I still love the car radio and what it means: In the middle of some horrible traffic jam, free music or free news from hidden speakers flooding the climate-controlled vehicular womb, music that’s changeable at the push of a button.

Passively, making no decisions of my own besides a station selection that may be on for weeks, I steep in, say, the rush-hour patter of Perry and Price, with their clever playlist of locals’ favorite pop hits: It has the Hawaii zeitgeist in it.

On AM940, Hawaiian voices — the Lim Family, say, or Sean Naauao — wash me clean. I get chicken skin when I hear the steel-guitar cascade that introduces those classic, Hawaiian-language time-tags or that solemn “Dis land of aloha” line, both of them survivors from the old KCCN days.

And KHPR, at 88.1 FM, has some of the most interesting classical music programming anywhere, happily keeping its Baroque indulgences brief.

KTUH DJ Mermaid / Paige Okamura during her show on thursday afternoon at KTUH located in UH Manoa’s Hemenway Hall.
KTUH “DJ Mermaid” Paige Okamura hosts one of two weekly Hawaiian music shows. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But soon, if all goes according to plan, there’ll be another sure-fire place on the radio dial: 90.1 FM, the new, 7,000-watt home of KTUH, the student-operated, wildly adventurous, love-child radio station — a gift to listeners from the University of Hawaii since 1969. Its longtime tag line: “The only radio station that loves you.”

KTUH is scheduled go live on its new islandwide frequency on March 19, following a week-long fundraising “radiothon.” With a new transmitter installed atop Tantalus, the station is hoping to double its broadcasting power and blanket — finally, the whole island under the 90.1 frequency. For years, the station has been airing on three different frequencies for different parts of Oahu, a situation that diluted its impact among car-radio fans and consternated its otherwise cultish listeners.

The five-year project to strengthen and consolidate the station’s broadcast signal cost roughly $120,000, says Dale Machado, 66, longtime chief engineer of KTUH and a student deejay at the station way back in the early 1970s.

In a phone interview, Machado details several setbacks along the way that repeatedly delayed the project, including lost shipments of parts, a signal-blocking grove of bamboo, recalcitrant microwave dishes, and difficulties lining up relays with transmission antennae. The relays remain a problem.

“Hopefully, it’s just a question of tuning the thing,” Machado says, adding that he’s still shooting for the March 19 launch.

“It’s not so much the technical aspect that keeps me working here,” Machado says. “It’s the coolness of radio and the music. KTUH people love music, and they want to share it. That’s why I came to the station, back when we only had 10 watts.”

Like most college radio, KTUH is known for its eclecticism, built on a solid foundation in rock, blues and jazz genres. Hip Hop. K-pop. Electronic. Two Hawaiian music shows weekly. Shows dedicated to punk, ska, Latin, soul, New Age, lounge. Shows called “Swinging Bananas,” “Cosmic Fuzz,” and “Got Rice?” If you don’t like what’s on, wait an hour.

“It’s not so much the technical aspect that keeps me working here. It’s the coolness of radio and the music.” — Chief engineer Dale Machado

“The Conscious Groove,” helmed by DJ Righteous Rob, showcases soulful R&B classics Friday at 6 in the morning. A deejay called “The Deviant” plays a sub-genre of metal called “post hardcore” on Thursday afternoons.

For 40 years, every Monday night from 9 p.m. to midnight, the station has invited acts into the studio to play live. Makana, Taimane Gardner, and Go Jimmy Go have been guests.

Whatever the genre, the music is presented as a deep-dive, three-hour exploration of as many as 50 tracks — without commercial interruption, just a cool kid, the deejay, purring at you with bits about the music or tips about green waste and controlling computer spam, or about the new Harajuku exhibit at Honolulu Museum of Art.

About 60 volunteer deejays — mostly students, but with a big cadre of veteran “community members” including bonafide stars Kevan Scott (classic country rock),  Steve Stoddard (blues, jazz), and Nocturna (80s Goth and New Wave) — keep the music flowing 24/7. It’s a point of pride for the station that there’s always a human picking and playing the music, even at 3 in the morning. It’s called curated radio.

KTUH vinyl records vault2
The vinyl records vault at KTUH holds music that comes in from all over the world. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nineteen paid staffers, called directors, all of them fee-paying UH-Manoa students, manage everything from programming and promotions, to music genres, to scheduling and technical support. Stipends range between $150 and $500 per month.

The music comes in from everywhere. At least a hundred CDs arrive every week at the KTUH office/studio on the second floor of Hemenway Hall to be catalogued and added to a venerable library of compact disks and vinyl records counting in the hundreds of thousands.

Paige Okamura is a grad student in the Hawaiian Studies program, a former KTUH general manager, and fluent in Hawaiian. As the self-styled DJ Mermaid, she hosts one of the station’s two weekly Hawaiian music shows.

Okamura’s show on Thursdays, 3-to-6 pm, is called “Kai Leo Nui,” which means “loud voice of the sea,” she tells me in a phone interview.

The line comes from a chant about her hometown of Waialua, “about how the sea can sometimes be heard as far up as Wahiawa.”

The other show, “Kipuka Leo” on Sundays, 3-to-6 pm, is a fixture at the station. Conducted exclusively in Hawaiian, that show stays constant while student deejay caretakers come and go.

Okamura, 24, explains that she conceived and designed her show, including her habit of casually switching back and forth between spoken Hawaiian and English while she presents a deep and knowledgeable exploration of Hawaii’s own music over the past 80 years.

“Between my show and the Sunday show,” she says, “the goal is to put the Hawaiian language on the radio and for it to be functional, so it’s not just decorative, right?”

I ask her about the state of Hawaiian music. Acts old and new live and die by exposure on commercial stations like 105.1 FM and AM 940, she says.

“The goal is to put the Hawaiian language on the radio and for it to be functional, so it’s not just decorative, right?” — Paige Okamura

Another path is if new songs get picked up by a hula halau and choreographed and performed at, say, the Merrie Monarch festival. Another path is via Japan.

“A lot of musicians get paid a lot of money to go to Japan,” she says.

Young talent, I ask? Okamura points to a group called Keauhou, made up of two brothers and a friend. They don’t have an album out yet but have been recorded as vocal backup for Chad Takatsugi’s new album and Kealii Reichel’s last one. Another group she mentions is also a trio, this one called Uheuhene that plays regular gigs at Chiko’s Tavern on McCully.

Like most KTUH shows, Okamura’s “Kai Leo Nui” will cease to exist when she leaves the station. She says she wants to teach after she finishes grad school.

In an era that is seeing licensed college radio stations put up for sale or converted from expensive broadcast to digital streaming formats, Okamura says she’s hopeful about KTUH and its position in the community.

“We’re really lucky. I think the UH Board of Regents appreciate what we do,” she says. “They don’t scrutinize us too closely. They pretty much let us operate as we always have.”

The new, single frequency, 90.1 FM, is a big deal for KTUH, Okamura says.

“It was a long time coming,” she says. “For listeners and people who are driving, because they have sooo much traffic, our drive-times are sooo long, as long as they like the programming, once they hit that button, they’ll stay there.”

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