-afternoon or so). The lady asked for my name, I said “John Book”, and she goes “you won a prize? You look young.” I told her I was 11 or 12, she smiled, and gave me my album and shirt. I was most likely the only kid at my school who wore a Beatles shirt, and at that time The Beatles were “old people music”, at least that’s how I felt. But as I was becoming a fan of their music and everything they did (which in itself will be another chapter of The Listening Experience), I didn’t care. I went into the car, showed my dad what I won, and thought it was cool. We drove home, I played the record, put on the shirt, and that was that. It wouldn’t be the first time I won something a radio prize.
Upon moving to SE Washington in the summer of 1984, I turned on the radio one day to see what kind of music I could find on the radio. Most of it was country music, a genre that was a huge turn off for me at the time. I didn’t grow up with country music, although I was aware of KDEO, a radio station who promoted themselves as “KDEO (K-dio) Radio”, where the format was country. I was aware of country, and at the time I did like country influences in other styles of music, but on its own I hated it. It would be a few decades before it finally made its impact, but moving in a new town where “country is king”? How in the hell am I going to survive? Fortunately, I discovered a station equal to that of 98Rock, called OK95. It had a number, and it had an OK in it, a bit like 98Rock, but their call letters were KIOK. I would listen to OK95 a lot, and this was the station of rockers. Then I heard of KZZK 102.7. This station played soul music, so I could hear all the songs I liked to listen to and then some. I then heard that they had a love dedication radio show called Love Lines, which meant we could all hear dedications to one another, or to find out who liked who, back when hearing a friend liking another friend made us giddy. I was 13 or 14, giddy was okay.
In the 10th grade, I entered high school. Wanted to become a writer for the school paper but because my birthday was a month before the required age, they would not allow me in. I had started writing in my E’onipa’a class doing journals. It wasn’t called a “diary’, which perhaps was good since it meant I was doing something Marcia Brady was writing in her bedroom to Davy Jones or something. Journals made it possible to write what we felt, and I enjoyed doing this kind of writing. I’d also do poems too, so being able to do these things eventually moved me to want to write more than just something for myself. I was reading the record collector’s magazine Goldmine when I saw someone in Hibbing, Minnesota wanting someone to be a contributor. It was called The B-Side Report, which was less of an actual publication and more of a 2-page pamphlet. Nonetheless, outside of seeing my poems published at school, this was a chance to see my name published in something other than educational. I was hooked.
I also discovered there was a local vocational skills center, and it was something I wanted to join as a means to find out what I could do once I got out of high school. It was when I found out the skills center had a class that made me smile big time. There was a Radio/TV Production class, where one could learn how to become a radio DJ while taking on the skills of video production. At the time my sole focus was the radio, I could care less about TV but in my 20’s, those skills would come to good use when I got my first legitimate job as a news producer. However, as I had lived in this part of SE Washington, I wondered why I did not hear of this radio station before. I tuned in and their format was hard rock and heavy metal. HARD ROCK AND HEAVY METAL? PERFECT! I found out how I could join this class, which would replace three courses at high school but would be the grade equivalent of what I’d earn “normally”. I signed up, and in the 11th grade, I became a member of the team of KTCV, 88.1 FM, the Tri-Cities’ home of rock’n’roll.
We’d have to learn all of the technical things, such as reading meters and doing paper work, but this was a thrill for me. Eventually, my first radio airshift happened and I was extremely nervous. I told my mom to listen to it, and she did. I don’t remember the exact day or what I played, nor do I know if my time on the air was 30, 60, or 90 minutes. The station would give shifts to the older students (seniors) and their shows were 90 minutes in length. That’s what I had hoped to do, and eventually I did. It would be great to play music to anyone who listened, I got a great feeling when people would make requests and I’d be able to give them what they wanted to hear. The buzz though was being able to play what I wanted, without it sounding like anything OK95 played. OK95 played “the hits”, which meant Bon Jovi. We played Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, which at the peak of the Parents Music Resource Center was considered the music of Satan, not good in a town where the majority of people were conservative country music listeners.
It was at KTCV where I had friends that would turn me on to bands I had only read about in magazines, particularly Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, and Venom. This style of music was much harder than the hard rock and metal I had been used to, most of what I heard came from MTV, or in the case of Motorhead, The Young Ones. Songs like Accept‘s “Fast As A Shark” and Judas Priest’s “Freewheel Burnin'” were heavy and fast for its time, but they would pave the way for a style of music I’d fall in love with. The heavier, the louder, the better. Those import sections I’d see at record stores like Eli’s would be of great use when discovering metal bands that I was curious about but didn’t have enough to buy, or a guide to rely on.
It was also at KTCV where I’d find friends who would open me to the world of punk and hardcore. I was aware of who The Sex Pistols and The Clash were. The latter were always on MTV, while The Sex Pistols… well, who didn’t know about them, at least in name? The covers were ugly, filthy, raunchy, it was everything I did not understand at the time. I also knew of The Ramones as they received heavy MTV rotation in the early and mid-80’s, but at the time they seemed pretty tame compared to these albums I had seen at stores. I wanted to know who some of these bands I had heard about on shows like MTV’s IRS’ The Cutting Edge, especially one band who had just been signed to Warner Bros. Records, Hüsker Dü. I’d often read about labels like SST and ROIR, but this was not metal, it didn’t sound as powerful to me. MTV then played Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely”, and I thought “wow, these guys are cool”. Eventually, Candy Apple Grey was purchased on cassette and that would be the first punk album I would have in my collection.
Then I found kids of my age who loved not only Hüsker Dü, but were into other punk, new wave, and goth bands. A lot of these kids went to schools that were in towns “across the bridge”, and that meant they were “not of my town”. You have to think in a high school capacity: each town in an area of three towns had broad generalizations of each other, so while people in the town of Richland, Washington were considered rich, new wave snobs, and Kennewick was “something else” (again, said with ego and price), Pasco was where “the rejects” were, the lowlifes, a town you did not want to be in after dark. I wasn’t aware of these associations until I moved here but I happened to be in the town of rejects and lowlifes. Nice. There were also music generalizations too: people in Pasco loved soul and R&B, Kennewick was for the metal heads, while Richland was the punk and new wave place. Yet at KTCV, we could talk and learn about each other but without the B.S. passed on by a previous generation. It was in this radio/TV class where, during a down time, I saw the erect penis logo of The Dickies spring to life, where a classmate wore an outfit to the prom not unlike Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and where I would eventually get to play some of these new groups I was learning about.
In late 1986, I had become a fan of a publication called The Rocket, a bi-weekly tabloid magazine that focused on the music of the Seattle area. In time, there would be a great music column by Bruce Pavitt called Sub Pop, which eventually would lead to a record label of the same name founded by Pavitt and friend Jonathan Poneman. I believe it was in the October 1986 issue, but there was a review for a record by a band called Green River. It was only two dollars, so I sent my money, well concealed, and waited. I received it a week later, and the “Together We’ll Never”/”Ain’t Nothin’ To Do” single arrived on green vinyl. Inside was a letter by singer Mark Arm, who thanked me for buying the record and stated he wanted to include another record free of charge. He stated “I hope you like it, they’re called The Melvins. This record was their first 7″ on C/Z and I played it. WOW. These guys played slow like Black Sabbath, but would also play wild and fast too. I liked Green River, but Melvins floored me. When I finally had regular radio time, I would play the Green River songs, but then I would put Melvins into heavy rotation. The format was strictly hard rock and heavy metal, and Melvins didn’t sound like everyone else, yet they seemed to fit too. The first time I played Melvins was with the song “Easy As It Was”. Fellow classmate Curtis Pitts comes in and goes “wow, you’re playing Melvins? Right on.” He smiled, gave me a head nod of approval, and moved on. I thought “wait, how in the world did HE know about Melvins?” Then again, he was one of those Richland kids who would know, but I wanted to know what else he was into too. It would be years later where I discovered Melvins played at a Richland elementary school in 1985, a year before their first record.
Eventually I’d step up and become the music director of the station. It was around this time when two kids from Richland came in. Some of my friends knew them very well, but I didn’t at the time. They were members of a local punk band called Diddly Squat, whom I heard about but had no idea where to find their music. They came in to the station very happy, because they had just received a shipment of their first record, a 4-song 7″ EP. They gave copies to the kids who knew who they were, but then they gave a copy to me. The two guys who gave me the record were the rhythm section of the band, drummer Eric Akre and bassist Nate Mendel. They came to the station hoping we would give them a bit of airplay, since there was no way OK95 was going to play them. We were high school, and being high school students at the time, they knew that their fans wouldn’t mind hearing them on the radio. I told them I would give it a listen, they thanked me and walked off. That was it. I played Side 1, really liked it but wasn’t sure if it was “appropriate” for the air. I would’ve played it, but I still had to think of the “community standards” of the station and the public at large. I really loved “Who Needed Help”, a song that spoke about police brutality and cops who loved stun guns a bit too much, but the word “shit” was in it. I didn’t know or know how to censor it at the time, so I played the last song on the record, “No Question”. Every time I was on, I’d play the song and it felt good to devote time to a local band as support.
While I don’t know if this is true or not, I do believe I was the first to play a few songs on the radio for the first time in Eastern Washington, or at least my ego says “yes, I did”. Anthrax would have an unexpected hit in 1988 with “I’m The Man”, but I played it when it was a non-LP B-side for the band’s single “I Am The Law”. I know for a fact KTCV played it tons of time, censored (and by then I was creating clean edits of songs) but loved by the listeners. The only time KTCV broke tradition from the hard rock/heavy metal format was on April Fool’s Day. While most of the students liked hard rock and heavy metal, some did not. It wasn’t punk vs. metal, these were more like students who may have been Christian and did not agree to the ways of the music. Of course if they didn’t like it, they could switch classes, but this was the format, no exceptions. No country, no jazz, no soul, no funk, nada. Hard rock and heavy metal with a pinch of punk and hardcore since it was also a “heavy” music.
I remember one student, whose name I unfortunately can’t recall right now, was having panic attacks when she would go on the air. She was someone who was of the faith, and even if someone has beliefs that I may not believe in, I felt I could be of support. I originally thought she was nervous because she didn’t like the music, and maybe her parents would one day hear her introducing music that were the works of Satan almighty. She did see how comfortable I was, and asked me how did I make it seem and sound so easy. I didn’t have formal training, but my method was simple due to what I had heard as a kid. I was comfortable with a microphone behind me, and when I was on my own, I spoke as if it was a conversation with friends. It was always a one on one approach, and did it matter if my audiences were tens of people? No. Hundreds of people? No. Thousands of people? Not at all. In my mind I thought “the more the merrier” because that meant more people hearing me and the music I played for them. Yet I DJ’d as if it was a casual talk between friends, or if someone came over to my house or I went somewhere to play records, tapes, or CD’s. I told her this, and I said “simply try. Don’t think of people who are listening, because let’s be honest, you’re not looking at those people, and they’re not looking at you. It’s only you and me in the room. Speak to me.” As a song was about to wrap up, she turned on the microphone and she sounded comfortable and like a radio DJ. She smiled and said “wow, I didn’t know I could do that. Thank you.” I left, and she would finish the rest of the show. When the school year was over, I never heard or saw her again, so her radio experience may have been short lived but it was nice to know I was able to do that for someone.
Eventually I’d have my own show called The Classic Cafe, which was focused on rock from the late 60’s to the early 70’s, or basically 1965-1975, the music I grew up listening to and stuff my parents, uncles, and aunties loved. It was a specialty show, somewhat out of the “hard rock/heavy boundaries” but it was classic rock so there was that link of continuity and influence. I received an incredible response from it, people loved how I not only played the well known songs but the obscurities. There was a time when someone came in with a few records and said “I really like what you’re playing in your show, I got something I’d like for you to check out.” The album was In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson. I had seen the famous cover tons of times in magazines, but never heard the album. I asked if I could take it home to listen to, promising to return it the next day, and he complied. I put the record on at home and played “21st Century Schizoid Man including Mirrors”.
I ate it up like crazy. I had loved a bit of prog rock and was very much a Yes and Pink Floyd nut, and King Crimson was a band I had only known from the few videos that aired on MTV, when Adrian Belew were in the band. “21st Century Schizoid Man” was nothing like the MTV stuff. I brought it to the station the next morning, and I played it. Lots of calls were coming in. I think what I loved was, outside of playing music that was obscure but familiar to me, I was playing songs that none of the “major” rock stations were playing. It felt good to do this, and for awhile I’d become known for being The Classic Cafe guy.
My fondest memory was during a summer course. I didn’t have to go to take radio/TV as part of summer school, as my grades were fairly good. During the summer, students were able to sign on at 6am, and they would be able to do a 90 minute show, as per the norm. I arrived, my instructor was there and later in the morning, he would leave. The station manager was a fellow student, and he would pop in to make sure everything was running smoothly. Everything was running smoothly. After my 90 minute shift, someone was to follow me and take over. The person that was to follow me didn’t show up. I decided to go another 90 minutes, which wasn’t a problem. Then I received call from the person that was supposed to be on from 9-10:30, he didn’t want to show up. I said okay, I’ll continue on. A few other people would call in to say they could give me a break if I wanted. I said I was fine, there was no need. I ended up doing a 9 hour radio show from 6am to 3pm, and if I could’ve done half a day or a full day, I probably would have.
In my senior year at high school, I eventually became the high school equivalent of a station manager. It was great, because not only was I a DJ, but I had to do some extra paper work, maintaining a role of the overseer away from what our instructor did. I loved the position, and felt that by the time my year was over, I could apply for a local radio station and try to get a real job. One of my classmates was already a DJ at a country station, which he allowed me to visit and I thought “wow, if this guy could get a job, I want one too”. Unfortunately, there were a few events in the spring of 1988 that would make a few things fall apart. 1988 was a time when people were still talking about offensive musiuc, which back then meant heavy metal and Prince. The PMRC kept on releasing lists of songs that were offensive. It just so happened that one of the students in radio/TV production had parents who did not take a liking to the music at all. One of the parents then filed a complaint against the station, claiming that we were playing songs that were extremely offensive, including a song that allegedly featured lyrics about having sex with chickens. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. The finger was pointed at me. The song in question was by Portland punk band Poison Idea. To my knowledge, Poison Idea never did any songs about having sex with chickens. I am sure guitarist Pig Champion had his share of chicken sandwiches in his lifetime, but sex? I didn’t think so. As the station music director and later station manager, I made sure that other DJ’s were aware of the rules. Most, if not all students, complied and if not, each record and tape were coded, with a list of bad songs to avoid. Green was “okay”, yellow as “proceed with caution”, red was “at your own risk”, which was another way of saying “if you know the good songs, play them. If not, don’t play it”. Poison Idea did have songs with vulgarities, but those were always avoided, at least from me. The song I played was “Steel Rule”:
What I liked about this song was that it featured a chopped up recording of Jim & Tammy Bakker, who did a syndicated religious show called Praise The Lord (also known as The PTL Club). In the intro, Tammy Faye talked to the audience about how some people might look at someone and think they were homosexual. My focus was on the part where she mentioned being “top heavy”, as in the size of one’s breasts. She then laid out a wicked giggle, and I thought it was funny. The recording is cut up with something from a random commercial so you’ll hear a man say the words “genie” and “she’s charming”. After almost a minute, the song kicks in and it’s pure punk rock for 2:30. When the accusations were made, I listened to the song again and I thought “this song makes no reference to chickens or any type of sexual relations of any sort”. I didn’t get it. Were they offended because of the Bakker recording, the mention of homosexuality which had absolutely nothing to do with the song, or the “top heavy” reference? To this day I don’t know. Was “Steel Rule” merely caught up with the other songs that may have referred to devils and Satan in metaphorical ways? Even if it was not metaphorical, it was as if they were stating that talking about Satan was a serious issue, as if Satan would materialize from hell and burn us.
The summer of 1988 was meant to be graduation time, but due to a mixture of negligence from the administration of my school and at this point, me not giving a fuck, I was behind a few credits. I could have made it up easily, but no one notified me. Was I concerned? At that point, not really, I wanted to get the hell out of this place. Unfortunately, without a diploma it meant I had to try harder, and I was more than willing to take some summer courses. Even though my time in high school was over, I was allowed to spend part of my summer as a DJ and departing station manager. My time was wrapping up, but I was hoping I could get a radio job. People were talking about the offensive music of KTCV, and hating that “young kids” were playing these songs with evil and sexual references. I decided to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper on the last day of my time as a DJ. I basically said that the music was good, and that it’s really just music, not meant to have any other meaning than that. I wrapped up the letter by saying that if people didn’t want to hear it, no one was being forced to listen. They had an option called the “OFF” button. I signed my letter as the station’s “station manager”, which technically I was when I sent it. The next day, I would return to Honolulu with my family for a one week vacation.
When I returned, I received a call from the newspaper, asking me if they could print the letter. I said sure. A day or two later, my letter was printed. At that point I was out of high school, looking forward to seeing what I’d be able to do for the rest of my life. All of a sudden, I would receive phone calls from people saying that I should not have mailed that letter, nor should I have represented myself as a part of the radio station. I did go to Columbia Basin College in order to take a few courses, but there were a few people there who were former classmates in radio/TV production. One lady stared me down as if I pulled the plug at a hospital and allowed her parents to due, but she told me “John, you’re in trouble now.” Oh really? How was I in trouble, I didn’t know. The daughter of the parents who were offended, she stared me down too and i thought “this isn’t high school, how fricken petty is this?” Another guy who was cool with me, his name was Pete B., told me what happened. Eventually, KTCV had to shut down because various parents did not want their students to play or hear the music, or specifically their kids. Never mind the freedoms of anyone else who wasn’t offended, but they threatened the vocational skills center and the school district to remove the station from the airwaves. By the end of 1988, KTCV was silent. Who did some people blame? Me. I was no longer allowed to be a DJ anymore, which for the record, my high school days was over, I was ready to find a real job. On top of that, I was no longer allowed to be in the building. Again, I was no longer a student attending, my time was over. I kept on hearing that people were pointing the finger at me, and that I was partially to blame because of my letter. I wrote the letter to show support for music, regardless of what the topic was, and for my fellow students who simply wanted to become radio DJ’s. Now I was on a few shit lists, and I felt low. Radio was a childhood dream, and now the place that was a bit of sanctuary from the bullshit I experienced in high school was now pushing me away. I sulked for a little over a year, uncertain on what to do or where to go. I applied for all of the radio stations, even the country ones, but no one hired me. I won a lot of radio giveaways for free cassettes, CD’s, and pizza, sure, but I wanted to work in the spaceship. I honestly felt that I was blacklisted from getting a job. Was I? To be honest, I’ll never know. I’m not even a blip in the small scheme of things, but I wanted to make something for myself and for a brief moment, a great period in my life went into that fictitious place called hell that these parents didn’t want anything to do with. Yet I said “at least hell has great music”.
I had a few ambitious goals before the age of 20, usually a time when most people are spending time in college studying, partying, getting drunk, having weird orgies, and making better for themselves. I wanted to move to Seattle so I could enroll at the Art Of Institute to learn to become a recording engineer. I knew I wanted to continue making music a part of my life, i was making my own goofy tapes at home, but I wanted a serious job. I wanted to be a music producer and engineer so I could spend time in the studio and help artists achieve those dreams. I felt I had a good ear, some level of intelligence, and a willingness to learn how to be great in the field of my choice. I did not go due to a lack of courage on my behalf. I felt shut down from my radio days, and I started to question my own capabilities, which I ended up underestimating. I had an incredible amount of confidence, was more than ready to move forward and aim high, and then I shot myself down. Did I aim too high, or could I not see past the effects of self-proclaimed failure? One doesn’t like to admit regret, but not moving to Seattle when I had the chance is one of mine. Maybe I would’ve ended up moving to L.A. or NYC, doing projects for Hollywood or movies, or I could have my own music studio and be the “it” man. But it didn’t happen.
I started to find myself trying to work within the limitations I felt I was given, or more like the limitations I felt I was placed in. I started to underestimate myself on many things, and things were just going nowhere for me. I kept on writing as I always did, doing reviews for small fanzines but always having goals to write for people like Rolling Stone, Spin, and perhaps Goldmine magazine. If there was one thing I did not lose confidence in, it was my writing. I still had a lot to learn at 19, and I also wanted to take up a writing course at the local college, along with perhaps a film or video class, but they weren’t accepting me. I decided that perhaps I should wrap it up with school and get a GED, and I did. I would have preferred a high school diploma, because I enjoyed doing the work and for awhile excelled in wanting to know more, but if they didn’t want me, why should I make the effort? Fuck it. It almost felt like when I was about to enroll before the 9th grade, and the school telling me my grades are forged, because no one from Hawai’i is that smart. Not really encouraging, and it was made worse when an announcement made throughout the school on the loudspeaker told students “if you do not want to attend school, you can leave and never come back.” Two students in my class left. In Hawai’i I was always told/taught to keep to your education so you can succeed in a job and in life. At 19, I don’t know what the hell I was going to succeed in.
I would remain interested in the power of radio, but wanting to hear cassette recordings of stations across the U.S and the world. That meant finding people who were willing to send you recordings, which in 1990 was not easy. Today, one can just do a Google search and find tons of archives of shows being produced today, with full archives of old air checks from any and all cities, states, countries and continent. Back then, to want to hear something 200 miles in Seattle or Portland meant having to find people, or going to those cities and doing it yourself. While I’d see movies where college kids would go on holiday and backpack to countries, I didn’t see myself being that way, I guess because I had the perception that only the rich and elite did this. I have never been rich, but had the means to travel but did not, due to self-imposed limitations. As for elite, I keep my ego in check but elite I am not. I guess it got to where I didn’t feel I was worthy of the travel, even though it was something I had always wanted to do since elementary school, when I would often borrow books featuring nothing but maps, just so I could look at these places and make it possible to find a way to get there. Today, I’m still dreaming but at least I’m not holding myself back.
The spirit of radio still lives on, but now in thousands (if not millions) of podcasts created by people who simply want to be heard, just as I did. Radio still exists today of course, but the rules have… I don’t know if it’s changed, or that it decided one day to play by a a new set of rules that allows less people to join in on their reindeer games. I don’t hear the same spirit on the radio as I used to, although there are glimmers of it in a very small handful of DJ’s who still play music and work with some sense of integrity.
Two things in the summer of 1990 would mark a shift in my life, marking the next phase. 1) With the money I did have, I decided to travel to New York City to be at New Music Seminar 11, where industry people and artists could socialize and network, in a 1990 setting. I could see bands, but most of the venues didn’t allow anyone under 21, so I could only go to one concert: Chickasaw Mudd Puppies and Lava/Hay. I represented two fanzines: Hot Stops and Psychedelic Hemisphere, but I also wanted a chance to write for a then-new hip-hop publication called The Source. They had a desk at a panel, simply looking for subscribers, and I went there saying I’d like to be a writer. They looked at me like “yeah right”. But it was a chance for me to make an attempt to see what the music business was like, and I liked it. How did I find out about The Source? Next paragraph.
2) After years of skimming the surface of punk rock and hardcore, liking it when it mixed in with metal so that it became “crossover”, I found myself wanting to hear more of it. I had heard of a store in NYC called See/Hear, I could obtain a catalog and be able to order publications via mail order. I decided to spend a few dollars on Flipside, MaximumRockNRoll, Factsheet Five, and The Source. Flipside and MRR were very underground, focusing on college rock/post-modern/alternative music, some of which I had liked but never really called it “alternative”. It wasn’t the big buzzwork yet but would soon be. Factsheet Five was a publication that reviewed other publications, so I was able to tap into other scenes, communities, and topics ranging from rubber stamps to farming. This was a library I did not have access to, or if I did, I’d have to go to Seattle and buy them at Bulldog Press in the U-District. Then I discovered a magazine that actually covered rap music. It was The Source, and it came off in the early days like MRR: black & white inside with scene reports, including playlists from various DJ’s around the US and a few from London. YO! MTV Raps was on the network but The Source featured people I was not aware of. If you wanted to be in tune with a local/regional scene outside of your city, you had to go there yourself. The Source was the first to pull them together without major label influences, and I wanted to be a part of that.
As a fan of The Rocket, I would enjoy it when I’d read demo tape reviews, and I had bought a tape by a band called Dumt from Mountlake Terrace, Washington. I sent mails back and forth, and then one day they said they would be coming into town to do a show. I did once attend a punk show in 1989 at a small podunk storage room in some random field in Pasco, but I was so freaked out that I walked out, found a phone, and asked for someone to take me home. I was a chickenshit. Yet when I heard Dumt were going to play, I had to check them out. In June 1990 at the Kennewick VFW, I attended my first punk rock show. When I walked in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a headbanging heavy metal fan, I had my long hair and probably seemed out of place, most likely looking like a newbie. Then a few familiar faces started to come up to me. “Hey John, long time no see! Glad to see you hear.” They were friends I was classmates with in radio/TV production. When I was a DJ, some of them would post flyers for concerts in the DJ booth, but at a time when it felt like there was town animosity, I didn’t care cross that line. Too freaky at the time. When I walked in, introduced myself to the guys in Dumt, and started to see some familiar faces, I knew I was at the right place. I had been out of high school and the petty shit I still felt from those days started to disappear. I was about to embrace a whole new world. I may not have been a college student, but punk rock became my university, and while it was a continuation of learning about music I was unfamiliar with, it also allowed me to define myself.
I fell for the animosity people claimed existed locally, and as a DJ in high school I started to discover that most of the assumptions were wrong. Years later, I wished I had known many of the people in the community much earlier than I did. I had felt my love of the radio would come to crash on me and at the moment when I needed it the most, punk rock saved my life.