Remembering Radio Free Hawaii
The summer of 1995. Bill Clinton was president. A First Class stamp cost $0.32. The first Boeing 777 entered service for United Airlines, and Joe Montana announced that he was retiring from football. I was 20 years old, very much in love with my girlfriend (now wife), and living in Hilo. I loved Hilo, but one thing I desperately missed about life in Honolulu was Radio Free Hawaii.
Radio Free Hawaii was the soundtrack of my young life. Launched in 1991, I was heading into my senior year of high school when the “radio revolution” caught on like wildfire… at least among the contrarian, mainstream-shunning crowd. The station had ballot boxes in music stores (music stores!) across the state, and they would play anything — and I mean anything — that people voted up the charts.
The station was an absolute phenomenon. Everyone I knew listened to it, and Radio Free Hawaii brought concerts to Honolulu that featured bands that would otherwise have never given our rock in the middle of the ocean a second thought. The “Big Mele” concerts, held in the mind-bogglingly beautiful cradle of Kualoa Ranch, have yet to be matched. (If only GoPro cameras were around back then.)
Then, the unthinkable happened. In 1994, the station’s owners decided to switch to another format. Radio Free Hawaii was gone. The airwaves were dominated by Boys II Men, TLC, Brian Adams and Madonna. In Hilo, radio was playing reggae. Lots and lots and lots of reggae. It was horrible.
Fortunately, the station’s owners knew they’d made a mistake pretty quickly, and by the spring of 1995, Radio Free Hawaii was resurrected. Music geeks cheered. The ballot boxes returned. Sure, Madonna and other superstars sometimes made the charts, but so did NOFX. Dance Hall Crashers. Perry Como. Vivaldi.
Of course, I was still drowning in Bob Marley in Hilo, so on visits home, I would fill cassette tapes with Radio Free Hawaii broadcasts. Whatever I could gather, usually on the weekend, which were when the week’s countdowns were announced. I’d return to Hilo, and play Radio Free Hawaii while my sweetheart and I made frequent, long drives over to the Kona side. I think Jen may have liked my Radio Free Hawaii tapes more than the mix tapes (mix tapes!) that I’d make her.
Fast forward nearly twenty years. Radio Free Hawaii, which went off the air for good in 1997, was just a distant memory. My girl and I are now married with three kids, living in Mililani, and desperately trying to dig ourselves out from under years of packrat clutter. When my youngest son’s school announced that there would be an “e-cycling” pickup for old electronics, I tackled the corner of the family room where our old Sony sound system was falling apart.
I was handing the dual cassette deck over to the recycling staff when my son noticed there was a tape in the machine. Well, he actually just said, “What’s that?” Because what’s a cassette tape to a ten year old?
There it was. a 100-minute (I liked weird tape lengths) tape labeled “Misc. Radio Free Hawaii.” I was delighted, then instantly worried. Had I been using the tape for something else, maybe recording over history with a Broadway musical? And how was I going to find out what was on the tape, having just given away the rusty hulk of the last machine in the house that could play it?
I posted a photo of the tape to Facebook. I was immediately invited to join the I Loved Radio Free Hawaii group, which has over 1,600 members who all thought to look for such a group on Facebook before I did. There I found many, many other nostalgic Radio Free Hawaii fans (and more than a few former deejays and staffers) sharing their memories, photos, and audio clips. They urged me to find out what was on my tape.
Fortunately, I happen to spend a lot of time at a radio station teeming with a lot of old-school audiophiles. And my fellow Mililani High School graduate and friend Jason Taglianetti, HPR’s multimedia production manager, was happy to help me tap into the ancient artifact I’d found.
This cassette tape, one of dozens I used to have, contains audio from a random Saturday morning Top 36 countdown. Just hearing the voices, let alone the music, took me right back to those probably overly romanticized days.
In the summer of 1995, the Radio Free Hawaii team was still giddy about the station’s resurrection. Here’s a special song recorded to celebrate the occasion, “Radio Free is Back.”
The “Radio Revolution” not only allowed you to vote for or against songs, but you could also nominate a track for “the sledgehammer.” And yes, the song would indeed be smashed to smithereens, live on the air. But like all democracies, there were checks and balances, and before a song could get sledgehammered, seven consecutive callers would have to confirm its sentence. Here’s the fourth time the song “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex was on deck.
One of the things my indiscriminate recording also preserved was the commercial breaks. It’s fascinating listening to radio ads from twenty years ago, including a positively somber Father’s Day message from Ala Moana Center, and an unimaginably good airfare deal from Mahalo Airlines.
If you’re like me, though, you probably just want to listen to this Radio Free Hawaii broadcast as it aired in 1995. So I uploaded both sides of the tape. Unfortunately, out of an abundance of caution, I’ve faded out the actual music, reducing a 100-minute tape to about 40 minutes of studio chatter. But still… those voices take me back. Hopefully you’ll be transported, too.
(And because the audio embedded in this blog post will only work so long as the services on which the audio is hosted on stick around, I’ve also uploaded MP3s to the Internet Archive for safekeeping.)
Bumper sticker image from Franchon Luke in the I Loved Radio Free Hawaii group on Facebook.