Call them music snobs if you must, but KTUH’s staffers know their stuff.
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KTUH celebrates 40 years of radio trailblazing
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KTUH / The KTUH headquarters in Hemingway Hall at UH-Manoa resemble a scene out of High Fidelity. Stickers and posters featuring bands like Deerhoof and The Cure envelop wall space like badges of musical snobbery. CDs and vinyl spill out of cardboard boxes. And a few DJs, mostly guys in plaid button-ups, lounge around the office clicking away at computers between bites of Thursday afternoon lunch.

When Passion Pit, the latest electro-indie band sporting falsetto-pitched frontmen and intergalactic synthesizers, gets referenced as the station’s most frequently played artist, KTUH General Manager Nick Yee furrows his brow. “Passion suck,” someone behind him mutters.

“Who the fuck is playing Passion Pit?” Yee asks. “Kate, are you playing Passion Pit?”

“No. I don’t get what the hype is about them,” says Kate Dahan, aka DJ KD, who specializes in blues that originated in the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century. “They’re overrated.”

“If you’re a music junkie, this is the absolute beginning and end,” explains Yee, also known as “dj mr.nick” (and, yes, all lower-case).

“College radio doesn’t necessary end at college. Like just because you graduate, it doesn’t mean you have to listen to–god what’s something awful?–KSSK or something. You can keep exploring music.”

This year KTUH celebrated its 40th anniversary. Its first show aired a day before the first U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. The year, 1969, was rife with alternative voices. Janis Joplin kicked off Woodstock, drag queens at the Stonewall Inn ignited the gay-rights movement and sit-ins and protests were common on college campuses across the country.

Although it’s tempting to credit the Nixon era with the station’s inception, founders Fred Barbaria and Ken Kuniyuki tried to distance KTUH from the political fervor. According to Barbaria, obtaining a license was difficult because UH administrators were afraid the station would serve as a mouthpiece for the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society.

“But we didn’t come in with an agenda–certainly not a political agenda,” Barbaria, 62, said in a phone interview from Santa Barbara. “I mean, we covered things that were political, but it was more about the music.”

The two engineering students were inspired to start the station after discovering an abandoned switchboard in Hawaii Hall.

“It was a bunch of funky old equipment–I mean it was bad,” Barbaria said. “It looked like someone just left the room one day and let it lie dormant for 10 years or more.”

Because funding for the non-profit was tight–the station subsists on a tiny percentage of student fees and donations from listeners–they made due with the antiquated equipment, putting their engineering knowledge to use.

“We did have to get a new antenna because the one they had was just pathetic,” said Barbaria, who served as KTUH’s General Manager from 1969 to 1973. “It put out six watts.”

From the start, “Hawaii’s Only Alternative” lived up to its motto, giving DJs free reign over musical programming.

“We would play things like [Jimi] Hendrix and Iron Butterfly, some [Eric] Clapton–just groups who were not getting mainstream play because all the other radio stations were Top 40,” Barbaria said. Venturing to the fringes of the music-sphere–like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “Constipation Blues,” which the shock rocker was known for performing while sitting on a toilet–was also common.

“Bear in mind this was and is a student-run station, so taste wasn’t always the first thing we thought about,” Barbaria, also known as Fred Fox, said. “That was also part of the fun.”

During Barbaria’s tenure, KTUH dealt with its fair share of setbacks, both big–a debt of $1,200 almost forced the station to fold–and small–music was scarce due to record-distributors overlooking smaller, independent radio stations. Clips from National Public Radio ran on a one-week delay–the time it took for tapes to arrive from the mainland.

“The station has evolved over the times, and is certainly not the station that we had initially started,” Barbaria said. “I’m just happy to see that it’s still going.”

“This is where the magic takes place,” Yee said, leading me into a small room with a switchboard and two turntables. Graffiti, mostly via Sharpie from visitors to the station, lined the entrance to the doorway. “This room is in operation 24/7. It never goes to sleep, so the lights never really go off,” he said, then paused before continuing. “Actually Nocturna does her sets almost completely in the dark. She plays a metal, Goth-industrial show.”

KTUH claims to be the country’s only 24-hour, student-run radio station that forgoes automated programming; someone is always behind deck, selecting songs that appeal to their interests. On any given day, listeners can tune in from anywhere in the world–KTUH began streaming live on the web in 2001–and experience Hawaiian music courtesy of Hawaiian-speaking DJs or experimental noise and dub step from the likes of Flying Lotus and Burial.

Aside from enlightening the public with an assortment of sounds, Yee stressed that KTUH is also a training ground for future broadcasters. With the exception of four community members and one UH faculty, all KTUH DJs are fee-paying UH-Manoa students. More experienced DJs hold mixing classes and oversee new DJs behind the deck. Newcomers must also occupy the 3–6am timeslot, once a week for 12 consecutive weeks, as part of training.

Aside from a few staffers, none of the KTUH DJs get paid. “It’s a bunch of music snobs sitting around and talking shit. And you sit around here long enough, by the end of the day you’re turned onto 12 new bands, new artists, new musical concepts, new styles that you’ve never heard before. And that’s just one day,” Yee said. “The benefits far outweigh the starvation.”

Tune into KTUH at 90.3 FM Honolulu, 89.9 FM Windward, 91.3 FM North Shore, Channel 866 Digital Cable or online at [ktuh.org].