The first thing you notice is the pirate flag. Flapping defiantly on the roof of Akaku’s Kahului offices, its white-on-black skull and crossbones framed against the backdrop of the bright blue Maui sky, the iconic banner has to be a statement. And it is, though not necessarily a premeditated one.
“Some of the kids put it up and I let it stay,” says Jay April, president of the community access station. “Our technical director brought it in and then he died. So it was hanging around and one day the kids said, ‘Hey can we put the flag up? Can we put the flag up?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So it still waves to this day.”
Mounting it above the entrance might have been a spur of the moment decision, but April doesn’t discount the flag’s inherent symbolism. “The pirates challenged imperial rule,” he says. Even if they’re not sailing the high seas plundering and looting, Akaku is fighting its own swashbuckling battle against the business and government forces that want to blow community access television out of the water.
Referring to mainstream commercial TV as a “cacophony of bullshit” and dismissing PBS as “the Petroleum Broadcasting System,” April says public access channels are the last vestige of truly independent media in an ocean of corporate control.
“Akaku is Maui’s television station,” he says. “It’s not ours. The people of Maui own it.”
That’s true in more ways than one. Much of Akaku’s programming is community generated; anyone who wants to get on the air can do so, no extensive media training or Hollywood grooming required. The station’s funding also comes from Maui’s citizens, through their cable subscriber fees. As part of its franchise agreement, Oceanic Time Warner is required to give 3 percent of its cable revenue to Akaku (a quarter of that goes to the Department of Education and Maui Community College per a 2005 agreement).
Akaku makes the most of its limited resources. Operating on three channels—52, 53 and 54—its community-produced offerings range from silly to serious to sublime. (One recent entry that encompasses all three: April says a Hawaiian man came in to record a soliloquy claiming Barack Obama is ineligible to become president because he was born on Hawaii, which was stolen by the U.S. and is therefore not legally a state.)
The station also dedicates a portion of its programming to government affairs. It broadcasts public meetings and recently provided live coverage of the primary election, featuring updated results mixed with candidate interviews and previously recorded segments. As with much of Akaku’s programming it was lively and unfiltered, a mix of polished professionalism and off-the-cuff, rough-around-the-edges spontaneity.
Though no formal training is required to get on the air, Akaku does offer classes in everything from basic camera operation to editing to studio production, plus tips on its Web site.
And community involvement doesn’t end on the production side. Akaku was the first station in the country to offer an on demand, viewer programmed channel. Visit www.akaku.org, find the segment you want to see, select the next available airtime and presto—the show will appear on channel 54.
April says the services they provide are of greater value in a place like Maui, where rural outliers such as Hana, Molokai and Lanai are in danger of being isolated and forgotten. “It’s a way for people to connect, particularly local people,” he says. “They tune in and see their own faces and their neighbors’ faces.”
Given the diverse, trail-blazing services it provides and the high level of community involvement it fosters, you’d think Akaku would be universally celebrated. Or, at the very least, that the station would be left alone, allowed to operate without interference.
You’d be wrong.
“In February of 2005, Governor Lingle said that Akaku was one of the best public access stations in the United States of America,” says April. “By May of 2005 the ship almost sank because of meddling by state officials, developers and people who wanted to control this resource, to diminish the public voice.”
I shake my head all the time and ask ‘why?’” says April, who took the helm in 2007 amid tumultuous circumstances after serving on the station’s board as vice chair. “A little channel like this, budget under $1 million a year, everything’s done on a shoestring, everybody here only works because they have full-on passion for what they do. Then you sit back and really think about it. Look at how all voices are controlled and managed. We’ve seen homogenization of media to the point where it’s all the same—we have a corporate media, there’s no other way to put it.”
April calls public access channels “little beacons of uncontrolled speech.” And he believes that, however small and relatively insignificant they may be, they’re a threat. They’re unpredictable; they’re freewheeling; they’re beholden to no one but the communities they serve. They speak truth to power.
Though he returns several times to the pirate analogy, April admits there’s a key difference between those maritime scofflaws and public access stations—the former actively fought the powers that be, the latter is just trying to survive.
What exactly is threatening Akaku’s survival? The answer is complex and multifaceted, but the most current and serious threat stems from a ruling by the state Attorney General that could put Hawaii’s public access stations up for bid. In 2005, the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, the agency that oversees and regulates publicly funded entities, began to push for other service providers to be allowed to bid for the right to operate public channels. In 2006, Akaku sued and the matter remains in legal limbo. (Earlier this week Akaku won a significant victory when the circuit court ordered the Attorney General to unseal his 2005 opinion, the details of which had previously been kept secret.)
From Akaku’s perspective, the issue essentially boils down to the old saw, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The station is—by most any objective standard—doing an excellent job as steward of this public resource, so why change? Why open things up and allow another organization, possibly one with more nefarious intentions, to step in?
“You can look at the other side of it,” April acknowledges. “What’s wrong with competition? You’re going to get the best operator if you put it out to bid, right? Well, maybe. But at the end of the day, what this means is that the person who will decide who runs public access on Maui isn’t anybody on Maui. It’s the director of the DCCA on Oahu.”
April views the whole thing as a blatant takeover attempt. “What they want to do is come in here and say, ‘OK Jay, everybody who works here, all you people who have spent the last 15 to 20 years building all this social capital in the community—get out. Leave the cameras, leave the building, we’re going to decide who’s going to run it. You can apply, by the way. But you’re just going to be another applicant.’”
“We are prisoners of our own success,” continues April, his voice rising. “They’re after us because we’ve succeeded at what we were supposed to do, which is empower the voices of everybody who walks through that door.”
April invites the state to bring in a third party to judge whether the station is being run well. “Get the best public access consultants in the county and have them in here to create a report card, give us marks in every category you can think of,” he challenges. “We’ll be fine.”
Despite the daunting hurdles the station faces, April says Akaku isn’t going down without a fight. “I described it to somebody as a David versus Goliath thing,” he says. “We’re pretty good with a slingshot.”
Public access programming was first mandated by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1970s. The argument was essentially that cable companies were running their wires through public land but weren’t paying rent.
That “rent” was officially instituted in 1984, when Congress passed the Cable Communications Policy Act, which allowed states, counties and cities to levy franchise fees of up to 5 percent to pay for Public, Educational, Government (PEG) programming.
Predictably, many cable companies have been fighting ever since to regain that small but significant slice of the pie. They’ve been joined by other interests, public and private, with a stake in curbing unfiltered free speech. The travails of Akaku are not unique; access channels across the country are struggling to survive, operating under the constant specter of direct and indirect censorship or downright annihilation.
In Hawaii, where Oceanic Time Warner has operated as a de facto monopoly since it took over Kauai’s Garden Isle Telecommunications in 2002, pressure from the resident cable giant is especially strong.
Some might ask: Why should I care? With all the other options out there—on the Internet as well as TV—why does it matter if a few local access channels are swallowed up by big cable?
April offers an instructive metaphor, likening the media landscape to a city. The telecommunications giants are the office buildings and skyscrapers; community access is the public park.
“Anything can happen in the park,” says April. “Someone might get up and deliver the Gettysburg address; someone else might piss in the bushes. But either way, you need the park.” MTW
Make your voice heard!
The DCCA will hold two public meetings in Maui County to help determine the future of community access TV: October 7, 3-5pm, Kulana`Oiwi DHHL/OHA, Conference Room, 600 Maunaloa Hwy., Molokai; October 8, 4:30-6:30 pm, Cameron Center Auditorium, 95 Mahalani Street, Wailuku.
For more information, call 871-5554 or visit www.akaku.org