It’s a quarter after 10 on Tuesday morning and Tony Novak-Clifford is sitting out front of a small office at Hart’s Corner in Wailuku Town smoking a cigarette. As is usually the case these days, he’s thinking about money.
Novak-Clifford, a renowned local photographer, is also the general manager and program director for Manao Hana Hou Radio, Maui’s only independent, nonprofit radio station. He also does a show on Manao from 6-10am on Tuesdays, which had concluded a few minutes before I met him on the bench outside the station offices. He usually plays indie folk and bluegrass. “It depends on how much caffeine I’ve had,” he told me.
Once a low-power (156 watt) station broadcast out of an industrial park in Wailuku, the station recently installed a new transmitter on Haleakala, which boosted its transmission to 1,200 watts. Novak-Clifford said making that transition required the 12-year-old station to go completely off the air. And that they did, at 11pm on April 6. Over the next two months, the station went through a lot of changes.
“Our old Internet signal was run by ancient Windows technology,” Novak-Clifford told me in between puffs. “We had to reboot every 20 minutes. And our transmitter died just two days before we went off the air. It’s been 12 years with very little maintenance. We spent $12,000 on a new transmitter.”
The station office is also a lot nicer than the old digs, which were located in a Wailuku light industrial area. “I wouldn’t cook meth there,” Novak-Clifford said, referring to the old station office. “Now, people take their slippers off when come in the door! Everyone’s a lot more comfortable here.”
The old studio was cramped and creaky. The new one is more open. Wooden shelves of CDs line the walls, and sheets of white Styrofoam are screwed into the ceiling.
At 6am on June 1, the station–now officially called Manao Hana Hou Radio–reappeared at 91.7 on your FM dial (it’s still online at Manaoradio.com). Novak-Clifford credits his two engineers–John Bruce and Rick Billmand–with getting it done. And though the offices and transmitter are very different from the little low power station begun a dozen years ago, much of Manao is exactly the same. In these days of media disruption, this is both risky and refreshing.
“Our next goal is to be self-supporting,” Novak-Clifford told me. “Then we want to get a repeater transmitter and blanket West Maui. And people can get us online with a signal that’s every bit as good as what we broadcast.”
A veteran of Mainland college radio in the 1970s, Novak-Clifford first heard Manao Radio about six months after the station went on the air. “I bugged [station founder] Barry [Shannon], and he gave me a time slot, which quickly turned into three a week,” he said. “Here we are today.”
Novak-Clifford said he’s surprised at the number of people outside of Maui who listen to the station. “We have an amazing international audience,” he said. “I just got an email from a lady in Buenos Aires. Another was from someone who grew up just a few blocks from here and now lives in North Carolina.”
The station may start public radio-style fundraising. “We’re trying to get every time slot underwritten,” he said. “Our disappearance showed people that we’re a community asset.”
Doing all that takes work–a lot of work.
“It’s an amazing amount of work,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know why we’re doing it. But the reality is that a Christian broadcasting network would scoop up the license” if they weren’t. “I have nothing against them, but there are enough of them on the air and not enough of this.”
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By “this,” Novak-Clifford means a wildly eclectic and unpredictable bunch of music usually often broadcast by college radio stations than little low power operations. While there’s a certain comfort to knowing that Joe Hawkins on KONI 104.7FM will always play Beatles songs you’ve heard 12,000 times during his morning drive time Maui Sunrise Show, or that Sista Val always signs off her Mid-Day Mana show on KPOA 93.5FM with “My Island Home Maui,” it’s also nice to break away from songs heard hundreds of times before and explore art you’ve never heard of.
Over the last week, I listened to Manao at random times throughout the day. I heard, in no particular order, hymnals, instrumental music, a Jack Johnson cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” blues, Hawaiian music, roots, alt-country, rock and Hoyt Axton’s “Pet Parade.” At midnight on Saturdays, Manao has even started a punk rock show–the only one on Maui airwaves. Called “Minority Report,” it’s hosted by Jeremy Jarvis and Jose Roman.
“I’ve always felt that commercial radio was kind of insulting,” said Novak-Clifford. “This is about the only outlet where you get exposed to something that’s not hammered into your head a thousand times a day.”
One show that exemplifies that attitude is “Musical Star Streams,” which runs for a couple hours on Tuesdays after Novak-Clifford signs off. Hosted by a DJ named Forest, it plays spacey synthesizer music.
“The music sets a mood,” Forest told me while I hung out in the studio during a recent broadcast. “I call it ‘exotic electronica.’ It was new agey in the early days, but now it’s more chill. People really like it. It just touches you, you know. I really love the music, and being able to share stuff that, without a doubt, no one else is gonna be playing.”
Forest also hosts another, more diverse, show on Thurday afternoons called “The Blue Bus.” Though he only moved to Maui in the last few months, he said he’s been visiting the island since the 1970s. He’s also been doing his “Musical Star Streams” show since 1981, and said it’s carried on 200 stations. Many of the songs he plays are on albums put out by his own label–Waveform.
As we talked, Forest put a song on–“Smoke” by Space Safari. It’s on one of his Waveform albums, Smooth Chill. About halfway in, it sampled dialogue from two women:
“Marcia, why did we ever smoke marijuana?” the first one asked.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…” the second one said.
“So cool,” Forest said while monitoring the studio’s AEQ BC 300 broadcast mixing console.
Forest told me he studied law at the University of San Francisco. “There’s so much minutae in the law, oh my god,” he says. He was doing consumer protection stuff at the San Francisco DA’s office when he got his start in radio. While he told me about taking the Bar exam, and how he passed, he played a song that sampled Led Zeppelin and Jim Morrison.
“Hope they paid royalties,” Novak-Clifford called out from his desk in the front office.
“Uh huh,” Forest said.
The local writer and teacher Paul Wood had a once-a-week show on Manao for about a decade. He had to put his CDs in storage recently, and isn’t sure about going back. But the time he spent there, and the station itself, remains important to him.
“In 2002, I had no CDs, and gave away all my LPs,” he said. “My life was silent. Then I met [Manao DJ] Bill Best, and he told me about the station. I thought, I want to do that! I started to collect music again.”
For Wood, the station fostered a free community that simply didn’t exist anywhere else on the island.
“People would call with a sense of ownership,” he said. “A guy would call me during every show. He’d add a quip or something. I never knew his name, and never thought to ask for it. Where does this happen in life?”
For most radio DJs, “other people try to tell you what to do,” Wood said. “Barry hated that. ‘We don’t take requests,’ he’d say. He wanted something more dignified for the DJ.”
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Ten years ago, I wrote about Manao Radio for MauiTime (“Free Radio,” Jan. 15, 2004). I drove over to their old station and chatted with founder Barry Shannon, his wife Kathy Collins and a few of the station’s many disc jockeys. They were an eclectic, colorful bunch with a wide variety of interests–musically and otherwise–who shared one passion: radio that was dedicated to sharing great tunes with listeners, not selling them the latest artists lucky enough to score big record contracts.
A great deal about Manao has changed in the last few months, but Novak-Clifford told me it all started back in 2007, when founder Barry Shannon died. Kathy Collins, Shannon’s wife and fellow Manao DJ, took over, but the station just wasn’t the same.
“I tried to quit about two years ago,” Novak-Clifford said. “I didn’t feel our efforts were being supported. I sent Kathy [Collins] a long list of stuff. She agreed and asked me to be the program director. But my hands were tied–we had no budget. I needed a couple hundred bucks for office supplies. It wasn’t there, and she was over it.”
Reached by phone, Collins said that though she was “officially retired” from the station, she was an adviser. “I’ve had a full-time job wth the County for 20 years now,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot more performing, writing. I needed to step back. I’m so happy with the new leadership–if Tony hadn’t taken the job [as program director], we probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as we have.”
Indeed, Novak-Clifford said that she “has been amazingly supportive of the transition. She donated the license, library, equipment. She handed off the station on June 1. And she’s already agreed to do Christmas Day.”
“I’m just a sucker for Christmas music,” Collins told me.
Of course, part of Manao’s troubles may stem from the fact that this isn’t exactly the golden age of radio. “We’ve been lucky to have this station for 12 years,” Novak-Clifford told me. “Stations like this die every day.”
Throughout the 1940s, most people got their news, sports and entertainment from the big tube-filled radio box in the living room. But ever since the first television broadcast (that would be Adolf Hitler opening the 1936 Olympic games) hit the airwaves, radio’s days as the world’s dominant media source were clearly numbered.
That we’re still able to beam radio broadcasts into the atmosphere and pick them up with small receivers in our cars and homes almost seems like a miracle. In a day when everything that uses electricity seems to be digital, radio is a throwback to an ancient, mechanical era.
Like print journalism, which is also undergoing massive change and dislocation, radio’s audience is rapidly moving to the Internet. New online “stations” like Pandora and Spotify rapidly dominating people’s musical media consumption.
Indeed, All Things D reported in 2013 that of the six places where people “consume audio media,” broadcast radio led in just two: the car and the home. It tied with Internet radio in the workplace and on public transportation, and now trails Internet radio in situations where people are out walking or working out.
“Pandora and Spotify didn’t exist when we started,” Novak-Clifford told me. “We’ve had to step up or give up.”
Still, Novak-Clifford is upbeat about his station’s future.
“People sit in their rooms or their cars, and radio is like a book,” he said. “They go on this journey. You take a ride. It’s like your industry–print isn’t dead. I’m not going to be at the beach for 12 hours with my iPad.”
For DJs like Forest, the fact that the station allows a freedom for the DJs and listeners that doesn’t exist elsewhere is what makes it matter–and, hopefully, popular enough to stay on the air.
“The nice thing about this station is that people do it out of love of the music. Not like typical stations that tell you what to play,” Forest told me. “At KTIM (in San Rafael) we called ourselves the last free radio station. We were allowed to play what we wanted.”
Paul Wood agreed.
“For me, and this was Barry’s founding principle, this was to free the airwaves and decommercialize the airwaves,” Wood said. “Radio is not simply there to sell products.”